Bring your curiosity, but leave your inhibitions at the door. The show is about to begin…
Sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll. It’s the age-old cliché with music venues being considered places of hedonism and excess. But what if these places weren’t only filled with people looking for a good time but also with the supernatural, the unexplainable, and the psychotic. The seventeen stories collected in Matt Hayward and Doug Murano’s anthology, Welcome to the Show centre around The Shantyman, a fictional music venue in San Francisco and, by the time you’ve finished the book, it will feel so real, you’ll want to visit it.
Like its real equivalents like Whisky A Go Go and The Roxy, The Shantyman is given a rich history with a host of unusual characters and unexplainable events. The collection opens with several historical stories that detail The Shantyman’s past. “What Sort of Rube” by Alan M. Clarke, “Night and Day and in Between” by Jonathan Janz, and “In the Winter of No Love” by John Skipp all take us to different eras in the venue’s history and perfectly demonstrate the strange and disturbing occurrences that gave The Shantyman its reputation as a place where anything can happen. The three stories bring together cannibals, vampires, and drugs to serve as the perfect foundation for the rest of the collection.
Three later stories, “Pilgrimage” by Bryan Smith, “Beat on the Past” by Matt Serafini, and “Just to be Seen” by Somer Canon also play with time and time travel and show how this is a place haunted by its twisted history. Yet, Smith’s story is particularly effective as it shows how the present can also invade the past as a group of friends are sent to the 1960s and 1970s to meet some very notorious figures.
Several stories take place closer to today but they feature similarly strange occurrences. ‘Dark Stage’ by Matt Hayward, “Running Free” by Brian Keene, and “Open Mic Night” by Kelli Owen all feature characters that are brought face-to-face with their own mortality and the spirits and demons that go with it. Hayward’s story features a man who is in chronic pain, Keene’s story is about a man who is trying to give himself a heart attack so that he doesn’t die of cancer, and Owen’s story is about the notorious ’27 Club’, in which famous musicians die at the age of 27. All are masterfully written and fit together perfectly.
The Shantyman not only attracts spirits and demons, it also attracts the strange and disturbed. “The Southern Thing ” by Adam Cesare begins with an innocent conversation between two men that meet in the club but ends in a way we could never have predicted. Likewise, one of the most disturbing and memorable stories is “Parody” by Jeff Strand. In this story, the narrator, Zany Chester, wants to perform a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic-style parody of George Michael’s Faith but it doesn’t go to plan. It’s a fantastically written story that captures our modern obsession with getting our fifteen minutes of fame. It’s also a story about psychosis and the dangers of opening the floor for anyone to perform.
As we might expect, the collection features several tales of the occult including “Wolf with Diamond Eyes” by Patrick Lacey and “Master of Beyond” by Glenn Rolfe. Both demonstrate the close link between Rock and Roll and the supernatural. “True Starmen” by Max Booth III is another gem. The story is constructed as a conversation between employees in the club about the clientele on one certain night but it’s a well-constructed and deftly humourous take on the link between Rock and Roll and the cult.
Several stories in the collection also act as more realistic cautionary tales of the hedonistic Rock and Roll lifestyle. “A Tongue like Fire” by Rachel Autumn Deering and “Ascending” by Robert Ford are both truly terrifying and show what can happen in our own lives if we act on a whim or don’t think of the consequences of our actions. Although Ford’s story ends with a supernatural twist, it shows how desperate people today can be when they rely on the internet. Similarly, Deering’s story warns us about the dangers of fandom.
The collection ends with “We Sang in Darkness” by Mary SanGiovani, which gives us a glimpse into the future of The Shantyman. This is a place where music and singing have been banned because they open up wormholes to alien worlds. The narrator of this story is trapped in the venue with one of the aliens and a dead body. It’s a story that ultimately leads us to question everything we have been told in the story and the narrator’s sanity.
Very often, such horror collections are too disparate and disjointed, revealing that each of the writers didn’t have access to the rest of the collection at the time of writing. This, however, doesn’t feel like that. Each of the stories is very distinct but they all work together perfectly as a whole. In addition, every story is strong and the collection brings together more experienced horror writers and newer writers. The result is a comprehensive collection that perfectly creates a fictional world and a fictional place. In fact, this world is so rich, another anthology based on The Shantyman could be published that could add to the world created in this collection and it could be completely different. I would certainly be interested in reading more about the Shantyman. Once again, Crystal Lake Publishing has shown why it’s at the forefront of horror publishing.
Thank you to Crystal Lake Publishing for sending me an advanced review copy.