Tales From the Deep South
by Eden Royce, 2015
Many novels, especially horror novels, I find, are over-written and padded. That's one reason I prefer short stories. That way, when the author has written everything she needs to write, she stops. Or more correctly, she moves on to the next story.
Also, I've always felt that the premiere venue for horror is the short story. In a well-written short story, every word is engineered to bring the reader to a horrific revelation. In a novel, the extra space to expand upon details often gives us... a lot of expanded details.
“Spook Lights” is not only a nice collection of stories about Voodoo and zombies and curses, it's a door onto another world, showing us life in the Deep South by the light of a gibbous moon. Most of the tales focus on black women of the South but anyone can relate to the humanity and horror shown here.
In her preface, Royce makes a great deal of the Southern setting of her stories, and it's true that she knows her settings firsthand. But those settings are not strictly limited to the Charleston area. Some of these stories take place in Haiti or the Gullah islands and a couple of them could be set anywhere in suburban America.
“The Watered Soul”, a reference to the belief that souls are combinations of water—earthly desires—and fire—the spiritual aspect, is a tale of an immortal who wearies of the gift. It's been done before, by Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Anne Rice, and others. Here, we're given a new setting and new demographics and less emphasis on a twist ending. 3/5
Told from the point of view of a child, “Doc Buzzard’s Coffin” is a fun little story about vengeance and Voodoo. I'm a little confused about a dead man smoking a pipe, but otherwise it's very good. One thing I'd like to know, is the era in which this and some other stories take place. In the South, that makes a big difference, when it comes to race relations. A white man expressing an interest in dating a black woman means far different things in 1915, 1965, and 2015. But in any era, this is a sharply written story. 5/5
“9 Mystery Rose” is the address of the local botanica, where for a price you can get anything you want, even the return of the dead. But don't piss off the lady who runs the place. The ending might be a tad abrupt, but this tale reminds us to pay our debts. 4/5
The “Hand Of Glory” is not the traditional treasure-finding bit of necromancy you might have heard of. This is a brief vignette about a unique police interrogator. (I originally gave this story a 3 but in retrospect it's at least a 4.) 4/5
“You can put him in a jar or something. I’ve seen you work root.” If that line doesn't evoke backwoods conjerin', I don't know what does. In “Hag Ride”, when a woman wants to end her husband's philandering ways she doesn't contemplate divorce or murder, she turns to her godmother, to summon a hag to ride her husband. There's some serious research going on here, but it doesn't read like research. It reads like firsthand knowledge. 5/5
Stories like “Homegoing” are not often written. The subject matter, at least from this point of view, is too painful, too real. It's clearly the best tale in the book and should be anthologized in whoever's doing the best crime fiction of the year. This could be the best story I've read this year. 6/5 (if that was allowed)
“With the Turn of a Key” we find a husband dreaming of a life away from his philandering wife, even if it means suicide. But he heeds the Call and under the Weird Shadow of a seductress's Medusa's Coil, the hero of the Dream Quest employs this Silver Key to open the Temple. 4/5
“Devil’s Playground” is a short poem, evoking an almost Halloween vibe.
Following the “Path of the War Chief,” a Muskogean seer must embark on a journey to save her people. While invoking a very authentic American Indian feel, this tale is rather more ethereal and mythic than the rest of the book. 4/5
In “Since Hatchet Was a Hammer” we find an abused wife seeking a haven from her husband's fists at mom's place. But what can her elderly mother do when the brute shows up on the doorstep? It's a cool story but suffers from a couple perplexing proofreading errors. I think “Her mother was afraid to talk to no one in the city...” is supposed to be “Her mother was NOT afraid to talk to no one in the city.” Also, “She settled into her favorite armchair with a package of frozen peas to ease the ache on her right side—Robert was right handed,” is a powerful line... except, if he's right-handed and facing her, wouldn't the blow land on her LEFT side? Nonetheless, 5/5.
Seeking revenge, a black drummer must find the correct “Rhythm” to evoke the Voodoo goddess Ezili Danto, the Lady of Vengeance. Getting the rhythm right and maintaining the pace and volume for an extended time is essential to draw the loa closer and closer. Maybe too close. This tale is especially well-researched, employing authentic Haitian words, phrases, and spellings. For instance, I learned that lwa is an alternate spelling of loa. 5/5
“The Choking Kind” has a Lovecraftean vibe, in which one goes back home, hoping to learn a little more about one's heritage, only to discover a dark secret. But this is a more human story and like other tales in this book, contains creatures not quite like any you may have encountered before. 5/5.
As with all anthologies, some stories are better than others. In this case, most are good, a few are exceptional, and none of them are bad. There's some very evocative writing, like one story's opening line: “It took three of us to get Doc Buzzard in the coffin.” Unfortunately, this is soon followed by careless mistakes like “I stretched on my tiptoes and learned over.” Leaned? And “make shift” is one word.
Periodically, lines like “He pressed his head down into one hand” leave me confused about what I'm supposed to visualize. Is he in despair and rubbing his head? The rest of the paragraph would not indicate this. On the other hand, mistakes like that occur seldom. More common are lines like, “Litter danced macabre steps with the wind in the shadows of the abandoned buildings.” Mmm, that's good imagery and very lyrical writing.
And for the most part, that's what you'll find plenty of in this book. Royce's writing is very good, her plots are devious, and her love of her settings is implicit in every line. This book comes highly recommended.
5 stars, rounded up.