It’s an interesting game Elder Signs Press is playing with its horror anthologies. You’d think a company named Elder Signs would be dedicated to producing Mythos-related content only, but Horrors Beyond 2 skirts the line between saying it’s Lovecraftian fiction and just being run-of-the-mill “weird horror.” The description on Amazon begins with “Featuring stories by…” but the back of the book reads “Featuring Lovecraftian horror, dark fiction and science fiction by…” This is not a Lovecraftian compilation, despite the fact that it features well known authors who have written in the genre.
- ISOLATION POINT, CALIFORNIA: Horrors Beyond 2 spends nearly all of its awesome horror potential on this short story by John Shirley. A nanotech plague known as the Aggression Factor (AggFac) has been unleashed across North America. Any human being is instantly overcome with the urge to kill any other human being. Gage and Brenda struggle to find sanity in a world where the touch of another person means death. Reminiscent of the Screwfly Solution, it’s poignant and sad. No mythos content, but excellent nonetheless. 5 out of 5.
- SERENADE: Lucien Soulban (that’s his real name) pens a tale where Abernathy, a code breaker for the Black Chamber, decodes a Mythos chant that slowly drives him mad. It’s well-done. 4 out of 5.
- WYSHES.COM: Richard Lupoff does something interesting with a snarky salesman-like narrator who is chosen, due to his apparent resistance to insanity, for an insane mission to contact aliens through body-hopping technology. Sloat sounds like a Call of Cthulhu character who begins with maximum sanity. He survived a previous short story which I didn’t read. Equally frustrating is Sloat himself, who is fond of pointing out every time he uses a cliché with DING! I cannot accurately convey (DING!) how unbelievably annoying (DING!) this narrative technique is (DING!). It’s not funny (DING!) or engaging (DING!). The ending is suitably downbeat but at that point I wanted Sloat dead anyway. 1 out of 5.
- 5150: Gene O’Neil pens a tale of a cop in a mad world, witnessing the four horsemen of the apocalypse. A little too traditional for my tastes — the four horsemen in this compilation of sci-fi and horror? Really? But more aggravating is that our protagonist, Skip, has an “iceworm” in his gut. No explanation is ever made as to the nature of the iceworm. Is it an illness? A psychosomatic condition? A parasite? This nagging question saps any horror from the apocalypse. Screw the four horsemen, I want to know what’s in the cop’s gut! 2 out of 5.
- THE SIGNAL: Paul Kemp writes a pulp story about the construction of the Empire State Building back when women were dames, men smokes cigarettes, and you solved problems with your fists in an overcoat and fedora. The predictable ending overreaches with an ominous warning that seems pretty silly. 2 out of 5.
- FRACTAL FREAKS: A. A. Attanasio writes his stories like bad gothic fiction found in White Wolf supplements – overblown, full of adjectives with esoteric meanings, and stuffed to the gills with so much allegory that you spend more time trying to figure out what he means than understanding the plot. The plot, to the extent I understood it, involves a fight between numerous supernatural beings, an extradimensional sculpture that severs heads, and the peculiar relationship between a divorced couple. Reading it made me tired, and there’s no Mythos content either. 1 out of 5.
- GHOST LENS: Finally, a Mythos-style story I can enjoy! No faux-pulp style, no mysterious iceworms, no DING-ing – Author Stephen Rainey follows doomed Vic Kohan, a scientist who discovers alien technology coined the Ghost Lens which can pierce the veil of reality. But the truth has dangerous consequences when the mysteries he unveils take an interest in him. 5 out of 5.
- DEAD AIR: David Wilson writes about a deceased radio show host’s vengeance. This is more a Tales from the Crypt kind of story and at three pages seems unnecessary. 2 out of 5.
- THE BIGGER THEY ARE: Further proof that this compilation is all over the place, C.J. Henderson pens a humorous tale involving time travel and Mi-Go. We finally get a direct link to the Mythos and it turns into this farce which isn’t all that amusing. 2 out of 5.
- THE MARGINS: Robert Weinberg writes about the Hounds of Tindalos in a tale that reinvents some Mythos lore. Well done and more of what I expected. 4 out of 5.
- WORMWOOD: Tim Curran pens an excellent foray into Chernobyl. It may well involve Azathoth at the heart of it (literally). 5 out of 5.
- WHEN THE SHIP CAME: John Sunseri writes about a town on the brink. What if America knew that a single town would be kidnapped by aliens but couldn’t prevent it? The twist is just as good as the interplay of small-town drama magnified by world-shattering events. 5 out of 5.
- THE MANUSCRIPT IN THE DRAWER: Greg Beatty tells us once again that the Necronomicon drives people mad in three pages. Thanks. We knew that. 2 out of 5.
- SPHERES OF INFLUENCE: Ron Shiflet writes a twisted version of Flowers for Algernon in which a metal ball spreads its corrupting influence. It’s fairly predictable. 3 out of 5.
- A MONSTER IN THE LAKE: A disjointed, deeply personal tale by Michail Velichansky of an old man who makes a deal with a lake devil in exchange for his old park back. Well-written, if a little dreamy and hard to follow at times. 4 out of 5.
- THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER: E. Sedia places a little girl in terrible danger. It really got to me. 5 out of 5.
- MAGIC FINGERS: Jay Caselberg writes about how pop-up windows are hard to ignore when they’re in your head. This is when Horrors Beyond 2 jumps the shark. Look, I know that sci-fi these days tends to involve cybernetics, and I appreciate a good virtual reality tale, but is it too much to ask that we have 1) horror content in a book titled HORRORS BEYOND and 2) not repeat the same themes between stories? 3 out of 5.
- A FAMILY AFFAIR: William Dietz writes a pulp-futuristic tale reminiscent of Jeffrey Thomas, but he’s no Thomas. It’s not a bad story, it just seems wildly out of place in this collection. It has no Mythos or horror elements. Just a big lug trying to get by in a cruel world. 2 out of 5.
- THE MORTIFICATION OF FLESH: What if the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation met Shub-Niggurath? Alexis Latner writes a story of regret, androids, and worms that manages to incorporate futuristic elements while still staying true to the Mythos promise of this compilation. 5 out of 5.
- PREDICTING PERDITION: Paul Melniczek writes about an infinite loop binding a town to itself. The ending didn’t surprise me. 3 out of 5.
- WHEN THE STARS FELL: William Jones, also the editor of the anthology, writes a serviceable sci-fi story about killer robots. What killer robots have to do with the Mythos is anybody’s guess. It also features the same “my headware is betraying me!” dread that’s in Magic Fingers. 2 out of 5.
Horrors Beyond 2 doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Some tales show promise, but others seem like filler, and still others just seem like they slipped into the book when the editor wasn’t looking. There are maybe eight Lovecraft-style stories, and I’m being generous in interpreting them that way. There’s not all that much science fiction – five total. And dark fiction is anybody’s guess, but I assume that encompasses everything else. Nowhere in this compilation is “dark humor” listed, although at least two stories are obviously aiming for that feel.
This isn’t a bad collection by any means, but the tone is inconsistent. Horrors Beyond 2 would have benefited from picking an audience and sticking with it: Lovecraftian horror, dark fiction, science fiction, dark humor. Fans of any one of those genres are likely to be dissatisfied by the inclusion of the other three.
The Aggression Factor (AggFac) is a nanite plague that killed millions of people in North America, Mexico, all the way to the geoquarantine at the Panama Canal. It causes every human being to see any other human being as an enemy. The attacker is immediately overcome by a beserk rage by any other human that enters within nineteen feet and begins making a high pitch “Eeeee” sound in the back of his throat. Vision goes sickly sepia and gray and heat spreads from the back of the skull to the face and arms. The attacker can make rational decisions to kill his opponent, like use firearms, remains singlemindedly focused on murder.
AggFac can be momentarily resist with a Will save each round. The AggFac becomes increasingly more powerful the closer another human being gets. A Will save (DC 20) is necessary to resist it at 20 feet away. For each foot closer, the Will save DC increases by 1. A human being touching another affected by AggFac must make a Will save at DC 40 to resist.
Ability Surge (Ex): On a failed Will save the AggFac temporarily increase its host’s Strength and Dexterity scores, but doing so imposes a penalty on its saving throws. While this ability is in effect, the host gains a +4 morale bonus to both Strength and Dexterity but takes a –2 penalty on all saving throws. Ability surge lasts for a number of rounds equal to the host’s character level. Following an ability surge, the host is fatigued (–2 to Strength and Dexterity) for as many rounds as the surge was in effect, but it may negate this penalty as a free action by spending an action point. A host of AggFac is immune to mind-affecting effects for the duration of his Ability Surge.