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Hardened Hearts, edited by Eddie Generous, gives you seventeen tales of heartbreak – sometimes literally. In a year where I’ve already had one book reduce me to tears (Knuckle Supper by Drew Stepek if you’re interested), I wasn’t prepared for another one, but here we go again!
When you’re collecting stories based on a single theme, the challenge is to provide enough variety to keep the reader interested. Aside from one story I didn’t much care for, Hardened Hearts packs in the variety more masterfully than a variety pack performing at a variety of royal variety shows. Love is the theme, but it’s not all cornfield picnics and desperate boomboxings. Inside, you’ll find stories covering all types of love, from the grotesque to the tragic, familial to romantic, most of which have a fantasy or horror edge.
What the folks at Unnerving Magazine have here is something special, a poisoned chocolate box for the mind, where you’re never sure if the next selection will thrill you or leave you saying lark’s vomit?
Here are the five stories that knifed me in the feelings. In no particular order, let’s start with It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To by J.L. Knight. The title makes you think 1980s disposable pop, but the content in this flash fiction sized piece is in no way bubblegum or throwaway, dealing with a grieving husband’s unusual way of keeping his wife’s memory alive. It achieves a hell of a lot in such a short space, from sorrow to bittersweet memory, from disgust to conflicted sympathy, and then into sudden bizarre horror. The last image pitches an unsettling tent for itself in your brain.
Next up, The Heart of the Orchard by Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi. This is an evil fairytale, something the lead character of Melissa realises too late. She falls under the spell of the weird Orchard Man, who visits her peach farm one morning with a prosperous offer. A way to make her crop the best for miles. All she has to do is drink some mysterious herbs and use some equally mysterious vitamins on her trees. The love here comes from a strange, creepy angle, with Melissa either oblivious or ambivalent to the death around her. There’s some deep character work here alongside the modern Grimm Bros style story, and there’s a suitably dark payoff.
Sounding like a Ben Stiller movie but reading nothing like one, unless he’s branching out beyond “dad who isn’t great” roles, Meeting the Parents by Sarah L Johnson introduces us to the unnamed girlfriend of Ned, a man who seems less and less like a man the further you read. And yet, he seems like the perfect partner…especially if you’re into multiple eyes, carapace and venomous fangs. Wry humour and skin-crawling imagery combine perfectly here.
The Pink Balloon by Tom Deady feels like it could be a side story in Stephen King’s Pennywise mythos, involving as it does an odd clown, the death of a child, and haunted adults unable to deal with the evil around and inside them. It’s about how love can break you when it’s countered by death, and the ending is devastating in its tragedy and haunting beauty.
Last of all, Burning Samantha by Scott Paul Hallam, which is less of a horror story and more of a tragedy, but still well worth a mention. It builds you up right alongside Samantha – once Sam – as she goes on what she hopes will be a transformative date with the only boy who seems to understand her for who she is. Only as the night goes on, all the goodwill and happiness drains right out of her and the story, to its heart-wrenching end.
Beyond these five highlights are lots of other highlights: time-bending horror involving a seemingly cursed heirloom, mythic creatures trying to exist among mortals, immortal monstrous affairs, love killed by time, and the good old standby of tentacle monsters. It’s a collection that won’t always terrify you, but each story is guaranteed to pierce your heart in some weird way, and there are stories in here that will make you want to bend the spine open more than once.
Grab a copy on the Unnerving Magazine website at unnervingmagazine.com