The Stars Are Right For Terror In The January Embers Press Anthology 'Horrorscope Vol. III'

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"What’s your sign, baby?”

It’s perhaps the oldest pick-up line in existence, and for good reason: astrology, that oft-misunderstood, sometimes vilified study of celestial movements, dates back to Babylonian times. Dividing the night sky into wedges under the guidance of twelve distinct constellations, to believers the effects of each zodiac sign imprint themselves on an individual at the moment of their birth, influencing them in ways both great and small, from body types to personality, romance and health. And though critics have for centuries attacked the practice on scientific grounds, its popularity has nonetheless surged in recent years.

Cashing in on the current astrological zeitgeist is indie book publisher January Ember Press, whose third entry in their ongoing Horrorscope series (available on Amazon October 20th), explores the darker side of stargazing. Subtitled A Zodiac Anthology, editor Harriet Everend skillfully segregated the volume’s thirty-six stories into a dozen sections (one for each astrological sign), consisting of three tales apiece.

The tome’s Aries opener, ‘The Wedding Dress’’ by Devon Talbott, is a hallucinogenic spiral of dread-inducing body horror, as a car crash survivor finds herself trapped by the very reconstructive procedures meant to save her. A savage serial-killing artiste goes to extreme ends to perfect her latest masterpiece in Jason A. Jones’s ‘Sometimes It’s About The Process’, while the vengeful (undead?) protagonist in Nicole Shay’s short poem ‘Bloodstained Justice’ takes grave matters into her own hands.

A killer duo discussing the finer points of cooking prove the couple who slays together stays together in Ivan Lopez’s deliciously malicious Taurus headliner, ‘Pork Chops And Mac & Cheese’. That’s followed by Josh Hanson’s claustrophobic piece, ‘Minotaur’, concerning an introverted boy who creates a literal and figurative labyrinth to hide from the world in the crawl space beneath his family’s house. Samantha Arthurs’ chilling portrait of a budding psychopath, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, begins when two boys discover a woman’s corpse, but only one is disturbed by it.

Gemini is represented first with Amber Hathaway’s ‘The Doll’, a creepy yarn about a woman haunted by the presence of her dead sibling, while Ashley Nestler’s poetic verse ‘Folie À Deux’ examines what it really means to have a ‘twin flame’. The twin theme carries through with the cleverly titled ‘Gem And I’, a dark portrait of poverty and familial abuse as told through the eyes of a young girl whose grandfather believes she and her sister are children of the Devil.

The Cancer section kicks off with Christian Frances’ ‘The Thing In The Bay’, which follows a self-destructive newspaper horoscope writer fighting to survive a city-wide wave of madness; Cancer takes on a more physical form in Konn Lavery’s ‘Just A Pinch Better’, as a man’s tumor metastasizes into something monstrous. A prison escapee meets his match in the shape of a small town waitress who want them to be ‘Together Forever’ in Shawna Deresch’s tasty tale.

Vengeance is central to Leo’s opener, Caleb James K’s ‘Bathed In Starlight’ and Hayden Robinson’s ‘potentia’, about a wrathful wraith and a revengeful witch, respectively. There’s a change of gears for ‘The Actor & His Roommate’, Rachel M. Shannon’s variation of the W.W. Jacobs classic ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, about a vain 1950’s actor and the lover who would do anything for him.

Virgo heralds the book’s second half, first with ‘Red Onion’ by Dylan Colón, another tale of comeuppance from beyond, this time inside a futuristic maximum-security penitentiary. The obvious meets the oblivious in Scott McGregor’s hilarious ‘Sweet Tooth’, as a slacker during the Covid lockdown remains blissfully unaware of his new roommate’s vampiric identity despite the all-too-apparent clues to the contrary. Set amid the turbulent days of high school, bullied teenager Julie learns she has a guardian bruja in the plump form of lunch lady ‘Mrs. Betty’, by Sary Fekete.

The dangers of the internet recur in the Libra section: a polyamorous married couple falls prey to a particularly deceptive online psycho in Dominic Bascati’s ‘Star Crossed’, and a shallow social media influencer receives a mystery box sent by a deadly cult in ‘Like, Share, Follow The Feed’ by Becca Joan, while Chris La Vigna’s brief poem ‘Screaming Silver Scales’ reassesses the sign’s balanced sense of justice.

Scorpio demonstrates that sometimes ‘Compatibility Kills’, Alyssa Stadnyk’s cautionary vision of a young woman whose astrological attempts to find love leads her into a cruel trap. That’s followed by ‘Antivenom’, Andrew Jackson’s poem about the scorpion’s sting, and Stormi Lewis’s ‘Now There’s Some Bad Blood’, in which a beleaguered retail worker discovers the deadly equalizer to her bullying boss.

Sagittarius starts with ‘Star Gazing’, Ashleigh Hatter’s unique POV of a burgeoning zombie apocalypse. After that is Bryce Johle’s poetic ode to Jupiter, ‘Cosmic Bird’, and Greta T. Bates’ short retro bloodsucker throwback ‘Playing With Fire’.

Stolid Capricorn takes over with Amanda Jaeger’s ‘Water Goat’, in which a shepherd takes unusual action against an ex-lover’s lover and the policemen searching for her. Two more cops performing a ‘Wellness Check’ in a missing man’s apartment discover a monstrosity in Chris Steele’s tense tale. The unnamed girl born in ‘The Shadow of the Horns’ by Marissa Yarrow finds herself victim of cosmic misfortune due to the actual horns sprouting from her head.

Charlie, the lead of Dave Mussen’s inaugural Aquarian entry, attempts to confront their water phobia and instead gets pulled ‘In Too Deep’, just as L. Stephenson’s ‘The Last Day of the First Month’ offers a bleak vision of an apocalyptic Aquarian Age. Even the brevity of ‘We’re All Individuals’ cannot dilute the power of Lennox Rex’s disquieting doppelgänger drama.

The anthology’s final section leads off with A.D. Jones’ humorous ‘In Conversation With Dead People’, which sees a police investigator interrogating a quirky vampire. There’s some seriously fishy business once ‘The Pisces Brothers’ set up shop in Bethany Russo’s eerily effective penultimate story. The book ends with ‘The Tour’ of an infamous murder house, whose only customer may be closer to the site’s crimes than anyone realizes.

The strongest aspect of Horrorscope Vol. III is the quality of its authorial lineup. On a tale-by-tale basis there’s nary a poor wordsmith in the bunch, and several stories (‘Minotaur’, ‘Gem And I’, ‘Sweet Tooth’, ‘Compatibility Kills’, ‘Wellness Check’, ‘Last Day of the First Month’, and ‘The Pisces Brothers’ among them) are certified standouts destined to linger in any eager reader’s mind long after closing the cover. That advantage slowly erodes, however, due to sheer thematic attrition: in terms of content, editor Everend overwhelmingly leans on revenge tropes, serial killers and psychotic breakdowns for her story selections; in small doses these can be thrilling, but when included in such repetitious numbers single stories can and do become easily forgotten in the shuffle. The briefness of the tales, too, works against the overall effort: precious little space is available for the contributors to truly spread their creative wings and deliver the detailed emotional connection required to endear audiences to the characters and situations. Fully assembled, Horrorscope Vol. III is the literary equivalent of a Tales From The Crypt marathon, short bursts of entertainment that, while fun, lack the stick-to-your-ribs meatiness of a feature length production.

Despite those faults, there’s still much gory glee to glean from these pages, and this Cancer hereby grants Horrorscope Vol. III a respectable 3.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. Give this a try for some quick Halloween reading. It’s written in the stars that you’ll love it.

3.5 / 5.0