"Peel Back the Skin" Book Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Published by Grey Matter Press
Edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson
2016, 334 pages, Fiction
Released on June 7th, 2016
Peel Back the Skin is purportedly about the evil we see reflected in ourselves, the evil lurking inside—who? Me? Couldn’t be! But you, probably. The theme is fairly loose, but under this banner, editors Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson have pulled together a fair cross-section of contemporary horror and its major subgenres (with apologies to teen slashers and zombies).
There’s a good balance here of mediocrity and brilliance. On the good side, Jonathan Maberry’s “Mystic” is a great, pulpy, hardboiled supernatural detective story. The protagonist Monk has the power, through a strange ritual involving tattooing the blood of murder victims onto his own skin, to communicate with the dead. It’s a familiar scenario with a new gimmick, and it works well enough that I’d like to read more of the adventures of the enigmatic hero.
John McCallum Swain’s “Beholder” is a tense supernatural murder spree with a few genuinely creepy moments involving stolen eyes. It’s a story of retirement-age friends who return to their former hometown, wiped off the map through the slow erosion of economics, to encounter a monster from their childhoods. Nothing is explained, and the violence, when people start dying, is more frightening because it seems so baseless.
James Lowder’s “Orphans of the Air” is a bizarre, darkly comic, Dick Tracy-esque crime/necromancy mélange set in post-WWII Chicago (and also dealing, strangely enough, with stolen eyes). A cynical, snarky echo of Golden Age-style comic book heroes, it’s ridiculous and self-aware enough to be a lot of fun.
Erik William’s “The Long Bright Descent” is a fast-paced, funny, oddly sympathetic cat-and-mouse between two amiable action hero-types who are quite obviously not what they appear to be. It quickly becomes apparent that the car-chasing grenade-lobbing eternally-warring duo are not normal humans, and that a lot more is at stake in their fight than the simple violence it entails.
Charles Austin Muir’s sublime “Party Monster,” a fusion of House of Leaves-style symbolism, and semantic depth with In the Mouth of Madness-style metahorror, shines as perhaps the most complex, compelling, and challenging piece of the entire volume. It’s also the fullest realization of the anthology’s theme. The protagonist Jason, reeling from his wife’s death, sinks into a life of depression and porn, until a blackout reveals his own face reflected in his monitor. “From then on,” he tells us, “that face haunted me behind my web browser, Dorian Gray’s portrait in the age of YouPorn.”
Unfortunately one or two of the tales in Peel Back the Skin are sub-par, offering little more than mechanical, mostly unconvincing (and occasionally poorly-written) explorations of human suffering seemingly as ends in themselves. Graham Masterton’s “The Greatest Gift” is about a handsome man who is disfigured in a car accident. He pushes his beautiful girlfriend away, citing his own ugliness and how she’s beautiful so she deserves a handsome man or something, I don’t know. Then she horribly mutilates herself so that he’ll love her again, because these characters are paper-thin caricatures of humans intended, I guess, to make a broad point about vanity. It doesn’t work, though. It’s gross but not disturbing, as the author seems to intend, failing to challenge any preconceptions that haven’t already been challenged or even to elicit any response beyond that throaty “guh” noise people sometimes make when something is dumb.
Of the remaining nine stories, most are solid, well-written and, if not frightening, at least appreciably weird. I don’t care much for torture or viscera flying around the place (unless there’s some eldritch horror responsible for said viscera); if you do, you might enjoy Nancy A. Collins’ “Gator Lake” or Yvonne Navarro’s “Superheated.” Thankfully, though, the collection is mostly free of violence for its own sake. The stories are entertaining and, most interestingly, very very different from one another. Thematically they don’t really hang together, but that doesn’t matter: they’re all dark, and most are interesting, and that’s more than can be said for most stories.