'Ten Plagues' edited by Ian Donnell Arbuckle and Justin Conwell (cover)

“Ten Plagues” edited by Ian Donnell Arbuckle and Justin Conwell
Saltboy Bookmakers, 2006
$10.40 trade paper original, 268 pages

This “Collection of Deadly Stories” sets itself the difficult task of having one short story for each of the plagues in Exodus.  The problem is that if it matches the stories and progression too closely, it could seem too derivative or predictable; and if it strays too far, things come off as random, and the inspiration as more of a gimmick.

I found “Ten Plagues” a very mixed bag.  The back cover says that “[the authors] unearth, by way of fictive archaeology, the deeper causes of the plagues […]”, but for the most part I don’t see it.  They are inventive with their “fictive archaeology”, and in some cases the stories work very well, but I was left wanting any real connection between the stories; and none of the stories seemed to reach for those common ties, let alone any deep-rooted causes–unless one takes the cause to be “they are”, or “we invent”.  Only a handful of the stories could really even be bent to having a connection wih the source material.

That said, many of the selections were enjoyable reading.  The tone is set with “Peter Pallister’s Pool” by J. J. Beazley standing in for the plague of blood.  The writing is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s, though less dense.  And it’s an interesting tale, if told two steps removed.  But while there is a voluminous amount of blood involved (in the creepy, ancient horror sort of way), nobody really seems plagued by it.  It’s a personal tale of a paranormal experience long in the past, and I was left confused as to the narrator’s connection to the story.

The next story hops to Calaveras County, changing tone and mood drastically, with an extension of Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.  Matthew Johnson’s “Jump, Frog!” is an amusing old science tale representing the plague of frogs, and it’s given as a letter to “an unnamed correspondent” found in the effects of the late Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).  It goes on to detail, in a very believable voice, the tale behind the tale: one scientist’s quest for eternal life, and his folly and accidental creation of an incredibly vivified frog; and the scientist’s subsequent “damnation” to tracking the frog hither and yon, trying to capture it.  Reference is made to the possibility of a plague of unnaturally powerful frogs if this one were allowed to breed.  We have to then assume the scientist was successful, though Samuel Clemens last saw him “headed north, up towards the Bay of Funday; and from thence, for all I know, the North Pole.”

We then head back into firmer horror territory with the plague of swarms.  Mark E. Deloy’s “Under the Church” is about as straight-forward as it gets, though the characterization is excellent.  The plague is obvious and there’s always the chance it will appear somewhere else, despite eager efforts to destroy it.

“Drums and Drums” by Andrew Ferguson riffs on the plague of parasites with a nice blend of voodoo and science.  For the length, I think it would have been better without the POV shift–he could have developed the guide further and given us deeper insights.  As it stands, each character is relatively flat, despite the reader being handed enough information to explain their placement in the story.  Still, it was disturbingly interesting, and the research tangents seem fertile for further exploration.  I also appreciated how the potentially global scope was self-limiting, making it all seem somehow more plausible.  Science Fiction Biology made a related post on October 4, 2006: Parasites That Control Behavior.

The plague of pestilence piece, “Mercy in the Lazaretto” by Mark Yohalem, was one of the stronger ones, with good mood, throughline, characterization, and setting.  It even tied both into earlier plagues and the likelihood of future ones, while examining human nature.  The flashbacks that deepen our understanding of the story are a little weak, but they are just glimpses, and a small part of the actual narrative.

“The Harvester of Sorrow,” by M.E. Palmer, is by far the strangest in the collection; and I think it had the most promise, both in idea and in format.  The narrative force in the story is a loosely-sketched character, a man who has the ability to feed on others’ sorrow, removing it from them viscerally.  After introducing us to this, the narrative takes us to the realm of the personification of the true Harvester of Sorrow.  Here we are treated to some elegant and imaginative imagery and, as we slip back and forth between the two realms, we begin to see the epic effects of the slight disbalance caused by the use of this ability.  This does at one point weakly hook it into the plague of fever boils.  It’s a complex story for the length, and that was its biggest challenge, and where I think it ultimately failed.  I’d love to see this piece redone as a full novel–there’s a lot of room to make stronger connections and answer some of the implicit questions.

Julian Todd’s “Mouthful of Smoke” represents the plague of hail; the setting is a future apocalypse where the few have much and the many are dead or dying.  The setting is very interesting, but the story doesn’t seem much more than a quick examination of it.  Then again, the life-or-death chance taken by the protagonist is nothing compared to the scope of the advancement and/or extinction of life as we know it, which could well be the point.

“A Plague on Both Your Houses” by Paul Finch is perhaps the most solid story in the collection.  An action/adventure set in the late 1800s of London, it mixes old-school “dangers best left alone” with the legend of “Spring Heeled Jack”.  The characters are, if not deep, at least solid archetypes, and well suited to the story and the mode of telling; and the plot carries you through with interest.  Its relation to the plague of locusts, while not immediately relevant to the story, is explained in a quite acceptable manner.

The plague of darkness is represented by P. Grey’s “Baa-Rum-Pa”, though the plague is more of a personal affliction–and brought on by rash behaviour and frustration.  Nazeer finds himself in need of a witch doctor, Baa-Rum-Pa, after all other remedies have been exhausted in the treatment of his father’s mysterious ailment.  It is the building madness of Nazeer and the random and abusive eccentricity of Baa-Rum-Pa that make this story.

Lastly, then, is the plague of the death of the first born; “China”, by Ian Donnell Arbuckle, is again a much more personal item than a plague.  It’s a somewhat fantastical modern-day piece told from the point of view of the younger sibling.  There’s a lot of complexity in the piece not directly addressed by the story–mentioned offhandedly, hinted at, or just played with–which in some cases works, and others just feels cheap.  Still, there are some clever moments.  For a quick feel of the anthology, you can read “China” at Bewildering Stories Issue 216.

All told, I think the anthology could have done without the Ten Plagues gimmick; and even with the gimmick, it wasn’t coherent enough for me to grok them all together.

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