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Signs and Portents by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

A pop culture addict who loves to talk about movies, music, books, comics, and all of the other things that move and entertain us.

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Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is an author of mostly horror stories, who has also dabbled in doing psychic readings, cartography, and musical composition. She is best known for her books about a vampire named Count Saint-Germain. She has won the Bram Stoker lifetime achievement award and the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. She has worked with many other authors on collaborations and also published under at least 5 other pseudonyms. Signs and Portents is a collection of her short stories.

Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin' kicks off this collection. It's about a man who begins to get newspaper clippings about his own death in an accident. At first he thinks it's just a mean spirited prank. But as it continues on it starts getting to him, keeping him from enjoying his new promotion. He goes out of his way to not be in the area of the accident during the time period involved. But of course Fate is not a mistress who can be spurned, as the gentleman finds out in the twist ending that had me thinking of the episode of Robot Chicken that had M. Night Shayamalan popping up to shout "What a tweest!"

Depth of focus is about a news photographer who has a bit of a lousy reputation based mostly on his ability to remain completely detached from the subjects of his photos. He misses working war zones because he likes to capture the carnage. But his lust for mayhem promises to soon be sated when a bank robbery turns into a hostage situation. The photographer is determined to get the best, read most gruesome, pictures he can. This story is less horror and more of a personal drama about how a moment can change a person. In fact, it reminded me of something by Bukowski, but with violence instead of sex and drugs. The story doesn't quite deliver with the intended impact, but it's not terrible.

Space/Time Arabesque takes place in a timeline gone amok. A low level tech makes a mistake monitoring the space/time continuum, and chaos ensues until he gets it back in balance. A stagecoach tries to outrun dinosaurs. Sir Walter Raliegh and Queen Victoria get stoned. Vincent Van Gogh goes in for plastic surgery to fix his ear. The mob demands the release of Jesus and the crucifixion of Barabbas. None of these are fully played out, with one scenario being stated in a succinct two words. It's all just an exercise in "Hey, isn't this wacky?" It's kind of dumb but still enjoyable enough, especially since it's brief.

Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme tells about a girl who has fallen for a young man who lives in the same backward, religious hamlet she does. However he has his eye on another girl. Our protagonist makes a trek to visit the herb woman to get help in snaring her man. It ends up being a night where she learns about herself, her father and the man she thought she loved, and brings her to a major life decision. It's an interesting story, but honestly feels more like the beginning of a larger story and not a full tale unto itself. Of course, that gives one license to use their imagination to see where the story might go, which might be more interesting than if the author had continued on. One mark of a good writer is knowing when to stop writing and let the reader's mind pick up the thread for itself.

There was a time when stories about "smart" houses becoming jealous of the affections of the man of the house causing it to turn on his wife/love interest were so common they became almost their own subgenre. I have seen it played for horror and for comedy. Best Interest is a typical example of this kind of story, with the added twist that the man laughs off the house eating his lover with a "there you go again" attitude. I do find it interesting that now that we are actually getting to the point of having "smart" houses this genre has yet to make a comeback.

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The Ghosts at Iron River feels like it's just part of a story. It begins with a Native American burial ground about to be moved. There are a lot of political implications which aren't explained well. There is a major character who never even actually appears. Despite the name there are no ghosts, but there is a murder mystery that is mentioned incidentally but ends up being the main point. But neither the victim nor the murderer actually take any part in the story, other than the victim's body being found because of the actions of the other aforementioned character who doesn't actually appear. It makes it hard to feel the import of the events when you aren't entirely sure who any of the characters involved are. There's zero emotional connection to anyone. Other than a general sense of "Yay, justice for the Native American tribe" there is very little to connect to in this story.

Fugitive Colors also feels like it started halfway through the story, but it fares a little better than the last one. While we don't get a connection with the main character, the premise is interesting enough that you can forgive this. The story follows a man who has volunteered for a space voyage using a new method of faster than light travel. Even though there are others on this journey, for some reason he is the only one awake and aware. He begins losing his grip on reality, which is hastened along by meeting a creature who transforms all his shipmates into something other than human. For unexplained reasons the main character is not able to make the transformation. Seeing his memories of his time on earth mutate with the passage of time and deterioration of his mind is fun. At first you think maybe the writer has made a mistake, but soon you realize that his memory is beginning to change. It becomes more and more unhinged as the story goes on. This is the first story in the book to really live up to the horror moniker, although it is certainly not a traditional horror story.

Coasting is so far the most traditional horror story in the book, but even it has it's quirks that many are not going to like, especially in this era where everyone wants everything explained to within an inch of its life. It starts with a man stuck in the fog on a boat. It delves into aspects of his personal life as he ruminates on his situation. He then gets the willies because of some vague feelings, see some things which aren't really described, and we are left with the feeling that he is stuck in perpetuity in the fog on his boat. We are never told how or why. You just have to accept that it is. There is unfortunately a feeling among some these days that this kind of writing is bad, but personally I think it is better than overexplaining. A story should challenge you to use your imagination to fill in the gaps instead of spoon feeding you everything.

The Arrows tells the story of an artist who is consumed with trying to bring his vision to fruition. He is painting a saint in his death agony, pierced through with arrows. He faces issues such as lack of funds and a shrewish landlady who does not appreciate art and thus does not appreciate him. He finds that he's putting himself more and more into his work, until finally he comes to the obvious extrapolation. We are not sure if this is a manifestation of mental instability, or if the paint fumes are playing havoc with the artist's reason. The ending is a bit telegraphed, but the story holds your interest through to the end.

The End of the Carnival is a story with an interesting premise, but unfortunately a lot of it doesn't make sense in the execution. The story centers on a group of women who were wives of men who worked at a nuclear power plant when there was meltdown. The men died but not before irradiating their wives, who are now both sick and toxic to anyone who gets too close. So of course they gang together and open a whorehouse. Anyone who has sex with them is going to die a slow and painful death by radiation poisoning, but apparently this doesn't keep them from getting business. The power company cuts off the little support they were giving the women, so they make a plan to get revenge. Everything in this story hinges on the idea that young, healthy men would be willing to die to have sex with a hooker who is sick and mutated.

If you're looking for supernatural horror, this is not the book for you. The author is obviously trying for more of an Edgar Allen Poe, the horror in our own soul kind of approach. Unfortunately these stories lack the cleverness or excitement of Poe, that that's a high benchmark to reach. I've read worse books, but I can't recommend anyone go out of their way to read it.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad

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