I was recently contacted by one of the contributing authors (Alan Draven) of the recently released novella anthology, Creeping Shadows and offered the opportunity to review the book. I have to admit, I was pretty stoked. I follow Brandon Ford on MySpace, and have heard a lot of good things about this book. In addition to novella-length stories by Alan Draven and Brandon Ford, there is also a third by Jessica Lynne Gardener.
The first story is the aptly titled Vengeance is Mine, by Alan Alan Draven. It is a bold retelling of the single most puzzling and well known unsolved serial killing cases in modern history – that of Jack the Ripper. The reader is taken on a journey beginning during Vincent Fowler’s college days at the Royal Academy of Surgeons of England, where a macabre prank that he pulls gets him expelled, despite his profound and adept surgical skills. After his expulsion, he exiles himself to the American Colonies for a couple of years, only to return to Whitechapel England, armed with the tools and skills of a surgeon, a psychopathic hatred of prostitutes, and a level of disdain for law enforcement and the public in general that makes him feel invincible.
What I loved about Draven’s retelling of this well known portion of our dark history is that he was able to take subject matter that is familiar and retell it without the end product seeming played out or stale. In fact, Vengeance is Mine was an in-depth look into the life of a fictionalized Jack the Ripper, complete with vivid insight into his thoughts, and morbidly detailed descriptions of each of his murders. Over the course of the tale, Vincent spirals more and more out of control, his obsession with murder clouding and otherwise brilliant mind and causing his once-perfected MO to become sloppier and more haphazard with each new kill.
Over the course of the novella, it becomes apparent to both Vincent and the reading audience that one of his victims is still bound to this earthly plane, the senselessness and brutality of her death preventing her from passing over. And there is only a single purpose for her continued existence – vengeance against her killer. Even as the police follow one false lead after another, the ghost of Annie Champman torments Vincent mercilessly, haunting his home and dogging his every step. At first, the newly dubbed “Jack the Ripper” is convinced that the bizarre occurrences are the result of the fact that he has a penchant for Absinthe. However, it doesn’t take him long to realize what’s really going on.
All in all, Vengeance is Mine was a great read. I loved the way historical facts were woven in with fictional and even supernatural elements. Truth be told, there are few things I love more than a good ghost story. Especially one where the ghost is able to find true justice for their murder. Also, Draven was able to craft a believable and satisfying ending to his tale of one of the greatest serial killing mysteries in history, which made it that much more worth the read. It was a truly excellent story, from the plot to the wording and even the supporting characters, which were richly drawn and integral to the story – not a small feat considering the entirety of the work was just over 100 pages.
The second novella in Creeping Shadows is a doozey by Brandon Ford, and it is also a fictionalization of actual events. (While I recall the incident from media coverage, I have been unable to locate archival news footage or articles, and I would really appreciate it if anyone could steer me in the right direction if their memory happens to be better than mine:) Merciless tells the tale of two kidnapped teenage girls, who are held hostage in an SUV by a drunken, manic gunman, whose sanity has long since reached the end of its tether. The girls are virtual strangers, kidnapped at random, and after being forced to witness the most brutal and heart wrenching events of their young lives, they find themselves terrified but grateful to have escaped the initial encounter with their lives.
The stress and terror of their shared situation causes Kyra and Claire to forge and instant and unbreakable bond, and they become one another’s pillars of strength and support as the horrifying events of their shared captivity unfold before them. They spend the night in a torturous situation; filled with violent rapes, bone-shattering beatings, and uncertainty as to whether or not they will live to see the next day. As their captor drives them further and further from their homes, he becomes more and more demented in both his words and actions, and the girls begin to seriously question whether their survival is a possibility.
Brandon Ford’s Merciless is a rarity among the wide array of reality-based fiction books/stories floating around today. It managed to both horrify and disgust me, as I read about some of the most awful atrocities that one person can commit against another; while at the same time it reaffirmed to me the goodness that is inherent in most of us. Merciless also demonstrated the tenacity of the will to live, regardless of the odds that are stacked against you. It was a great read, albeit a graphic one.
The final novella included in the Creeping Shadows anthology was Sugar Skull, by Jessica Lynne Gardner. I have to admit that I was fairly puzzled by the inclusion of this story, as it was something of the odd man out. While the first two novellas were based on real events (admittedly, Vengeance is Mine was slightly more supernatural than Merciless), Sugar Skull was a completely fabricated surreal horror tale.
Sugar Skull tells the tale of Annabel Perez, whose father is murdered in a bizarre fashion; presumably by way of poison, although the toxicology report indicates that whatever the substance is, it is completely unknown to modern science. After doing some investigation into her family’s history, Annabel determines that her father’s death is not an isolated incident, but in fact one of many. All of the deaths are accompanied by sugar skulls, a common Mexican candy associated with Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.
As the number of unexplained and seemingly unexplainable deaths continues to climb, Annabel finds herself banding with her semi-estranged mother to uncover the truth about the killings and the secrets of her family history that could mean that she is next to die. Tracing the source of the murders back to an ancient Aztec curse, Annabel and her mother are in a race against time to put an end to centuries of senseless revenge and hate fueled murders.
While I enjoyed Sugar Skull, it was simply not in the same caliber of writing as the other two novellas in this anthology; it felt somewhat disjointed and too compressed. The story simply contained too much information to be concentrated into a hundred or so pages, and it seemed as though it would have been a much more fulfilling read had it been expanded into a novel of its own. Additionally, and as I said before, it also wasn’t the same flavor of story as Vengeance is Mine and Merciless – it just seemed as though it didn’t belong, which was somewhat distracting. (I have to admit, I have a few OCD tendencies, and I like things to be properly categorized. So shoot me…)
All in all, Creeping Shadows was an entertaining and worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves horror, the supernatural or true crime stories – and it is worth the cover price for Alan Draven and Brandon Ford’s contributions alone. That’s not to say that Jessica Lynne Gardner didn’t add to the overall entertainment value of the book: Sugar Skulls just wasn’t for me, at least not in this context. I have to give Vengeance is Mine and Merciless 4 ½ solid stars apiece, and Sugar Skull 3 stars. Overall, Creeping Shadows was a 4 (or more) star read.
Thanks again, Alan, for the signed copy. It was much appreciated and enjoyed!!!