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Dark Faith by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, editors

Cover art by Edith Walker

Cover design by Justin Stewart

Published by Apex Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Dark Faith -- what an evocative title for an anthology. The first thought that came to my mind was faith that damages and destroys, like Jim Jones and the horror of the People's Temple (I was in sixth grade when that happened, just old enough for it to make a big impression on me). Yet then I realize that it could also mean faith that prevails against the darkness -- the sort of faith that lets a person hang on when all rational hope has been well and thoroughly demolished. Faith that has enabled people to survive the worst horrors of the century just past and retain their essential belief in the human spirit. Faith that continues to carry people through every manner of personal heartbreak.

You'll find both kinds of dark faith in this anthology, and others as well. Stories to inspire, stories to terrify, and most of all, stories you'll remember long after you're finished them and put the volume away.

Co-editor Maurice Broaddus opens the anthology with his introduction, in which he contemplates the meaning and significance of faith, both to the individual and to the larger community.

The first contribution is not a story, but a poem, a meditation on atheism and on the place of wonder, both in the study of the religious narratives of the past and in the study of a universe so vast it strains our very ability to imagine, let alone comprehend.

The belief in some form of life after death is such a human universal that psychologists believe that it is the result of the process by which our infant selves develop the concept of person-permanence (the idea that people continue to exist when they move out of our field of perception). Once we learn this concept, we cannot really let go of the concept that something of a person must linger on, even if only like a shadow or a burned-in image on the screen of a CRT computer monitor, after the death and dissolution of their body. In Jennifer Pelland's "Ghosts of New York" we have ghosts who are just that -- the imprint of society's collective sense of person-permanence of those people whose death in disasters have been burned into memory. Except they still have a certain fragment of self-awareness, even a bit of free will -- the protagonist is a woman who leaped from the burning North Tower on 9/11, and during the brief times between the endless repetition of her fall to doom, she can walk away from the WTC site to visit various parts of Lower Manhattan -- but these ghosts have only the dimmest sense of identity, with no clear recollections of who they were or what they did before their horrible deaths. And they can't stop replaying the moment of their deaths, over and over and over and over ad infinitum.

In Buddhist thought, in order to escape from the endless cycle of rebirth and moksha (suffering), one must learn detachment from worldly desires. Might hope for a ghost's liberation from the endless cycle of repeating her final moments lie in letting go of her own trauma to feel compassion for another's pain?

From a story that gives us a light at the end of the tunnel we go to a very dark and grim one in Brian Keene's "I Sing a New Psalm." Here we have the faith that twists and destroys, as a man has his beloved wife and newborn son torn from him in what should have been a moment of rejoicing. How could God have done this to him? Why? Anger poisons faith, leading to a horrible act of revenge.

On the other hand, what if it really were true that God were, if not exactly evil, at least Someone whose good is not our Enlightenment-informed good of freedom and room for divergent opinions? One of the great tropes of dark fiction is "everything you think you know is wrong." In "He Who Would Not Bow," Wrath James White gives us a story of a world in which God has come to Earth to rule personally over it. And it's not the nice cozy God of love and forgiveness that most present-day Western Christians imagine Him to be. No, He's the God of the Old Testament, demanding, jealous, touchy, thin-skinned, and absolutely ruthless in exercising his will upon his subjects. The God whose record of serial destruction led the Gnostics of the First Century to deny that He was even God at all, instead regarding him as the Demiurge, a created being tasked with the operation of the Earth who overstepped himself and declared himself to be the creator.

Even in this terrible new world in which science has been upended and people live in terror of divine retribution, a few people refuse to bow down their heads in fear-driven submission. Joshua made his decision after his brother Dalton died in the destruction of San Francisco by God's angel of death -- a benevolent tyrant is a contradiction in terms. His hope fueled by the conjectures of a particle physicist who was struck down for his temerity in speculating about the vulnerability of an immanent God, Joshua has gathered a group of like-minded individuals to assassinate God and rid the Earth of this pre-Enlightenment tyranny. Except things aren't as they seem. The ending is proof that you don't have to be gruesome to evoke horror -- the absolute and unequivocal crushing of hope can be more than sufficiently horrific to keep the reader looking over their shoulder and wanting to keep the light on at bedtime.

Douglas F. Warrick gives us another vision of divine retribution in "Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch's Damnation." The titular character was a rather unremarkable young man, an underachiever who didn't quite believe in anything but was fascinated with Zen Buddhism and its contradictions. And when he died suddenly in a fall from a ladder, he is suddenly in the Hell of Christian tradition, being tormented by slow burning over cycles of thousands of years, all for betting his immortal soul on the wrong religious devotion. Tormented by beings who delight in his suffering, and brainstorm during each cycle how to make him suffer even more in future iterations of his slow burning into ash. And then, when they can torment him no further that way, they devise new and more terrible way to force him to suffer. It is at once frightening and fascinating in its imagery of eternal punishment, and most enigmatic in its ending, like a Zen koan teasing the reader with the elusive hint of meaning. Can one actually achieve satori in a Christian afterlife?

Kyle S. Johnson's "Go and Tell it on the Mountain" gives us an Apocalypse in which things prove to be quite a bit different than people like Tim LaHaye would like us to believe awaits us. Humanity has self-destructed in a spectacular orgy of nuclear annihilation and Jesus has come to Tel Meddigo to speak with the survivors. Except Jesus isn't the figure of grace and majesty they expect. Instead he's an old man of rather unprepossessing appearance -- but everyone who speaks to him seems to go happily into the mists beyond. And then the protagonist comes up to him, and Jesus tells him to sit down and have a cigarette and listen to the straight dope about the nature of Heaven and Earth. It may be a rather disturbing, even irreverent, story to some readers, but it definitely hits a resonance of "things are not as they seem."

In "Different from Other Nights" Eliyanna Kaiser gives us the Passover Seder through the eyes of a young Jewish girl. One important custom is the pouring of the fifth cup of Passover wine, which is set aside for the Prophet Elijah (who did not die, but was taken directly into Heaven in a fiery chariot). While the adults are preoccupied, she is the one who notices the strange figure at the door. Is he indeed the Prophet Elijah come to drink that fifth goblet of wine, or is he someone else, someone far less welcome?

In Jewish folklore Lilith was Adam's first wife, made like him from the soil and thus regarding herself as co-equal with him. Only after she abandoned him as a result of a quarrel about sex positions did God make Eve from Adam's rib so that she would be subordinate to him. Rain Graves' poem "Lilith" is a meditation upon the relationship between God and his creation when things don't go quite as planned.

Nick Mamatas gives us a story of temporal crossed wires in "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz Jesus Christ." A mysterious film known as "Red Light," consisting entirely of frames of slightly different shades of red hand-created by an avant-garde cinematographer, is leading people to strange religious experiences, to the point they keep seeking out more and more intense ones, even to the point of bringing themselves to the very edge of death. And then something else connects, causing the most extraordinary trans-temporal displacement.

Jerusalem is a city holy to three major world religions. It is also the capital of the State of Israel, and as such the seat of their national command authority. In "To the Jerusalem Crater" Lavie Tidhar asks what would happen to the spiritual significance of the holy place if the military tensions were to escalate to a nuclear exchange to destroy the political and military command center. It's a grim and unsparing story that makes you think about what's worth fighting for and why.

In the eighteenth century, when fiction was first developing as a modern artform and the willing suspension of disbelief was not yet something one could take for granted, authors often coaxed their readers into it by presenting the story as a manuscript which had come into the author's hands by one means or another. As readers became more accustomed to suspending their disbelief willingly upon being presented with a work of fiction, such narrative apparatus was discarded as unwieldy. It would make its reappearance in some of the earliest science fiction stories, particularly the sword-and-planet stories of John Carter penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but by the second half of the twentieth century it became a rare device, used primarily to create the sense of a period piece. And that is what Matt Cardin seems to be trying to do in "Chimeras & Grotesqueries," for all that it is set in a modern city and deals with an artist creating outsider art of a particularly spiritual sort. A man who may be slowly losing his mind, or who may be moving into a sphere of transcendent genius inaccessible to us mere mortals.

Generally fiction is told either in the first person (one of the characters tells you his or her story, using first-person pronouns -- I, me, mine) or in the third person (a neutral narrator tells us what happens, describing the characters using third-person pronouns -- he, she, it, in their various permutations). However, in "You Dream" Ekatarina Sedia has chosen to use neither, instead telling the story in the second person -- just as the title says. Set in post-Soviet Russia, it deals with a quest to settle a childhood debt, and takes the reader right into the character's life in a way that makes the unusual choice of voice more than merely an affectation or a gimmick, but an important part of the storytelling process.

In "Mother Urban's Booke of Dayes" Jay Lake gives us a story about modern paganism and witchcraft. Maybe Danny really is working magick, or maybe he's just a very troubled young man whose discovery of a book on Wicca has fed his pathological need to feel that he is in control where in fact there is no control. But then we could ask that question about true believers in many mainstream religions as well, particularly when it comes to the question of the power of prayer. Did our praying actually bring the event about, or did we simply ascribe result to our prayer when it was in fact coincidence?

Richard Dansky gives us a more idiosyncratic faith in "The Mad Eyes of the Heron King," the story of a man who becomes increasingly convinced that the heron he saw at the lake has personal messages for him. Certain that it is a god, he seeks to find the proper way to worship it -- with disastrous consequences.

The theme of the person who seeks to outwit Death shows up in a wide variety of folktales from around the world. In "Paint Box, Puzzle Box," D. T. Friedman gives us a new twist on it, with an artist whose works are so profound that they open a gate to other worlds. There the Artist seeks to hide from Death, in a strange and delicate game of cat and mouse with a most surprising conclusion.

Just as Death is personified in many cultures, so is the inspiration that drives artistic creativity. The ancient Greeks called the various aspects of Inspiration the Muses, portraying them as lovely young women who came to writers, artists and other creative persons to breathe inspiration into them. J. C. Hay's "A Loss for Words" portrays one of the Muses, specifically Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry, in the modern world.

A writer is also the protagonist of Tom Piccirilli's "Scrawl," but rather than dealing with epic verse and the Great American Novel, he is dealing with erotica and the sexual underground. It's a strange and disturbing story, and although it's not overtly religious, it certainly deals with the dark side of the power of Eros.

Jennifer Baumgartner's "C{her}ry Carvings" is a brief poem about pain and suffering and the soul's heartfelt cry to God. The title has several layers of meaning, best understood by reading it with the letters within the curly brackets both included and omitted.

Kelli Dunlap's "Good Enough" is another story of the dark side of the power of Love, who with Faith and Hope make the trio of Virtues. We usually think of serial killers as men, perhaps sexually inadequate -- but this story turns those assumptions upside-down to serve up a story of the horror that grows out of obsession with physical perfection to the exclusion of the communion of soul with soul.

From murder we move to suicide in "First Communions," Geoffrey Girard's take on obsessive love and its potential for horror. It begins with a suicide which becomes the subject of another young girl's obsession, to the point that she becomes involved with the son of the family on whose driveway the suicide occurred -- until the whole thing comes full circle even as she watches.

Death is also the central theme of Aletha Kontis's "The God of Last Moments," the story of a man who receives a box of mementos from his deceased mother, and discovers a fragment of her life-force imprinted upon one of them. It leads him on a strange journey into the supernatural in search of the meaning of the sigil of the angel and dots which was marked upon that mysterious medallion, and how it relates to his mother's final days. And in the end it leads him to a transformation at once wondrous and horrific.

There is an old Arabian story about the man who was going to Baghdad and discovered that Death was seeking him, and decided to go to Damascus to evade Death, only to discover that Death was going to meet him in Damascus all along. In "Ring Road" Mary Robinette Kowal transports the theme of the futile effort to thwart death to Iceland. When the protagonist has a sudden premonition of her boyfriend's death in a horrific accident, she tries to evade it by deliberately avoiding the circumstances she had foreseen. Yet all her efforts go awry, one by one.

Chesya Burke's "The Unremembered" tackles one of the great sins of American history, namely the kidnapping and enslavement of enormous numbers of Africans to labor without compensation in the building of a new land. Although we generally tend to focus upon the forcible expropriation of their labor-power as the greatest wrong against them and their descendants born into bondage upon these shores, there was also the horror of their being forcibly severed from their communities and their cultures, denied their traditions, a heritage which their twentieth-century descendants would subsequently struggle to recapture, in however broken a fashion after so many generations. But suppose some kind of supernatural force could provide a direct link to the lost past? It's the story of a child who at first appears to be hopelessly disabled, until she passes through a crisis worse than any previous one -- and begins to change.

In "Desperata" Lon Prater gives us a brief but striking poem about the cosmic horrors that H. P. Lovecraft wrote about, and the perils of the soul that they represent. Perhaps it should be read allegorically, rather than as a poem literally about eldritch creepy-crawlies.

Which makes it particularly appropriate that the next story, Lucien Soulban's "The Choir," should be about a mysterious statue that appears amidst a group of soldiers who have been discharged in disgrace for homosexuality. It is World War II, when there was no such thing as political correctness, when people still condemned gays as perverts and saw homosexuality as a weakness of moral character rather than a difference in brain wiring or an alternate lifestyle. So these young men are already operating under a heavy dose of social condemnation which for the most part they have internalized. And then that eldritch thing begins to act, and the true horror begins.

From Lovecraftian horror of cosmic malevolence we go to the zombiepocalypse in Catherynne M. Valente's "The Days of Flaming Motorcycles." Except that this first-person account is an oddly low-key sort of zombie horror, since the zombies certainly aren't rampaging in search of brains to eat. Rather, they seem almost passive, except for their obsession with building a mysterious device. For all that it carries a certain tone not of anger but of profound regret, it has a chilling power that will stay with the reader long afterward.

How can we pay our respects to the dead whose respectability is naught but a hollow shell? That is the question Lucy A. Snyder poses in "Miz Ruthie Pays Her Respects," in which the title character comes back to settle an old score of small-town ugliness and hypocrisy. And the narrator gets a short, sharp lesson in the danger of presuming to tell God how to judge others.

Kurt Dinan's "Paranoia" is another poem, this time about that voice of negativity and despair that lurks in the back of our minds, telling us that everything is worse than we think, reminding us of everything that can possibly go wrong (I'm all too familiar with the feeling -- I call mine the Gnawing Porcupine of Self-doubt).

Ever had a weird feeling about a house? Maybe there was one in your neighborhood when you were growing up. There was no rational reason to fear it, but every time you walked past it, you'd feel your hair prickle with gooseflesh and you'd get a very strong urge to hurry your step and get somewhere else, right quick. In "Hush," Kelly Barnhill gives us a story of a couple who move into just such a house, and how things become progressively more peculiar, until one night everything erupts catastrophically into inexplicable strangeness, leaving nothing but mysteries for the police and the neighbors to puzzle uneasily over. It's another of those stories that will leave you wanting to keep the light on at bedtime for a long while.

In "Sandboys," Richard Wright explores grief, and specifically that of a father whose son has been taken away from him. Devastated by his ex-wife's brutal severance of the bond between him and his child, Terence has retreated to an island -- and then he starts discovering the sand sculptures. Rough because of the coarse medium, yet sufficiently recognizable as images of his son to be heartrending. And then they begin to move....

Although many of the stories in this volume have been unsparingly grim, in the final story Gary A. Braunbeck gives us a ray of hope amidst horror. "For the Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer" is the story of Detective Bill Emerson, a police officer wrestling with the nature of good and evil as an abused infant lies dying in the hospital, the injuries delivered it by its drug-addicted excuses for parents too severe for even the best modern medical science to overcome. And then the Reverend, the operator of the local homeless shelter, appears beside him and takes him on a journey through paratime that may just give another version of that little child a second chance.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction -- Maurice Broaddus
  • Dedication
  • "The Story of Belief-non" (Poem) by Linda D. Addison
  • "Ghosts of New York" by Jennifer Pelland
  • "I Sing a New Psalm" by Brian Keene
  • "He Who Would Not Bow" by Wrath James White
  • "Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch's Damnation" by Douglas F. Warrick
  • "Go and Tell It on the Mountain" Kyle S. Johnson
  • "Different from Other Nights" by Eliyanna Kaiser
  • "Lilith" (Poem) by Rain Graves
  • "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz Jesus Christ" by Nick Mamatas
  • "To the Jerusalem Crater" by Lavie Tidhar
  • "Chimeras & Grotesqueries" by Matt Cardin
  • "You Dream" by Ekaterina Sedia
  • "Mother Urban's Booke of Dayes" by Jay Lake
  • "The Mad Eyes of the Heron King" by Richard Dansky
  • "Paint Box, Puzzle Box" by D.T. Friedman
  • "A Loss for Words" by J. C. Hay
  • "Scrawl" by Tom Piccirilli
  • "C{her}ry Carvings" (Poem) by Jennifer Baumbartner
  • "Good Enough" by Kelli Dunlap
  • "First Communions" by Geoffrey Girard
  • "The God of Last Moments" by Aletha Kontis
  • "Ring Road" by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • "The Unremembered" by Chesya Burke
  • "Desperata" (Poem) by Lon Prater
  • "The Choir" by Lucien Soulban
  • "Days of Flaming Motorcycles" by Catherynne M. Valente
  • "Miz Ruthie Pays Her Respects" by Lucy A. Snyder
  • "Paranoia" (Poem) by Kurt Dinan
  • "Hush" by Kelly Barnhill
  • "Sandboys" by Richard Wright
  • "For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer" by Gary A. Braunbeck
  • Bios

Review posted June 11, 2010.

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