First, a disclosure: I have worked closely with both the editors of “Read the End First” through our mutual association with Dark Continents Publishing. I’ve also worked with or appeared on ToC’s alongside some of the contributing authors in this anthology. Amazon says that, when it comes to book reviews, such associations are Bad, which is why I’m not even going to try to post this review there (no hard feelings, Amazon – I still love you. That’s why I post links to you all over my blog, despite WordPress not letting me make any money from it, but that’s another story…). The problem is that the world of horror short story anthologies is very small; if you want people to read and review them, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who is familiar with and enjoys such books who isn’t in some way involved with the writing, editing and production of them. And anyway, we horror writers lurve to express our opinions. Just try and stop us.
With that out of the way, it’s on with the review.
The concept behind the cleverly-titled “Read the End First” is equally clever; 24 authors are given a different time zone and asked to come up with a scenario for the end of the world as we know it. In some of those stories we see the complete destruction of the planet, in others all human life is wiped out, leaving Earth still turning. With several high-powered endorsements, and introductions from horror masters Graham Masterton and Joe McKinney, expectations for readers are high.
My personal tastes run more to character-driven stories than plot-driven stories, especially with a concept like this in which all the plots are essentially the same (Something Really Bad happens. Everyone dies. The end.) but there’s a balanced mix of both types of stories, catering to the full spectrum of horror fans. That theme might look restrictive on the surface, but I was impressed with the depth and breadth of imagination shown in exploring it. It’s a testament to the authors’ and editors’ talents that, aside from that basic plot, no two stories are alike.
Of course, they had me at the first story, “The Barrier Between Here and There” by Suzanne Robb, which was set in one of the first places in the world to see the sun every day, my country of birth, New Zealand. Being a Kiwi of Maori descent, I had a quiet chuckle at the Kaimanawa Wall and the Kiore people.
The award for Personal Favourite story in the collection was hotly contested, but in the end went out to “Not With a Bang” by Brooke and Scott Fabian. Not so much horror as heartbreakingly beautiful speculative fiction, this story made me cry, and I’m told by one of the editors that I’m not the only reader to say that.
A very close second place goes to “That Guy Who Writes Zombie Novels” by Patrick Shand. This story completely won me over despite my initial prejudices. OK, so we have zombies (sort of…). Yawn. And we have a protagonist who is a horror writer – one of my biggest pet peeves. But wait – there is something different about these zombies, something integral to the theme, and the protagonist’s profession is equally essential to make the story work. And work it does, managing to be funny, meaningful and genuinely frightening all at once.
Also genuinely frightening were David Dunwoody’s “The Hour”, “The Earth Died Screaming” by William Todd Rose and “Hammered and Nail” by Emma Ennis. And that is high praise indeed, given that I read a LOT of horror fiction and could be accused of being somewhat jaded in the literary scares department.
In terms of the use of imagery and/or the quality of the prose, I’d single out “Red” by Craig Saunders, “The Midnight Moon” by Gregory L. Norris and “Ice Rage” by Dave Jeffery for honourable mentions. All three stories make good use of the physical or cultural setting of their assigned time zone. “Ice Rage” in particular is distinctive in particular for its scenes of death and destruction that are at once stomach-churning in their brutality and striking in their beauty; they read like they’ve been written with one eye on the screen adaptation. I also liked this story because the “monsters” are depicted with a degree of empathy. No cardboard cut-out villains here, these creatures have a social structure and a purpose, and human-like emotions that make you think for a second that perhaps they’re the rightful heirs to the planet after all.
Were there any clunkers in the collection? I counted only three, which I won’t single out, and which is a pretty good strike rate, considering a) I’m jaded, remember? and b) it’s all subjective anyway (although I could make some objective suggestions as to how those stories could have been slightly improved). If we’re going for a mathematical analysis, that three “don’t bother” stories, twelve adequate ones, and nine “you’re missing out on something if you don’t read this” ones – which I made excellent odds that you’ll get your money’s worth from this anthology.