A solid collection full of excellent stories. Behold! Oddities, Curiosities & Undefinable Wonders edited by Doug Murano includes both original stories and reprints (although if you haven’t read them yet, they’re new to you). Some of the stories are straight up horror, others are horror-comedy, and still others are straight up comedy. There are also a couple poems, a couple fairy tales, and even a couple stories that I’d classify as literary.
“Larue’s Dime Museum” by Lisa Morton is a horror story about sideshow freaks. There’s a man with tentacles as well as a really freaky inside-out man. It’s a great horror story, but I’ve got to admit I wasn’t satisfied by the ending.
“Wildflower, Cactus, Rose” by Brian Kirk is another story that’s great right up until the end. It starts out with our narrator sharing a trick: you can influence the mood of strangers on the street by how you present yourself to them. A smile will get you a smile in return, the same with a scowl. I liked this because this is something I’ve noticed and it does work more often than not.
It’s largely a horror story, but it also contains humor. The narrator prefers literal words like toothbrush and thinks spoons should be called food scoopers, eyes should be called looking balls, etc. It got me smiling. As we continue, the story gets into extreme body modification. We meet a character who has the face of a lizard and another character undergoes an equally extreme transformation.
At one point, lighting a candle with markings on it causes a spell to cast as the candle burns. I thought this was a pretty cool idea. I thought it was strange that the characters use old-fashioned feather pillows and it also seemed odd that everyone the narrator meets on Tinder is physically abusive. What are the odds of that happening? Overall, this is the kind of weird story that I love, but it just stopped rather than having a proper ending.
“The Baker of Millepoix” by Hal Bodner is a largely humorous story about a man who decides to become a baker in a small town. There is a horrific element to it, but overall, I’d classify this story as humor. “Chivalry” by Neil Gaiman is another straight up humorous story about an old women who buys the Holy Grail at a second hand store.
“Fully Boarded” by Ramsey Campbell is a mix of horror and humor in which a hotel reviewer finds himself in the worst hotel imaginable. I particularly liked the line describing the pool “in which the only swimmers were a bedraggled cigarette and an empty bag of crisps.”
“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” by Clive Barker is the definition of body horror. I know it’s considered a classic, but it was probably my least favorite in this collection. It’s about a women who discovers she has the ability to control flesh and decides to use this power to kill men who she finds annoying in extremely gruesome ways. It’s one of those disproportionate revenge fantasies that feels rather juvenile.
The police assume her first disfigured victim was killed by some random psycho which just doesn’t make sense. I did like the part where her husband says he wants to get something off his chest and she thinks “On to me.” Many people think confessing is the right thing to do, but often it’s just a way to make yourself feel better while making someone else feel worse.
“In Amelia’s Wake” by Erinn Kemper is a depression era story about some brothers tasked with guarding Amelia Earhart’s plan. It’s a largely realistic story with an understated supernatural element. It’s a fine story, but I felt it was too slow paced. “The Shiny Fruit of Our Tomorrows” by Brian Hodge is another largely realistic depression era story with an understated supernatural element. This one is about hobos riding the rails in search of a magical place and I liked it quite a bit.
“Earl Pruitt’s Smoker” by Patrick Freivald is about a girl who can control bees. I really liked this one. “Through Gravel” by Sarah Read is about people who live underground “fishing” for surface dwellers. Strange in a good way. “Madame Painte: For Sale” by John Langan is about a haunted garden gnome. Enough said. “A Ware That Will Not Keep” by John F.D. Taff is a Nazi concentration camp story featuring the golem of Jewish legend. It seems like an obvious idea to try to fight Nazis with a golem, but to my knowledge it’s never been done before.
“Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummys” by Lucy A. Snyder was one of the weaker stories in this collection. It’s about a writer who accidentally takes a hallucinogen at a comic con style event. It starts out somewhat funny and ends up serious. It just didn’t resonate with me. “The Wakeful” by Kristi DeMeester is about a teacher having an affair and a student whose mom is always late picking her up from school. I’ve got to admit this one was confusing to me. I may need to read it again.
“Knitter” by Christopher Coake is a fairy tale about the act of storytelling. “Hiraeth” by Richard Thomas is another story with a fairy tale feeling to it. It starts out kind of like Jack and the Beanstalk. The main character, who has a hole in his chest, is sent to town to trade and warned by his parents not to bring back anything useless so they won’t starve through the winter. After seeking literal forbidden fruit along the way, he begins a romantic relationship with a woman in town.
There are many great stories in this collection, although since they’re so different from each other, I’m not sure why they were collected together. According to the afterword, “darkness and light can coexist and enhance each other’s beauty and depth.” I guess that’s it.