The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons (#1 of 4), edited by Paula Guran

My Copy: 9780762449378 (image from amazon.com)

I finally found this book after looking at Angel/Demon mythology and trying to understand where it came from. I needed to research it because I’ve had story ideas burning a hole in my head, wanting me to use them. But when I found this anthology existed, I got to thinking, “What if it’s already been done, what you’re thinking of?”

That led me to buy this book and read it. There are 28 stories in this book, and to make digestion easier (and give my fingers a break), I’ll give a brief synopsis and review of 7 stories per post.

After reading it all the way through, I have to say this is a varied collection of short stories. Sometimes when I thumb through an anthology, I get the feeling the editor was trying to steer me a certain direction on how to feel or what he/she liked best. In this one, I think Ms. Guran just wanted to throw anything in that was different and interesting. I felt some of these stories were kind of hit or miss…but that was TO ME. Others would’ve loved the works I didn’t care for so much, and there were some stories I know I’ll go back and re-read a few times.

But that’s an anthology for you. Each story is given a brief synopsis and introduction (which I don’t want to repeat or spoil too much, Ms. Guran picked out the good points already), so my versions will be brief.

Anyhoo, without further ado:

***

“Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep,” by Suzy McKee Charnas

Rose is a grandmother, an atheist, and now a suicide surveying the aftermath of her decision to off herself and the people who come into her apartment after. I was sure that’s all it would’ve been, a quirky story of a woman wondering what the hell to do next since she’s dead and is wondering if what she was told growing up or through believer friends was true or false. Well, it’s a bit different than that.

I found it a neat exploration of the senses and how they could change without a body. But Rose finds she has a guardian angel, more of a guide to the afterlife that she’s not wanting to go to, finding something ominous in the presence she detects in the sky (probably because she’s a nonbeliever and a suicide). But the guardian angel does give her a chance to delay it…and it involves blood, and her granddaughter.

I don’t want to spoil much, and probably said enough. I think it’s an odd story, and I’m not sure how I liked it or didn’t like it. It’s definitely different–that’s all I can say.

“Stackalee,” by Norman Partridge

Ms. Guran does the reader a favor by giving a brief introduction to “Stagger Lee,” known as the murderer Lee Shelton and made into a legend by songwriters over the years. Supposedly he’s so bad he made a bargain with the Devil and then kicked him out of Hell.

In this story, Mr. Partridge has Billy Lyons, an ambitious singer who decided to tackle the legend in song. The story opens with blood, and Billy Lyons trying to understand what exactly all those worried blues artists were so scared of.

At first, I thought this was just an alternate telling of the Robert Johnson story (the man who sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroad in Mississippi to become famous). But it turns out, “Stackalee” is a bloody mystery that made me think of “Secret Windows and “The Stand” by Stephen King. Billy tries to figure out what’s going on, the deal with the messages and what he’s supposed to do about them as everything starts to unravel.

Worth a read.

“Bed and Breakfast,” by Gene Wolfe

On the road to hell is a farm with an elderly couple who let people stay the night and make what they want, a loosely-constructed Bed and Breakfast. Not all who are there are actually on the way to hell, just maybe swinging near because of circumstances, who knows.

The narrator gives us a glimpse of the place he’s staying. He’s been there often enough that the couple know he’ll pay and not cause trouble, and he meets Eira, a young woman stopping in who may get kicked out before the night is over because she can’t pay. They strike up a conversation and we get to know more about our narrator as he matter-of-factly makes the young woman understand she’s very close to Hell where she is, and the Demons and Angels all around at different times and places.

The setup was pretty interesting, and I liked the conversation. I couldn’t quite get a bead on our narrator as the story went on, with his “no b.s.” nature and what exactly he was doing explaining everything to Eira, but I suppose it opened up a new world.

I think it’s something different in a very good way, a world where some people are very aware of Demons and Angels and a narrator whose job is not totally clear…and what’s with him and Eira?

Well, I won’t tell you that–worth a read to get to that ending!

“Frumpy Little Beat Girl,” by Peter Atkins

This one plays with parallel dimensions in addition to the Angel/Demon mythology. The “Frumpy little beat girl” in the title is Bethany, a girl who works in a used and collectible book store and when she’s alone, ends up meeting a stranger named Arcadia who asks her for books that shouldn’t exist. But then when he gets her to leave the store with him, the strangeness only mounts as Arcadia searches for the one wreaking havoc with time and space.

I have to say, this one’s quite different, and had a bit of a “Matrix” feel to it as Bethany and Arcadia go around town seeing what’s been happening. I found it a bit quirky and odd, but worth a look as an alternate view of what Angels and/or Demons could do on Earth.

“The Night of White Bhairab,” by Lucius Shepard

I have to admit, I found this one confusing. It definitely doesn’t have the traditional (read, Judeo-Christian) guises of Angels and Demons, but something else. The characters are a bit depressing and wouldn’t be people I’d want to meet anywhere–disturbed or far too selfish for their own ends. But maybe that’s why this story needs them–to knock some sense into them with events.

Not my cup of tea–I had to re-read sections several times to see what I was missing, and maybe it was just unfamiliarity with the culture and the experiences that Eliot, the main character, was talking about. I’ve rarely read a main character that seems to enjoy shooting himself in the foot so much: meditation to achieve enlightenment, then debauchery the rest of the time. That’s where we find him in this story, with a young American woman who is going to marry his host, supposedly, and things really go wrong with something supernatural that comes into play.

I guess I just didn’t get it, but I admit, It kept me trying.

“…And the Angel With Television Eyes,” by John Shirley

The future meets the legend of Michael, the Archangel. In the year 2030, an actor named Max wakes up to find a metal Griffin in his home after dreaming of it and many other disturbing things. The griffin is a guide and as Max becomes more aware of his vivid, crazy dreams, others who have been waiting for him to awaken come out of the woodwork to destroy him.

You’d have to read it to do proper justice with the visuals. There’s a great deal of description that I’d recommend reading slowly and letting it soak in. The action is some of the best I’ve read in a short story in a while, and I could picture it in my mind as it went. I am pretty sure I liked this one, just because I could immerse myself in it…though I did find it a bit confusing.

But after a while, I stopped asking questions and just took it as it was.

Worth a shot.

“Lost Souls,” by Clive Barker

If you’ve read about occult detective Harry D’Amour in novels and the short story “The Last Illusion” before, he’s making a return in this one. He’s apparently tracking down an escaped demon, and while he is, there are strange things happening that can only be a result of the demon…or other demons and angels messing with the mortals in the city.

It’s a short read, but I’m not 100% sure I liked it all that much. The setup is interesting and some of the characters, but it felt like a “slice of life” along the way, or a chapter or two of a longer story in progress. It felt incomplete and wrapped up in shifts…not sure what to make of it.

(Or maybe its just the only supernatural Harry I follow anymore is Harry Dresden–I never said I wasn’t biased, you know)

But if there’s more to this world, I’d be willing to read it. It just feels like there should be a lot more to do this story justice. For all I know, it’s a jumping off point for a novel…sure feels like it could be.

***

I have very mixed feelings on this section of the anthology. The stories varied in style, substance, and characterization, which was nice, but it made me wonder about reading more.

I’m glad I did, though.

Happy reading to all. Part 2 coming up in a few days.

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