I almost gave up on “At Home in the Dark,” a new anthology of grim stories edited by Lawrence Block.
The early stories in the collection were disappointing for a variety of reasons — a weak ending to a story with a promising start (“Hot Pants” by Elaine Kagan), a story of madness that doesn’t have enough room to develop (“The Flagellant” by Joyce Carol Oates), a tale featuring a memorable parrot and a twist ending the story doesn’t quite earn (“The Things I’d Do” by Ed Park).
But things began looking up with Warren Moore’s “Rough Mix,” a story with a predictable ending that is nonetheless well-crafted.
Moore’s story is followed by Laura Benedict’s “This Strange Bargain,” which may well be the strongest piece in the book.
Benedict offers a contemporary spin on a fairy-tale trope, building suspense slowly and effectively.
Right from the beginning, the story’s dark heart is hinted at even in the opening paragraph, which on the surface might suggest an act of kindness:
“The children emerge from the misting rain on the right shoulder of the road, and I take my foot off the gas, trying to decide if I will stop. Inside the Buick it’s warm and dry and smells of cinnamon and chocolate, and the music is Satie, my favorite. I don’t want to share the pleasure of this moment with a couple of stringy brats who don’t have the sense to carry a flashlight or wear shoes with reflective bands on the heels. But this hesitation is only a game I play with myself. I’ll stop. I always do.”
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More strong stories follow, including Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team,” which offers a violent take on a sports team trying to overcome internal strife in time for the big game, and Nancy Pickard’s “If Only You Would Leave Me,” which is something of a through-the-looking-glass take on an O. Henry motif.
Richard Chizmar’s “Whistling in the Dark” is dedicated to the late Ed Gorman, the Cedar Rapids native and longtime resident who was himself an excellent crafter of dark stories (and editor of anthologies to boot).
Chizmar, who collaborated with Gorman on “Brothers” and “Dirty Coppers,” writes dialogue that calls Gorman’s work to mind.
Wallace Stroby’s “Nightbound” is an exciting extended chase featuring Crissa Stone, the recurring protagonist from his novels. The story is strong enough to encourage readers to investigate Stone’s book-length exploits.
“At Home in the Dark” does not contain a story by Block himself — though his daughter is represented by “O, Swear Not By the Moon,” a cleverly crafted story of star-crossed lovers — and the book almost certainly is poorer for the omission.
Nevertheless, after a slow start, “At Home in the Dark” delivers a good number of stories that shine brightly as they explore deep shadows.