Our Lady of the Shadows / Arena of the Wolf / The Engines of Sacrifice / Isis Unbound

Dark Regions Press is one of those publishers that is hard to pigeonhole. Sure, it publishes dark fiction/horror, but seems to go out of their way to take chances on new or relatively unknown writers and unusual concepts. When I pick up one of their books, I never know what to expect … which is a good thing.

Keep me guessing, and you’ve won half the battle. Hit me with the same old paranormal romance; vampire-as-tragic-romantic figure; or high-concept, end-of-the-world scenario, and I’ll probably sigh and look to see what new, snarky comments are posted on Twitter.

I’ve got four recent Dark Regions releases in front of me. Let’s attack them one by one:

OUR LADY OF THE SHADOWS is a collection of stories and one novella by Tony Richards. All the stories are ghost stories in some form or fashion, and they span Richards’ career, going back 30 years. Some writers get better as time goes on, and some fizzle out, as if they used up all of their best ideas in the first few years and are simply retreading the same ground. Many rock bands have the same problem: They produce one or two great albums, then spend the rest of their careers trying to capture that same lightning in a bottle. It almost never happens.

It’s a compliment to Richards that I could not have guessed which stories were written in the 1980s and which ones were written in the last few years without looking at the copyright page. His work retains the same energy today as it did at the start of his career.
         
There wasn’t a story in this collection that I didn’t enjoy, but if I had to pick favorites, I’d choose “Lightning Dogs,” about a pack of ghostly hounds terrorizing late night London commuters, and “After Dark,” about a sax player back from the dead and intent upon revenge. All of the stories are moody, atmospheric and slow-building, like a great ghost story told around a campfire.
 
ARENA OF THE WOLF by Jim Gavin had me conflicted. On the one hand, I enjoyed the premise of werewolves being kept as attractions in an extreme sports-style rodeo. On the other, the change in POV and some of the more outlandish concepts introduced as things went on threatened to derail the whole thing.

The story starts off being told by Jerry, a former trucker/werewolf who wakes up to find himself trapped in a hellish rodeo where he is forced to compete in twisted variations on the whole bronco-busting, bull-riding scenario. Except in this case, he’s the bull.

There’s also an ultimate fighting event between the werewolves, which is staged like a professional wrestling match, complete with a predetermined outcome of the winner. At first, Jerry is determined to escape the rodeo, but as time goes on and he becomes the star attraction, he finds his resolve slipping.

The first third is told in first-person narration, and I enjoyed getting into Jerry’s furry head and watching as he was seduced by the faux stardom and seedy glamour of being an extreme sports star. But then there’s an abrupt shift as Gavin switches to third-person once Jerry escapes the rodeo and begins his plan for revenge on his former captors.

That’s a bit of a shame because I liked Jerry’s viewpoint, and although the story still focuses on him until the inevitable violent showdown at the story’s conclusion, I still felt a sense of loss. But I still enjoyed Gavin’s unusual take on werewolves as prisoners/reality-TV stars enough to recommend ARENA, and liked his writing enough to want to seek out his other work.

THE ENGINES OF SACRIFICE by James Chambers is a collection of four stories based in a H.P. Lovecraft-inspired setting. You know: old gods, other-dimensional creatures, weird tentacle things trying to break through into our world. Chambers doesn’t imitate Lovecraft, which is hard to do without slipping into parody, but instead crafts modern stories based on some of the legendary horror author’s ideas.

It all works well, I have to admit. Each has a slow-building creepiness factor that is refreshing in today’s modern, gross-out slashfests. I prefer my horror to be more psychological than gory, and although there are some horrific creatures in these pages, it’s the dread of the approaching monster that is the scariest part.

The stories are all loosely connected and have a history; they function independently, but can be read as a universal whole. I liked all of them, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be “The Ugly Birds,” about a failing publisher who travels to a small town to convince the artist/writer of a hit graphic serial to continue her story so as to keep his magazine from going under. The fact that the artist/writer is his ex-wife, and that her current husband appears to be going insane, adds to the pathos.

There’s more, of course: strange, ugly bird creatures; dead sea life that resembles nothing in a marine biologist’s textbook; a palpable sense of oncoming doom that surrounds his ex’s house. Much of the imagery reminded me more of early Stephen King rather than Lovecraft … until the conclusion when Chambers doesn’t disappoint the reader with a cop-out ending. Good stuff.

ISIS UNBOUND is the debut novel from author Allyson Bird, who has previously had a collection of short stories, WINE AND RANK POISON, issued by Dark Regions Press. Her tales were more psychological suspense than traditional ghost stories, although there were a few of those in there, too. But she seemed more interested in the darkness of mankind’s soul than the supernatural kind.

If I had had to guess what the subject of Bird’s first novel would be, well, I wouldn’t have guessed an alternate-history/steampunk/horror/fantasy mash-up. It sounds like it should be a mess, but strangely, it all works!

Cleopatra and Anthony, with the help of the goddess Isis, build a massive empire. Cut to 1890: Cleopatra’s descendants are still in power, but Isis has been murdered by her sister, the goddess Nepythys. Now the dead are unable to pass over to the underworld and readers are treated to zombies stumbling through a traditional steampunk setting.

There’s a pair of unlikely heroines in Ella and Loli, the daughters of the chief embalmer, who find themselves caught up in the machinations of the Egyptian gods. But more than a steampunk story or a horror story, this is a tale of fantasy with Egyptian gods slowly losing their hold on a decaying empire. Bird weaves it all together, and best of all, does it without the bloat that most fantasy writers fall into.

ISIS UNBOUND is a stellar example of what I said earlier: Dark Regions Press is not easily defined by what it publishes. Horror, suspense, werewolf Western, steampunk zombies — it seems intent to create subgenres rather than milking the same old ones. —Slade Grayson

Buy them at Dark Regions Press.

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