ARTERIAL BLOOM edited by Mercedes M. Yardley (Crystal Lake Publishing, March 22, 2020) Paperback, 232 pages. ISBN #1646693108 / 9781646693108
When I want to read an above average anthology of short stories, Crystal Lake Publishing rarely disappoints. ARTERIAL BLOOM is no exception.
I was equally pleased to see that ARTERIAL BLOOM is edited by Mercedes M. Yardley, an impressive author I’ve made a mental note to read more of. However, I was a little apprehensive to read in Linda D. Addison’s forward that this is Yardley’s first attempt at editing and also the book has no defined theme. Very brave to make that choice on your first attempt at putting an anthology together, but also a bit risky.
Despite that, I do sense a theme here. These stories deal with real life horrors rather than monsters, demons or supernatural beings – – with the exception of one story that is also the weakest of the collection.
Ten of these sixteen stories are better than anticipated. Among them, five are well above average (by Boden, Parenti, Keisling, Owens, and Barzak) and Ken Liu’s “In The Loop” deserves nomination for inclusion in a Best Of The Year collection.
I’ll be writing short reviews of each story and rating them on a five-point scale. Five = exceptional, superior story-telling. Four = well above average. Three = Meets expectations, very acceptable. Two = Below Average. One = Don’t Bother Reading It. The better anthologies that I have read begin with a strong entry, hold to those standards throughout, and finish even stronger with the very best stories near the end. I’m listing my comments in order of preference.
- A young girl watches as her Army father, suffering from PTSD, turns into a monster and becomes abusive before killing himself as “In The Loop” by Ken Liu quickly flashes forward in time. During her senior year of college, she interviews with a military contractor using robotic technology and her life changes. She works on a project to create robotic systems to replace human controlled drones with advanced and quicker decision-making functions. However, both sides adapt in modern warfare and machines may not be so fool proof. A moving and powerful story. Five Stars.
- An abused and introverted girl grows up to be a fire-obsessed arsonist in “Doodlebug” by John Boden, a disturbing story that caused shivers as I read it. An incredible character study, with some very fine writing. My favorite line occurs after a shy adult Marta meets an equally awkward Roy and they attempt to strike up a conversation: “The silence was pregnant but would need a cesarean section.” 4.5 Stars
- What I assumed to be a ghost story takes a twisty turn that changed my impression of “Blue Was Her Favorite Color” by Dino Parenti. I was engaged in the mystery and curiosity of the story. Tragedy has targeted the family of 10-year old Abbey and her father, the narrator of the story. Her mother died while birthing her younger brother, who apparently dies at 18 months after wandering outdoors during a dangerous storm. This may be the most disturbing story in the anthology. 4.5 Stars.
- I was fascinated by the transformation scene in “Happy Pills” by Todd Keisling. Marcus suffers from a mix of melancholia and depression that he calls The Absence. His apathy and listlessness results in his wife leaving him and being put on notice at work. In desperation he visits a new psychiatrist and agrees to participate in a clinical trial. The ending is satisfactory, but was too abrupt for me. I thought there should be more. 4 Stars.
- “Still Life” by Kelli Owen is extremely unsettling and creepy. An artist with a preference for dark and morbid subjects and settings to sketch sets up her easel near a riverbank where a dead body was discovered as the waters of the dam receded. She’s been to this particular landscape before and knows of its past. Owen’s writing is poetic in places. Four Stars.
- “Dead Letters” by Christopher Barzak deals with the eternal duration of good friendships and the power of imagination made real. Dead Alice, suddenly reincarnated, writes to her dead childhood friend Sarah and recalls their former times together. Very moving and unsettling. Four Stars.
- ” A window was open” is the opening sentence for all four vignettes in “Kudzu Stories” by Linda J Marshall; the other linking device being the overabundance and spread of kudzu throughout rural Arkansas. The other common factor is the clever ways that fed up women dispose of their spouses. 3.5 Stars.
- An interview with the wife of a kidnapped painter of autumn scenes reveals a deeper meaning and purpose in “Welcome To Autumn” by Daniel Crow, very symbolic and sufficiently vague. 3.5 Stars.
- “Three Masks” by Armand Rosamilia would serve nicely as a teleplay, like a classic episode of the original Twilight Zone. Lenny likes the women and likes to play around, especially when he can mix some mask-wearing into the excitement. All of the women he sees have one thing in common, a similar name: Sammie, Samantha, and Sam. Don’t you always anticipate a twist at the ending of a Twilight Zone episode? 3.5 Stars.
- “What Remained Of Her” by Jennifer Loring is an interesting story with a vague, uninteresting ending. While I believe Loring is making a valid feminist point in this symbolic story, I believe including more of a resolution at the end would make for a stronger story. Young Jamie leaves home on a quest to track down the killer of her older sister, who may have suffered from Cotards delusion, described as a feeling that your body is slowly disappearing. Jamie spends her time in sleazy motels, greasy diners and truck stops in the company of prostitutes and has some unsettling encounters that are only briefly referred to. There’s enough substance in this story to expand to a novel or novelette, and perhaps make a stronger story and a stronger point. 3.5 Stars.
- “Dog (Does Not) Eat Dog” by Grant Longstaff is a disturbing reflection on human nature against the backdrop of a scramble for survival following an apocalyptic global bombing. Two old friends band together, one aggressive and dangerous, the other passive and empathetic, until they can no longer see eye to eye. Three Stars.
- A young (10 years old) George lost his mother three months ago in “The Darker Side Of Grief” by Naching T. Kassa and watches with his four year old sister as both his father and the family relationship falls apart. George is haunted by the now-threatening shadow of his mother until a feisty baby-sitter steps into his life. Three Stars.
- “Rotten” by Carina Bissett is a coming-of-age tale of a young woman that manages to use images and scenes to reference three classic fairy tales: Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty. Three Stars.
- The Greek goddess Gaia walks the Earth as Ruth in “The Making Of Mary” by Steven Pirie, and returns frequently in order to be with Mary, her human lover. There’s discussions of babies and global warming and Gaia visits the planets as well as Earth to assess the damage before making Mary an offer. There’s a message here about climate change and there’s a bit of wish fulfillment but the story was unsatisfying. Two Stars.
- “Mouths Filled With Seawater” by Jonathan Cosgrove is a rambling narrative from a woman or man (no clues provided) who is a stalker, on probation and counseling, and has a fixation on water and swimming. To tell more would spoil it entirely. Two Stars.
- The first story here, “The Stone Door” by Jimmy Bernard, is an odd choice for an opener. It’s not very strong, despite an interesting premise. However, a wooden bicycle that has to be ridden in shifts by three young girls in order to keep a monster shut behind a door does need some sort of explanation to make it believable. Why doesn’t one of the girls go to the nearest town to get help? One Star.