Edited by Kevin G. Bufton
Cruentus Libri Press
On the surface, The Dead Sea should have been one of my favourite reads this year, a collection of nautical themed horror stories. I've written about how an intimidating environment can do wonders for horror, and with its vastness and potential for tumultuous weather the ocean is no exception.
Unfortunately, The Dead Sea is marred by frequent grammatical errors and, in one case, poor story selection--two aspects that I can't help but think could have been improved by a more experienced editor.
While a few of the included stories are the ghostly tales you might expect from a nautical horror collection--Kristal Stittle's tense "Lost at Sea" and Robbie MacNiven's "Golden Seas" chief among them--most of the volume consists of aquatic twists on the zombie and vampire subgenres. Of the former, W.B. Stickel's grotesque and deeply pessimistic "Bad Fruit" is the best; of the latter, Jay Wilburn's "Drift" effectively portrays the plight of a sailor stranded on a broken-off section of pier while attacked by heavily decomposed nosferatu night after night.
But the collection really shines when its authors dabble more in the unknown than with a conventional physical antagonist. Chris Bauer's "Songs of the Abyssal Plain" is as fine an opening piece as they come, following a German U-boat crew on their final, ill-fated mission as they are pursued by a mysterious force. Bauer wears his influences on his sleeve but that doesn't drag the final piece down--granted, I'm biased toward any fiction involving submarines so my opinion may not necessarily be the most valid. "Fog," by Cameron Suey (interviewed previously here), is an epistolary piece, ostensibly a letter of warning written by the executive officer of a US Navy vessel. It's a brief story, but with a wonderful mix of tension, mystery and horrifying detail, and easily the best in the collection. There is also Sara Taylor's excellently written "A Woman's Kiss," the last record of a British medical student aboard a freighter plagued by vengeful spirits. I'd like to read more of the last author's work after this but for the life of me I can't find even a mention of her outside The Dead Sea's Amazon page.
But for every great selection there is an error or questionable editorial choice that makes me cock an eyebrow. "The Dead Sea: A Haibun" by Paco, the anthology's concluding piece, contains scene transitions and location descriptions so vague I had a hard time determining whether certain characters were on a boat or in the water. Christopher Hivner's "Party Boat USA" is an almost entirely nonsensical piece that no amount of morbid humour can save. And Paul S. Huggins' "The Slave" is just an awkward and jarring story to read. Each felt like a first draft that had only been subjected to Spell Check before being submitted.
The worst offender, however, is "Sirens of the Undead" by Scott L. Vannatter. By itself, it contains enough problems to write an essay on--awkward sentence structure, forced, cliched dialogue and seemingly on-the-fly characterization among them. At the halfway point, the author even switches the names of two characters--one of whom has been just devoured by zombie mermaids--and fails to correct the error for the remainder of the story. The fact that editor Kevin G. Bufton missed that last mistake leads me to question whether he actually read his anthology's selections.
I really wanted to like The Dead Sea as a whole, but the production on this collection felt incredibly rushed, as if Cruentus Libri Press needed to meet its deadline more than it needed another revision. Bufton and company need to get their act together for future releases.