My rating: 5 of 5 stars
On Halloween in Autumncrow Valley, Ohio, the moon is always full and it never rains, but even at other times, the things that go bump in the night are always real and every resident is a little more cautious than they would be just about anywhere else. They’ve become somewhat inured to everything that does and could happen here, though, because the fictional town that’s the setting for the short stories in Cameron Chaney’s first collection is a character itself, shaping people and events with its own shadowy desires.
I was sold from the atmospheric first-person first story “Follow Me In,” about a resident of Autumncrow Valley hoping to return to a corner of town they haven’t been able to find since their beloved died many years ago. When they finally get the opportunity, there’s a chance that the guide they follow is not who they think it is. In just a few short pages, this story introduces a mysterious town that cannot ever be precisely mapped. It is a place of light and magic as well as darkness and threat.
Some of the town’s inexplicable power comes from the soil, and in “Pumpkin Light,” a local resident tells a young visitor about a gifted widow at the local pumpkin farm who planted in the field the seeds for reunion, with a little help at harvest time from her young neighbor impatient to go trick-or-treating.
Characters in earlier stories might be mentioned or cameo in later stories, another technique that ties the stories together and allows Autumncrow Valley to develop as a character. The events of “Burnt Brownies” haunts many of the later stories, adding poignancy to the variegated terrain of emotions this collection traverses. Some stories are magical and fun, others are dark and terrifying, and others challenge as characters deal with trauma, hope, despair, opportunity, escape or no escape. In “Frost,” Autumncrow Valley demonstrates its reach across space and time to affect people outside its shifting borders, in this case, a 16-year-old runaway. That story echoes into “Saving Face,” where the tone and mood shift dramatically, and a father will show his son how to be a man, dammit, or die trying.
For me, one of the highlights in a collection that is all highlights is “I Have No Mouth and I Must Feed.” Chaney has a deep knowledge of horror, from books to movies—his expertise in his YouTube show and online presence “Library Macabre” was my gateway to his own fiction—and this is perhaps best showcased in this story with its clever allusion to Harlan Ellison’s famous short story, as well as references to several other horror books and movies. Chaney as a twentysomething today is inspired by an era of middle grade and young adult literature that I sadly mostly missed out on as a twentysomething in the 1990s, which makes for plots like the one in this story that I simply couldn’t predict from scene to scene. Ellen Reid is a fascinating and lovable character in a heartbreaking place, a place, in my opinion, that truly becomes a character all its own in this incredible story.
“CRYP-TV” plays up the humor, Halloween, and Autumncrow Valley myth-building in a delightful way right before my favorite story of the collection: the much darker and more solemn “There Are Monsters Here.” This final story of the collection may or may not be set in the titular town, but it carries all of that town’s mystery and atmosphere within it as the protagonist and his family deal with figurative monsters become literal. “There Are Monsters Here” feels like a culmination of everything that comes before it in the collection, including the author’s potent themes and astute observations about life and death.
I truly love this perfect-for-October and Autumn book, with its fun and wicked, but frequently dark and troubling, stories that whisper to me about my own trauma and personal history, suggesting dark and light new ways for me to look at things. Chaney has a knack for seeing right into the soul.
This collection with its fantastic tales by Chaney and that wonderful cover art by Cameron Roubique will likely become an annual read for me. I cannot recommend it highly enough.