Title: The Beast Within
Author: Anthology, edited by Matt Hults
Genre: Horror, Short Fiction
Stand Alone or Series: Stand alone anthology, a collection of stories dealing with shapeshifters of all kinds
Why did we read this book: One of the first books we reviewed on The Book Smugglers was the Graveside Tales horror anthology Fried! Fast Food, Slow Deaths. We were contacted by Matt Hults (who had a story in Fried! that we quite enjoyed) who asked if we would be interested in reading another GST antho he had edited with The Beast Within. Having enjoyed Fried! and seeing how well this fit in with our Halloween Week plans, we took this as a sign and eagerly accepted the offer!
Summary: (from GravesideTales.com)
Throughout history they have existed in folklore and nightmares…
By day they walk among us, hidden in plain sight. They are our neighbors and friends. But when the sun sets and the full moon rises, the beast within comes out…
And the hunt begins.
Grab a silver bullet and prepare yourself for 20 tales of animalistic terror crafted by authors from around the world. Travel across the ages and go beyond the myth to discover the horrific secrets of the werebeasts. See what lurks in the swamps of Florida; sprint across the rooftops of London in a deadly chase; follow an unfortunate soldier’s footsteps into the forests of Africa; find pity for a wounded soul who has yet to realize the full nature of his powers. These stories and others are ready to take you through a series of bone-snapping transformations that will make you howl for more.
From ancient cultures to the high-tech future, nowhere is safe from the shape-shifting bloodlust of The Beast Within.
Given that this is an anthology of 20 short stories, we decided to approach our review a little differently, offering mini-reviews for each entry.
Ana: I got the first 10 stories.
“Claws of Native Ghosts” by Lee Battersby
We go back in time with the first story in the anthology. Narrated in first person by one George Dawson, a soldier in the 21st Regiment of the Royal North British Fusiliers, stationed in Mandurah, in the colony of Australia. It follows the regiment’s problems with the local natives via George’s warped point of view. Little by little, it becomes clear that George is mentally disturbed and has created an alternate reality for himself in which he is more important than he really is. When a native spirit of a cat-like creature chooses to inhabit George’s body, things come to a horrific showdown. As an opening story in a horror anthology this story is very effective with the added bonus of mixing an aboriginal tale to a historical setting.
“Like Cat and Dog” by Michael Stone
This story is set in a world where were-cats and were-dogs co-habit with the mundanes without problems as long as they keep to themselves and don’t give in to their animalistic habit of feeding from humans. Sophie is a bartender at the local bar that caters for both cats and humans and she observes as the thrill seeker Jade comes on to a cat and tries to seduce him with the prospect of her own blood. When Owen, a local dog, walks in and ends up tasting Jade’s blood, she knows there will be trouble. She takes Jade and flee – but is followed by Owen and some of his wolf-friends. There is a cool showdown but I wonder if a cat would be able to take down so many wolves but I guess it all comes down to her real motivations – which we learn in the surprising twist at the end.
“Gift of the Bouda” by Richard Farnsworth
Captain John Rogers is a veteran of the army trying to cope with post traumatic stress disorder and OCD after a failed Somalian operation. AS the story opens he is meeting with his new psychiatrist who has decided that the course of treatment of simply giving out meds is not effective. The patient who is desperate fort he med that keep him compulsion (as he calls it) then starts to tell what happened on that fateful day seven years and how his team had a face-off with a were- creature and what exactly happened to him. Now, the psychiatrist really wishes he had given him his meds, doesn’t he? I really liked this story and how the author gives little snippets of John’s improved sense of smell and hearing as clues to what he really is.
“Hatchet Job” by John C. Caruso
A story that features a …… were-slug! Wow, that’s new. And very unexpected. It opens with an after-the-fact recount at the police station by David who is an office bully and hates his co-worker Carl, whom he finds stupid and slow. Turns out there is an explanation for that (points to the first line) . But as we hear more of David’s reasoning the more it becomes clear that he is consumed with his own fear of the different and his own prejudices. Who is the Beast Within here, really? The last sentence is very powerful in conveying just that thought.
“Yard Sale” by Norma Lehr
Fred Griswold and his wife Kate are having a garage sale. They plan to move to Arizona where their needs will be different and because of that the sale include Kate’s favourite pot where she has cooked their family meals and Fred’s favourite knifes and coat….a very special coat. The emotional connection that Fred has with his knifes and the coat presented by his grandfather becomes clear as the story unfolds and he hopes someone special will buy them.
But when Fred’s own granddaughter shows up and is attracted to the goods he is more than happy that the family inheritance with be kept in the family. The story had potential but left me wanting to learn …and understand more of Fred’s family special powers.
“Desert Heart” by William D. Carl
A western! Great!
The Sheriff of Small town Cactus Torch is a werewolf. Transformed a few years ago after an attack, he left wife and kid behind for their protection. Aware of the danger he represents he has confided his secret to his deputy, a young boy named Mike who stands guard when the moon is full and the sheriff barricades himself behind silver bars. When a series of attacks happen and the sheriff suspects that they are the work of a were-creature, he decides to go hunting – it is his town and he will protect it even it means to let his wolf lose. This was my least favorite of the stories I read – I thought the Western setting was underused (the story could have happened anywhere at any time) but also the reasoning behind the sheriff’s distance from his family felt contrived – if he felt self enough around Mile barricaded behind bars, couldn’t he have done the same back home?
“Let’s Welcome the New Guy” by Raoul Wainscoting
This is the shortest of the stories I read and one of my favourites with its cynical humour and laugh out loud quirky moments. The story plays with the craziness that Politically Correctness can bring as Employees at Waxman-Wayne are summoned by HR guy to explain the rules of behaviour around the new accountant guy who is a were-wolf , oops, sorry excuse me, a “Transformative American” according to the LAPA, The Lycanthropic American Protection Act. Seriously, the whole meeting is hilarious!
“Beached” By Joel A. Sutherland
The tale is narrated by Sheila, a fisherman’s wife whose husband Eddie, disappeared one day at sea along with his crew mates Jack, Charlie, and Robert. Sheila believes her husband is not dead and as the days go by and other people become certain that they are dead, Sheila becomes more and more certain of the opposite – she camps at the beach day and night staring at the sea waiting for Eddie’s return.
The were-creatures here are strange ones but to say more is to spoil the twist. I thought this tale to be the most emotional of the stories with a realistic portrayal of a woman consumed with grief but also with hope which is rewarded when Eddie comes back 29 days later (and this number is significant), a changed man.
“Needs to be Met” By Mark W. Coulter
Stephen, who works in advertising, takes a night off to pick up a woman, any woman at a bar. In walks this woman , Charlene who is also looking for something out of her night out and is more than agreeable to Stephen’s approach and invites him home. The moment she tells him she is a widow with children to feed, I knew just what sort of the were-creature she was and it was creepy when she revealed herself to Stephen. Hands down, the scariest of the stories I read, even if a bit predictable.
“Some Touch of Pity” By Gary A. Braunbeck
Some Touch of Pity is a complex story of a man who feels he has become a monster and has been living with this self-hatred for years, believing that the actions and emotions of his young self – who appears to him quite often – were to blame for his change into a werewolf. The story interpolates between past and present and with the rich background of a Native American tribe to boot.
I appreciated the layers in the storytelling although at points it was bit confusing and the powerful emotions (the tale of his young self and what he suffered was a punch to the gut, and highly disturbing) but in the end, I was frustrated as it felt like he was rewarded for the darkness of his soul and the bad things he has done.
Thea: I’ll kick off the back 10 stories.
“The Night John Fell” by Rick Moore
This is easily one of my favorite stories in the anthology. Following a fifty-some year old recovered alcoholic named John who works at the local gas station, we see a strange sort of shapeshifter apocalypse take place. Beginning with a regular named Greg, John watches in horror as his erratic behavior actually starts manifesting in a physical transformation. I loved the grotesque imagery of this story, from Greg snorting sunflower seeds and sprouting a beak, to the wolf creatures outside by the gas pumps. The writing style is well paced, engaging and very effective. Plus, it’s just a cool idea, and a different spin on the zombie apocalypse take. Loved it.
“Okie Werewolf Looking for Love” by Steven E. Wedel
“Okie Werewolf” has an intriguing concept and format for a story, taking the form of a “Dear Abby” type of letter…except that Randy, our narrator, is writing in to a mag called “Beasts and Babes”. The voice for Randy is pretty funny–he has recently become a werewolf, and I loved his admission that now that he can lick his own balls (and gets off on it), there’s no way in hell he’d stop even though his ex-girlfriend was tripping out about it. This is a fun, very short story, drawing more on laughs and a damn good mocking characterization of the main character.
“The Marine” by John Palisano
I’m torn with this story. On the one hand, it has great descriptions and an epic battle between a were-shark and were-squid. On the other hand, it felt almost too ambitious for that space allotted. How exactly did Dylan become a shape-shifting marine animal as well? What war were they involved in? I liked the concept of this story and certain elements (such as the action scenes) were nicely handled. But, I can’t help feeling that this would have made a better novella, allowing more time to get to know these characters. Still, a nicely done piece, even if it did bite off more than it could chew.
“Lure of the Wolf” by Belea T. Keeney
This is another story I really liked–in a sort of futuristic urban fantasy setting, “Lure of the Wolf” follows a quiet older woman as its protagonist, a librarian named Vivian. In the year 2045, lycanthropes (and vampires) have been officially recognized and monitored by the government. Vivian suspects that a werewolf has been in her azaleas, but for some reason does not call the authorities on the rogue wolf (as all the wolves stick in packs and are supposed to have migrated north to the mountains by this time of year). Through Vivian’s experiences, we see the reluctant beginnings of a friendship between the older woman and the outcast wolf. As with the previous story, I think this could have been the beginning of an excellent novella–heck, even a full-length novel. I found myself wondering what happened to Vivian and the golden-pelted wolf? The story ends very abruptly, and I yearned for more. Also, there’s a lot of history crammed into the span of two conversations in this short space, and had this been a full-fledged novel, the writing probably would seem to flow more smoothly. Despite these misgivings, I was pulled into this story completely and I highly enjoyed it–it stands apart from other pieces in this anthology as a more emotional, human tale with a very different main character. One of my favorites of the book.
“SQ 389” by David W. Hill
“SQ 389” is a trip. Literally. In a futuristic setting, where humans ‘plug in’ to the net (and in essence recreate themselves in their own image), Lieutenant Perusquia of the investigates a man’s murder, by a lobo–a wolf, with a very high Stealth Quotient. Part cyberpunk, part mystery thriller, this is probably the most complex story in the book–which is both a good and bad thing. Reading Mr. Hill’s bio, I see he’s web designer and programmer, and this expertise definitely comes across in “SQ 389”. While it’s a wonderful idea, I couldn’t help but feel lost with some of the concepts–how can people manifesting in the virtual space give things (like meds) to people in the ‘real’ space? Still, I found the concept of the virtual hacker-type ‘wolves’ and the actual existence of a real wolfman very clever, embodying the whole dichotomy of reality versus the simulated reality brilliantly. Even if I’m not quite smart enough to grasp the finer concepts! Very, very clever story.
“Crop Frogs” by Gina Ranalli
“Kermit’s gonna git ya!” Hah! My single favorite line of the entire book. An enterprising couple takes to sneaking around swamps to scrape green slime off rocks to sell to pharmaceutical companies–as it is the newest miracle ingredient in sexual enhancement/erectile dysfunction medicine. But, unfortunately Joe (the husband) gets bitten on the arm by a giant frog. Named Kermit. Soon after, Joe starts changing–he doesn’t want to leave the shower. His skin starts taking on a greenish, amphibious tint and texture…
“Crop Frogs” does everything a short story should do–it hooks the reader in quickly, it doesn’t give extraneous information, the characters are well-developed…and it blends horror and dark humor effortlessly without taking itself too seriously. Definitely one of my favorites of the book.
“Of Silver Bullets and Golden Teeth” by Trent Hergenader
I was hoping to get a western in the book, and “Of Silver Bullets and Golden Teeth” is it (love the title, by the way). Drawing on the skin-walker Native American lore, this story introduces us to Jim Brick, the second-best gunslinger in the West. Richard Craft, a Yalie, propositions Jim for his hired skills, asking for his help in finding–and possibly shooting–his brother Frederick “Goldie” Craft, named Goldie for his golden tooth. Jim Brick’s services are needed because Richard has only one silver bullet, and he needs a man that can aim true and kill with a single shot, should the need arise-turns out Goldie has been possessed by a spirit, and has taken the form of a great golden-jawed bear.
“Of Silver Bullets and Golden Teeth” is a highly entertaining story–the characters are believable, and the plot well paced. The ending especially is a nice touch. Another solid entry–probably one of the best written of the bunch. Mr. Hergenader definitely knows how to tell a story.
“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” by Vince Churchill
This entry is just…cool. Treece Van Dyke is the Lunar, the latest a torch-bearer in a long family line that bears the lycanthropic curse–but the Van Dykes have turned their curse to good, with each member becoming a costumed vigilante. The catch is that each member that dons the cape can only transform to wolf form 100 times, and then, sworn to the Van Dyke family code, they must injest a serum that will restore them to fully human. If the code is not upheld, the beast’s bloodlust can take over–as is the case with Treece’s arch nemesis, Dreissen (aka the Manimal). The story opens with Treece reluctantly giving up his suit having reached the transformation limit, resigned to drink the serum and pass the torch on to his son. Until, however, he receives a call from the A.I.–named Alfred (the last Van Dyke was a big Batman fan)–that Driessen’s den had been discovered by the police, and Treece goes on one last run as the Lunar. As a fan of Batman and other comic book characters of the vigilante persuasion, I was immediately drawn to this story. I love the idea that there’s a quota on the number of times a man can shift from human to wolf, without losing himself forever to the beast. Most of all, I loved the extension of the masked hero/villain theme to werewolves here–Batman and Joker are nemises but separated only by a very fine line, hence why time after time Batman captures Joker and throws him back in Arkham instead of killing him, despite everything he has done (killing Jason, paralyzing Barbara, etc). In this sense, the line separating Lunar from Driessen is even more tenuous, as they are both werewolves, and Treese is at his limit before losing himself completely to his wolf. Very cleverly done, and a definitely in the running for my favorite story of the book.
“Colugo Men” by Michael J. Hultquist
Narrated in the first person, “Colugo Men” begins with Earnest Price, an 86 year old man, telling us his story. A former soldier and former doctor, Earnest rediscovers new meaning in his life with his grandson David. The two are very close, and Earnest would do anything for him. One Halloween evening, however, Earnest walks into David’s room and finds the boy dead, his body mutilated by a Colugo Man (a were-dog), who is still perched on David’s bed, eating. Earnest vows to avenge David, and avenge him he does–in a slow, torturous methodical manner. “Coluga Men” certainly delivers with the revenge storyline, scoring high points on the torture scale. My only complaint would be the bare writing style–Earnest’s voice doesn’t much sound like an 80-some year old man, and the story is very cut-and-dry. It’s still an engaging tale, though, and I enjoyed it.
“The Immaculate Conception” by Matt Hults
The anthology ends with editor Matt Hults’ own story, “The Immaculate Conception”, which transports us back to 1673 aboard the English merchant ship the Immaculate, as it sails for the colonies with a ship full of slaves. On deck, a slave girl has just died giving birth, though the Captain was able to save her child by way of a last-ditch, desperate Cesarian Section. The Captain of the Immaculate as it turns out is an idealist, as is our protagonist, the first mate Eric. Captain Forester tells Eric, in the privacy of his cabin, that he will turn the ship around, back to Africa because of his moral conflict with treating other humans as slaves. Eric agrees–but they are stopped by Rupert Hollis, who owns the ‘cargo’. As the Captain and Eric’s plan is treason, the ship hands do nothing to stop Hollis from taking control of the ship, and killing the newborn infant. And that is when things get out of hand–by means of old magic, the slaves, the dead, even the ship itself undergo a nightmarish, almost Lovecraftian-like metamorphosis, killing the ship’s crew mercilessly.
This is the most cinematic of all the stories–I couldn’t help but compare this story to a sort of Pirates of the Carribean meets Dead Alive sort of sentiment. This was a very cool way to end the anthology–I’m impressed yet again with Matt Hults’ ability to write action sequences in a wholly entertaining story. I had a hard time swallowing the initial premise, with the Captain and Eric being so progressive and equality minded (wavering on preachy) early in the story considering the time period, but barring this characterization, the tale is, for lack of a better word, awesome. What’s more is, I loved this less literal interpretation of the “beast within”, embracing a more metaphorical sense of our inner demons (though, yes, there is that literal metamorphosis with the rat-people as well). Probably my favorite story of the bunch, though it’s a tough call!
Thea: This is going to sound completely random, but I like the little Hulk-looking guy used as a break design in each story.
Also, as with Fried! the art in this book is good fun. My favorite would have to be Stephen Blundell’s almost Jae Lee style art, especially for “The Immaculate Conception” and “The Claws of Native Ghosts”.
Also, I heard an interesting story about the cover art–apparently the artist (the talented Matt Hults again) took a virtual photo sample of author Mike Stone’s hair, and used that as a brush for the werewolf on the cover! Pretty sweet claim to fame.
Ana: 6, good. Some stories are better than others but overall, a good experience for this non-horror reader.
Thea: 7 Very Good – There was a lot of wonderful variety in this anthology, from slave trading ships, to the untamed West, to even a futuristic cyberpunk simulated reality setting. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for some of these authors in future publications. Graveside Tales delivers once again with The Beast Within; it is a true treat for the shapeshifting enthusiast, and I definitely recommend it.
Reading Next: It by Stephen King