From the author of the short story collections These Old Tales and Fresh Cut Tales comes his latest effort, Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction. In his youth Cain developed a sense of wonderment owed in part to TV shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Now Cain seeks the same dark overtones in his writing.
There’s a little something for every reader. These 25 short speculative stories represent the smoldering remains of a blaze, the fiery bits meant to ignite the mind with slow-burning imagery and smoky twists and turns. These are the very embers of Cain’s soul.
In this collection, Cain features stories of troubled men and women, both living and dead. Themes of loss and the afterlife take on many forms, as he explores the unknown. For instance, “The Chamber” focuses on a hardened veteran of World War II who has committed heinous crimes. He seeks only to find peace from his conscience, but sometimes that comes at a great loss. “Valerie’s Window” visits a small town amid a tragic end to humanity. Only things are not as they seem, and the more Valerie comes to know herself, the more her reality is revealed. “The Benefit of Being Weighty” has a humorous side, but the theme of this story revolves around fat shaming and the price one must pay for being so ignorant. Hopefully, these three short descriptions have increased your curiosity.
When the dark comes, light a match. Let the fire burn bright and hot. So that when it dies the embers warm you.
– S & S –
A very nice cover. The art work is excellent. It fits the Embers title well and is creepy looking. The Table of Contents is linked very nicely.
The Chamber – 3 Stars
Started well with a nice blending of past and present. I had a little trouble with the realism of the ending but it was well-written.
Valerie’s Window – 5 Stars
Started out in a typical way but as the story progresses and more and more of Valerie’s life is revealed it takes strange and disturbing twists that I did not see coming. It was also realistic in her thoughts and actions.
A Window to Dream By – 3 Stars
A solid story but it felt like it needed more. Just something a bit more to understand what exactly is going on with that particular hotel and why. It’s very Lovecraftian in tone, for the most part.
Each New Day Unknown – 3 Stars
Summons up the horror of recurring nightmares. But are they really nightmares. It’s well-written but lacks much punch, at least in my opinion.
Gone – 3 Stars
Another solid tale and every parent’s worst nightmare. You can definitely see the Twilight Zone influence at work here as it reminds me greatly of the episode ‘Little Girl Lost’ but slanted more toward horror than science fiction.
Under the Drift of Snow – 2 Stars leaning toward 3
It starts out excellently and is very emotionally moving. The end, however, isn’t really set-up at all so it just turns into a big “Huh. That came out of nowhere.” It also has an implication that I thought was a little…manipulative. Highlight for spoiler: The husband grieving his wife’s death feels doubly guilty as he was unfaithful. However, while going through some of her things he finds letters to another man. She had an affair and since hers was first then he’s off the hook! End Spoiler. At least that’s the impression I got from it.
Blackbird’s Breath – 2 Stars
I’m not sure what the blackbird is supposed to represent, exactly. It reminds me a bit of Poe’s celebrated Raven (although this bird doesn’t speak, just chirps). If it’s a punishment of some sort there doesn’t seem to be much cause for it.
Desolate – 4 Stars
A creepy story about a particularly nasty form of addiction.
Lost in the Woods – 3 Stars
The emotional parts are very successful. They felt so real and touching. I also liked the idea of it. Lost in the Woods had a very ‘Orpheus’ feel to it. At the end it devolves into a rather disappointing typical horror tale. It could have been so much more.
Final Breaths – 4 Stars
Another parent’s worst nightmare. If you have a hard time reading about prolonged hospital scenes this story will cut you to the heart. Again the emotions and realism are done so well that the supernatural elements almost seem out of place. I actually think the story would work just as well without them, if not better.
Closer – 2 Stars
I could see where it was going very early on. That’s not exactly a flaw but so much of it just doesn’t make sense. The character’s inner monologue is very realistic and again, the emotions, thoughts and feelings of the character are well done. My issues with it are the total 180 flip in the character’s inner morals which seems a bit extreme to be believable. The end is also a bit confusing. It seems throughout that they’re in the woods, then it’s revealed they’re in a city or perhaps suburb ad it destroys the credibility the story had.
Flocking Birds – 3 1/2 Stars
Again, the family drama takes center stage to the rest of the plot. I was really torn whether to give this a 3 or a 4. I did like it. It’s very realism was horrific but the end was abrupt and incomplete. It left me feeling dissatisfied because again, it could have been so much more and I think the author has the talent to bring it to a satisfactory end.
Pirouette – 4 Stars
Another excellently portrayed glimpse of a fractured family unit and not marred by any forced supernatural trappings. It is what it is and it is a great story.
To Save One Life – 4 Stars
I really liked the story. It had an interesting point of view on a serial killer. I would have given it 5 stars but for one flaw. It may seem harsh but it’s huge to me. Highlight for spoiler: At one point the murderer is attacking a woman who has a gun. But rather than use it she’s ‘too terrified’ and it sits uselessly in her lap. It gives our Hero of the story opportunity to act but it makes no sense. The absence of the gun would still have given the Hero a chance to act and at the same time not make it look like the woman has no self-preservation whatsoever. As a side note, I loved who the Hero turned out to be and actually makes me feel a little bad for squishing all of the spiders who have met their untimely end under my shoe. End of Spoiler. At least this Boris ends up a little better off than the one in the song. Yes, you sneaky little author, I caught it.
Of Both Worlds – 5 Stars
Very Lovecraftian in tone, quite intentionally I presume. A very good story and also a little sad.
Breathing Cave – 4 Stars
I almost get the feeling that perhaps this started out as a different story and evolved into what it became. Which is still a very good horror tale. There is one small blooper that I can’t help but mention because the author may want to fix it. I’m not going to hide it because it’s not integral to the plot. The lead female character’s boyfriend is using his phone for light. He says it’s barely charged and shortly after blacks out, going dead. Yet, somehow, a moment later she finds it in the dark…and turns it on. If I somehow misunderstood the author’s intentions there I will gladly correct my interpretation of it.
Soul Tapped – 2 Stars
I really wanted to like it as I love a good ghost story. However, the entity was easy to guess and there were quite a few things that just seemed improbable in the real world.
The Water People – 3 Stars
Could have been much better if it were a shade longer. It would give a bit more background on the creatures and their motivations.
Water Snake – 4 Stars
Water Snake had a SyFy Monster Movie feel to it and it was great. There was also a nice bit of snake physiology in there that a lot of authors overlook.
Evolved – 3 Stars
It was a good story but again, a bit more detail would have been helpful. It reminded me a bit of a Lovecraft story mixed with a Robert E. Howard story.
Buried Beneath the Old Chicago Swamps – 2 1/2 – 3 Stars
I liked it and the premise was good but at the same time I had no clue what exactly was going on. Not in the larger story, that was pretty clear but with the ‘witch’ and her house. It reminded me a bit of a more evil Howl’s Moving Castle.
The Bad Men – 4 Stars
This one had a very dark Twilight Zone feel to it. Intrepid space explorers run into non-alien lifeforms n another planet.
Parasite – 3 Stars (4 Stars for those of you that like bugs in the body)
It was well-written and gross. Gross in a good way for those people that like creatures in the body stories.
Strip Poker, Crabs and Blue Women – 2 Stars
I didn’t really care for this story. It tried a bit too hard for the humor and was just blah.
The Benefit of Being Weighty – 2 Stars
I really did not get this one. What did the ring have to do with anything? Would everyone really be such jerks about the guy’s weight? Also, I think an easier way to take a ring off would be to get a jeweler to cut it off, but that’s just me.
It also has an afterword at the end by the author about how he got the ideas. I didn’t want to read it until I had done the reviews. I didn’t want them to color my opinions. The comments on ‘Final Breaths’ and ‘Lost in the Woods’ were very touching. From the emotional depth in those stories I wondered if the author was drawing on personal experience. I would also like to say that his original idea for Soul Tapped sounds like it would be a funny idea for a story, please, please make it!
The book had no typos or grammar issues. I thought it was a great collection. The stories I thought were excellent more than made up for the few I didn’t like. And other people might like those more than I do.
4 out of 5 Skulls