Tarl Hoch’s Abandoned Places isn’t the first furry horror-themed anthology,1 but the genre includes relatively unmined territory for anthropomorphic fiction. More intriguingly, many of the voices presented here are relatively new to the scene, or at least to the anthology circuit. Hoch himself may be best known in the fandom as one of the co-hosts of the Fangs and Fonts podcast. Authors include novelists Ryan Campbell, James L. Steele and Ben Goodridge, as well as a few authors known more for explicit work, like Rechan and Kandrel.
Before I start: a digression. Writers and critics sometimes talk of agency, a term of art which refers to how much control a character has over their own destiny. A protagonist must actively make a decision that leads to the climax. It may be a bad decision, it may be a good decision that fails, but it’s a decision. In horror, characters may spend a lot of time reacting to the horrific, but that doesn’t let them off the hook: “run from the monster until you get eaten” doesn’t count as agency. (Except perhaps for the monster.) I’m going to come back to agency when talking about some of these stories.
While you’d assume the theme of Abandoned Places is exactly what it says on the tin, Hoch allows for wide latitude. Right out of the gate Rechan’s “Empathy,” a short and effective riff seemingly inspired by the popular lore (if not the true facts) of the Kitty Genovese murder, lets you know some territory ahead is more metaphorically than literally haunted.
Kandrel‘s “Rainfall” is a fascinating mystery/survival story wrapped up in a science fiction dystopia; with solid plotting and characters, it punches far above its word count class in world-building. “Prospero,” a hard sf piece by Patrick Rochefort presented as a letter—after a fashion—from an uplifted lab animal sent out in an exploration craft that wasn’t intended to come home, is an absolute knockout not just for the Big Idea but for the craft of the writing. If there’s any original piece of short fiction that FurPlanet’s published that they need to get in front of mainstream award committees, this might be it.
Other stories also feature strong narrative style, refreshing to see in furry work. David Ramirez’s “Who’s to Say,” a slow and surreal meditation on a serial killer and his latest victim, drips style (and bodily fluids). Adam Riggs‘s “Sleepwalking” captures a Poe-esque Victorian feel well, and the Big Idea it’s built around is the kind the phrase “delightfully creepy” was coined for. “World’s Biggest Dragons,” Ryan Campbell‘s contribution, turns a sad roadside attraction into a horrifying spectacle in a fashion Stephen King might be proud of.
“Piping,” Hoch‘s own dark sci-fi novelette, calls to mind several other stories—one might describe it waggishly as four parts “The Thing” to one part “Avatar.” Despite being the longest story here it would benefit from being longer; there’s not enough space to lift some antagonists from cliché, and a pivotal character relationship feels rushed. Roland Jovaik‘s “One Shot of Happy,” a revenge tale that would slot neatly into a noir anthology, is grim even by the standards by the rest of this collection.
Ben Goodridge‘s “Scratch” is a post-apocalyptic take on werewolves; the setting gave me a distinct feeling of watching a first-person combat video game, but the story’s strong enough. Bill Rogers‘s “Belief” sticks close to a canonical interpretation of the Abandoned Places theme, a clever ghost story that reads like a spooky campfire tale.
Ianus J. Wolf‘s “All That Glitters” has a Huck Finn by way of Clive Barker vibe and skirts questions of agency by setting up a battle of wills between those easily corrupted by evil and those desperately trying to resist; he does a good job with characterization (even if I’m a bit on the fence about the dialect). And among the many stories that involve a literal abandoned place, Tonin’s “Under the Mountain” stands out by recognizing that the most dangerous monsters in abandoned places may be the ones we bring in ourselves.
Other stories in the volume are less successful, though—and the problems all reflect the “A” word.
“The World Within” has a wonderful setting and a terrifying villain, but one suspects author John Lynne most wanted to tell the tale of a Faustian doctor bringing unintentional doom to a Titanic-class steamer, and wrapped it in an implausible framing story to fit in theme. The plot simply moves the protagonists from room to room as they find back story fragments. Then they run from the monster until…
While I appreciated the Lovecraftian style of Tyler David Coltraine’s “Stared Too Deeply,” it’s never clear what the main character wants, even superficially. A twist is surprising, but affects neither the protagonist nor the course of the story. Once the terror starts, he has nothing to do but observe. (And run from…)
James L. Steele‘s “The Cable” presents an amnesiac protagonist waking up in a ruined lab/hospital with a cable plugged into his head connected to a mysterious and still-functioning machine. He explores the facility, finding a menagerie of failed experiments. And that’s mostly it. This story is long on atmosphere but short on much else; while I often advocate for enigmatic and open-ended narratives, this one left me more annoyed than pleased.
Lastly, Taylor Stark’s “Darwin’s Future” starts with the premise that Darwin discovered DNA—somehow—and suggests this leads directly to apocalypse through a series of unconnected vignettes about bioweapon-based world wars and anthropomorphic soldiers. It’s ambitious but underdeveloped and jumbled, it’s a stretch to connect it with the anthology’s theme, and I’m not sure what readers are supposed to take away from it all.
Knowing that Abandoned Places had an unusually long gestation period, I’m hesitant to suggest it needed more editing. Many of the pieces here, though, could have used a polishing pass: pruning passive constructions, finessing dialogue, improving sentence flow. And, yes, I think a few of the stories would have benefited from further revision.
So if pressed to give an Ebert-style thumbs up or down, which way would I point? Despite my complaints, it’d have to be up. The best pieces are excellent—and even if not all the stories are effective, it’s gratifying to see more genre-stretching in furry fare. Given a choice between a little overreach and playing it safe, I’d take overreach every time.