Bufton on Books: ‘Dread State’ by Various Authors (2016)

DREAD STATE by Various Authors [edited by Michael Paul Gonzalez and Eugene Johnson]
2016 | Thunderdome Press | paperback, 284 pages | horror


THE BLURB

Politics casts a long, cold shadow over every aspect of our lives. These tales find horror on the campaign trail, in the voting booth, the school room, the internet, and on the streets. Thunderdome Press brings some of the biggest names in horror together with up and coming voices to shed light on one of America’s darkest seasons.


THE STORIES

  • ‘Introduction’ by Jeff Strand (2016)
  • ‘The War Room’ by Paul Moore (2016)
  • ‘The Blood of Patriots and Tyrants’ (2016)
  • ‘Return of the Gipper’ by Jason V. Brock (2016)
  • ‘Death and Suffrage’ by Dale Bailey (2016)
  • ‘The Governor’s Executions’ by G. Ted Theewen (2016)
  • ‘GOTV’ by Tom Breen (2016)
  • ‘The Fool on the Hill’ by Lisa Morton (2016)
  • ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wall’ by Simon McCaffery (2016)
  • ‘Willow Tests Well’ by Nick Mamatas (2012)
  • ‘Seeds’ by John Palisano (2016)
  • ‘The Tie-Breaker’ by Kevin Holton (2016)
  • ‘Year of the Mouse’ by William F. Nolan (2016)
  • ‘Your Own Damned Fault’ by David Perlmutter (2016)
  • ‘Love Perverts’ by Sarah Langan (2016)
  • ‘Gadu Yansa’ by Sunni K. Brock (2016)
  • ‘Feast’ by Joseph Rubas (2016)
  • ‘Hyper-Pluralism’ by Bobby Wilson (2016)
  • ‘That Hot Summer Night in Healey’s Bar Two Weeks Before the Election’ by Anthony Ambrogio (2016)
  • ‘Everybody Listens to Buck’ by Nicholas Manzolillo (2016)
  • ‘Getting Out to Vote’ by Hillary Lyon (2016)
  • ‘Take Me to Your Cheerleader’ by Mark Allan Gunnells (2016)
  • ‘The Sixth Street Bus Holds an Election’ by Curtis VanDonkelaar (2016)
  • ‘The Candidate’ by Luke Styer and Skip Johnson (2016)
  • ‘The Pedestrian’ by Ray Bradbury (2016)
  • ‘Afterword’ by David Wellington (2016)

DISCLAIMER: I was given a copy of this anthology by one of the editors, in exchange for a review.

I’m going to come right out and say it: I wasn’t expecting much out of this anthology. I mean, political horror stories? In 2016?

Yeesh!

I was pretty much anticipating a slew of stories that, regardless of the author’s political leaning, boil down to “if X wins the election, it’ll mean World War III, or the end of civilisation as we know it.”

I’ve never been happier to be wrong. Sure, there’s a tendency for the stories in DREAD STATE to skew towards the dystopian, but there’s nothing so strange about that–this is a horror anthology, after all. The bleakness comes in sufficient variety to keep all but the most pernickety reader entertained, and features a good mix of authors and (it would seem) a decent blending of political views.

As with any anthology, the quality can fluctuate. Cream of the crop in this particular offering are the two longest works: Dale Bailey’s ‘Death and Suffrage’ and Sarah Langan’s ‘Love Perverts’. Both stories allow plenty of opportunity for the characters to drive the narrative, with the external horrors (zombies in one case, an impending asteroid strike in the other) acting as backdrop to what’s really going-on. ‘Death and Suffrage’ is an exercise in regret, both personal and professional and it is the haunted face of the protagonist, rather than the undead hordes that stick with you after reading. ‘Love Perverts’ is a dark paean to family values and their breaking point that reels the reader in a bit at a time, even though the futility of the situation is etched deep into every page.

There are some other corkers in the pot. Nick Mamatas’s ‘Willow Tests Well’ is one of the best stories I’ve read in years. I won’t presume to give a description, as I fear it would spoil it for any prospective reader, but it’s a belter. Mamatas’s sparse delivery mirrors the coldness of the title character, producing a lesson in chilling narration.

There are some laughs to be had amongst the horror, too. Mark Allan Gunnells’s ‘Take Me to Your Cheerleader’ is the funniest of the bunch, presenting a ludicrous scenario that plays out as rather charming, instead of hokey, as it so easily could have done in less skilled hands. ‘That Hot Summer Night in Healey’s Bar Two Weeks Before the Election’ by Anthony Ambrogio is almost the opposite, in that it starts out feeling like a bad joke, stuffed with laboured puns, but develops into something altogether darker and more sinister. It’s a difficult trick to pull off and, while I’m not sure Ambrogio completely succeeds in doing so, it’s a brave attempt, and I admire the effort.

Other strong pieces include John Palisano’s ‘Seeds’ and Lisa Morton’s ‘The Fool on the Hill’, and the anthology ends with a Ray Bradbury reprint, which is always welcome. Perhaps my favourite work is ‘Hyper-Pluralism’ by Bobby Wilson. I’m a sucker for stories that play with form and format, and this quasi-tale, recounted as a bunch of statements from American voters, has a hypnotic vibe to it that I find compelling.

There are a couple of duds. Jason V. Brock’s ‘Return of the Gipper’ doesn’t work for me. Indeed, I re-read it twice to see if there was something I was missing in this tale of a zombie Reagan, but if there is, then it’s still eluding me. It fell flat, unsure whether it’s meant to be some sort of satire, or a silly sight gag. Either way, it fails for me. William F. Nolan’s offering ‘Year of the Mouse’ was another one that failed to pique my interest. Though I can’t deny the quality of the writing, the story itself left me shrugging.

These are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent volume. I have no hesitation in recommending DREAD STATE to horror fans of any political stripe.


 

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