Book Review: Out of Tune, Jonathan Maberry, ed. (2014)

December 1st, 2014 12:12 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Solid Collection of Short Horror/Fantasy

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I receive a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Also, the story summaries may include spoilers, so skip them if you’d rather read the anthology with fresh eyes. Trigger warning for rape.)

Confession time. I requested a review copy of Out of Tune based solely on the merits of one of its contributors: Seanan McGuire. I devoured the Newsflesh trilogy (penned under the pseudonym Mira Grant) and thought that her contribution (“Each to Each”) was the single best thing in Lightspeed’s special “Women Destroy SF” issue (a magazine filled with awesome things, mind you). I recognized some of the other names, but no one struck a chord like McGuire. Additionally, my interest in old ballads pretty much begins and ends with covers recorded by my favorite folk singers – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie. I didn’t really have any expectations, good or bad, for this collection.

Overall, I came away pleasantly surprised. The fourteen stories in Out of Tune run the gamut: there’s lots of horror and fantasy, peppered with a little romance and some good, old-fashioned ghost stories. Some, like “Wendy, Darling,” incorporate elements of other, much-loved tales, while others have an air of historical fiction; here I’m thinking of “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound,” which features Edgar Allen Poe as the incidental narrator. The authors’ respective senses of humor – whether wry, playful, or just downright wicked – are evident throughout. A few of the stories are remarkably poignant and painfully beautiful; “Driving Jenny Home,” I’m looking at you. As for the Big Bads, you’ll spot a number of usual suspects – ghosts, demons, mermaids, and wicked women – as well as villains less common to ballads, such as gods from Norse mythology.

The majority of the stories are in the 4-star range, with a few 3- and 5-star pieces to round the curve out. I can’t say that I disliked a single one, though some are more memorable than others. Among my favorites are “Driving Jenny Home” (no surprise there – it’s McGuire’s piece!); “Wendy, Darling”; and “Fish Out of Water.” These are definitely stories I’ll return to in the future.

*begin spoiler alert!*

“Wendy, Darling” by Christopher Golden – Based on the ballad The Cruel Mother, with elements of Peter Pan sprinkled throughout, “Wendy, Darling” kicks off the collection on a high note. The titular Wendy Darling, a twenty-something bride-to-be, is frequently visited by The Lost Boys – the spirits of children killed by their mothers…including the baby a very young and unwed Wendy drowned in the Thames. 5/5 stars.

“Sweet William’s Ghost” by David Liss – After Maggie’s fiancé William unexpectedly dies during a business trip to Scotland, she’s “haunted” by her controlling meathead body trainer lover. Turning the original ballad (also called Sweet William’s Ghost) on its head, it’s William’s ghost who comes to her rescue. 4/5 stars (mostly because said meathead is incredibly difficult to stomach).

“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” by Del Howison – A child, conceived in sin and poisoned in utero by her mother. A father who knows that she’s possessed by Satan, yet cannot bring himself to save her mortal soul by making the ultimate sacrifice. (Based on Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.) 3/5 stars.

“John Wayne’s Dream” by Gary A. Braunbeck – A middle-aged man, struggling with his father’s disapproval, comes to realize that none of us will ever measure up to expectations, whether or own or those of others. What we are will ultimately destroy us – so why not go out in that clichéd blaze of glory? (Based on The Streets of Loredo.) 3/5 stars.

“Bedlam” by Gregory Frost – A pirate, long deceased, returns to claim his beloved through necessary deceit – only to find that it’s she who tricked him into spending eternity with her. (Based on The Demon Lover / The Carpenter’s Wife / The House Carpenter.) 4/5 stars.

“Awake” by Jack Ketchum – What starts out as a story about a dying jazz star (sympathetic, if a bit of a lout) quickly morphs into a twisted tale of infidelity, rape, and incest as Ketchum abruptly hands the story over to his long-suffering wife. (Based on The Silver Dagger / Katie Dear.) 4/5 stars.

“John Henry, The Steel Drivin’ Man” by Jeff Strand – Freed slave John Henry was a steel-driver who was compelled to beat a series of increasingly powerful competitors in order to save the jobs on his fellow laborers: first a steam-powered hammer; then a warlock; then a dragon; and finally, all of them, working in concert. Each time the challenge killed him – and each time, his wife and friends resurrected him to do it all over again. Ultimately, John Henry ended up stealing their jobs, since he proved that he could perform them better than anyone.

Based on the ballad John Henry, Strand remixes the old tale so that it’s a little more favorable toward technological advancement. Yet this arguably pro-capitalist stance feels vaguely problematic, given that the original ballad was a source of pride and inspiration to African Americans. 4/5 stars.

“Fish Out of Water” by Keith R.A. DeCandido – When mermaids begin appearing in the waters of Key West, driving all humans who see them to madness, dive master Cassie – who recently discovered that she’s a Disir, a Norse fate goddess – sets out to right her friend Loki’s wrongs. (Based on The Mermaid.) 5/5 stars.

“Making Music” by Kelley Armstrong – A songwriting fae-turned-human makes music by literally stealing the words right out of other peoples’ mouths. I found it kind of nifty that Izzy reimagines old ballads – how meta. (Based on Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.) 4/5 stars.

“Tam Lane” by Lisa Morton – When Janet’s wealthy father purchases the old Daily Examiner building and asks his daughter, a budding architect, to transform the rooms into lofts, she’s over the moon with excitement: the building was famed architect May O’Greene’s final project. But she’s stunned to find a long-disappeared actor living on the third floor. (Based on Tam Lin.) 4/5 stars.

“John Barleycorn Must Die” by Marsheila Rockwell and Jeffrey J. Mariotte – In an assignment that was doomed from the start, a recovering alcoholic reporter is sent to a local microbrewery to write a fluff piece on the three successful young female entrepreneurs who run it – and narrowly escapes becoming their latest sacrifice to the barley. (Based on John Barleycorn Must Die / John Barleycorn / Sir John Barleycorn.) 5/5 stars.

“In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound” by Nancy Holder – Upon discovering that his deceased adoptive parents had some extended family in Arkham, Massachusetts, Edgar Allen Poe reluctantly leaves the bedside of his ailing wife Virginia to beg a loan – and bears witness to a witch’s curse of the unfaithful at the behest of a jealous lover. (Based on Barbara Allen / Bonny Barbara Allan / Sir John Grehme and Barbara Allan / Barbara Allens’ Cruelty.) 4/5 stars.

“Driving Jenny Home” by Seanan McGuire – When Leigh’s girlfriend Jenny dies in a post-Homecoming car accident, Leigh’s unable to let go. Every day, she parks outside the cemetery gates; eventually, Jenny begins to appear to her, always requesting that promised ride home. Two words: lesbian cheerleaders. Also: a The Last Unicorn reference FTW. (Based on The Unquiet Grave.) ALL THE STARS.

“Hollow is the Heart” by Simon R. Green – A disgraced journalist pitches a story to his old newspaper – a local piece exploring the historic roots of the Hollow Women myth. An age-old superstition, the Hollow Women are women who look human but are really empty inside. They prey on young men, laying claim to their virtue – and sometimes their lives. (Not to mention their sperm!) It’s all fun and games until the story turns on him, in a most personal way. (Based on The Foggy, Foggy Dew.) 4/5 stars.

*end spoiler alert!*

Out of Tune is an original, inventive collection that’s sure to appeal to a variety of readers: those who have made ballads a hobby or career, as well as those who just have a passing interest; fans of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural; and people who dig short fiction and are looking for a solid collection.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The protagonist of “John Henry, The Steel Drivin’ Man” is a freed slave. The titular Jenny of “Driving Jenny Home” is a recently deceased high school cheerleader whose girlfriend, Leigh, can’t let her go.


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