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Forever Vacancy: A Colors in Darkness Anthology Paperback – Large Print, January 16, 2017
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Mya Lairis, "Introduction"
The prologue to the collection is itself a piece of short fiction. In it we meet Sybline, a woman who has lived many lives and died many deaths. She's served time in ancient Egypt, in the American South from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, and in hell. She's never bowed her head to anyone or anything. And now, in company with her "silent partner," she holds all the keys to the Kretcher, where guests would be well advised not to sign in with their real names.
C. W. Blackwell, "The Thing in Room 204"
If the title of the opening tale seems lightly allusive, it's not so by accident – the story has a Lovecraftian quality, with certain particulars kept masked to draw on the reader's imagination, others revealed suddenly and shockingly. With great economy, Blackwell accomplishes a feat essential to a memorable horror story, creating with selected details a sense of revulsion, pity, and dread, building toward a terrific climax, and at the same time suggesting something much deeper. There's a dark undercurrent here, never stated outright and not at all belabored, but unmistakable: humanity's tragic dual nature – love and hate, innocence and guilt, kindness and violence, bound and struggling within one creature, and the determined attempt at control that's exercised by conscious reason but is probably doomed to fail.
Tawanna Sullivan, "Karma Suture"
Stephanie, an aspiring actress whose career hasn't yet prospered, accepts an offer from her ex-boyfriend to work on a film he's been funded to produce. When she finds out he's conned her – he doesn't want her to star, as he's implied, but only to serve as location scout – she decides to go along anyway. It'll strengthen her résumé, she thinks. She tells herself that she's completely over Curtis, who dumped her after he'd taken what he wanted from her, and she doesn't care that he's fooled her about this project, apparently to rub her face in the fact he's got a new fiancée. This isn't true; it's just easier to believe than the truth. Stephanie has a way of lying to herself. She's been telling one big lie for years, and when the terrifying truth of that lie catches up with her in a dingy room at the Kretcher Motel, she has no choice but to give in to her true feelings about Curtis and bring karma around to have its way with him. The horror in this story, when it appears, is truly ghastly, as is the way it will end, which isn't shown but is obvious to both Stephanie and the reader.
Jordan King-Lacroix, "The Last Day of Jerome Brown"
Jerome Brown is a man without a future. Or so he thinks. He's come to the Kretcher Motel for a specific purpose, the one thing in his life over which he still has control. Or so he thinks. But at the Kretcher, there's only one person in control, and it's not Jerome Brown. This story is very short and very, very weird.
Kenya Moss Dyme, "Roost"
Three young gangsters, apparently in their middle to late teens, have lucked into a hit that has big possibilities, promising a rich haul and a great boost to their status. But something doesn't seem quite right about it. Chico, the leader, feels this even as he needles Jordan and Ronnie into action when he sees them faltering. For one thing, it's a strange neighborhood to them, and strangely dark and silent; for another, he doesn't really know their new companion, Ray, and doesn't really trust him. But he can't do this alone, and he's gotten himself into a situation that means he'll have to do it, with or without the others. So, well-armed, they enter the motel and head for the elevator. Before they can take it, the woman at the desk forces them to tell her where they're going. But here Ray takes over smoothly, and for a while it looks to Chico like everything will go according to plan. We readers have been in this motel before, though, and we know he's wrong. It's another story about karma, karma on steroids this time, with a surprise at the end that's both mysterious and satisfying, even though we may have guessed it might be coming.
Ross Baxter, "Salvation"
Ashanti seems to be a beautiful woman in her early twenties, but Ashanti is not what she seems. She has an issue that requires the help of a priest, and while Father Higgs is reluctant to provide it, he sees it as his duty to try. This is probably the wrong decision on his part. Baxter's story is sort of like William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist in miniature. I don't mean it's a story of demonic possession, exactly; it's an original situation, and it moves quickly and provides enough suspense, not to mention enough horror and gore, to satisfy a reader's appetite for these things. But as a reader I had a couple of problems with the story that didn't occur to me until I'd finished it. First, if Ashanti honestly wants only spiritual help from Father Higgs (and there's no indication she has an ulterior motive), why must she take him to a motel—any motel, let alone the Kretcher—to ask for it, when there's plenty of opportunity for privacy in a church or rectory? Second, if Father Higgs is as smart as he's supposed to be, and if he himself doesn't have an ulterior motive (and there's no hint that he does), why isn't he more suspicious of her? Also, as someone who's absorbed quite a lot of Roman Catholic doctrine, I have my doubts about Baxter's theology here (but then, I have my doubts about Blatty's theology in The Exorcist too). But heck, this is fiction, isn't it. Let's just enjoy it with a grain—or maybe a generous half-teaspoon—of salt.
Sumiko Saulson, "The Honeymoon Suite: Jacob's Reunion"
A year ago, Jacob was killed in a car-train collision on his way to his tenth high school reunion. He'd invited Jess to go with him, but Jess was afraid they'd not be accepted as a couple, and had declined. Now, still in deep, disabling mourning and full of survivor's guilt, Jess has even attempted suicide, but has decided to travel to Atlanta to meet Jacob's parents for the first time and attend Jacob's next reunion. Too much of Saulson's story is nearly a lecture, part grievance and part sermon, on the values of understanding and tolerance, kindness and Christian love. This is a pity, because the story itself should and could get all this across without the author's telling us how to feel about it. The story is strongest in its moving and accurate depiction of Jess's grief.
Eden Royce, "A Long Way from the Ritz"
This tale features two narrative voices, both first-person, both past-tense. The first is the voice of a young woman, Talia, whose marriage turned sour, who needed desperately to escape, and who finally has escaped—almost. The second voice, which gives us parts of Talia's story, is never identified. Written beautifully and with subtle economy, the story gives the reader glimpses of a very real and entirely sympathetic woman and the dark craft she's inherited from her mother and aunts. We don't see everything—some things are not meant to be seen—but Royce handles her material so well that we're never confused and never disappointed.
David O'Hanlon, "A Devil of a Deal"
Apparently Lucifer and his underlings—all those other fallen angels—aren't without a few human qualities, including the ability to feel sexual attraction, pain, and even a certain amount of moral outrage. According to the narrator of O'Hanlon's tale, a relatively minor demon called "Scratch," this is the result of going around for eons clothed in human bodies, which they do in order to tempt real humans into making bad decisions. Naturally they prefer well-made bodies in good working order, but in an emergency they have to settle for what's available. One of "Scratch's" human qualities, for sure, is a clever and extremely funny way of telling a story. This one kept making me laugh out loud.
Sy Shanti, "Hollygraham"
The Grahams want answers, and Austin Zimmer has an app for that. On his way to a meeting—at the Kretcher, of course—where he'll demo his invention for the couple, Austin has his phone stolen, along with his only copy of the invention. Fortunately (or not? Not!), his wife has backed it up to Austin's laptop. Enough said—any more would be a huge spoiler, and I wouldn't want to spoil this cleverly-titled sci-fi/horror/ghost (ghost?) tale. Except to say it has my favorite kind of ending: you think it's over. But it's not over.
Querrus Abuttu, "Fleshtrap"
If you like darkness piled on darkness, sex, blood, and betrayal all served up in a sumptuous feast of horror, Abuttu's story is, um, your meat. Personally, I prefer things a little more spare—but, being closely related to a man who can watch "Seven" with relish three times in one afternoon, I understand the attraction of tales like this one. Impressively, the author has evoked a veritable Grand Guignol using only the relatively few incidents and details for which there's available room in a short story. And I have to say, concerning its narrator: it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.
David Turnbull, "Mister Mackintosh"
Giving his name as Mackintosh, in honor of the hooded raingear he stole to make his escape from Roswell, he checks in on Halloween night, 1966. His real name is unpronounceable on Earth, to anyone but himself. And so begins his stay at the Kretcher, which will last for what may be the darkest half-century in this planet's history. He uses the time to familiarize himself with the world he's come to, and he finds there's a way out—but it's a way he refuses to take. Bitterly funny and deadly serious at the same time, this tale is deep enough for more than one reading. As a bonus, it offers a larger-than-usual role for Sybline. (And, incidentally, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "getting high.")
Dahlia DeWinters, "The Adjustors"
On a dark night, cold rain pouring down, the odds of getting a ride from a good Samaritan are already better than average, and they improve if the hitchhiker is a clean-cut, polite young man. "Thank you, Ted Bundy," Alec thinks. It's obvious pretty much from the start that he has plans for that Samaritan, as long as it turns out to be the right kind of person. When a classic car stops and he finds that the driver is a muscular, tattooed guy, Alec is about to turn down the ride. But when he sees the passenger and changes his mind, we know for sure that his plans are not good. The thing is, though, that Tucson and the beautiful Bernie are not what Alec thinks they are. And they have plans of their own. Dahlia DeWinters' story takes us once more to the Kretcher, where we witness the convergence of Alec's plans with those of the couple who picked him up, and get glimpses of an organization focused on "adjusting" people like Alec.
Zin E. Rocklyn, "Need"
The collection ends with a strange tale of death and undeath, love, transformation, and generation. The characters, including Sybline, seem to be engaged in an intricate dance, in and out of impenetrable patches of shadow, approaching what may be the end of a cycle and perhaps the beginning of another. I found the story both mystifying and oddly moving, a fitting conclusion.