THE CHILL, dark winter nights are a perfect time for snuggling up by the fire or down under the duvet for a brisk, scare-filled read.
These two publications offer lovers of the macabre the chance to imbibe their thrills in little sips or, in the case of Samuel Key's latest novel, in one big gulp. For sheer gripping escape, Key (the Ottawa writer Charles de Lint, best known for his urban fantasy tales) delivers the best shivers for your buck. However, therapists working with sexual offenders are unlikely to appreciate Key's "demonization" of the pathetic Teddy Bird, a pedophile and child killer who returns from the grave in pursuit of his daughter Niki - even after being shot in the head by a Native cop named Thomas Morningstar.
Despite its somewhat predictable plot, From a Whisper to a Scream holds the reader's attention because of the skill with which it interlaces several parallel plots (involving police officers, two newspaper photographers, and a gaggle of young street kids), all of which lead inexorably toward the final destruction of the horrific Bird.
As one might expect of a writer whose alternate persona creates fantasy novels, a strong measure of otherworldly spirituality (including Native spirits invoked by Morningstar's brother, John, and the potent forces called up by a voudoun mambo named Isabeau Fontenot) is essential to Key's resolution. And although Niki, on the run as a terrified street-person, begins as a victim of her father's perverse sexual pursuits, she becomes an agent of his destruction, thereby reclaiming both her autonomy and her chance for mental health.
Northem Frights, by comparison, is less satisfying over all, and slightly uneven in tone as collections of this span are wont to be. Its "chilling tales" include works by such well-known fright-meisters as Robert Bloch, Tanya Huff, Garfield ReevesStevens and, ironically, Charles de Lint, whose "The Soft Whisper of Midnight Snow" is a quintessentially Canadian masterpiece in the shivers genre.
The editor, Don Hutchison, suggests in his introduction that this collection is a Canadian answer to tales from "New England's witch-ridden woods and the haunted Gothic South." "Indeed," writes Hutchison, "the natural features of Canada - the vast forests, the wild mountain ranges, and the awesome frozen void above the tree line - are enough to stretch anyone's imagination."
Meant to function as a "dark fantasy" companion to Cold Blood, Mosaic's pioneer mystery series, Northern Frights is intended to provide a long-awaited Canadian showcase for talented short-story writers dedicated to the darker sides of human exploits. Given that aim, this collection is a laudable debut, providing readers with thrills set in recognizably Canadian locations such as Toronto (Reeves-Stevens's "Tear Down" and Nancy Baker's "Cold Sleep"), Northern Alberta (Steve Rasnic Tem's "Going North"), and even Banff National Park (Lucy Taylor's "Deer Season").
With the exception of Robert Bloch's nasty and somewhat misogynist classic "The Man Who Cried 'Wolf!", first published in 1945, the collection features up- to- the -minute tales. Henry Van Der Linde's black-and-white illustrations are an added plus and give the collection a 19th-century charm.
The 18 tales in Northern Frights are best savoured one or two at a time, over the course of a week or so, all the better to appreciate each one's distinctive tone and locale. And, since so many of them seem to be set amid chill rain or blowing snow, be sure you read them in warm, well-lit surroundings.