Angler in Darkness by Edward M. Erdelac. A short story anthology, originally published August, 2017. Approx. 329 pages.
Here we have a collection of tales, most collected from previous publications; with some that were previously unpublished. You have a fairly diverse group here; starting off with a slew of weird Westerns, and then giving us a mix of kaiju stories, Irish mob tales with a supernatural twist, tales inspired by Japanese folklore, and unique takes on classic stories.
This is one of the rare anthologies where, quite frankly, every story is a winner. There are no middling or marginal entries here. If you haven't read any of Erdelac's work before, consider this a perfect primer, or sampling platter. I really enjoy the interests from which he sources his material, and he always seeks tirelessly to put fresh/unique twists on all of them. Many stories have elements of the weird and horrific, and he makes sure to grant these takes legitimacy via logical execution. Also, he writes some of the best, bloodiest action scenes out there.
I will say that the arrangement of the stories threw me a bit. The collection is front-loaded with the Western tales, and then the remaining stories are somewhat randomly ordered. Also, there were a few typos throughout - averaging about one or two per entry. No dealbreaker for me; but they are out there.
But, again, great stories, and a sweet cover to boot! Here are my takes on the individual entries. Enjoy!
The Mound of the Night Panther: The first story in the collection tells the tale of Auguste Oudin; a trapper of French and Indian heritage who sets off on hunt for gold, and instead unearths a terrible history lesson.
After bringing some priests down to the States from Canada, Oudin barters with a local Indian boy for a gold-flecked gaming piece. To him, this is a veritable treasure map, leading to a claim, and prosperity. However, what he finds instead are a collection of huge monumental mounds; too massive to be barrows, and permeating with a palpable aura of foreboding.
Setting up camp, Oudin finds himself approached by an Indian elder; who begins to share with him the history of the sacred land...
Ok, you can tell from the premise that all will probably not go well here. However, what makes this story pop is Erdelac's respect for the source material, attention to detail, and talent for portraying vivid, brutal acts of violence. Native American lore is ripe with great material; and in this tale we hear of the Mishipijiw, the terrifying "water panther". We also find ourselves awash in the blood-soaked pages of this culture's history.
On a personal level, there is another reason why this story resonated with me. I remember when I was a little kid, we went on a school trip to the Museum of Natural History. Well, actually, it was a fairly popular school trip destination, but I remember one time most of all. Maybe I was the right age for being impressionable to the material, maybe it was a great tour guide. But in this visit, I first learned the story of Romulus and Remus, as well as the Indian tribes that played games in great arenas, with their very lives on the line. And now, Erdelac has incorporated elements from both legends; tales from separate continents, into one powerful short story.
All in all, a direct premise yields anything but a simple story. Erdelac pulls you back in time, drags you through a hallucinogenic nightmare, and leaves you in a place where the tenuous membrane between reality and legend isn't just blurred, it is torn to shreds. Great story to kick off an anthology.
Killer of the Dead: Here we have another 'weird Western'; but in this case, it's a fast, violent piece with all the surprise and power of a sudden gut-punch. The premise here is simple and direct: a young Indian boy, staying up late to greet the men of the village when they return from a hunt, bears witness to a quartet of pale riders as they massacre they village. There is a twist, of course; these riders are not just typical white men: they are not only in for wanton slaughter; they also suck the very life out of their victims.
Killer of the Dead gives us a setup, a conflict, and a resolution; but the execution ensures that it yields much more than that. Erdelac focuses on the right details to make each character identifiable and memorable (especially the villains). This is a difficult task when working within a very tight word count. The violence is also well done; brutal and pulpy. But, perhaps my highest praise can be awarded to the "vampire elements": for example, the imagery of their cheeks drawing in as they take deep drinks from their prey is something that sticks with you.
This is a great little story. As said, it's very short, and very violent. There is no expository backstory involved; but the details given tell you all you need to know. Actually, allow me to correct myself - there is a bit of backstory, if you take the minute to read the author's intro. Here, Erdelac lists some of the inspirations that went into this tale; including the criminally underrated vampire film Near Dark.
Bigfoot Walsh: The third story in the anthology is also a Western tale. Here we have the first person POV of Keidel, a liberal-minded Dutch doctor who helps both settlers as well as local Indians. He joins up with a group of Texas Rangers to investigate a brutal raid (read: murder spree) that the Rangers are eager to pin upon the Comanche Indians (with whom the locals have a tenuous treaty in place). With the dual hope of preserving this treaty, as well as assisting any survivors, he sets off with them.
Along the way, they meet up with the titular Walsh, a quite literal Sasquatch type who is an excellent tracker/pathfinder for the Rangers. He has some leads of his own in his mind as to who the culprits are, and the group sets out with new purpose. No one, in the end, is quite prepared for what they are about to face.
Bigfoot Walsh is yet another excellent entry. Violence is the very lifeblood here; and of the first three stories, this is the one that yields the most primal ferocity and pent-up rage; as the story escalates from a routine search into something akin to Eaters of the Dead.
On top of all the other great elements here, it is the character of Walsh that seals the deal. Erdelac makes him into such an interesting entity that he outright steals every scene that he is in.
If there is one thing that I could cite as a detraction to the tale, it's the character of Keidel. I know he is integral in that he will 'bear witness' to what transpires, but I think he could've done more to show his overall mettle in the climactic action piece. Other than that, solid all around.
Devil's Cap Brawl: This is the story that first introduced me to Erdelac's work; and I originally read it in the Kaiju Rising anthology. So, I'll just copy paste that review here:
This was a fun one. Devil's Cap Brawl is set in the Dead West universe (also published by Ragnarok, I've read a bit of the first book - Those Poor, Poor, Bastards by Tim Marquitz - and really enjoyed it).
In this story, workers for a railroad baron literally unearth a long-buried miscreant monster as they go about blasting through the titular mountain. Luckily for them, they find that they have a rather unconventional ally on their side. I really don't want to get too much into it, for the sake of avoiding spoilers.
The writing here, as in the other Dead West books, is balls to the wall and full throttle. A lot of the stories in this anthology have curses, but this takes it to a new level, peppered throughout with some quite politically incorrect language. The fact that the protagonists nickname was bestowed upon him for the sheer volume of blasphemous language he uses is one clue. The fact that he is also a brash, back street brawling Irishman in the 1800's in charge of Indians and Chinamen should give you another hint of what kind of language is in store.
Erdelac does a great job in painting the scenery, fleshing out his monster, and choreographing the action. I had a bit of trouble at first with the "good guy", but he made it work. This story is the badass bastard offspring of the frantic coupling of classic Western pulp tales and good old fashioned giant monster stories.
Spearfinger: In Spearfinger, a Cherokee half-breed sheriff named Ben Burnham is on the trail of a town ne'er do well who has committed a pretty heinous crime. As his quarry flees up a mountain, attempting an egress to Arkansas, Burnham, the victim's loved ones, and all else involved find themselves within the domain of a horrifying creature known as Spearfinger.
Although this is another Western story, Erdelac flexes some serious horror chops in this outing. He imbues his characters with enough depth and personal baggage to make them all empathetic, an his depiction of the titular creature is pretty bone-rattling. But his best work is in the descriptions and detailing, shown in such colorful metaphors as comparing the click-clacking of branches in the wind to "the applause of skeletal hands". That's good stuff right there.
See also some influences from other books and movies peppered throughout. The crime committed by the slow-minded Waterback carries shades of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God". There are also scenes evocative of the body-snatcher horrors of "The Thing".
This is a great story that I will avoid going into too much detail on, so as to avoid spoilers. But it is Erdelac at his violent, terrifying top form.
In Thunder's Shadow: I really enjoyed the premise of this story. Set during the Bone Wars, we follow academic Calvin Pabodie and his grizzled guide Neb Bukes as he sets out to research the area where a fossil was discovered.
In this story, Erdelac gleefully fleshes out a full-blown dinosaur adventure based upon the old, staged Huachuca/Thunderbird photos. Coupling his already mentioned versatile and colorful prose with truly memorable characters yields a yarn the spoke directly to my younger, dinosaur-obsessed self.
Pabodie is a classic, textbook academic character on a quest for a new discovery. Bukes, on the other hand, absolutely steals the show. He is a cantankerous combination of Rooster Cogburn and Matthew McConaughey's character in Reign of Fire.
I cannot laud enough Erdelac's job in making the pteranodons seem 'real' here. Instead of just trying to impress the reader with size or danger, he makes them living flesh; as if they are terrifying entities that you can reach out and touch - or ones that could reach out and snatch you.
Also, this story has some of the most vivid and imaginative violence in the whole book. I mean, in how many stories does the protagonist get knocked out cold by a donkey leg blown off in an explosion? You tell me.
The Blood Bay: I am reviewing these stories as I read them; but I'm predicting that this might just be the best tale in the anthology. The Blood Bay, as Erdelac explains in the introduction, plays off of the narrative of Steinbeck's 'The Red Pony' (one of my least favorite books of all time), and then ups the ante by incorporating such legendary equines as the Man-Eating Horses of Diomedes and Alexander the Great's own steed, Bucephalus.
In The Blood Bay, we meet Jonas, a sullen young boy whose father has absconded for greener pastures; leaving him in the care of his alcoholic mother and bitter grandmother. After a gruesome turn of events, his father comes to collect him, and try to integrate him into the better life that he has made for himself. This is no easy transition for a boy already molded by bitterness; although a glimmer of hope soon arrives in the form of the titular steed.
Gifted to Jonas by his appeasing father, there is a wildness and fierceness about this new horse; as well as something unsettling to all those around. As misfortune begins to falls upon Jonas' new 'family', we quickly realize that this is not just a wild-spirited horse; it is no less than a creature transplanted from the aforementioned mythologies. And, while we see the thin veneer of the 'perfect life' of Jonas' father, Famous Fallon, erode over the course of the tale, we cannot help but stare in awe at the perfect bond between the boy and his horse.
It is, indeed, the depth of the characters that make this story the minor masterpiece that it is. It is the strength of these characters that bolster the premise, which is so ludicrous that it is bold. I was blown away by the character of Jonas - here we have a true representation of a boy hardened way too early in life, due primarily to the actions of those who should have looking out for him instead of themselves. The harsh life lessons he learns early on are the drivers for his tightly coiled anger and reticence. And, it frightens me to a degree; since I have seen boys my son's age, around where we live, who come from tough or broken homes, who carry themselves and speak much in the same way as Jonas. I find myself seeing their faces as I read the words coming out of his mouth.
The action and violence in this story is much like as in the other tales; it is dark, brutal, bloody, oftentimes sudden and shocking, but never over the top or superfluous to the narrative. It must be a difficult balance to strike; but it is done successfully here.
The Blood Bay is a frightening story that will likely haunt you for days after reading it.
The Exclusive: According to the author intro for this tale, this one ties into the Merkabah Rider series, which has definitely been on the TBR horizon for a while. This tale might be responsible for moving it up a few rungs in reading expediency.
In The Exclusive, we meet Barry Twiggs, a reporter at a New Mexico newspaper who most decidedly opts to step on precisely the wrong toes (continuously) when he commits to printing all the dirt he can dig up on local magnate Tom Cotter. This leads to harassment, assaults, and, finally his untimely death. However, in this surprisingly clever and deep story, death is just the beginning. For, in this story, death brings Death, and Twiggs offers the proposal to hear His side of the story.
I don't know how much the Angel of Death appears in the Merkabah Rider series; but, if he is handled this well in them, he might just be the kind of scene-stealer that Death in the Discworld series always was.
The best part of this yarn come in when Erdelac uses Death (or, properly, Samael) as a mouthpiece to recount happenings from the very beginning of time. We get hints about Satan's fall from grace, and of Adam and Lilith's earliest transgressions and petulance. These are very engrossing and interesting portions.
Erdelac also makes Samael a sympathetic soul: a being who is, in turns, stoic, withdrawn, rageful, dutiful, and mournful. But, what allows us to find commonality with him is that he has, like all of us, suffered at one point from that most tragic, and deeply felt hurt of all: the loss of love.
The portrayal of Twiggs is well done, also. Personally, his banter with Samael gets a bit too cute at times, but I can understand the Erdelac is trying to keep some levity flowing through some otherwise sombre material. Plus, as we can see over the full course of the story, Twiggs is not just a one-note narrator. Like Death, he has a story to tell as well. And, it is a truly heartbreaking one.
Tell Tom Tildrum: Ah, yes, there was some really good stuff in this story. Although, I will say, to truly enjoy this tale at its fullest, you might want to do a bit of homework first. Definitely read the author's intro, as well as Erdelac's blog post about what went into making this tale. Then, if you aren't familiar with them, read up on some of the notorious exploits of "white hunters" as well as the Happy Valley Set.
So, this story first appeared in an anthology called 'Tales from the Bell Chair', the premise of which posited an exclusive club which members could only join by regaling the current members with a shocking personal tale, and having it be riveting enough to garner their approval. Nice. Very cool.
In Tell Tom Tildrum, the prospective new member is one Captain Howe, who will choose to tell a certain story from among his drink and drug-addled days of running with the Happy Valley folks. The tale he tells recounts a lion hunt that goes horribly, horribly wrong. And that's all I'll say on that, so as to avoid spoilers.
Erdelac's 'method writing', making the setting so palpable that it allows for complete reader immersion, is what truly elevates the story here. It is not just making the horizon feel alive; there is something great in how he captures the mindset of these people; for whom their personal hedonism allowed them to blithely eschew anything that even remotely resembled a moral compass.
For me, the end sequence came off as a bit over the top - well, to be honest, I never wanted the story to leave Kenya - but, it does make sense in the tying up the narrative, so I can't complain. It also incorporates the angle of citing the classic fable "The King o' the Cats". Plus, the closing lines are, in equal amounts, beautiful and jarring.
Mighty Nanuq: As previously mentioned, my first exposure to Erdelac came from his Kaiju Rising contribution. Little did I know just how many 'giant monster' tales he has under his belt. Here we have another stellar kaiju outing from him, with a tale that originally appeared in Mechanoid Press' anthology "Monster Earth". I guess the premise in that collection is that each country has a "national kaiju" of sorts; akin to the country specific jaegers in Pacific Rim. Not sure if all of these stories tie in to WWII, however.
So, in Mighty Nanuq, Erdelac chooses to focus on the titular creature, the local representative for - Canada. Well, not exactly the first country to pop into one's mind when veering towards discourse on the Great War, but Erdelac has stated that he wanted to do a story focusing on the Inuit, and this was a grand opportunity.
Nanuq focuses on Hal Anawak, who is retiring from his post in Canadian Intelligence; and his relationship with his estranged, angry young activist nephew Matthew. Actually, I should clarify on the importance of the activist angle real quick - in the backdrop of this story is the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans in the late 60's. I had never in fact heard of this story; and I appreciate an author who can send you running to the history books without shoving an agenda down your throat.
Matthew is more of a rally attending, fist pumping activist; and he harbors a bit of resentment for his uncle, whom he believes to have sold his heritage to become the white man's stooge. Over the course of the story, he is going to get a real education.
Erdelac manages to pack a lot into this story. I don't know if it is a part of this anthology, or just this story, that these monster stories showcase a relationship between the monster and a "master" of sorts (one who as either direct control or influence; with Nanuq it is the latter). As Hal helps Matthew come to grips with his shaman lineage, we get a flashback to WWII, and how Hal began his work with the Canadian government. This is where we get to the meat of the kaiju action, as Nanuq does battle with an abominable, stitched together Nazi horror.
Kudos on a well-choreographed battle, too. Erdelac hit all the right notes on a giant monster scrap - size, scope, and brutality. On paper, Nanuq might seem a bit bland - just a huge polar bear wit bright blue eyes. But, in the finished product, he is a sight to behold.
Erdelac shows strong finesse in other detailing aspects as well. In describing a Nazi U-Boat and its crew, he perfectly portrays the shape of it and the different uniforms of the crew in basically the space of a paragraph. He does this by stressing the important details and letting the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.
Finally, the story caps off with a return to the 'present' of 1969. And, in tying things up, he integrates elements of duty, heritage, and racial politics, all without teetering into the exploitative or hamfisted. No mean feat, there.
A Haunt of Jackals: Every good anthology deserves a follow-up, it stands to reason. So, there Mechanoid followed up Monster Island with 'Betrayal on Monster Island', which again features a contribution by Erdelac.
In Haunt of Jackals, Erdelac gets to play around more with his created Nazi "Monstrum" program. Here, we meet a group of Mossad Nazi hunters as they go deep into Paraguay to retrieve the Monstrum equivalent of Dr. Mengele.
Of course, the doctor has not been idle in all of these years since the war. And, as our protagonist, Boaz, attempts to close the deal on the pick-up, he is treated to a taste of the doctor's efforts.
Remember, in the Monster Island world, each country gets its own monster. Dr. Austerlitz' calling is in making monsters. It piqued the interest of the Nazis and their deep coffers during the war; and now, it has attracted new suitors - the Mukhbarat, Iraq's Intelligence Agency. This, of course, does not bode well at all for Boaz's new home state of Israel.
What we have in 'Haunt of Jackals' is 99% of a great kaiju story. Why only 99%? Well, let's heap the praise before we pick the nits.
We definitely get a solid lead in Boaz. Erdelac has made this aging, hardened Nazi-hunter into a real person. Boaz has survived the camps; whereas his family did not. He carries the wide palette of emotions that I am sure many Jews did as they made Israel their new home, and tried to find some closure with what had happened: anger, sadness, frustration, fear, and hope. Boaz knows that his shelf life is expiring, and he wants to go out with a big catch.
We also get some fantastic kaiju, yet again. Once again, there are creatures that seem little more than giant animals (in this case, the pair of striped hyenas), but what Erdelac has done to make them memorable (especially their breath weapons) is extremely commendable. On the Israeli side, there is a defender as well. Not surprisingly, it is a type of golem; but the execution brings to mind a type of Krav Maga Daimajin.
Another important aspect of kaiju stories is location. I'm sure one of the best parts of planning a giant monster tale is determining just where they are going to destroy. Are they going to take down famous landmarks? The author's hometown that he or she always hated?
The important thing in bringing these areas to life, of course, is making sure to capture what actually gave that area its importance. You don't just talk about smashing apart New York City and describe the buildings falling; you need to make it feel like NYC for authenticity.
The point I am trying to make here is that Erdelac does this in an astounding manner during the story's climax in Jerusalem. Through Boaz's eyes, we can truly process the importance of the religious landmarks being destroyed. Giving us a sense of the true value of these monuments increases the urgency driving all efforts to stop the rogue creatures. This touch adds a real sense of reader investment.
So, I guess that brings us to the one thing I had an issue with - the ending. And that is; it all ends way too abruptly. I'm not talking about an ambiguous ending. I literally mean you may go back and forth on that page, expecting a new chapter to start because that is really how suddenly it all ends. I thought perhaps there was some kind of error, but this story is bookended on both sides with well-chosen Bible passages, so I knew that it was over.
Perhaps it was setting the stage for more stories with Boaz? If that's the case, I'm on board. Apart from the abrupt end, this is a fantastic kaiju tale, with a unique choice for setting that was executed in a fantastic manner.
The Better To See You: According to the author intro, the idea for this entry arose from some story swapping between Erdelac and his seven-year old daughter. What it is is a new, modern take on the classic Little Red Riding Hood story.
The Better To See You is the shortest tale in the book so far. But, within that economic page count, it delivers a lot of evocative, image heavy prose, as well as palpable tension and danger.
I really can't say much more about it. We all know the origin story. Going from that, it's best to just sit back and watch what daughter and father did with a modern, alternate take.
Conviction: What a raw, powerful story here. In Conviction, we meet Abassi, a young boy growing up in a truly hellish landscape - the former Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. Abassi is a bright boy with real artistic talent - all skills that are usually suffocated beneath the broken families, oppressive poverty, and oppressive gang presence/control that ghettos are often so rife with.
But, there's more to this story. Actually, it is something that has been done before. This is one of those stories where the theme is "if you believe hard enough, it will become real". This sounds routine until you run it through the lens of the absolutely hellish landscape which Abassi must walk everyday.
Continuously harassed by the local gangs, plagued by the memories of what they did to his sister, and even talked down to by his own grandmother, Abassi finds a glimmer of hope in Ms. Orozco (a guidance counselor or social worker, or someone in that capacity); only to have that one glimmering ray of benevolence yanked away from him; consumed by the ever-hungry furnace of ghetto misery.
Once that happens, Abassi will use the power of belief, as well as his artistic talent, to paint new pictures.
So, if The Blood Bay is going down as my favorite story in the anthology, then this is a close second. As I mentioned, the premise of "belief becoming real" has been done before, but I've never seen it done like this. Not many authors can effectively capture a prose snapshot of the projects, but Erdelac does it here. I seriously cannot lavish enough praise on the legitimacy that his attention to authenticity has imbued this story with. From the desolate panorama, to the spot on 'hood dialect, even down to the gang-specific writing on the walls, he has truly brought the projects to life.
Then, there are the "pictures" themselves. What I truly love about this story is that, at the turning point where Abassi begins to make his pictures real, you cannot tell for sure if this is literally happening; or if it is the coping mechanism of an unreliable narrator. The pictures themselves are terrifying in proposal, without going into exploitative, full detail. Erdelac is a shrewd enough author to give the reader enough notes so that they can fill in the details in their own minds; and then be horrified by the results. There is some amazing stuff here; and we have to come to terms with how satisfying it is to the vengeful spirits within us.
And through this all, Abassi remains a strong protagonist. He is never held up as a cheap prop to curry sympathy for those whose dreams and talents are crushed on a daily basis by the ghetto meat grinder. As outlandish as the story proceedings become; he never turns into a cartoonish villain. Abassi is, from beginning to end; a smart boy with a good heart that has become hardened way before his time by the environment which he lives in. And, in the end, all he wanted to do was draw a beautiful picture.
Crocodile: When I was reading the descriptions of the stories in this anthology, this is one of the ones that sealed the day. What a deliciously ludicrous premise: a Pizza Hut cashier at a seedy Interstate truck stop falls in love with a modern day (read:sparkly type) vampire. That's great stuff. As if to up the ante, Erdelac even finds time to use elements of the classic Peter Pan story as the underpinning for the narrative.
It's fairly apparent that Erdelac is having a fun time with this story. What we have is a stinging indictment on the current state of vampire fandom. The observations run the gamut of shrewd quips right up to blatant mockery. The girls of my youth that touched themselves to Lestat have grown up and spawned a legion of teenyboppers that gush and fawn over sparkling pansies like Edward Cullen. And Gwendolyn, our protagonist here, is a prime example of this demographic. There's a good deal of fun poked at her narrow-mindedness and naivete; even though there is a real kind of sadness to her narrow little world; a world of dirty, lusty truck drivers that only the attention of a pale, fanged, waifish pretty boy can offer liberation from.
Taking all of this outlandish, and seemingly incongruous inputs, and making an engaging, cohesive story out of them was no mean feat, but Erdelac has done it. I won't teeter into spoiler territory by going into too much detail; but even at the point where you can see that things are not going well, there are some fresh surprises. Also, the attention to detail; as well as an authentic sense of place, really bring the location to life. This story blends the levity and tension of the scenario in a seemingly effortless manner. Cannot recommend enough.
Philopatry: In this story, an old South Boston priest seeks out a former altar boy turned hitman to solicit his 'services'. It turns out that there has been a recent string of gruesome murders; and the priest, Father O'Malley, has come in possession of the identity of the killer via the confession booth. It's a tough call for our erstwhile killer, Terry Dunne. But, given the heinous nature of the killings, he opts to help put an end to them.
Again, I really don't want to go into too many details here, for there are some surprises. Then again, Erdelac gives the biggest of these away in the author's intro, so there's that. There's also something really interesting in those notes: it turns out Erdelac had written an initial version of this book in High School; we have no idea how rough or raw that version was, but if the framework was the same, it's very commendable.
So again, without letting loose with spoilers; I can still comment on all the things done right here. Again, we have characters that are superbly fleshed out; as the reader you feel as though you are in their heads; grappling with their inner demons. I haven't spent much time in Boston myself, but there was a real sense of placement.
And then there is the violence. Most of the stories in this anthology have had some fairly brutal scenes in them, but the action scenes in Philopatry are some of the best, bar none.
The whole story reads with a seamless, cinematic quality; culminating in a rousing sequence, and capping off with a scene that begs for a serialized continuation.
Also, kudos for the history lesson on St. Mercurius.
Sea Of Trees: The interest in Aokigahara, Japan's 'suicide forest', has been a true cultural phenomenon, spread like wildfire courtesy of the internet. Erdelac offers a fresh story here, using the forest as his basis. As he notes in his introduction; instead of doing a ghost story, he focuses on how the occurrences of suicides within the forest spike in correlation with the close of the fiscal year. He uses this as a springboard for the plain and simple tragedy that is the inarguable fact that we are ruled to such a large extent by money. Our security in our quality of life is tied to designed paper; or, in modern times, dancing numbers on a computer.
This brings us to our protagonist, Manabu. It is easy to sympathize with, and, for many of us, outright identify with Manabu (especially those of us that weathered the Great Recession). Working insane hours in an accounting job; Manabu should have been able to carve out some semblance of an enjoyable life. But, in modern day Japan, still unable to right itself after the burst of the economic bubble of the 80's, life is a never-ending hamster wheel of exorbitant rents, bills, and loans due. So, even with a decent position; Manabu is still living paycheck to paycheck, over 15 hours a day, and only barely keeping his nose above water.
Correct that. He was. Now, after the close of the fiscal year, his company decided that "he was a redundant expenditure", and so, he has no options, and no safety net.
Then again, he has no family, and no children. By that metric, an easy egress via a stroll into the suicide forest seems a logical solution.
I never expected this kind of take on the Aokigahara legend. I also never expected the execution to be this good, either. The opening scenes were kind of a crushing blow; bringing to mind a lot of painful memories of when financial burdens were a lot more oppressive. Also, the scenes with Manabu's mother never failed to bring a tear to my eye. It really shows us how tragic it is that that pure, honest maternal love has to be replaced by indentured servitude to currency.
The tone switches gears a bit towards the middle, as Manabu meets a 'grave robber' of sorts, allowing for a bit of honest discourse and introspection.
The 'third act', if that's what we should call it, adds a bit of dark humor to the dark material. I really did not see the story panning out like this, but it does tie the story up nicely.
Read this story; get you priorities in life straight, and don't take anything for granted.
Thy Just Punishments: From the Aokigahara suicide forest, we find ourselves transported back to South Boston. Once again we have the church seen in Philopatry, and a tenuous reference to that story (a mention of Terry Dunne heading to jail dates this tale as a bit before that one). In Punishments, we meet Father Tim O'Herlihey, a real dirtbag of the cloth who drones through the monotonous rituals of his calling, as he dips his fingers into the collection boxes to support his habit of betting (and losing) at the track. He also has a side gig as well - as a "occult hitman" to the Irish mob. I won't go into the detail of what qualifies as an occult hitman; it is a really cool concept, executed with precision by Erdelac.
The Just Punishments is another of the shorter entries in the anthology; and, according to the author notes, one of Erdelac's first outings with putting a humorous touch in his tales. I'm guessing that makes it an earlier story for him; since he really seems to have found his stride in imbuing deft (and sometimes overt) touches of humor through his tales.
The best thing about this story is the fact that O'Herlihey's main foil is a shriveled little Irish biddy; transplanted from a neighboring church undergoing renovations. She sees through his B.S. with a clarity beyond the capacity of her rheumy old eyes, and harries him at every turn with a doggedness that type usually only reserves for clipping coupons and bingo night.
If there is anything I could recommend for this story; it'd be a little more info on the amount of money O'Herlihey has pilfered, and the true extent of his gambling habit. Also, an idea of just how many 'hits' he has performed; all of these could solidify his scumbag status a bit more and allow us to truly enjoy him getting his "just punishments".
On a personal note, I really enjoyed the author's intro here. Being raised Catholic as well, there were some similar stories here. Erdelac tells of the incident that turned him off of church, as well as a story about a little old lady. For me, the incident that turned me off of church involved a little old lady and an asshole priest. Just putting that out there; for it seems that as we get further into the book, Erdelac opens more and more in his notes; making them just as interesting as the stories.
The Wrath Of Benjo: With this story, Erdelac truly saves the weirdest for last. The concept for Wrath of Benjo takes root in the idea of tsukomogami, a Japanese legend that postulates that tools, or items, can acquire a spirit after a century. In this unique tale, we meet a toilet, long idle, that comes self-aware after existing for a hundred years.
Crossing paths with this long-forgotten, yet eternally proud commode is Araki, a news photographer who finds himself bouncing along the back roads of the boonie village in the midst of a tumultuous storm. However, the storm is not the only source of turbulence; there is also a roiling, raging unrest in his bowels. Seeking any port in the storm; he comes across the forgotten Benjo.
Then, in his naivete, he makes the error of doubting Benjo's studious attention to his duties.
Not a good idea when your ass is literally on the line.
What follows is a true gross-out climax; and I'll just leave it to you to read since it is probably the shortest, yet wildest, tale in the book.
The only things that didn't really work here was that it decidedly felt like a modern day story; yet Erdelac had to mention advanced technology in other areas of Japan to suggest that the events transpire in the future. Since Benjo is a Western style toilet, his hundred year sentience wouldn't occur until later this century. Still, a lot of gross fun here; even if I was wincing almost the entire time.
You can get your copy of Angler in Darkness here. At $3.99 for 18 great stories, it's a steal.