BOOK REVIEW: “Chiral Mad 2”, edited by Michael Bailey

There is something for every kind of horror fan in this excellent, mind-bending anthology, an existential soup of time, memory, mirrors and consciousness.

1404956_662039637159846_650160715_oPublisher’s Blurb: Chiral Mad 2 is an anthology of psychological horror containing twenty-eight short stories by established authors and newcomers from around the world. All profit from sales of this anthology go directly to Down syndrome charities. Featuring the imaginations of David Morrell, Ramsey Campbell, Jack Ketchum, John Skipp, Gary A. Braunbeck, Mort Castle, Gene O’Neill, Gary McMahon, Lucy A. Snyder, Thomas F. Monteleone, and many others, with an introduction by Michael Bailey.

Paperback, 424 pages
Published Dec 13th 2013 by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform
ISBN: 1494239973 (ISBN13: 9781494239978)

In his introduction to The Shining, Stephen King wrote, “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” For people who are not keen on horror fiction, the general perception is that the horror genre is awash with blood and guts and gross-out gags; but for those who know better, there is a recognition that the finest works of horror are not about the gore and the pea soup at all. At our most primal, we are afraid of nothing so much as our own selves – our darker halves, our murky reflections, the inner worlds that we sometimes traipse through in our most bewildering nightmares. Though some traditional literary manifestations of this dark human duality – think vampires and werewolves – have been airbrushed and glamorized till they’ve lost all original meaning, our deeper fascination with such chiral concepts endures. The idea of other selves, of twisted twins, of mirrored worlds and terrible symmetries; the question of which side of the looking glass we are really on. Some of the most compelling psychological horror in recent memory has dealt with these questions. Think of the button-eyed “Other” people inhabiting the parallel universe in Neil Gaiman’s short story Coraline; the rending of a ballerina into two in Darren Aronofsky’s masterful film Black Swan; the dark halves and warped replicas in so many of Stephen King’s stories (The Langoliers, Pet Sematary, The Dark Half, It, Secret Window, so many more); the horrific astral dimension in the James Wan film Insidious or the psychological fragmentation of the protagonist of Dennis Lehane’s novel Shutter Island.

Similarly diverse themes of chirality come together masterfully in Chiral Mad 2, an anthology of psychological horror put together by Michael Bailey. The anthology contains twenty-eight short stories by authors known and new alike, featuring established names and prestigious horror fiction award winners and nominees – authors such as Jack Ketchum, Lucy A. Snyder, David Morrell, Ramsey Campbell – alongside several talented up-and-comers (including Usman Tanveer Malik, who just happens to be a DWLer!). As with its predecessor, the first Chiral Mad, all profit from sales of this book go directly to Down Syndrome charities.

Anthologies tend to be risky business for readers and editors alike; finding the perfect anthology, regardless of genre, is about as likely as finding the perfect playlist on 8tracks. Even if we assume that the literary merits of any piece of writing can be empirically determined, the likeability of the piece is entirely subjective – which means that in even the most promising short story collection you pick up, there are bound to be a few clunkers among the masterpieces. While this is just as true for Chiral Mad 2, what sets it apart from most anthologies I have read is that while most of the stories inside are wonderful and frightening, even the stories I didn’t like so much were still quite well written and more importantly, they were interesting. And that is never a bad thing. There is something for every kind of horror fan in this anthology: contemplative eeriness, funhouse thrills, even a couple of gross-out moments.

In the “viral invitation” for submissions to this anthology, Bailey specified that “all stories must have some element of chirality, whether it is in character reflection, physical and/or mental symmetry, structure, or any other way you can manage.” What has resulted in the final product is a wonderful diversity of takes on chirality. Some are literal, such as the story of the man who sees the world as in a mirror-image, and the story of the little girl who must maintain her obsessive compulsive need to maintain symmetry or horrible things start to happen. Other stories do away with the linearity of time, or craft parallel lives, or look at memory as a reflection of the self (and vice versa), or question what the “self” even really is.

Aside from the friendly introduction, there is no easing into the mind-bending nature of these stories; from the get-go, you are thrown headfirst into an opening story that embodies the essence of all that is to come: a spy-versus-spy style story about time-travel and the creation and destruction of the narrator’s various selves. It introduces the readers to the existential soup of time, memory, mirrors and consciousness that defines this collection. What then follows is a train of ingenious variations on that soup: the man who kills witnesses and participants in his worst memories in order to kill the memories themselves; the woman whose husband cons her into painting another, “better” version of herself to life; the painter who sees the world on a howling, fiery plane that is so horrible he has to stab out his eyes and brain; the Japanese monk trapped in a cryptic afterlife, seeking metaphors to parallel and therefore explain his human existence.

Bailey’s ordering of the stories is striking. For all their diversity, he has managed to arrange them according to points and currents that connect them, creating a comfortable kind of flow from beginning to end. A story about eyeless duplicates of apartment building residents living down the garbage chute, is followed by a story about a man scavenging through people’s curbside garbage to discover impossible relics from his past; a story about the “ghost-widows” of deceased militants carrying on the carnage wrought by their husbands, is followed by a post-apocalyptic story about a deadly plague that causes “soulmates” to violently crash into each other and fuse into horrible monstrosities that must be destroyed. Bailey has tried to establish a segue from story to story, and it works somehow.

The collection ends with a work that is an ingenious rumination on the origins of violence in the human imagination. A fitting choice for the ending, since the connection between the darkness of the human mind and the ugliness of the world is something Bailey seems to wonder about himself. A published author of psychological horror himself, Bailey had something to say on the subject in an interview with FEARnet last year after the first Chiral Mad was released: “Horror gets a bad rap outside of the horror world. Whether it’s Stephen King, Jack Ketchum or Jill Newcomer, horror writers are good people. We may have dark minds, but we have warm hearts, and it shows when we join forces to create something beautiful for a good cause, such as Chiral Mad.” He did, however, also write on his blog that he wanted to go down a more “positive” path with his own writing, “because that’s what the world needs.”

Bailey does plan to continue editing and publishing charity anthologies, however, and that’s great not only for the worthy causes they will serve, but also because the man’s keenness to promote talented new and up-and-coming writers alongside well-known names is another thing the world needs. As he writes in the “outro” of Chiral Mad 2, the fact that the book features these writers together is meant to affirm that every story and writer featured therein is of similar caliber. I certainly discovered a few new names that I’d like to read more of, and that is why I’m interested in reading the first Chiral Mad as well. Both anthologies, along with another psychological horror anthology called Pellucid Lunacy, are available in paperback on Amazon. I promise, you have no reason not to check them out right away.


1544386_10153973216530571_699756311_nFatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.