Book Review: Tales from the Canyons of the Damned: Omnibus 11 – published by Daniel Arthur Smith

Book Title: Tales from the Canyons of the Damned: Omnibus 10

Authors: Wendy Nikel, Gordon B. White, KJ Kabza, Steve Oden, K.H. Vaughan, Kevin Lauderdale, Jessica West, Nathan M. Beauchamp, Sam Osborn & Daniel Arthur Smith

Editor: Jessica West

Publication Date: December 15, 2020

Available OnAmazon as an eBook and as a paperback

Indie Athenaeum Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

In this eleventh omnibus of the Tales from the Canyons of the Damned series, it collects issues from Canyons Thirty-Five, Thirty-Six, and Thirty-Seven. That means you get thirteen amazing stories from ten different authors! All of them take different themes in speculative fiction and use them as settings for their engrossing, dark, and compulsive reading experiences.

The first one utilizes music as a theme, while the second and the third share different stories in a variety of genres. First up is are four dark tales that incorporate music into their stories. These stories feature different ideas such as a society that is based around their talent with music, talking birds (!), strange creatures, and using music to incite murder. Curious? You should be. Read more about stories inspired by this theme, starting with:

Wendy Nikel’s “Da Capo” – Grace lives in a vast empty home, drawn to the world’s most perfect musical instrument that plays heavenly music but cannot bring herself to touch it. Many long decades have passed but Grace feels the longing to play. When she does, what will happen and where will it transport her to?

The mystery behind what is going on here enveloped me into a tale filled with grandeur as we are introduced to a society where musical talent is the foundation for its entire societal class structure. The reasons why music is so revered in this society and the origins of its development are startling. As our protagonist reaches the pinnacle of society, we also see how her maturation as a person and as a talent impacts what happens next.

As the story crescendoed into its finale, I was held rapt by how the beautiful music took on a more sinister purpose, raising the tension to its peak. It then went on to break my heart into a thousand tiny grace notes, which then fluttered away in the wake of that stunning ending.

How these two disparate story threads are pulled together is immensely powerful and left me with a profound sense of sadness. Once you’ve completed reading this story, do yourself a favor and re-read it from the beginning. It enriches the storytelling experience when you do and makes for a more in-depth understanding of this tale.

Gordon B. White’s “A Song Like Laughter” – Katrina and Bradley, her almost-two-year-old, are living by themselves. Bradley’s estranged and angry father visits occasionally. But after an enormous gray and white bird starts singing a familiar tune, he then starts a conversation with Katrina. He has quite a story to tell and a huge revelation that will shatter her world forever!

The bird’s story is quite disconcerting and filled with sorrow while at the same time, trying to infuse Katrina’s life with hope. But what he asks for next is disquieting and even more unbelievable. The decision Katrina makes because of this conversation is one only a mother could make and yet, still impacted me with deep grief. And then the author pulls out the rug from under me with its surprising ending.

KJ Kabza’s “The Deep Dark” – Looking out over a gulch, our narrators’ home is surrounded by trees and overshadowed by darkness at night, other than the moon above. Remembering how his father taught him how to play the banjo, he listens at night until he hears an unfamiliar and mournful melody twanging through the night. Answering it with his own banjo music, he discovers something gruesome lurking out of the trees! What will he do?

The unusual thing he finds is still out there in the woods though. This atmospheric tale is filled with the unexpected and our narrator comes up with a daring plan to take care of the problem once and for all. Using music in a heroic way, the story builds suspense until it crescendos into an astonishing ending and a shocking bombshell that is the cherry on top of this terrific story.

Daniel Arthur Smith’s “The Lost Tapes – The Q Mix” – Agents Muldoon and Meyer are interviewing Dennis Davison, a music curator. They ask him to utilize his music expertise and explain a recent string of suicides and self-mutilation when listening to a certain Q Mix Playlist. Discussing how this music has a peculiar impact on its listeners, they finally reach a conclusion. But what do they determine?

It’s a fascinating look at the difference between a DJ and a music curator and the two job descriptions. This difference is critical to understanding what’s going on with the psychoacoustic effects of this music playlist, what that is, and how it affects a person’s mood. It deftly explains all of this and why it is so relevant to the story.

It also explains the horrific effects this has upon a person and why they kill themselves in such a gruesome fashion. This is a downright chilling tale with an interesting and often unexplored topic with a spellbinding ending that blindsided me.

Next, we move into a broader array of genres. It exhibits unusual ideas, some with a dystopian theme and others with a supernatural one. All of them have unexpected bombshells contained within them. From toys going to war, a crazy man who brings chaos to a small town, selfish skinheads, Weird Westerns, and a clairvoyant predicting their death (!). Read onwards to find out more about:

Steve Oden’s “Toys and Monsters” – Fuzzy Bear, Sock Monkey, Fairy Princess Doll, and their team of other assorted toys wage war like highly skilled military professionals. Executing a bold strategy and armed with automatic weapons, sniper rifles, and explosives, they’re on an important mission. But what is their objective and whom are they attacking?

This story feels like something out of a gritty war novel, with toys standing in for soldiers, but with the same accumulated years of experience and tactical knowledge. Unfortunately, there are also causalities on both their side and the enemies. It’s gripping and astounding how these toys are cold and capable of such destruction and cruelty.

By the time all is revealed and all my questions were answered, I was surprised and saddened at what happened to them. The ending was also completely unexpected and filled me with a profound sense of lost innocence.

K.H. Vaughan’s “Judas Steer” – In the wild west after the Civil War, the Brink family has been brutally massacred! With the small town in an uproar and thinking it was Indians, Pete and Sheriff Ward must investigate. When they think they found the culprit, a crazy man covered in blood and standing naked in the street, they decide he’s guilty and hang him! But this only causes even more strange occurrences in the town. What is going on here?!

The central mystery here of who murdered this family that is a pillar of the community creates a palpable sense of outrage. The idea that the sheriff teams up with some of the town’s constituents to solve this baffling mystery is an intriguing one as well. It also contributes to the small-town atmosphere, where everyone unites for the common good, while stuck in the middle of nowhere.

There’s also a religious theme running through this tale, as who is deserving of redemption, which only adds to the richness of this story. As for the mystery, it is an unusual one, with plenty of weird events culminating into a chaotic, frenzied ending where we find the answers to the question of how these events occurred and why.

Kevin Lauderdale’s “The Skinhead and the Cavalier” – Gunner is a skinhead, low on cash and looking for something to steal in the sleepy little town of Collier, North Carolina. Not finding anything of worth, he finally finds an old lady and her dog. She befriends him and he finds something to steal. Will he succeed in getting what he wants?

Gunner is a detestable human being who is continually looking to take advantage of someone else for his gain. His point of view is repulsive, and the reader is not meant to like him. And the old lady, Mrs. Dilmore, is as sweet as pie and the contrast between the two personalities is striking. But when he tries to steal something valuable, he discovers he’s in way over his head! It’s a satisfying finale with an unexpected jaw-dropper of an ending.

Jessica West’s “Fallen Angels” – It’s 1865 and a mesmerizing, dangerous woman marches into a saloon and makes demands of its finest prostitute. When the woman disappears and the prostitute is found dead, this dark adventure begins. As we learn how this woman appears in other towns over the span of many years, we also learn she leaves behind a trail of destroyed relationships, dead bodies, and broken souls in her wake. Who is this woman and why does she do what she does?

This is a weird Western that uses time as a tool to tell a fascinating story over the years it depicts. Using these time periods, the author taps into humanity’s darker proclivities. She then adds a dash of the supernatural and flawed characters where you see their hidden motivations on display for all to see.

Whether it’s a saloon keeper, a sister telling the story of two harlots, or a sheriff trying to find the person(s) doing these things, each of these elements combines to tell a compact but thrilling story where I continually wondered which direction the story would twist into next as I read onwards. There is also a captivating reason why the story is being told this way and it’s not for the reasons you might think.

Having read Jessica West’s stories before, I always know when I see her name on a story that I will have a visceral response to it, as well as a tale filled with darkness, surprises, and imaginative storytelling. This tale delightfully fulfills that promise and lives up to her high-quality storytelling style.

Daniel Arthur Smith’s “The Lost Tapes – Future Told” – Agents Muldoon and Meyer are investigating a claim by a self-proclaimed clairvoyant and Professor of Anthropology named Charles Rampart. When he talks about future homicides that he says he has seen, including his own, the agents discover there’s even more to the story! What do they find out and how do they respond?

This tale talks about clairvoyants, how they perceive time, and how other cultures achieve this experience in unique ways. It’s a compelling story that continually made me wonder how it would unfold and how it would end. Tying in into future murders, including the professors, adds that much more spice to it, keeping me turning the pages wondering what is going on here.

The stories in “The Lost Tapes”, a periodic but ongoing feature in the Canyons anthologies, always showcase fascinating scientific ideas, sparkling storytelling, and stunning conclusions. Each installment meets all those criteria and then some so when I see a “Lost Tapes” story, I know what to expect, while still being astonished at what I find.

Finally, we see several imaginative ideas brought to exciting life here. We have a family struggling with a child’s unusual sickness, sentient toys waging war on entitled children, symbiotic relationships to pets taken to an extreme level, and a local urban legend vividly brought to life. Read on to find out more about:

Nathan M. Beauchamp’s “The Moon Sickness” – Jacob is a teenager whose four-year-old brother Tanner is getting dangerously violent. Their mother seems to know what is going on and is keeping it secret. Trying to talk to their father deployed to Saudi Arabia, Jacob finds out the secret his parents kept from him and now must try to protect his mother from his brother! What will Jacob do to help, and can they all survive?

This is a terrifying and suspenseful tale of an out of control boy who transforms into a grave threat to his family. The family secret kept hidden from the kids is a bombshell that places the entire story in context. Then, it takes the story to the next level with its intensity and wraps it up with a heartbreaking finale.

Steve Oden’s “Blind in Battle” – The Baroness Cadwaller has hired a group of death elves to take out a merciless and wily enemy who continues to thwart their plans. But when their enemy, battle-hardened sentient toys, plan a risky offensive that will put some of their troops at dangerous risk. Will their plan succeed?

It’s “Toy Story” meets “Platoon” in this gritty short story. The toys, Bear, Sock Puppet, Toy Soldier, Fairy Princess, and others use their tactical experience to outwit the enemy children in a battle for supremacy. Using toys to tell a war story is a fascinating one and it is filled with all the tension, suspense, emotion, and action you would find in a war movie.

There are tragedies, twists, camaraderie, and surprises in this one, including an affecting and difficult side mission that made me sad at the horrors of war these forces inflict on one another. We also experience the enemy side of this battle, including the children who hire mercenaries to destroy their enemy.

This is also a sequel to this author’s story “Toys and Monsters” from “Tales of the Canyons of the Damned: No. 36”, the issue that precedes this one. It delightfully expands on the world created in that story and takes it in new and remarkable directions.

Sam Osborn’s “The Rat” – George sees an old flame from long ago, Anne, while shopping at the liquor store. If it wasn’t for the pet rat she keeps on her shoulder, he might not have recognized her. As they catch up, with the possibility of rekindling their relationship, they go back to her place. But something strange is going on here and George cannot pinpoint it. What is going on here?!?

While Anne and George are fleshed out as characters, so is Henry, the titular rat. He is just disgusting and revolting as you think a pet rat would be but not just for those reasons why you would think. The cunning directions this story takes lie in the fact that when you think one thing might be happening, you discover something far more sinister is at work here. It all leads to a chilling ending that explains the reality of the situation and adds all the clues up into one electrifying tale.

Daniel Arthur Smith’s “The Lost Tapes – The Rain Man” – As Agents Muldoon and Meyer look at an unusual case where Dennis’s entire family goes missing in their house by the lake. Interviewing him, they hear his story of driving in the middle of an intense downpour when they hit something man-shaped that appeared out of nowhere! What did they hit and why it is now stalking Mr. Matheson?

This is a dark story oozing with malevolence and effectively building dread as the story advances and the stakes climb. I could also place myself firmly in Dennis’s shoes and experience his feelings of terror as he tries to comprehend the inexplicable circumstances he now faces. It’s a captivating short story that engrossed me in its mysteries and kept me wondering right up until I read its finale.

Six out of the ten authors featured here are brand new to me and I look forward to seeing more of their works in the future. The other four authors I’ve enjoyed reading in previous issues of the “Canyons” series. They continue to demonstrate a high caliber of storytelling.

The wide assortment of stories here continue to push the boundaries of speculative fiction and showcase authors with creative and visionary stories to share. I’m especially impressed with the idea of using music as a theme for some of these stories. It’s quite novel and the authors pull it off with style, subtlety, and innovation.

Overall, I’m also impressed with the range of genres in this collection. All of them tell terrific tales that enthralled me with the stories they had to tell. All of them make for one tension-filled, frightening, and ultimately unsettling collection of original short stories.

The “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned” series continues to be the perfect place to discover high-quality storytelling with inspired ideas. Each edition of “Canyons” is a must-read and continually proves to me why it is deserving of that praise.

If you found this review to be helpful to you, please click here to go to the review on Amazon. Then navigate to the bottom of this review and click on the “helpful” button.

Previous Indie Athenaeum book reviews about stories written by or published by Daniel Arthur Smith include “Clones: The Anthology“, “Klarissa Dreams Redux“, “Spectral Shift“, “Attack of the Kung Fu Mummies“, “Gazer: A Spectral Worlds Story“, “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned: No. 38, No. 37No. 36No. 35No. 34No. 33No. 32No. 31No. 30No. 29No. 28No. 27No. 26No. 25No. 24No. 23No. 22Omnibus 9 & Omnibus 10.”

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