In 2011, JournalStone, a small but growing publishing company that specializes in horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature, sponsored a writing contest. The criteria were simple: the stories had to contain two elements – the idea of “90 minutes to live” and a lock of human hair. The best contest entries are presented here in this anthology. The results, as with almost every anthology, range in appeal and presentation, but I have to say that this was one of the most enjoyable collections I’ve read in a while. The genres covered range from horror to science fiction to young adult fiction, but almost out of necessity – given the themes – the stories tend toward a dark tone.
Some minor plot spoilers follow, though I won’t give away major twists. Also, because I plan to briefly mention each story, I won’t delve too deeply into any of them. The best stories, I found, were the ones that used the “90 minutes to live” element to good effect; I thought the lock of hair element worked well in a few of the stories, but was either a very minor element or seemed too forced in others. If I had a suggestion for JournalStone’s next contest, it would be to only have a single, broad story element requirement.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
1st Place Winner: “Dead Already” by John La Rue. Great story that was set, perhaps unexpectedly, on a derelict spaceship in the aftermath of a major war. The set-up worked well, the science elements of the story were smart and made sense, and the characters’ histories were intriguing. It all came together in this one, and I can see why JournalStone awarded the story first place. I’d actually really like to delve more into this story’s setting, so let’s hope that La Rue writes a follow-on story.
2nd Place Winner: “Godforsaken” by Brad Carpenter. A nicely done, visceral horror tale of a retired special effects artist who gets in way over his head with some found footage of a body horror film. I could see where the story was going immediately, but it was well done and I enjoyed the ride nevertheless. If you’re a fan of, say, the SAW films and wondered how that might play out with a touch of the supernatural, look no further.
3rd Place Winner: “Acapulco Blue” by Bruce Golden. An old guy living in a future utopia/dystopian (as always, depends on your perspective) has one last chance to strike a blow for human freedom. Short but engaging. I’m not entirely sure I would have given it 3rd place, given the strength of some of the other stories in the collection, but I certainly enjoyed it.
“The Writer” by Jeffrey Wilson. Horror stories about horror authors are almost a sub-genre unto themselves, but this one works well. Nice and creepy.
“An Eye for an Eye” by Brett J. Talley. I have come to really enjoy Brett Talley’s work, and this story was no exception. A quick little piece about a man who is buried alive, with a real gutpunch of an ending. Good stuff.
“House of Roses” by Jasmine Cabanaw. Nice little haunted house story about a young couple and an engagement ring that’s more than it appears.
“City of Fire” by Timothy Miller. Science fiction tale of a world that’s facing its apocalypse. Fast-moving action yarn.
“Roque’s Requiem” by Bill Patterson. A very touching story of a disaster befalling a near-future space station and true heroism. Great story.
“The Glade” by Peter Orr. One of the few fantasy stories in the collection about a very bad man facing his own mortality. I hesitate to say more lest I ruin the surprise. Great piece, and one of the few stories in the collection to convincingly integrate the lock of hair required element along with the 90 minutes to live element.
“Baby Girl” by Nu Yang. Crime tale set in a paranormal romance/urban fantasy Southern California setting. It was fairly well done, but this kind of setting just isn’t usually my cup of tea.
“Uninvited” by J. G. Faherty. It takes a lot for a young adult story to meet my expectations, and this one didn’t quite hit the mark. A couple of teenagers meddle with some super-technology, make contact with another world, and terrible things happen. Not bad, I was just looking for something a little deeper.
“Mack and Stretch Save the Earth” by David Perlmutter. A young adult/science fiction story. To me, this one bombed. At the end of the story, I think I “got” what the author was going for, but I just didn’t care for the result.
Honorable Mention: “In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree” by Jennifer Phillips. A very short tale that’s hauntingly beautiful. The story of a comatose patient with “locked-in syndrome” facing certain doom from the oncoming tsunami in Indonesia. No supernatural elements whatsoever, but undeniably good.
I enjoyed this collection a great deal and recommend it to those looking for some dark explorations of the human condition. In hindsight, I think that the “90 minutes to live” element was strong enough to stand on its own. I’m not sure that the requirement that a lock of hair also figure into the stories added much. The stories in this collection were, by and large, very successful, which is a real tribute to the authors, since most of them don’t have a great many published works under their belt. I fully expect that we’ll be seeing much more from some of them. Highly recommended.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers