In Tooth & Claw (Supernatural Horror Anthology Review)

Contains spoilers.

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Daniel Soule’s In Tooth & Claw (Rotten Row Publishing), an anthology of surreal and supernatural horror stories, begins with the novelette, Plight of the Valkyrie, the story of a soul-reaping guild that seeks out a empathic, medically skilled serial killer for recruitment. The premise is fascinating, however, the deployment of a extremely lengthy monologue midway into the story concerning the purpose of the spectral guild to which the protagonist (Mortimer) belongs both saps the story of its tension and, at the same time, creates a build-up without a pay-off. That the guild angle is central to the story and also the very thing which removes the unsettling atmosphere the story generates in its impressively moody introduction suggests that the story might have been more effective without recourse to supernaturalism, as Val’s murderous medical proclivities proved sufficiently intriguing so as to have been able to carry the tale in its entirety, should the author have so-desired.

The next story—The Breed—is one of the best in the collection. The tale centers on a number of paratroopers from Nevada who are sent to the Middle East to liquidate a number of Farsi-speaking and thus, presumably Persian, terrorists at the behest of the US military. Of course, given the title, one can assume the novel angle: The soldiers are werewolves, born out of a secret nazi experiment that was coopted by the US government. Despite deploying a premise reminiscent of David Brückner’s Iron Wolf, the narrative nevers falls to schlocky mediocrity, firstly, owing to the deftness and three-dimensionality with which the paratroopers are detailed, secondarily because of the competence of the prose and the structure of the story, and thirdly because the narrative threads are drawn together with a seriousness and authenticity typically absent from the kind of exploitation and shock-horror film it brings to mind. The 1987 film Predator is mentioned in the story’s opening and presents itself as a good point of comparison, as The Breed is as different from Iron Wolf as the beginning of Predator is from its own middle and end.

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Illustration depicting a scene from ‘The Breed’ by Stuart McMillan.

To Kill A Quisquilia (a title I first erroneously read as ‘To Kill A Quesadilla’) concerns a young woman’s death and a supernaturally gifted boy’s contention with a demon (the titular ‘quisquilia’) disguised as a garbage truck (which, as far as disguises go, is quite original). The tale provides a tonal break from the two proceeding tales, as it begins as a grim mystery and swiftly develops into a jaunty, macabre comedy. A welcome bit of levity to break the tension of the preceding tales.

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Illustration depicting a scene from ‘To Kill A Quisquilia’ by Stuart McMillan.

Next is The Switch, a psychologically introspective murder mystery. Its interesting in that the mystery lies not in who the killer is, but in why the killer did what she did (the reveal is quite gripping, so I shant spoil it).

After that is The Breed: The Last Watch, a continuation of The Breed’s mythos. It fails to match up to the original, chiefly because of its clumsy structure, as the reader is constantly jostled between numerous underdeveloped characters which are scattered throughout different time-periods. The problem with the story is not that there are time-jumps, but rather that one has no idea what is going on as a consequence thereof.

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Illustration from ‘The Breed: The Last Watch’ by Stuart McMillan.

Next up, Only Some Things, the story of a deformed man waiting at a bus stop. Though emotionally evocative, it feels unfinished, namely because it ends so abruptly. As a sketch for a longer work, however, its thoroughly intriguing.

Next is Witchopper, my personal favorite in the collection, which tells the tale of a father and son who set out to investigate the veracity of a local urban legend. Unlike, The Breed: The Last Watch, the time-jumps are very deftly deployed such that never once did I have to re-read a line or skim back up to the preceding page in a attempt to understand what was going on. It also features several scenes of impressively atmospheric tension.

Concluding the anthology is The Lostling, which, much like Only Some Things, is a story about which little can be said, as it also feels underdeveloped. There is no middle or end, but only the introduction of a introduction. That being said, it is also one of the most ambient and haunting of all the pieces.

In Tooth & Claw is a thoroughly mixed-bag, but never a boring one.


My thanks to Mr. Daniel Soule for providing me with a early copy of the anthology.

The Photographer’s Dilemma (VIII)

She was so distressed by the mysterious message from the cafe she skipped her gala showing and the meeting she was supposed to have with Thompson afterwards and found herself wandering in The Tombs near where Greely had been killed. She passed by the stoop where he had called to her as night fell like a blanket of smog, the hairs on her arms rising ferine, her breath coming and going erratically. Nothing felt real. She had no idea what she was doing. Pure compulsion drove her to stand where the old man had called out, where, not far away, the strange man with the white jacket had warned her. She removed her camera and snapped a photo of the dead man’s after image and then walked up the stairs to the door of the old tenement, still adorned with police tape that had been severed.

She froze. Someone had been here after the police had cordoned off the area. She reached out her hand to touch the knob whereupon a voice sharp and clear rang out behind her and nearly made flee her very skin.

“Curiosity killed the cat.”

She whirled, eye bulging in great owlish disks and her breath catching in her throat. A middle aged man stood in the alley, he was baggy-eyed and disheveled, dressed all in ill-fitting cast offs.

“You scared the fuck out of me.”

“How much fuck did you have in ya, exactly?”

She rolled her eyes and traversed the steps, “What are you doing here?”

“Investigating. Its what I do. I’m Jervis Lock. Reporter.”

“Ariadne Campbell. Artist. Are you the one who cut the police tape?”

“Nope. Was just about to ask you the same thing.”

He didn’t seem interested in her, his eyes were fixed wholly upon Greely’s former tenement. She’d seen his kind before, lean, cold, restless, cynical; journalism seemed to draw such creatures to its fold as meat drew maggots.

“You know what happened here?”

He nodded.

“Sick fuck was kidnapping kids. Selling them, my sources tell me.”

“Whose your source.”

“Well I’d tell ya,” he grinned wolfishly, “But then I’d have to kill ya.” She didn’t find the jest amusing and for a moment just glared at him until the reporter became uncomfortable. He peaked up moments later, “I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“I’ve been holding shows at the Thompson.”

“Oh you’re that photographer! Yeah, I seen ya, in the paper. Ariadne Campbell. Knew I’d heard that name somewhere before… So why are you here?”

“I’m here because I say him.”

“Who?”

“Greely. The kidnapper. Before… before whatever happened, happened.”

“No shit.”

“He was sitting right where I’m standing now. Asked me if I was looking for something. I think its only because I turned down his offer for… whatever it was he was offering that I didn’t end up like him.”

“Oh, I doubt that. See,” Jervis paused, uncertain if he should continue.

“What?”

“Well, its kinda confidential information pertaining to the case.”

“From your mysterious source?”

He nodded and shortly thereafter a mischevious look came into his eye.

“What say we get out of this dump and I can tell you about it over drinks?”

“Are you asking me out on a date?”

“Nah. I gave up on dates after my third marriage. I’m asking you to be my drinking buddy.”

*

The bar was cold and smelled of fried chicken and musk and old varnish. It occupied a seat next to a textile manufacturing plant which had been out of operation for over fifty years and the skeletal remnants of the great site of production loomed over the dive like a massive keep, covering it over in an omnipresent shade. Lock loosened his tie and as the drinks came, his a fruity margarita with an bright red umbrella, hers a forgettablely named bottom-shelf beer. He leaned back and looked his companion up and down briskly and then took a sip of his drink and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“You know the old plant?”

“Formerly a steel mill or something like that, right?”

“I’ve no idea. I just saw it and was wondering if we really knew our own history.” He gave a laugh, “Guess we don’t.”

She didn’t know how to respond and set to removing the cap from her beer; it wouldn’t budge.

“Ya want me to get it?”

“No. Its fine. I got it.”

But she didn’t and shortly her grip slipped and a ruddy gash appeared upon her palm. It stung but none too bad, even as the blood trickled down upon the table. It looked so beautiful that she could do nothing but follow the red lines like mercury and ketchup where they ran down her palm and splish splashed upon the smooth faux granite of the old dinner table.

“Shit, are you alright?”

“Fine. Just a scratch.”

“That looks a little deeper than a scratch.”

She ignored him and raised her hand up to her face, running her tongue out from between pristine red lips to slithered against her blood. After she had made the first pass across her bloody palm she gazed up behold the journalist whose face was contorted in confusion and disgust; she smiled and then took a sip of her beer and wrapped one of the cloth napkins at the table around her hand and leaned forwards over the table eagerly.

“So here we are. Drinking buddies. Now, why don’t you tell me why you said that you doubted that I’d have ended up like Greely even if I stayed.”

“What?”

“You said that, earlier, when we were by his tenement.”

“Oh yeah, yeah. Well, see,” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “What happened to Greely… it’s been happening all over the city, not just in The Tombs, everywhere, for years now. Lot of old cold cases, disappearances are treated like stand alone instances, right, you have some sicko and he wants to diddle kids or eat them or whatever the fuck and the police think, well it’s just this one guy, this one mentally deranged guy. And usually that’s true but what I’ve found is something… quite different. See, I’ve been reading through every dissapearence and homicide for the past couple of years, no connection, no connection, then, suddenly bodies start dropping. One or two at a time, late at night, isolated locations, nobodies… or so it seems. One thing at least fifteen of these recent murders have in common, the victim was always a victimizer.”

He held up his hands, his fingers pressed to palm and them facing Ariadne, he raised his index finger first, “So most recently Greely, child kidnapper, may or may not be involved with a intercontinental human trafficking and drug smuggling ring. Then, last month there was this fellow Eric Graylane, smut peddler and a suspected money launderer, political player of some importance, couple weeks before that, there was this lady, Anna Conrad-Winthrop, criminal defense lawyer, real well esteemed pillar-of-her-community-type. Winds up facedown in a pool of her own blood, knifed through the chest with such force the blade lodged into her spine,” Ariadne’s brows rose, “Turns out, after the investigation, she was a covering for a migrant grooming gang who, only a couple of days before all just up and vanished. Poof, gone.”

“What happened to them?”

Lock shook his head grimly, “A kid found them in the docks, or rather, what was left of them, heads floating in the shallows. Hacked to pieces.”

“You thinking this is a vigilante?”

“At first glance it would seem that way, maybe like a syndicate of sorts that is taking the law into their own hand, cept for one thing… there is another point of commonality between all of the victims – and I do use that word lightly – they were all involved, at one point or another with the Merideth Foundation.”

“Thompson’s gallery is partnered with them.”

“Lots of galleries are. Merideth is the single largest independent non-profit organization in, not just the city, but the country. They’re everywhere.”

“So you think this might be political?”

“Merideth has given a lot of money to a lot of different people. Not all of them savory.”

“Mr. Lock-”

“Yeah?”

“Why are you telling me all of this? I’m assuming its not just cuz you wanted a drinking buddy.”

“Yeah, well… ya might have assumed right. I uh, could use your help-”

“You were just pretending not to know who I was, weren’t you? You were looking for me. You want to use me for your story because I work at Thompson’s. Fuck, I’m thick tonight…”

“I hope you don’t mind, I just didn’t want to come across as pushy.”

She wasn’t upset, she was elated. This was just what she had been looking for. Seeking. New forms of inspiration. Inspiration which the charnel hosue of the city’s filthy underbelly had graciously provided.

Ariadne smiled and closed her fist around the red-soaked napkin, soaking redder still.

“I’d be delighted to oblige.”

 

The Photographer’s Dilemma (VII)

*

As soon as she was able to get some distance from Partridge she pulled out her mobile and opened up her social media on Rattle.web. She squinted down at her profile photo, it was a top-down angled portrait; she didn’t like it, she was trying to hard to look interesting, she thought to herself. What caught her attention after a few moments was the eyeliner she was wearing and how wide she was holding her eyes open. After a comparison she was certain, this was the picture. She cursed under her breath, how could she not have made the connection? It was so obvious. So easy. As easy to realize as it had been for who ever made the photo, to obtain. The internet was a bountiful sea of information, most of it public or at the least, publically accessible, no matter how intimate. Like shells beneath sand.

*

Ariadne was surprised to find her work in increasingly high demand in the ensuing weeks after her first major showing at the Thompson Gala. The little boutique art papers and e-zines covered her gallery with enthusiasm, noting a “bold new voice” with a “distinctive eye for gritty realism.” Calvin continued inviting her to his compound raves and she began to dance for the first time and found to her very great surprise she was good at it. Everything was going so smoothly that she nearly forgot all about the murder which she had nearly been drawn into and the eerie photograph of her eye and the theft of her photos and the man with the white jacket. Yet the more attention she received the more stressed and irritated she became. It was not that she was ungrateful, or that the galas were unpleasant but rather that everyone began to twist her art to fit their own personal narratives, there were feminist columnists who declared her pictures displayed the crisis of masculinity and conservative yahoos who declared that her pictures of the city were indicative of the need for a revitalization of the faith and its attendant patriarchal norms and there were anarchists who took her grim realism to be a calling card to a morally vacuous modality of thought which sought out the beauty of destruction for its own sake. None of it was true. Before next gala, Jamie, Calvin and Svetlana met her at cafe just outside The Tombs known as The Orange Tree.

Svetlana hugged Ariadne and smiled broadly, “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks. I… wish I could feel the same way.”

Calvin titled his head inquisitively as they all sat down around one of only four rickety wooden tables in the joint.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t mean to say I’m unhappy or ungrateful – I owe you a lot of thanks, Cal – its just, every time there is a new article or podcast out about my work its always the same old song and dance. They don’t really care what it is actually about, they just want to use it for their own ends. They could just ask me.”

“Lynder once told me,” Svetlana broke in, “That there are only two reasons why a work of art is misunderstood, either because its author was lacking in talent such as to properly communicate its messages, or, it is deliberately twisted to fulfil a institutional function. You are certainly not lacking in talent.”

Ariadne balked, “I’m so sick of hearing that name.”

Svetlana looked to Jamie and Calvin for assistance. Neither had anything to say. When their drinks came Ariadne practically siphoned her cup down. She, typically prim and restrained in social outings, was too flustered to care about such trivialities. Jamies laughed suddenly and pointed to her lip.

“What?”

He was laughing so hard he could barely speak, “C-co-”

“WHAT?”

Calvin leaned in towards her over the table as a couple of detectives strolled by some five feet away.

“You’ve got a chocolate mustache.”

She twisted her spoon towards her such that it showed her reflect. Damn, he was right. She didn’t see what was so funny about it. Fuckers. Laughing. Laughing. Laughing. She reached for her napkin and from it a small slip of cream colored paper fluttered down into her lap.

She flipped it over and read it in horror.

Do you see?

The Photographer’s Dilemma (VI)

Thompson shook his head, surveying Ariadne’s works upon the wall. All her photographs hung from their frames where she had earlier placed them, all save one; the picture of the man with the albescent jacket.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Campbell, I’ve no idea where it went. It must have been…”

Ariadne nodded gravely, “Stolen. Its alright, Mr. Thompson. Wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter, I didn’t like it anyways, lets just focus on the show.”

He turned to her and gave a wry smiled and nodded and left off to answer the phones and order catering.

*

Campbell hadn’t seen him coming. She hated how silent he was.

“Now that you’ve finally got your gala-showing, do you look upon your work any differently?”

She turned furiously to behold Lynder Partridge standing behind her, a lit cigarette in his left hand, his right in his pocket, dressed all in a dark, sleek suit of diamond-patterned blue. She knew he’d show up sooner or later given that Thompson had invited him; had been waiting for him to do so. She dug the photo of her eye out of her pocket and thrust it in his face, “Mind telling me what the fuck this is?” He raised a brow slightly took a drag and then removed his right hand from his pocket and slowly took the photograph, examining it methodically.

“It is a photograph of an eye, Ms. Campbell.”

“No shit. You know whose eye?”

“It appears very similar to your own.”

“It is. Why was it in my house?”

“I’ve no idea what you are talking about,” She could tell he was legitimately confused which in turn confused her, “Explain precisely what happened from the beginning.” She told the tale and upon finishing he nodded, more to himself than to her and flipped the photograph around such that she could see it.

“I induce you believe this is the photograph I took of you at my last gala?”

“Yes. Obviously. What are you playing at?”

He shook his head fractionally, a movement so slight it was almost imperceptible and would have been had he not been standing so close to her, “You forget how flustered you were during our last encounter, your gaze were quite narrow, besides, this is a digital photograph, not analogue. Like you, I hem to the Leica, it is the only camera which I presently own. In fact, I was utilizing Mr. Thompson’s darkroom in place of my own, which is currently under construction. I can show you, if you should like.”

“If you didn’t take it than who did? You were the last person to take a picture of me.”

“As I said, it is digital. Consider how many pictures of yourself are presently available on the internet. It would be a matter of the moment to seize one, download it, crop it, blow it up to such exaggerated proportions and then print it. As for who delivered it to your abode, I could not say, but I can say that whoever it is they’re no artist.”

“On that we agree.”

She was angry. She had been positive Lynder was at the bottom of it, yet the more she considered the situation the more she realized how ridiculous her accusations must appear. He was one of the most popular up-and-coming artists in the entire city and given his previous comments on her lack of ability there was no reason for him to pursue her. She shook her head, hell, even now he looked disinterested. His comments about the internet and the ease with which one might obtain a photograph of her also rang plausible. Lynder was too much an artist to craft such a shoddy composition, there was no life in it, no message, no force or vitality. She took the photo from Lynder’s outstretched, black-gloved hand, gazing at it fixedly. He was right. It wasn’t art, it was graphic design. It wasn’t him. Then still the question: Who had left the photo? Was it the man with the white jacket? If he was indeed the killer of Greely perhaps he believed she had seen too much. Perhaps he feared she could identify him…

“Are you quite alright, Ms. Campbell?”

“No… no I am not.”

She turned to leave but he stepped forth, his presence of sudden interest restraining her like an invisible lasso.

“Congratulations on your first showing.”

She turned and smiled a hollow, cold smile, “Thanks.”

“I know you resent me because of my critiques of your work but know this, if I critique it is only because I believe it will aid your improvement.” He gestured to her artwork where it hung upon the wall, now swarming with students and professors and journalists and socialites, “As it clearly has.”

“Whatever, asshole.”

His face registered no emotion at the insult; he merely raised his cigarette back up to his mouth and took a drag and expelled a puff of smoke respectfully to his unoccupied left.

“Hubris is a sword, Ms. Campbell, be sure you don’t fall upon it.”