Although themed anthologies are common in today's publishing, they are, more often than not, focused on a concept or ephemeral idea, like the recent Lost Highways anthology, also from Crystal Lake Publishing, where each story played on the concept of life on the road. Rarer are those anthologies, at least outside of media tie-in properties, where the stories are united by a shared world concept, with the focus aimed toward a singular location. Matt Hayward's Welcome to the Show could have very easily been a basic themed anthology built around the premise of music, and likely that alone would have been a very successful and creative endeavor. Thankfully, Hayward had grander ambitions here, creating his own shared-world property for some of horror's best authors to come in and play.
Welcome to the Show isn't just about the music or the soundtrack of these characters lives. It's about the Shantyman, a dive-bar with a seriously warped history. Over the course of its existence, the Shantyman has been the starting point to some of music's most popular performers. It has also been the site of massacres, suicides, hauntings, and, quite possibly, the apocalypse, depending on which particular reality that world's Shantyman resides in. The Shantyman is, in short, a place of legend.
In this reality, at least, the Shantyman is also a hell of an excuse to show off the horror genre's elasticity and showcase some of the best writers in the business. The table of contents alone is a billet of who's who in horror, presenting veteran authors and younger up-and-comers who have already made impressive names for themselves. Brian Keene, Mary SanGiovanni, John Skipp, Bob Ford, Adam Cesare, Patrick Lacey, Matt Serafini, Glenn Rolfe, Kelli Owen, Jonathan Janz, Somer Canon, Rachel Autumn Deering, Jeff Strand, and more. It's a sheer smorgasbord, an anthology curator's wet dream, of horror writers all sandwiched together between two covers.
Between seventeen authors we get demons, ghosts, vampires, killers, psychopaths, and inter-dimensional Eldritch forces. There's romances and lost loves, time travel, kidnappings, cults, science experiments gone awry, and even a few laughs. Max Booth III opens up the Shantyman's doors for a live podcast show and a discussion about pegging (if you're unfamiliar with pegging, I'd advise you to not Google that at work). Jeff Strand, an author who routinely pens horror stories with a comedic bent, presents one of the most seriously uncomfortable stories about a man who thinks he's funny but isn't. His story, "Parody," is a painful read, akin to watching a highway pile-up in slow motion, as Zany Chester tries to take over the Shantyman's stage and out-do "Weird Al" Yankovic with disastrous, decidedly not zany, results.
Disaster and the Shantyman, unfortunately, go hand in hand. Throughout, characters suffer disasters big and small, personal and otherworldly. Rolfe gives us an encounter with evil in "Master of Beyond," as a few employees use their time off to play with Ouija board, which is, of course, always the best idea ever. Skipp's "In the Winter of No Love" is a fantastically written tale of love, drugs, and rock and roll in the waning days of the 1960's sexual revolution. "Open Mic Night" by Kelli Owen touches on my favorite music topics in her exploration of the 27 Club. The Shantyman is home to curses and cures, oftentimes more one than the other, and sometimes those forces are inextricably entwined as Matt Hayward demonstrates in his "Dark Stage," as the Shantyman's sound engineer is forced to retire from his crippling arthritis.
Over the course of Welcome to the Show, these authors explore the past, present, and future of the Shantyman. Some do their own thing, others build on the works they share space with, but throughout there exists a clear continuity that gives the Shantyman a sense of realness, a sense of history, a depth of existence. Brian Keene encapsulates this beautifully in the final moments of his short story, "Running Free," about a mobster who finds out he has cancer and takes up running, hoping he'll die of a heart attack instead. Even after mankind's experiments with sound and vibrations have accidentally ripped open holes to other dimensions and music has been outlawed, the Shantyman still stands and draws in - or perhaps lures is more apt - those seeking the soulful connection and magic of music. Mary SanGiovanni takes us into the dive bar's near future in "We Sang in Darkness," a story that showcases her strong talents as a Lovecraftian writer.
The Shantyman is real. It exists, because it has been given life by the authors here. Each have conspired to erect this portal through space and time, and they've opened its doors for all to enter, particularly - especially - the unwary and the uncertain. Visiting the Shantyman, you'll find that this establishment's acts are at their best when they quietly sneak up on you and surprise, as Adam Cesare does in "The Southern Thing." As an idea, the Shantyman is certainly one that feels fresh, unique, and wholly welcome, the kind of idea that has so much potential you can't help but want more. I certainly hope the Shantyman's doors haven't been closed quite yet. I'd like to enjoy a few more shows still, and there are a few particular performers I'd love to see showcased in a return engagement. Maybe one day, if the cosmos align just so. For those visiting the Shantyman for the first time, welcome, and enjoy the show.
[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher, Crystal Lake Publishing.]
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