Hello, my darklings!

First, I’m going to start by saying that I’m very thrilled that Cirsova Publishing asked me to review their new release.  I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing other works they’ve produced before and I’ve always enjoyed it.  This was no less pleasurable.

The book on the menu for this review is Duel Visions, an anthology of short horror stories written by Misha Burnett and Louise Sorensen.

First Impressions

Presentation is always important so let’s start there!

The first thing that struck me about the book was the title, which I found interesting.  It took me a few minutes of perusing the pages to get a sense of what they were going for and, I have to say, I like it.  And the reason that I like it because it’s a play on words.

For me, the word “duel” immediately sets off images of two men, dressed in Victorian or late 18th-century finery, facing off against each other with pistols at dawn.  The artwork actually reinforces this impression, looking something like a page out of an aristocratic scrapbook of the era.  It’s pretty and nostalgic, giving only a few hints at the actual horror contained within its pages.

Of course, as I read through the stories, it became clear that this was more like Arthur Smith’s “Dueling Banjos” song from 1954.  The two instruments might be juxtapositioned against one another, but they work together so nicely to make a final complete composition.

The same is true of Duel Visions.

And the play on words?  Well, there are two authors.  And what word meaning “two” or “double” sounds suspiciously similar to “duel?”  Dual!  So, intentional or otherwise, the title is a bit of a double entendre. Well, minus the risqué bit that usually accompanies such things.

Now, on to the stories!

Black Dog“Black Dog” by Misha Burnett

What would Death look like if you saw it in person? In “Black Dog,” we meet Andy, the caretaker at a local cemetery.  One day as he paints a fence, he sees a black dog walking next to a girl down an alleyway near the graveyard.  As time wears on, he sees the dog more frequently, each time walking with a different person. Eventually, his suspicion that the dog isn’t just a dog grows, along with the notion that perhaps the people it’s with are no longer alive.

This first story in Duel Visions is haunting.  It’s not frightening or scary (not to me, anyway) but is instead rather touching and bittersweet.  As a reader, I really felt for Andy, this man who was down on his luck after his wife and his business.  When it comes to the ending, it wasn’t what I expected at all. Part of me assumed that the dog would come for the caretaker but it didn’t.  At least, not in the way I anticipated.

The cemetery wasn’t full of death; it was full of lives, all these people who had been born and worked and loved and fought and cried and eaten and slept.

An old sailor

“Sinker, Sailor” by Louise Sorensen

While out at sea, a fishing boat pulls up an unexpected catch—a seemingly drowned man whose ID identifies him as Blake. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the man isn’t as dead as he looks.  Jordie, one of the crew, is assigned to take care of him during the voyage and he learns that Blake was on a research vessel that shipwrecked.  As time passes, Jordie begins to notice odd changes in the ill sailor’s physiology.

Sorensen’s first entry into the anthology is quite something.  Coupled with the setting of a stormy sea, the visions that Jordie has of his dead father beckoning to him from the depths of the ocean really help to cement the tale’s eerie ambiance and foreshadow the ending nicely.  Although, again, it’s a bit of a curveball because, given Blake’s tale of the events that took place on the research vessel, I expected a different ending.

Woman in gold dress“The Silk of Yesterday’s Gown” by Misha Burnett

An unnamed narrator details the events surrounding his wife Marci’s disappearance.  In short, he and his wife meet a charming couple named Tam and Robin, and shortly thereafter begin a sexual relationship with them.  Marci is the active participant while he watches from behind a two-way mirror.  As the activities of the threesome become increasingly abusive, the narrator finds himself becoming ever more aroused by the degrading acts performed on his wife, who also clearly enjoys it. But Tam and Robin aren’t exactly what they appear to be.

Written in the first person, Burnett’s story clips along at a decent pace.  Thanks to the interactions between the couples and the emotional reactions of the narrator as he relives the experience, it’s a tense read and the climax was appropriately disturbing.  In the end, I have to wonder if the title is something of a play on the old saying “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” only in reverse.

Angel statue“Ragged Angels” by Louise Sorensen

Paramedic Lissa and her partner Mike notice the presence of what they begin to call “Pale Ones” at nearly every overdose emergency to which they are sent.  Lissa, in particular, realizes that if one of these Pale Ones touches a patient, that patient dies.  She then begins to formulate a theory—what if vampires are real and they are feeding off the life force of those overdosing on fentanyl?  Unfortunately, she shares her theory with Mike.  When the two begin interrupting these feeding sessions to save their patients, they find themselves being targeted by the Pale Ones.

Sorensen’s story is a unique take on the vampire myth, leaning more towards the idea of energy vampires than the more common blood-drinking version.  The only thing I couldn’t quite get was why the drug was important.  Granted, Sorensen states that the vampires are addicts, too, but if they leech the life force from the dying victim, how does the drug transfer as well?  Does it alter the energy of the person?  That was the only bit I stumbled over.

Headshot of a Soldier“The Summer of Love” by Misha Burnett

Roger Blake is a military guard stationed at a Nevada prison colloquially known as “the Pit.” It’s run by the League Peacekeeping Force, part of a global government agency known as the International League. After another guard gets himself and several others killed, Blake is sent on leave and told to report for reassignment when he comes back. While trying to relax in Las Vegas, he runs into a man who tells him about a very different United States, one in which Germany instigated and lost two World Wars and the U.S. never joined any International League.

For me, “The Summer of Love” was the first truly disturbing story in this anthology.  The dystopian militaristic version of the world where Hitler was killed as a child and people can’t do anything without government-issued permission was unsettling.

Throughout the story, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was trapped in a dark, sepia-toned 1940s war film without any hope of escape.  Maybe this was because Blake’s life at the Pit was so dismal in contrast to the glimpse of the alternate reality he got from the stranger—the reality that I, as the reader, am familiar with.  Even Las Vegas, known for its glamour and sparkle, seemed lack-luster and dreary in Blake’s world.  I have to admit, Burnett definitely got me with this tale.

A ruined house“The Green Truck” by Louise Sorensen

A family searches through the rubble of a relative’s house to see what they can salvage.  Finally finished, the narrator piles the kids into the family truck (created from the remains of two salvaged vehicles) and her husband starts driving them home.  Without warning, however, he stops the vehicle, gets out, and walks back to the house to grab something he forgot, leaving them there in the middle of the road.  When the narrator tries to move the truck out of the way of traffic, it takes on a life of its own.

A quirky tale, “The Green Truck” is one of my favorites out of this anthology. I’ll be honest—it’s hard to say too much about this story without giving away the ending.  Considering that, as of the date I’m writing this, the book hasn’t yet been released to the public, I really want to avoid any spoilers.  Suffice it to say that this is something of an otherworldly Frankenstein-type tale that takes the idea of salvaging things to a different level.

I believe they’re mine, though I don’t remember much of the pregnancy. They might have been salvage.

Clown girl“The Blacklight Ballet” by Misha Burnett

When Pete is asked to check an abandoned mall for damage ahead of a land development deal, he just wants to do his job and leave. Unfortunately, the mall’s insane squatters, led by a suit-wearing clown named Jack, have other ideas.  After freeing a young girl locked in a cage, the two of them have to find a way out of the mall before they fall prey to Jack’s games.

If you’re afraid of clowns, this one will strike a nerve.  Me personally, I’m the opposite.  I’ve got a thing for insane clowns, so I thought this story was a lot of fun.  And, too, it capitalized on quite a few of the darker horror tropes, like cannibalism, deadly mazes, and exploring dark places with only a flashlight.

In short, coulrophobics are in for a fright (although it does have a very lovely, hopeful ending to look forward to if that helps) while those of a similar persuasion to myself will find it to be more fun than a big ol’ barrel of monkeys.

Aztec Warrior“Selena” by Louise Sorensen

Called home by her aunt, Selena returns to the family farm only to find that the woman has disappeared.  Another aunt, Maria, presents her with a stone carving of a jaguar, several legal documents, and a few notes that the missing aunt left for her. Selena quickly learns that she’s inherited a family curse (or boon, depending on how you want to look at it) and she now has to decide what to do with it.

Overall, I wanted to like this story more than I actually did.  I will say that the premise is intriguing.  Unfortunately, I found myself getting really annoyed by the main character Selena.  Her moral quandary (or what came across to me as more like moral grandstanding) just didn’t strike me as anything other than boring. To top it off, I really couldn’t feel anything at all for her Aunt Maria, regardless of whether she was a side character, and the “horror” of the missing aunt’s past actions just really didn’t seem that offensive to me.

Perhaps it’s just my preference for darker, unpredictable characters and outcomes that color my perception of this story, though.

That being said, it’s far from being a bad piece of work.  Really, it’s quite well written.  It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Hands and old movie camera“We Pass From View” by Misha Burnett

In 1963, Josef Naamaire had directed the filming an infamous movie titled We Pass From View.  Rumor had it that the few people who’d seen the film had gone crazy, murdering and devouring family members.  By 1980, all the cast and crew were dead except Naamaire.  In 2014, Aaron Tellman interviews the dying filmmaker, who’s itching to tell the real story behind the film.

Burnett’s story was a little hard to get into at first.  The initial seven pages are written almost like a research paper, with facts, dates, and names being fired at me one after the other.  This was interesting because it set a believable backstory for the following interview transcript but it was still a bit difficult to wade through.

There is a payoff, though, if you make it past that part.

The rest of the story is like a proper interview transcript (question, answer; rinse, repeat) and that’s where the story starts to get good.  Naamaire reveals some pretty horrific details about the film and the real effect that it had on cast members and viewers alike.

In the end, as a horror fan myself, I genuinely appreciated the nod Burnett seems to give to movies like The Ring, as well the urban legends and rumors like those that form a shroud of danger around films like Poltergeist.

crying statue“The Statue” by Louise Sorensen

In the foyer of a grand home in Toronto stands the haunted statue of a Balinese dancer.  It’s been in Anna’s family for two hundred years.  For many of those years, the dancer slept peacefully but her ire has been reawakened thanks to recent intrusions by thieves searching for hidden gold.  After several burglars meet their death at the statue’s feet, Anna decides to find out exactly what it will take to make peace with the restless spirit.

In a nutshell, this story started out very strong but, unfortunately, it fell apart at the end.  Why? Well, it all boils down to a problem with the main character.

The premise of the story itself is great.  It has everything that makes for a fantastic ghost story.  Anna’s actions through the main portion firmly establish her as a proper lady during the Victorian era.  And while Victorian ladies weren’t exactly known for being bold and brash, Anna is a quintessential milksop.  For the most part, this isn’t an issue in the main portion of the story because we’re learning about the toll that this statue takes on her and just getting to know her personality.

It’s when she confronts the spirit in the statue that her character fails for me.

At this point, she finally shows some courage by breaking the taboo against touching the wooden dancer which transports her to the spirit’s realm.  But from that point on, every single one of Anna’s reactions are completely illogical.  For example, she knowingly steps through the statue into a mist-shrouded world where she sees and speaks with the spirit girl only to think to herself afterward, “Hmm. I don’t think I’m in Toronto anymore.”  That line is just so awkward—only in part because this isn’t the Land of Oz and Anna isn’t Dorothy Gale.

As the last story in Duel Visions, I had high hopes for it.  And, in truth, they were carried through almost to the very last.  Unfortunately, it just didn’t finish well.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Duel Visions is a very entertaining collection of short horror stories with only a few hiccups along the way, and I genuinely enjoyed it.  I also really want to thank Cirsova Publishing for giving me the opportunity to review it!

If you’re interested in checking it out, it hits bookstores next month on February 14, 2019, just in time for Valentine’s Day!  (Note: the link above is not an affiliate link)

Oh, and please, if you’ve enjoyed this review or have had a chance to read the book, leave a comment below.  I’d love to hear what you think!