by Joy Ralph

Phantasma is a short story collection that sets out to explore the “well-managed fears” lurking just under the surface of human consciousness. The anthology is not a gore-fest, but a set of psychological thrillers designed to be creepy and persistent; these are ones your mind will return to again and again like your tongue to the socket of a lost tooth. I enjoyed reading most of the stories, and even the ones that had less resonance for me contained appropriately disturbing passages. Each piece is preceded by an author’s note and followed by a short biography. The collection also features an editorial introduction by Roberta Trahan and J.D. Horn.

I’m of mixed opinion on story notes. The best stories work without explication; I find if the story requires outside explanation some crucial step has usually been omitted. I understand the desire to provide additional context, but I strongly feel anything required for the story to make sense should be in the story proper. Granted, I can skip the notes if I don’t care for them, but when they do provide a crucial point of context it reinforces the idea that they are required reading for the fullest understanding of the author’s intent. Should the story be reprinted without the notes there is the potential it will suffer for the lack, which is unfair to the reader and even disrespectful to the story as a work of art.

The six pieces in the collection occupy a variety of locations along a spectrum of angst and fright. As is apt for a collection this size there is not much overlap in execution even though all the stories cleave successfully to the theme. Fear of self, distrust of others, the horrors of war and battle and worries about human connection and loneliness are all presented for examination.

The volume opens with “Undercurrents” by Roberta Trahan. This is a story where a woman is betrayed by her own body at the hands of those she has trusted to help her. Those of us who suffer some sort of disability or chronic pain sometimes come to question our membership in the human race. Where exactly does an ill person fall on the scale of normal to monster? The answer has varied in different times and cultures. Deirdre suffers from extreme and debilitating migraine headaches, as well as from isolation related to her difficulties. When she reluctantly agrees to join a clinical trial on the suggestion of her doctor, the results leave her questioning her place in the world as well as who she can trust. The ending struck me as if the author might be setting things up for a sequel or have intended the story to be a longer piece.

The second story was one of my favorites. “Pro Patria Mori,” by Jodi McIsaac, is both a tale of the horrors of war and an object lesson in being careful what you wish, on your enemies or for yourself. Padraig Murphy is a soldier in the Irish Republican Army at some point in the long history of conflict in Ireland. That the exact period is difficult to identify merely reinforces the weariness of the struggle and the recurring nature of the Troubles. He is wounded in a skirmish and in his dying stupor believes he encounters the spirits of the land itself. They hail him as a hero and tend his wounds, while nearby one of the enemy, also dying, suffers for the actions of the invaders. Padraig makes a choice, out of altruism or fear, but when he finds his wishes answered they are not entirely to his liking. The sidhe are implacable and capricious at the best of times, and their casual cruelty deserves the terror it inspires. Better to accept their assistance with gratitude and leave well enough alone than ask for anything further by way of help or harm, as he soon finds out.

“Akiko,” by Kate Maruyama, is also a story of revenge and the spirit world, but quite different in tone and framework with echoes of mystery and noir. Sakura is a law student who has fallen into the role of private investigator, partially due to her ability to perceive things of the otherworld. Spirits approach her for redress because she can speak to and for them. Sakura has been working with the police in the form of George, a professional member of the force who is willing to accept information from her without too many questions regarding provenience. Matters come to a head when a spirit seeks her out for help in what turns out to be a far more complicated situation than a simple murder. Interestingly in this story the human has the power to act while the sprits must rely on her character and understanding in the service of making things right. At its heart this story is about loneliness and the fear of being unable to connect with other people, as lovers or friends. I found it truly engaging and would enjoy reading more about Sakura and her adventures, given the opportunity.

Phantasma is certainly a worthy effort at providing a set of pieces that strive to examine a different sort of unease than the usual horror or dark fantasy collection these days.

In contrast I found the characters in “The Adoption” less sympathetic than I suspect was intended. In this story by Anne Charnock, we follow a couple who are considering adopting a child as they explore the beginnings of the process.
While I don’t have any technical quibbles with the piece, I don’t seem to have the buttons that the story was designed to push. I’ve never been interested in children, and as a result, I was indifferent to the couple’s choice, though one imagines this would be much different for other readers. The setting is a future where artificial uteri are available as a means of reproduction for people who meet particular financial and circumstantial criteria; on the rare occasion that the contractual parents die before gestation is complete the baby is offered for adoption to carefully selected applicants. Simone and Rudy are considering adopting as a result of past interpersonal issues and health concerns; they want a child but biological offspring would be problematic. The story follows them on a tour of the facility where the babies are grown and through the choices they make.

The remaining works in the collection included the story “Pitch,” by J.D. Horn, which had a twist jarring enough I had to read it several times before I was certain of what exactly had happened. Jason Kirk’s “The Guardian From the Sea” is a set of linked poems informing an overall atmospheric narrative that provides the volume’s conclusion.

Phantasma is certainly a worthy effort at providing a set of pieces that strive to examine a different sort of unease than the usual horror or dark fantasy collection these days. The stories that worked best for me stayed with me in the way that quality pieces do, and they continue to come back to me when I’m thinking of other things. While taste and emotional resonance both are things that vary widely across the reading population, and not every story will work for every person who encounters it, I recommend the broad range of narratives found within Phantasma to those looking for a more subtle take on the worries and fears so many people share.

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Joy Ralph grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Having spent most of her life along the I-5 corridor, she is reviewing works from authors with a connection to the region. She tweets as @cithra.