Traveling long stretches of a dark highway it's easy to imagine the horrors lurking in the dark, some of them all too real. Drunk drivers, car crashes, vehicles flipping and sliding along the asphalt, glass breaking and sparks flying as metal meets road and the smell of gasoline perfumes the air. The black hidden world beyond the lane markers and past the guardrails is more ephemeral, the secrets hiding just past the road darker and wilder.
In Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From the Road, D. Alexander Ward has compiled fresh writings from more than twenty authors (only two are reprints, Joe R. Lansdale's "Not From Detroit" and Rio Youers' "The Widow") who have reached into the darkness of the highway, a darkness that travels upon the road beside you, or maybe follows behind you just a bit too close for comfort, or hides just off the exit or in the woods beyond the stretch of road, hoping for some unsuspecting soon-to-be victim to come their way.
Two writers, doungjai gam (writing with Ed Kurtz) and Jess Landry, managing editor of JournalStone, make their fiction debuts with "Crossroads of Opportunity" and "The Heart Stops at the End of Laurel Lane," respectively. Both deal with elements of personal loss, tragedy, death, madness, and the ghosts we carry with us in wildly different ways. These themes occur time and time again throughout Lost Highways, with veteran writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Christopher Buehlman tackling similar concepts of death and the carriage he rides in that could not have been handled in ways more different than here.
Throughout Lost Highways there exists certain plays on a theme, particular notes that are reinforced thanks to Ward's organization of these stories, and elements that are echoed in various and striking ways across the book. Yes, there are stories of cannibals and killers, of urban legends and people grappling with madness, but it's the overwhelming amount of heart that resonates and overlaps the stories here, creating miniature story arcs of emotion that are strengthened or that chafe against one another.
Kristi DeMeester's "A Life That is Not Mine" is an excellent story of madness, but it's all the things that aren't on the page that ring the most true and provide a powerful examination of depression and self-destruction. Schoolteacher Hannah has forgotten what morning looks like, all the light in her life having left. She lives a solitary existence in the dark, one with no happiness, no joy, only drudgery and an escalating insanity. "The Widow" by Rio Youers takes a similar tack, but one that is strikingly different as his protagonist, Faye, grapples with the roadside death of her husband and stumbles upon a centuries old supernatural mystery while those around her constantly worry about the state of her mental health.
Michael Bailey's "The Long White Line" is an exquisite paradox of a story, albeit one with a very simple premise. Still, it's difficult to discuss without veering sharply into spoiler territory and revealing the catch. This one is all about the concept, and it's the stuff of urban legend. Kelli Owen sharpens her blade with her own bit of urban legend involving a small, sleepy town past a Northern Michigan highway exit in "Jim's Meats." Owen hit a lot of sweet spots for me with her story of a wrong turn gone seriously awry, and one character's early mention of the film Deliverance provides a glimpse of where things are headed. I love these types of B-movie pulps, and Owen delivered one of my favorite stories in Lost Highways. Speaking of movies, it feels safe to say that Matt Hayward found some inspiration from John Carpenter and Stephen King with his story of a roving fog that demands the worst memories of those that drive through it. "Where the Wild Winds Blow" ends on a satisfying note that makes one's imagination run wild at the prospect of what comes next, and I certainly wouldn't mind it if Hayward opted to explore this story further somewhere down the road.
Lost Highways is also notable, at least for me, in presenting a return to prose fiction from Rachel Autumn Deering, who depicts one of the most honest stories of heartbreak I can recall, in "Dew Upon the Wing." I was a fan of Deering's 2016 debut novella, Husk, so it was terrific to find her traveling the dark passages of Lost Highways. Of particular note, too, is Cullen Bunn, a scribe best known for his work in comic books, particularly his Bram Stoker Award-nominated Harrow County, whose "Outrunning the End" makes a nicely apocalyptic short story involving a man on the run, chased by demons both personal and otherwise.
At its best, Lost Highways presents some truly engaging, mysterious, and unique stories to captivate. At its worst...well, frankly, there isn't really a worst to be had here. Lost Highways is the rare anthology that even when it's not running hot with its pedal to the metal, it's still pretty damn good. With a line-up that includes a number of outstanding authors, like Jonathan Janz, Bracken McLeod, and Damian Angelica Walters, and a number of strong works from its lesser-known and debut contributors, it's truly hard to go wrong.
Lost Highways offers a number of trips, and more than a few satisfying detours, across the nation's highways and byways that you'd be remiss not to take. Just make sure you've got enough fuel in the tank - you don't want to have stop at some small Podunk gas station late at night in a place you've never heard of, or stall out alongside the road, your cell phone's signal mysteriously lost, with no help in sight. You don't know what's out there...lurking...waiting...and thirsting for blood.
[Note: I received an advance copy of Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From the Road from Crystal Lake Publishing.]
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