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Howl Away Their Hearts

The stories in "Richmond Macabre" chart the city's chills.

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Our culture runs on fear. Blame wars, social unrest, schadenfreude, the vicarious pursuit of suffering, or our need to feel relieved when the hero emerges to satisfy our predilection for salvation — but there's no doubt that we employ the darker arts to confront the diabolical parts of human nature.

And there's something about fear that we like.

The recently released "Richmond Macabre — Nightmares from the River City" (Iron Cauldron Books, $19.95) brings together short horror stories bound by themes acted out in Richmond's past or present that deal with the dance of death or transformation (think spirits themselves rather than spiritualism). With a nod to its formative inspiration, last year's "Richmond Noir," this book is less criminal sleaze and more monster mash.

Harry Kollatz Jr. turns in a terrific introduction that outlines some of the elements of the genre by recounting how he follows an interest in a mysterious phenomenon from a realistic context to the supernatural. Contributor James Ebersole's creepy clown character adds that "we all know horror stories rarely frighten, but they can unsettle, when done right." That said, it's a difficult genre to "do right" if it means eliciting and sustaining a type of emotional response that lives in both worlds, and, as all creative writing must, making it new.

Of the 15 stories, there are clear standouts. Chief among them is Michael Gray Baughan's "The Rememberist," a story set in 1863 and narrated by a reporter from the old Richmond Dispatch newspaper. Fraught with geographic and historical allusions, the underbelly of our ghosted city manifests anew. Voyeurism and the need to sniff out fodder for his "grisly columns" lead the story's protagonist, a journalist, to witness a paid performance of a willing amputation. Even more odd — this amputation recurs.

Other upsetting successes include the hard-boiled "Sig's Place" by Phil Budahn, in which, with a flair for the stage and a penchant for murder, the ventriloquist is the dummy. Style Weekly staff reporter Melissa Scott Sinclair offers, in "Everything Must Go," the unfortunate predicament of a low-level worker who dies at the office during the collapse of his employer, Circuit City. The poor soul, trapped as it was in life, continues to haunt the emptying premises.

As the human condition continues to deteriorate, the availability of horror fiction continues to rise. Go figure. If you have the appetite for menace and the stomach for gore, this book will make a fitting, locally flavored primer for Halloween. S

For information on "Richmond Macabre" visit richmondmacabre.com.

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