I really love horror anthologies. I mean, I love story collections by single authors too, but there’s nothing quite like reading an anthology and discovering talented writers you’ve never heard of before, or writers you might have heard about but weren’t familiar with their work. I especially love these sorts of themed anthologies, particularly when the theme is interpreted pretty broadly, as it is in Chiral Mad, Michael Bailey’s anthology of (mostly) psychological horror stories. So I had high expectations for this. Perhaps too high.
As the title suggests, the theme of the book is chirality, which refers to a pair of objects, chemical compounds, etc. which are asymmetrical in themselves but mirror images of each other (e.g. hands). The tension in these twenty-eight stories comes from the perversion or corruption of that mirror image. Hence, beneath the charming and perfect facade presented to the public either by the main character themselves or by a loved one, is their dark side, which is often their true nature.
Among the most conceptually interesting pieces in the collection are the ones that deal with children and childhood memories. In Some Pictures in an Album by Gary McMahon, the narrator describes each of the titular photos of himself in detail as he pages through the album, slowly revealing a nightmarish childhood. And in Monica J. O’Rourke’s powerful and depressing Five Adjectives, a story partially structured like an elementary classroom assignment, the young narrator describes a pleasantly idealized version of her father, who in reality is far from ideal. One of my favorite stories in the book, Christian A. Larsen’s Mirror Moments, also concerns a child. In this case the young boy is saved from certain death by a dark angel, but the price for his salvation may be too steep. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that seriously begs to be adapted into a novel. I’m dying (no pun intended) to know how this all plays out.
In terms of sheer horror, the best pieces here are Pat R. Steiner’s The Shoe Tree, a suburban serial killer tale in which the author does a pretty solid job of misdirecting the reader until the very end, Julia Stipes’s Not the Child, wherein the pregnant protagonist can see weird little fairy beings that take human souls and must protect her unborn baby from one of the creepy critters, and arguably the most disturbing story in this collection, Patrick Lacey’s Send Your End, about a strangely compelling site on the dark web where people film their suicides live.
I also dig the sort of existential horror presented in stories like R. B. Payne’s Cubicle Farm, where a young man seems to be completely incapable of leaving his horrible job at a debt collection agency, and John Michael Kelley’s The Persistence of Vision, where an assortment of objects in the attic begin to take on some rather menacing properties. For sheer quality of writing alone, another of my favorite pieces here was Gary A. Braunbeck’s Need, which amply contrasts a crabby middle class conservative’s jaundiced view of his much poorer neighbors across the street with the terrible plight of one of those neighbors, a young mother pushed by circumstances to the ultimate act of desperation. This is the kind of subtle, insightful humanist story we really need more of in the Age of Trump. And the intense body horror of Jack Ketchum’s Amid the Walking Wounded, where a man with a bloody nose that won’t quit starts to see ghosts in his hospital room, is pretty solid as the penultimate piece in this collection.
That being said, while the book doesn’t contain any truly bad stories, a few too many of them were mediocre for me to recommend this as a must have for fans of these types of anthologies. Sometimes the problem is that the writer doesn’t quite know what tone he or she is going for, or they try to juggle too much. For example, A Flawed Fantasy by Jeff Strand and Inevitable by Meghan Arcuri nicely straddle the line between humor and horror, though in the end neither was quite as satisfying as they should’ve been. While the writing itself is consistently above par, the way the stories play out is sometimes confusing, such as in Gene O’Neill’s The White Quetzal, Erik T. Johnson’s Apologies and Barry J. Kaplan’s Underwater. I suppose that sort of confusion is inevitable in a collection of psychological horror pieces, where frequently nothing is quite as it seems. For some readers that may enhance their experience. If so, then fantastic. I might not quibble as much with it in a novel, where the author has room to play with that confusion before resolving the story in a satisfactory way, but for me a short story is best when it gets in, makes its point and gets out. Too much larking about without a meaty twist or a solid resolution tends to leave me cold. Some writers, like Robert Aickman, can pull that off perfectly, but he was a true master. Very few writers could do what Aickman did and get away with it.
I will point out that none of the authors in this collection, and presumably its sequels, were paid. This was strictly a volunteer effort, and the profits from it all go to benefiting a Down syndrome charity, certainly a worthy cause and one of the reasons I bought the book. I’m still debating whether I want to shell out the cash though for Chiral Mad 2 or Chiral Mad 3. Maybe eventually, but not for awhile.