Ghosts and zombies, abundant nods to real-life, presumed haunted and cursed places in Illinois, serial murder, a flesh-eating toilet, and a phantom Chicago pizza parlor are just some of the elements that come together in State of Horror: Illinois, a spine-tingling, geographically inspired collection of original horror tales.
State of Horror: Illinois was the first in what is now a series of similarly titled, state-based horror anthologies. Recent releases include Jew Jersey, North Carolina, and two volumes set in Louisiana. Upcoming installments in the State of Horror series are set in Tennessee and California.
The storytelling found in these pages is of variable quality, though mostly good to high quality, and are well varied, with stories about teens and adults and skipping around the state, from Chicago, to Springfield, to Alton, to historical Vishnu Springs. The authors take us to haunted train tracks, remote lakes and natural areas, abandoned towns and crumbling houses, and neglected, century-old cemeteries. We go up military watch towers, down inner-city alleyways, and through the tall heights of an upscale, residential, downtown Chicago high rise.
The book does have some problems. Inconsistent proofing and editing, beginning with a garbled table of contents page and continuing with intermittent punctuation and usage errors, sometimes mars the reading experience. Some of the stories start on different pages than listed in the index, and, mid-way through, a succession of pages are all listed as “page 103.”
“Drowning in the Hazel,” by Eli Constant, about a scuba diver who encounters an underwater monster, stands out for its exceptional scene-setting. The author demonstrates an intimate, personal knowledge of scuba diving and the depths of a deep lake, which helps to bring the story to life.
Creativity soars in “In Chicago, the Dish Is So Deep No One Can Hear You Scream,” by Frank J. Edler, set in a phantom pizza parlor, complete with ghoulish waiters and talking, menacing food.
“My Porcelain Monster,” by Eric I. Dean, also follows a wonderfully creative direction, with a flesh-eating toilet in a home’s guest bathroom, which terrorizes a succession of families who live there.
Stories about ghost-ridden haunted houses pepper the book, all well written. Perhaps the strongest such piece is “Ritter House,” by A Lopez, Jr. It is a palpably terrifying tale with a wickedly good conclusion. Readers will feel like they are experiencing a night alone in a haunted house alongside the protagonist, who is a modern-day horror writer researching his genre.
The prize for the most horrifically realistic contribution goes to “Chicago Mike,” by Della West, about a serial killer’s repurposing of his victims’ body parts in a suburban mall costume shop. “The shopping public will, it seems, pay a great deal of money for a costume if the mask is incredibly life-like,” West deliciously pens.
Quality sometimes slips, however. “What’s Eating the Mob,” by P. David Puffinburger, sinks into poor taste as a story about flesh-eating zombies turns to genital mutilation and excessively relies on coarse language and heavy gore.
Many of the anthology’s tales are set in and around Illinois tourist destinations, and/or in places long said, in real-life, to be haunted. That makes State of Horror: Illinois a great road map for curiosity seekers and tourists looking to pad a summer road trip with some creepy side trips. More information about the actual places referenced in the State of Horror: Illinois can be easily found on the Internet.
The short length of each piece, and associated minimal time required to get through each, makes this a great backpack book, readable in quick spurts on a dark night in a tent, cabin, or around a campfire. The series is also available in audiobook, perfect for long car trips.
On a broader level, the series, set largely in the nation’s midsection, is collectively a great, scary, longer road-trip stepping-off point.
Overall, this is a collection that weaves together fun, terror, shivers, and usually just the right amount of gore to make you shudder but not blanch. Some fine authors and fine storytelling elevate State of Horror: Illinois to a well-worthy read.
August 2014, Charon Coin Press
$12.99, paperback, 246 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann