Monday, December 5, 2016

Mental unease


Edited by Brad C. Hodson & Benjamin Kane Ethridge

Publisher: Dark Regions Press

Pub Date: May 22, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I kept thinking of a cinematic comparison while reading Madhouse. There was a movie in the 70s called Asylum. It had a screenplay by Robert Bloch and featured a number of stories set in the confines of a mental institution. There was also a framing story that very loosely tied all the others together. It is one of the better horror anthology movies that you will find.

Madhouse is a little like that. It also has a connecting framing story about the patients and staff who are isolated in an Arizona mental facility during a sandstorm. These "chapters" as they are called, are written by the editors Brad C Hodson and Benjamin Kane Ethridge. Between these chapters are 20 pieces of short fiction contributed by a number of horror and fantasy writers including John Skipp, Scott Nicholson, Lisa Morton, Rena Mason, Jeff Strand and others. As I understand it, all the authors were given a layout of the fictional Golden Canyon Behavioral Health Center to keep the stories consistent with the shared world environment. Whether they knew of the on-going narration before they wrote their stories is unknown to me. However the characters in the chapters do show up in the stories and there seem to be some consistency with characters as well as the confines of the center.

That part about how much the author worked within the confines of the connecting narration is what troubles me. I think they knew little beyond the bare basics because, for the most part, it feels like a jumble. That makes it confusing to follow. Because of this, no one story stands out and makes the collection work. There are some very good tales here. I especially like those by John Palisano, John Skipp., and Jeff Strand. Not so much the chapters by Hodgson and Ethridge which is unfortunate because that is the thread that supposedly binds them together. The full sum of the parts just didn't work for me.

What does work is the overall design of the book and the illustrations that accompany the collection. Dark Regions Press has a stellar reputation for the design and appearance of their publications and Madhouse does not disappoint in this area. There are lots of gorgeous and creepy illustrations from Aeron Alfrey that are worth the price of the admission alone and they do add a great bit of atmosphere to the accompanying stories.

But it doesn't really gel together in the literary department despite the quality of writing. It's a noble experiment but, as a screenwriter and sometimes critic friend of mine would say, "It's a interesting failure."

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