Released by Cemetery Dance Publications right at the end of 2013 (my copy arrived in the mail on December 23), Turn Down the Lights is a short anthology, but a good one. At a mere 174 pages, it is arguably a wee bit overpriced ($35 is pushing it); but given the quality of the stories, I don't feel as though I overpaid.
One of the joys of reading a good anthology of new stories is that you typically don't have a clue what most of the stories are about. In my case, I knew nothing about any of them; not even "Summer Thunder," the Stephen King short story that prompted me to buy the book. So when I began reading each story, I did so fresh, with no preconceptions (except as they related to my relationship, or lack thereof, with the authors' previous works). It's a good way to read a story. It's also a good way to see a movie, or an episode of a television show, or to read a comic book, or to hear a song. But we don't typically experience art in that way; so when it happens, I tend to treasure it, especially if the experience turns out to be a positive one.
Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary as far as writing a review goes. What do I tell you about each story? Do I give you brief synopses to try to sway you one way or the other? Or do I try and preserve your ability to experience the stories as free of knowledge as I experienced them? My inclination is to do the latter, but that'd going to make for an awfully short review; in fact, it would sort of defeat the purpose of a review.
So if what you want is to have the same experience I had, I'll say this: just skip this review and buy a copy of the book. It won't hurt my feelings, I promise.
For those of you who want a little more info, though, I'll give you my brief impressions of each story. I'll steer as far away from plot specifics as I can.
"Turn Down the Lights" by Richard Chizmar: This is not a short story at all, but an introduction by Chizmar, who founded Cemetery Dance. Here, he tells the story of how and why he began the magazine, and also tells you a bit about the impetus for the anthology itself.
"Summer Thunder" by Stephen King: As you might expect given the stated content of this blog, Stephen King's story is the main reason why I purchased Turn Down the Lights. Indeed, without its presence, it is unlikely that I would have bought the book at all. This is not because I am one of those King fans who only wants to read King. No sir. But reality is reality; and reality is that I have only so much time for reading, and only so much money to spend on books. So King does tend to be my primary focus. I feel bad about that sometimes -- given world enough and time, I would read a couple of hundred of books per year, many of them by new authors -- but such is life. So, yes, King is what brought me to Turn Down the Lights.
I'm happy to say that for me, "Summer Thunder" was a near-complete success. It is a dark story. Dark as hell; arguably one of the darkest stories King has ever written, in fact, which is saying something. He isn't publishing as many short stories these days as he once did, but the quality of what he is publishing is quite high. Between this, "The Dune," and "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," he's pumped out three classics in the last two years alone. Dude is a marvel.
So is this story.
"Incarnadine" by Norman Partridge: I've never read anything by Stoker-winning author Norman Partridge, and if I'm being honest, I have to say that "Incarnadine" is unlikely to bump him up my list. It was far and away my least favorite story in the anthology; the only one, actually, that I'd say I disliked. This is not to say it was terrible (there is some vivid imagery, if nothing else), nor does it mean that I mightn't change my mind about it upon a second read. It just didn't land for me; it might for you.
"The Western Dead" by Jack Ketchum: I'm familiar with the name Ketchum, and I know he's written several novels Stephen King would tell me are required reading. He's on my long-term list, guys; I promise. But, regardless, this was the first time I'd read anything of his. And it's pretty dang good. Good dialogue, a cool setting; the story is basically just exposition and a great final few sentences, but sometimes, with a short story, that's enough, and it was enough this time.
"An Instant Eternity" by Brian James Freeman: Freeman is a publisher, but he's also an author in his own right. This tale is about a reporter in a war-torn land who tries to help a little girl out of a bad spot. It's pretty good, and the story certainly illustrates a strong primary theme; but somehow, I was expecting a bit more. A lot of short stories end just when it seems like they are getting going; that can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. Here, I'd argue it's closer to being a bad thing. That said, I still thought it was a pretty good tale; it just left me wanting something more.
"In the Room" by Bentley Little: Been hearing the name Bentley Little for a couple of decades now, so I've no doubt he's someone worth reading. But, as with Ketchum, I've never made time to do so. And, also as with Ketchum, I suspect that might be to the detriment of my book collection. "In the Room" is a weird, creepy story that will cause me to run in the other direction as fast as possible if I ever hear a stranger say the phrase "in the room," insert a comma, and then complete the sentence with a second phrase. Fuck that shit. I'll be out, stat!
"Flying Solo" by Ed Gorman: I'd never even heard of Ed Gorman, but I liked this story a lot. Much of Turn Down the Lights can be classified as horror, but several of the stories are non-horror, this one included. Which is not to say it isn't kind of bleak and horrible; it's both, and in the good sense of those qualities. I don't want to say much about what this is about; think Grumpy Old Men meet Death Wish and you're on the right track, though. Good stuff.
"The Outhouse" by Ronald Kelly: I'd never heard of Kelly, either, but I'm inclined to think I'd enjoy his work. This particular story is . . . well, let's put it like this: if you have some sort of innate desire to go tipping over outhouses some Halloween night, this story is likely to cure you of that desire.
"Lookie-Loo" by Steve Rasnic Tem: Tem is another of those author whose names I've been seeing for years, but have never read. I feel as if saying anything about this story would be saying too much, so I'll say next to nothing. The final paragraph fucked me up a little, though; I'll say that...
"Dollie" by Clive Barker: I read several books by Clive Barker in high school, including Imajica, The Great and Secret Show, The Damnation Game, and Weaveworld. I loved them all, but for whatever reason, I fell out of the habit of reading Barker. I've been bothered by this for about a year now, and am slowly working on building up a collection of all of his books, at which point I'm going to dive back into them. This may or may not wait until I've finished doing the same thing with Robert McCammon and Peter Straub.
Regardless, "Dollie" represents the first story by Barker that I've read in what is probably over twenty years at this point. It's a good one, too. Some short stories seem like an idea for a novel that somebody tried and failed to convert into a briefer form; other short stories seem like an idea for a novel that somebody tried and succeeded to convert into a briefer form, and this is one of those. It is less than ten pages, and is a simply-told, simply-plotted tale; yet it manages to feel epic in its scope, and also in its impact. Barker's trademark emphasis on sexuality is there, and he puts it to strong use here.
"The Collected Stories of Freddie Prothero; Introduction by Torless Magnussen, Ph.D." by Peter Straub: Apart from being one of the better titles I've seen in recent memory, this story is . . . man, I kind of don't know what to say. It's...
Well, it's weird, is what it is. And it's very, very good; it might be even better than that, but only time will tell for sure. As stated above, I'm currently in the process of reading my way through Straub's work; I'm going chronologically, and I'm unfortunately not making a hell of a lot of progress (about a book per year, at the current rate). This is not a reflection on Straub's work; it is a reflection on my inability to find time to do all the leisure-time things that I want to do.
I'll say this, though; reading this story makes me think that come hell or high water, I will be finding a way to accelerate that Straub read-through; I have not (with the exception of Black House) read anything of his since Koko, which came out in 1988. And if he's doing stuff that's even vaguely similar to "The Collected Stories of Freddie Prothero" these days, then I'm missing out by not being up-to-date with his work.
Now, that said, I feel like I have to mention that this is one of those love-it-or-hate-it sort of stories. Some readers are bound to be frustrated by it, and put off by its style. You may or may not be one of them. Personally, I was delighted by it, and this runs a very close second to "Summer Thunder" as being my favorite story in the collection.
"Afterword" by Thomas F. Monteleone: I guess I ought to mention that the book also carries an afterword by Thomas F. Monteleone, another writer who I probably ought to have read, but haven't.
And that, sir or madam as the case may be, is my review of Turn Down the Lights. I'm sure some of you have read some of the authors, and I'd like to encourage you to hit up the comments section and make some recommendations. I won't swear to get around to actually reading them until 2019 or so, but hey, you never know . . . I might strike it rich any day now and find myself with oodles of readin' time.
Oh, if only...