By S. L. Edwards
As with previous Martian Migraine anthologies, A Breath From The Sky uses one story from H. P. Lovecraft (in this instance “The Coulour out of Space,”) as the lynchpin of the anthology and as an example of the volume’s subject. In this instance, A Breath From the Sky deals with “unusual possessions,” instances where human beings are possessed by things other than angels or demons. The results are some of the most unique stories of the year, ranging from an inversion of the haunted house to infectious alien languages.
Coming into the anthology, there were a few names which I already recognized. Cody Goodfellow contributes “Diabolitos,” a horror story tinged with a dread accentuated by a strong central character and the claustrophobia of the setting. Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Master of the House,” demonstrates why Mr. Bartlett is so quickly assuming a throne in the horror community, as a strongly written-prosaic dream sequence is interwoven with the narration of a non-human character who flips the haunted house subgenre on its head. Jonathan Raab offers “Sonata,” a military horror story about jingoism and patriotism. Raab, himself a veteran, peppers the story with military jargon that gives it the feel of any good science fiction story while the loneliness and strangeness of the Afghan outpost endows the story with every bit of foreboding a lonely house on the moors would. Aaron Vlek provides an absolutely chilling body horror story set in the time of the Khanates. “A Thousand Mothers,” does not disappoint.
But there is no bad story in the anthology. Indeed, several of the stories felt like master classes in what good, literary, sci-f/horror should be. L. Chan’s “We Don’t Talk About the Invasion Anymore,” is nothing short of a revelation as an alien language possesses the minds of an infected populace. Chan places the invading language as the center of his story, and the world built around it must react and adapt to it. It is truly impressive how the characters, world, and plot are so tightly woven together to create a truly “sci-fi” atmosphere. The same can be said of Luke R. J. Maynard’s “Everything Wants to Live,” in which technology is made the centerpiece of the story. I won’t get into the specifics on this one, but a very creative concept and a character who has such strong influence over the tone make an unforgettable reading experience. Technology is also the lynchpin of Autumn Christian’s “Skin Suits.” This is a story with a weighty theme, shifting perspectives and fluid narration. The effect is that the reader becomes as unsteady, confused and terrified as the narrator as they dive deeper and deeper into the side effects of this technology.
Other stories address the inspiration of Lovecraft’s Color out of Space more directly. Edward Morris presents a fun tale of a decaying southern village whose destruction is catalyzed by an otherworldly arrival. While at times the vocabulary choices of “The Monsters are Due in Mayberry,” can be distracting, Morris creates a fun story with characters who are even more so. Erica Ruppert’s “Intraocular” also directly addresses “Colour” when two skilled surgeons attempt to use an element found in a meteor in their experiments. The story invokes tone of classic of horror, the sort of tone one would find in an early Lovecraft or Arthur Machen, and has a conclusion that does not disappoint.
Though Lovecraft has a story in the collection, it would be a mistake to categorize this as a mythos anthology. His presence less pronounced in other stories, manifesting as a subtle influence in the vast majority of the tales. However, “But Though, Prosperina, Sleep,” by Megan Arkenberg bucks this trend ever-so-slightly. The story has some allusions to Lovecraft which cannot be missed and are central to the plot, but Arkenberg is skilled enough to not let the mythos consume her contribution. Instead, the story is a thoughtful philosophical rumination about love, poetry, and the self. The result is some of the strongest prose in the anthology and a story that is weird with a capital “W.”
And then there are stories which can only loosely be described as “traditional.” Premee Mohamed’s “The Evaluator,” inverts an archetype, builds a world and so vividly depicts its setting all in a handful of pages. Though ancient gods are the antagonists of this story, it can hardly be said that this is a “normal” possession tale. Sam Schreiber’s “Viscera,” also deals with something occupying an individual’s body, but the mystery of what this being is and how it operates move the story forward. The story is also moved by a within-body struggle between two consciousnesses, though how these consciousnesses encounter each other in the first place is so creatively grim that it defies classification as “normal.” The semi-humorous tone of Schreiber’s story is echoed in that of “Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino” by Gordon B. White. The nature of the possession is not at all a plot point of the story, instead, White’s unnamed protagonist is embroiled in obsession which brings them back to see the same fistfight with the same opponent again and again. White’s story is one of physical sensation, where the reader feels the “thuds” and the swelling bruises and the dim thrum of pain as it slides across the brain.
“Shadowmate” by Sam Grieve continues this sort of unusual possession while putting another unique spin on the relationship which the possession fosters. Perhaps a love story of sorts, the story is drenched in melancholy and leaves the reader feeling a sort of sadness for the narrator. “Mandible,” by Anton Rose is a sort of urban ghost story, where an encounter on a train spirals into an obsession which propels the story forward. The story is ripe with cleverness and seems to be winking at the reader as they flip the page, the ultimate effect of which is to invoke fear and a wry, perverse smile by the time the story wraps up. “Bog Dog,” by Seras Nikita is the closest the volume comes to invoking more classic ghost stories and is every bit as haunting and lasting as an MR James story.
And then there are a few stories which I find difficult to classify. I’m reluctant to say what the possessing mechanism in Rodney Turner’s “Echo, Hiding” is. Told through a series of interviews and recordings, the story comments on the urban legends surrounding musicians and artists and the cult-status that some of these figures gain. “Promontory,” by Morgan Crooks also appears to be several stories tightly bound into one primary narrative of an interview. The science fiction and horror in both stories linger on the edge, eyeing the reader from the darkness and more effective because of their uncertain nature. “Falseface,” by Garrett Cook is another tale that does not neatly fit a category. Racism and murder are addressed, but at some points, the premise and imagery are so simultaneously grotesque and humorous that the reader will be horrified at their own laughter. And I feel something should be said of the shortest and concluding story in the anthology, “The Stuff” by Andrew Kozma. It’s difficult to say exactly what makes it so good without giving away Kozma’s very effective tale, except to say that Kozma embraces the effective horror that Lovecraft put forward with words like “unnamable” and directly confronts it. “The Stuff,” takes the “unknowable” and laughs at it, all while peppering just enough creeping dread in to cement it as far more than a parody. Kozma demonstrates how to effectively use very little words to create something powerful.
This anthology is one of standouts, a series of fantastic stories with a unique premise bound together in one volume. When the market is flooded with ghost story, zombie, vampire and Lovecraft anthologies this is one that deserves your attention. 29 stories for $18 is certainly a deal, and you will likely find one which you will keep coming back to. For this reviewer, two of those stories are “We Don’t Talk About the Invasion Anymore” and “The Evaluator.” Though, likely I will pick up the whole anthology again a year from now. The stories ooze style, and something must be said of editor Scott R. Jones’ ability to so seamlessly put these widely varied tales together. Perhaps for Halloween, or perhaps for the winter holidays, I recommend that you treat yourself.
Buy A Breath From the Sky HERE
Buy Turn to Ash HERE
Connect with S.L. Edwards HERE