(This review may contain spoilers.)
I should have hated “Ghost Music,” the first story in the Engines of Ruin collection by Lucas Mangum. I wanted to.
It brought back so many conflicting memories from my childhood/teenage years.
I grew up surrounded by people that were very similar to the main character and his friends. It was the 80s—and it seemed that those “super-cool” social misfits had it all—music, friends, adventures, passion. I was just a regular, boring, nerdy misfit—nothing cool about me. And, as much as I loved the subculture scenes that surrounded goth and punk, of which I became part of myself in the early 90s, my first experiences with it were also ugly and frightening. I was both drawn to it and in love with the scene, and I hated it at the same time.
But once I got past that faintly nauseating, skin-crawling, too-many-memories-coming-at-you-at-once feeling I had when I started reading this story, I experienced something else.
I felt a new sort of darkness take over, replacing this muddled mess of blackness I’m existing in right now.
I felt clean. Centered. In control, even though I could still feel that skin-crawling, nauseous sensation nibbling at the edges of my mind.
I realized (remembered, actually) that’s what’s so valuable about horror.
There’s tons written about how horror can bring you face to face with the things that most terrify you, but it’s what becomes written psychologically through real-life horrors that’s most terrifying. The things that aren’t even that scary on the surface stay with you, for years.
Even into middle age, sometimes without you even knowing they are there.
And, when I read this story, it reminded me of the way that horror can became healing. It quieted those complicated memories from my love/hate relationship with the subculture scenes of the 80s and 90s. I felt closure. Ironically, even Mangum incorporates closure into one of his stories, later on.
And the story “Ghost Music,” perhaps also oddly enough, provided a sort of redemption. A release from my past, just like the main character was released from his, in a manner of speaking.
I’m glad that “Ghost Music” came first—then I could read the rest of the stories with delight and even laughter, as I usually do with horror.
I laughed my way through “Hell and Back”—such a darkly comic romp.
And “Our Lady of the Sea?” It might as well be subtitled “The life of every writer”—especially when our worlds on paper become so immersive and emotionally demanding, and it’s hard to face the real world. Unfortunately, I was thrown out of the story a little by the type of animal used for the purported sacrifice. It didn’t seem to fit who they were sacrificing it to, or why, given that the animal chosen seems to be symbol of Christianity, and this church is something else entirely. Also, the whole story talks about how it’s winter, and blizzarding, and, although I’m not a farmer or rancher, it doesn’t make sense from that perspective, either. Generally, baby animals are born in the spring. Or so I thought.
But then there was the story “Worlds Colliding” to draw me back into the book. I’m not even going to give away any spoilers on this one…it’s just awesome. Even more delightful was the twist at the end of “Worm Magic.” That one I read more than once, just for the ending.
A couple of times, his female characters crossed over into something too stereotypical and cliché for my tastes, like in “The World Asunder” and “A Killing Back Home,” but I thought it was interesting to have the character of Percy appear in the story “A Killing Back Home,” as a child who is mentioned as being somewhere on the autism spectrum.
But I had Fern to make up for some of the too-typical women characters—Fern, in “Waters of Ruin”; whom I’ll liken to a modern, all-grown-up version of that other notable Fern I also loved in the classic Charlotte’s Web. Fern who breaks down doors to save the one she loves.
It was a lingering, and perfect, finish to the Engines of Ruin collection.
I’m looking forward to reading more from Lucas Mangum, and his demons he’s shared with his readers (the ones he refers to in his closing essay, “The Last Easy Rider.”)
Review by Willow Croft