The dark fantasy collection features 19 stories, including the Australian Shadows Award-winning “Shadows of the Lonely Dead”; and original title story “Crow Shine” in addition to two other never before published stories.
Crow Shine – Alan Baxter (Short Story Collection)
First, from a technical point it is very nicely done. The Table of Contents is linked, the formatting is perfect and there is nary a spelling or grammar error to be seen.
The stories were very well-written. Even the ones I didn’t care for too much were still written well. They flowed well and there were new takes on older themes that I found unique.
Collections and anthologies can be hard to review as a whole because each story is unique. I like to rate them separately then wrap them up at the end. So, let’s get into the Crow Shine and find some magic!
The titular story of the collection, Crow Shine is superb. The mix of horror and music has always fascinated me. Partly because it’s not usually explored much in writing. There are a few novels but mostly it lends itself to the short story format much better. The Rhythm and Blues genre of music in particular lends itself heavily to horror because of it’s roots in folk songs and tales. Many of which speak of murder, the Devil and the restless dead. A particular theme are the ‘deals with the Devil’ to gain fame and/or guitar prowess (which are not always synonymous). Such as the legend of Robert Johnson. A wide range of musical styles that have horror as it’s background and trappings can all be traced back to R&B. But, I digress. Crow Shine has somewhat of the same deal with the Devil theme to it but a nice take on it. It is an unwitting deal that destroys all you love. The Devil never does play fair, even when you don’t know you’re singing along. Creative and original.
The Beat of a Pale Wing:
I love the title ‘The Beat of a Pale Wing’. It sounds so beautiful that it belies the horrors you encounter within the tale and lulls you into a bit of false security. I also loved the mix of mobsters with Lovecraftian horror.
The title ‘Tiny Lives’ works on two different levels. On the one hand there’s the ‘tiny lives’ that the creator is breathing life into with machinated parts. Then on the other there are the ‘tiny lives’ in his charge that he’s trying to protect. A great story.
Roll the Bones:
A chance meeting between two strangers and a homeless teen could change the fate of the world. Or just might change the young man’s luck for good. It all depends on a Roll of the Bones.
Another great story. I love the descriptions and the interplay between the characters was a bit humorous and left me wanting to spend more time with them.
Old Promise, New Blood:
A bit of a different spin on the ‘Deal with the Devil’ trope. There’s always a deal. And there’s always a price. But sometimes, what is paid is worth what you earn. I liked this story as well. Old Promise, New Blood did the trope well and the emotions are fully felt.
All the Wealth in the World:
How much would you pay to buy a little time? Or lose a little time? What would the final cost be? Not in money but your sanity?
Another story that feels familiar but comfortable but with a surprising and uncomfortable ending.
In the Name of the Father:
A priest in a rural area can really reach a community. In the name of his Father.
Dark and grim it catches the attention but I think it could have been fleshed out a bit more.
Fear is the Sin:
A play with dubious morality. Fear is the Sin would not be out of place as a King in Yellow tale. It definitely has that vibe to it. Creepy and a tad surreal.
The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner:
Besides Crow Shine this is one of my favorite stories in the collection. a little ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ with a dollop of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ and a dash of Lovecraft. Well told from the point of view of a cabin boy aboard one of the most ruthless pirate ships on the seas.
The Darkest Shade of Grey:
A drunk, down-on-his-luck reporter with a special gift for ‘seeing’ stumbles into a story far larger than even he can imagine.
I really, really wanted to love this story. But, unfortunately the main character and I just didn’t get along. I would start getting pulled into the story then get taken out because I really wanted to tell him to quit being a whiny ass and straighten his shit up. I’m just a little tired of the ‘psychic with substance abuse issues’ trope. To give Mr. Baxter complete credit as an author and storyteller it kept sucking me back in. I just had to see where it was going to go. If I had to suggest anything it’s the the story could use a title change. It’s very close to another book (you know of what I speak) and The Darkest Shade of Grey is leagues beyond That Book.
A Strong Urge to Fly:
A young man trying to break the apron strings falls into unexpected difficulties at his boarding house with his cat-loving landlady.
This story started out a bit ‘meh’ for me. There was a part near the end that really snapped me to because it was sudden, a bit shocking and a bit brutal. I did love the end. It had a very ‘Tales from the Crypt’ feel to it. “A purr-fect ending, wouldn’t you say, kiddies?”
Reaching for Ruins:
Some plants thrive on love and care. Other plants require different nutrients.
I liked this because, hey, who doesn’t love creepy plants? My only problem with it was the ending was a bit muddled and it wasn’t really clear what would happen afterwards.
Shadows of the Lonely Dead:
I loved Shadows of the Lonely Dead so, so much. It was beautifully written with an awesome ending that took me by surprise and left me smiling. Two characters that I would like to know better.
Punishment of the Sun:
I wasn’t too crazy about this one. Near the end you figure out what the ‘monster’ is but not really why it’s happening. I have to admit, I like reasons for what’s going on a lot of the time. Especially since this one sort of left it hanging a bit.
The Fathomed Wreck to See:
‘The Fathomed Wreck to See’ is an awesome title but the story didn’t really grab me. Other readers might like it better though because it was a reader/character disconnect for me. It tries to make the main character, Dylan, seem like the choices he makes are unselfish and to spare his wife pain. To me he seemed selfish all the way through. I wanted to know his wife better. She seemed very interesting and an awesome character. It’s kind of a shame the story wasn’t focused on her more.
Not the Worst of Sins:
A cowboy in his older teens (would that be a cowteen instead of a cowboy?) travels with a ghostly companion. The boy looking for revenge on a father he never knew. A father who left his mother a broken and shattered woman. His ghostly companion is looking for revenge of a different sort. Or is he?
Started out strong but the ending left me a bit confused as to what would happen next and what the ghost’s actual purpose was.
The Old Magic:
An old, very old, woman reflects back on her life. Her life, loves, children and The Old Magic she has passed down to her daughters through the centuries.
I’ve always loved these kinds of stories. It’s not an uncommon theme but it’s all in how the storyteller weaves the tale and Alan Baxter does it well.
A traveling magician’s tricks may be more real than the audience expects.
Similar to a piece of flash fiction it is a very short story. Generally I’m not too crazy about such short pieces. They’re usually small vignettes and a lot of people can write a captivating few pages . Mephisto is better written than most but still rather short with no real explanation.
The Darkness in Clara:
Michelle mourns the death of her lover, Clara. Michelle travels to Clara’s hometown to try to puzzle out the meaning of a mysterious note that Clara left behind. Once she gets there she realizes behind the small-town bigotry a deeper evil lurks. One that may not have ended with Clara’s death.
I loved this story so much. Michelle and her son’s grief rings very true and Michelle’s desire to know what happened to Clara when she was younger is very natural. The small-town bigotry is also done well. By that I mean that it is varied. Some people are asses about it but there are some genuinely nice people in the town. It’s not often that small towns are shown in a fair light when it comes to being open-minded. It is also implied that it’s not just homophobia that is responsible for the actions of a few of the townspeople. The ending was wrapped perfectly and it’s a perfect story to end the book on.
I would strongly recommend Crow Shine by Alan Baxter. It’s a good, solid collection with not a story to be ashamed of. Even the ones that I didn’t care for personally is just my opinion. The writing wasn’t flawed and someone else might love them.
Final Rating – 4 Skulls out of 5