Enjoy reading urban fantasy with snarky humor? Or horror that just isn’t quite the norm? Then check out the many books and anthologies by John Hartness.
The short story horror anthology The Big Bad II has an unique concept. Instead of stories told from the good guy’s POV or with the good guy defeating the bad guy, the baddies are the ones telling the story. And not just any kind of baddie, but the ones who dominate nightmares, the bad guys who show up in fairy tales, children’s movies, and bad horror movies.
The challenge of The Big Bad II is to take well-known, and some not-so-well-known, villains and make their stories somehow compelling, perhaps even sympathetic. Overall the stories in the anthology do that. Another challenge is how to balance tone. While this is probably considered a horror anthology, it’s simply not just blood and guts. Like any good, well-balanced anthology, there are funny stories, scary and gruesome stories, and even some sad stories.
While I enjoyed almost all of the stories in the anthology, some of my favorite stories were:
Voodooesque – A much more subtle take on voodoo. Instead of focusing on dolls or other charms one normally associates with this dark art, scents and smell are the key ingredients. Set in Charleston, SC in the 1800s, our two main characters are a black woman with her own shop and a formerly rich white man comes to her in search of help to woo a wealthy widow. Each engages in voodoo although Lillian has her own shop, not everything she sells is voodoo related, and quite the reputation.
What I enjoyed about this story was the cat and mouse game between the two main characters and loved the ending. It’s a subtle twist but not anything unexpected. Having visited Charleston once it was easy for me to imagine the time of year, the sights, and the sounds that very cool city has to offer.
A Family Affair – The first of several vampire stories in the anthology, this one is set during the 1950s. Our main character is the matriarch of a family whose main goal is to keep her family together and away from negative influences. So what’s a control freak supposed to do? Become a vampire, of course.
What I really liked about this story is I felt it was a humorous commentary on just how messed up the idea of the perfect family is especially in post-WWII America. The stress of the ideal family with the perfect wife, perfect husband, and perfect children rears its ugly head in a unique way.
Old Nonna – Old Nonna is rumored to be witch. People have a way of disappearing whenever they get near Old Nonna’s house which is naturally in the woods only adding further to her legend. The story really takes off when a young teenager, the daughter of illegal immigrants, flees into the woods. The woman takes her in and introduces her to her “family” which I won’t spoil for you.
What I liked about this story was the twist on the creepy witch in the forest since Old Nonna does have a soft spot for those outside of society. I also appreciate the shift in tone from the beginning which was more ominous but by the time the story is done the tone is more hopeful. A cool example of a baddie-centric story can elicit sympathy from the reader.
Letters to Logroth – This story reminds me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that the whole story is told through letters. Specifically one-sided letters written to Logroth’s nemesis. In those letters, Logroth is complaining about a group of people trying to locate him which it was hard to tell if he wanted or not. At first it seemed like he wanted to be rescued but then he became annoyed by their mere presence.
What I appreciated about the story is how funny it was. Logroth bitches about the looks and intelligence level of the group coming for him. In addition to being hilarious, the reader doesn’t know what type of creature or monster is until the end which is just fine with me.
A Day in the Life – Two words: Nazi Satan. Seems redundant and it is, however, the spin is once a year Satan inhabits the body of a person. In this case, a Nazi. Throughout Satan’s day in this particular Nazi’s body, he holds a conversation with one of the inmates in the concentration camp. She intrigues him because earlier in the day she watches as her brother is shot. During the conversation Satan Nazi tries to shake the faith of the inmate but is naturally unsuccessful.
What I appreciated about the story was it could have been over the top but it wasn’t. With Satan spending the day in someone else’s body each year, it shows him how humanity is at that particular point in history. Satan already has a vague idea of the life of the Nazi he is inhabiting yet any actions he does while in the person’s body can change the outcome. In the case of the Nazi, he’d never signed a death warrant, a fact that plays a huge role at the end of the story.
Portrait of the Artist as a Psychopathic Man – The title pretty much says it all. Think Dexter but with a more pretentious killer with a much bigger ego and no code. The main character wants to create art with murder. A sentiment literally beaten into him by his father who believed only pain and suffering can create great art so murder is our main character’s canvas.
As a reader I liked the idea of the wannabe killer planning how he would create his masterpiece. I’m not necessarily rooting for the killer to be successful but the thought process is interesting to follow along with in this story since it is his first attempt at his calling.
Drawing Flame – To me this story was the most unique one in the anthology. Our main character is a genie recalled by a former client to grant one more wish. The client is a dying mobster who has searched high and low for this genie before tracking him down to grant him one more wish having messed up his previous wish.
What I found so neat about the story was not just a genie as the main character, but that instead of granting three wishes, a person only gets one so it better count. I also liked that the wish has to be very detailed and well-thought or else the genie would find a loophole.
The Witch Hunter – A twist on the Snow White tale told from the POV of her nemesis now inhabiting the body at an old woman living in a nursing home. The story is funny yet bittersweet as Helena, not her real name, races against the clock to figure out what she’s supposed to do. She knows there’s some connection between a box, a mirror, an axe, and red apples but hasn’t figured out why.
I liked the humor in it especially Helena’s nicknames for the staff and some of the residents. The nicknames for the staff members in particular are telling to the reader as they hint at their significance to Helena. I also really liked how well the author knew the characters because everyone felt realistic.
Overall this anthology is a very strong compilation of stories. I found more pros than cons with it. Pros included the variety not only of types of characters but genres as well from traditional horror to sci-fi and time periods from the past to the future. Another strength to me is that many of these protagonists are not the typical villains we are all probably so used to reading and seeing. I also appreciated all of the stories really went for more in depth into the psychology of the characters rather than just straight up hack and slash. After all, even bad people are just as complex as good people are.
But for all its strengths, there was one big nuisance to me and that was a vast majority of the stories were told in first person. Granted, they were well-written and interesting but after a while it gets a bit annoying.
So, on a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Big Bad II a very solid four pencils.
Apparently I have a dwindling supply of stories in my arsenal. In response to this surprising shortage, I’ve been working on new material. This is good as it gives my brain a break from my novel as I let it stew but also because it allows me to explore new ideas. One plan I had was to take a look at some unfinished stories, see what might be worth is saving, and finishing them. Another plan, one that I’ve embraced, was to take a look at markets with some kind of theme.
It was this week I realized what the appeal of themed magazine issues or anthologies is to me. They’re an opportunity to test and stretch my creativity but in a way it feels like some of the work has partially been done for me. For whatever reason, it’s difficult for me to come up with short story ideas on my own. Ideas for novels are really easy. Perhaps they gum up my head so much that there isn’t any room left to dream up short stories.
Having a theme or prompt for short stories seems to activate something in my brain. Somehow, some way, I get inspired. It’s as if the creativity light bulb pops on. Maybe this harkens to my school days when I enjoyed writing essays and papers. The teacher was giving us direction and I responded well to that. So I guess it makes sense that train of thought would transfer over to creative writing. The challenge of it is far harder, though. Unlike school, I don’t have anything already studied or known.
Something I think is important for a writer is to stretch their limits and write in a different genre. For me, following genre-specific theme helps narrow down to me what to focus on. Even if the theme isn’t genre specific, for example the theme of Nature, that is still something to help get my brain thinking. I enjoy the challenge of it because I force myself to go away from what I’m comfortable with but also to see if I can come up with a twist.
Since I’m not a genius nor am I a Renaissance woman, the other appeal of themed short stories is I usually have to do some kind of research. I don’t have to go into anything hugely in depth; mostly I stick to a quick Wikipedia search and a few other places. Too much research overwhelms me and unless I’m doing a novel, there isn’t too much of a need to go into any kind of depth. For example, a recent story I wrote was for an anthology with the theme of the 1939’s World’s Fair. They were specifically looking for stories that developed the idea of what the future would look like. Although the story was (nicely) rejected, it was fun gathering research since I didn’t know anything about the World’s Fair. The great thing about the internet is the ease of access to information including images. I’m thankful for whoever digitized images from the 1939’s World’s Fair because it was those images which inspired me.
While on the subject of research for these short stories, I love seeing that marriage of various avenues come together to help me write a short story. The research leads to image searches which then allow me to brainstorm ideas. While I’m brainstorming and writing, I try to find an appropriate music playlist or two to help put me in the right frame of mind.
Another benefit of writing to a theme is if the story gets rejected for its original target, the story is now available to submit elsewhere. Instant problem solve. Plus it also means that more markets are open to me which means I have more chances of having a story picked up for publication.
I love the fun and unique challenges themed short story writing brings to me. Even if my attempt isn’t successfully executed, it’s worth the risk. Not only does it stave off boredom and complacency (ha, like that could ever happen to me but I digress), it helps flex my creative muscles in areas I normally wouldn’t think of. In a way it is a ‘safe’ risk, a way to dip one’s toes into a different pool which could possibly lead to a different artistic path. And sometimes a theme can give me an excuse to explore an emotion or different side of me I normally might be too tentative to try.