The collection brings together some of the darkest minds in horror and lets them roam free. As a result, the collection is a mixed bag - with some definite gems and a few tales that are a little too unrestrained.
My preference was for the stories that maintained a slightly tighter focus. Although Andy Remic's "Mongrel Days" introduce his Anarchy series (including the recent Theme Planet), the story is an excellent standalone shoot 'em up. Mr. Remic excels at MegaViolentTM action and cliff-hangers and both these specialities are on full display in this dystopian gun-brawl.
Another strong entry is Fred Venturini's "The Machine". The story features a muscular health-freak and his obsession with the latest miracle cure. Mr. Venturini has a nasty satirical touch and the story is strewn with both disconcerting body horror while still serving as a tongue in cheek look at our societal fetish with pseudo-scientific cure alls.
The absolute star of the collection is Gary McMahon's "Dirty Story". Harry is a middle-class, middle-aged man in search of a fresh (clean) start, two years after the death of his wife. Pretending to be working class, he gets his hands dirty in a construction job - the sort of grueling labor that keeps his mind off his troubles. In the evenings, he gets dirtier with his girlfriend, Sharon and their "sex-only" relationship.
Perhaps Harry's new beginning isn't quite as squeaky clean as he wants. One evening after work, he discovers that the day's dirt won't come off his hands - no matter how hard he washes. As his relationship with Sharon grow more involved, the dirt spreads. Despite his desire for simplicity, his life is growing more complex, and his own body is responding with a (disgusting) physical manifestation of his guilt. Like the rest of the volume, "Dirty Story" is a deliberately nasty little tale, but Mr. McMahon layers in both emotional resonance and social commentary as well.
Unfortunately, not all the stories were to my taste, either because they were a little too free-ranging or by overly fetishising nastiness with no real contextual need. Eric S. Brown's "Civil Beasts" is an example of the former- an ultra-short story of the American Civil War that's a little too casual. Although the story does contain a burst of promising action, "Civil Beasts" ends too abruptly, and long before I was able to start connecting with either the characters or the plot. It is also punctuated with weirdly anachronistic language (they didn't really call one another "newbies" in 1865).
Tommy B. Smith's "The Tax Collector" is set in an evocative fantasy/Western world and, although this is normally a straight-up win for me, the story raises far more questions than it answers. What just happened? Who did it happen to? And, most importantly, why?! Although an intriguing setting, it simply isn't a self-contained story. I'm not sure if this is part of a larger body of work, but, if so, Mr. Remic's "Mongrel Days" provides a better model when it comes to mixing an existing mythos and a self-contained short story.
Joseph D'Lacey ventures into Stephen King's territory with "Whatever It Takes", a story about a writer and his lethal muse. The story has the heart of a dark comedy, but is embellished with too many deliberate gross-outs. George, the writer protagonist, is a repulsive mess even before his hostage situation begins and, as a result, it is hard to tell which of his problems are self-inflicted. His nameless tormentor is inconsistent, with a vague motivation that hints at supernatural origins. Cruelty for its own sake, no matter how disgusting, is less scary when it is completely random. As a result, the bizarre compulsions of the unnamed villain are less terrifying than the vaguely human (and remotely understandable) behaviour of Mr. King's Annie Wilkes. Mr. D'Lacey has an excellent turn of phrase, but, in this story, his hyberbolic descriptions occasionally obscure the story's action.
Although a mixed collection, 13 is, on the whole, an excellent showcase of genre fiction's ability to imagine and present humanity's oldest and strongest emotion, fear. Despite that, the collection is not outright horror. As noted above, many of the contributions step away from pure terror, preferring to season it with action or comedy instead. 13 is reasonably priced and the highlights are very high indeed. If dark fiction is your thing, 13 contains a baker's dozen examples of how very varied the shades of darkness can be.
13: Tales of Dark Fiction, edited by Adam Bradley, is available in both print and eBook.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who is terrified of the book's cover.