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The City of Hell Chronicles Volume One edited by Colin F. Barnes

The Ant-headed God ‘The Great Maurr’ has ascended to rule the Earth and enslave the population. These are the chronicles of the last few survivors. Only three cities remain: Moscow, London and Hong Kong. All crumbling, dying versions of their former glory. The Great Maurr’s own City of Hell dominates most of North America. Its diabolical influence has turned ordinary citizens into torturers, debased slaves, lunatics and zealots.

Since I started The Eloquent Page, I have reviewed a couple of collections that specifically cover the topic of the Apocalypse. Firstly there was the evil insanity of Zombie Apocalypse and then Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse. Both were great examples of the genre and a lot of fun. They left me keen to explore more short fiction with an apocalyptic theme. Recently I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to read The City of Hell Chronicles Volume One. This collection contains eight stories all detailing the same apocalyptic event, and with the exception of the first, all are written by female authors.

Genesis by Colin F Barnes – Franklin Garrett, a retired clockmaker, is obsessed with creating a machine he sees in his dreams. Haunted by the loss of his wife and driven by voices that only he can hear he is determined to succeed. Franklin’s increasing madness is the catalyst that allows Maurr to begin his campaign of slavery against humanity.

I’m a great believer that the first story in a collection has to capture your imagination. Genesis manages this unenviable task and sets the overall tone for the remainder of the anthology perfectly.

Medical Report by Victoria Griesdoorn – A doctor’s report details the examination of a giant centipede that has been captured by the authorities.

This is a unique story, in that it literally is a medical report. The extensive detail put into this ‘report’, particularly surrounding the side effects of human contact with the insects, gives it a genuine feel.

The Door From Below by Ren Warom – In Hong Kong, mysterious doors appear and a group of silent creatures, nicknamed the Stock Takers, walk the streets. What do they want and will Sho, Sadao and Jin live long enough to find out?

This story features a great example of a tough as nails heroine. Jin witnesses horror after horror but she has a grim determination that keeps her fighting. She steadfastly refuses to give into despair that surrounds her. This story is left wide open at its end and I have to admit I have a burning curiosity about what happens next. The final couple of paragraphs are brilliant and the last sentence is an absolute belter.

London Calling by Kendall Grey  – Rane, lost and alone, on the streets of London meets a group of strange monks. Has she finally found an opportunity for salvation as the world around her falls apart?

For me, this was perhaps the darkest of all the stories in the collection. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending, suffice to say that in this case it is way beyond grim. This one is going to stay with me for a while.

The Lucky Ones by Anne Michaud – Jory and Belak have made a pact. They have decided when they will die and they won’t let anyone or anything keep them apart.

Just when I thought I couldn’t be any more shocked, this story comes along and delivers a cavalcade of harrowing images. This is a story about seeking escape when there is only one avenue left to follow.

Final Passage by Belinda Frisch – Following a group of slaves deep within the City of Hell itself we   go underground for the first time in the anthology. An increasingly desperate family tries to escape the confines of the insect’s lair.

The Nursery by Amy L. Overley – Otter spends her days scavenging in what is left of Yellowstone National Park, a chance encounter with a human/insect hybrid has disastrous results.

Final Passage and The Nursery both offer some nice insight into how the insect society functions. The reader gets details of the insects breeding program and how they plan to use humanity in a variety of gruesome ways. Like an occupying army they plan to make our home their own and to reshape our lives to their benefit. The full scope of Maurr’s plan is finally revealed.

Sanguine by Victoria Griesdoorn – Ines has learned to scrape by in the ruins of Moscow. Orphaned by the Apocalypse she survives by running errands that help keep the fragile barter economy afloat. While out on one such errand she gets the opportunity for revenge against a man who ruined her life.

This final story has one of the best lines of the entire anthology – “F**k, insects shouldn’t have opposable thumbs”.  Nice to see some dark humour mixed in with all the horror. Sanguine rounds off the collection on a slightly more upbeat note. It may even contain the smallest glimmer of hope?

Each entry in The City of Hell gives the reader a glimpse into the struggles of those trying to survive against over-whelming odds. In all honesty, I found it very difficult to pick a personal favourite amongst all these gems. Each writer has been given the opportunity to shine and they all bring their ‘A’ game. Not only do the stories work in isolation they also form a rather wonderful whole.

On a superficial level, The City of Hell may appear to just be a collection of stories about giant insects invading the Earth, but if you choose to look deeper you will find there is much more to discover. These eight horrific vignettes explore the trauma of loss, the nature of trust and the meaning of hope. It was an unexpected pleasure to discover the additional depth in each story.  It is a compendium of the darkest horror. Each story builds on the last to create a vision that is a truly a unique and compelling read.

In the past I’ve been somewhat critical of apocalyptic fiction that doesn’t give the reader any idea into what is going on elsewhere in the world. I’m glad to say that City of Hell manages successfully to avoid that trap; these stories span the entire globe. When reading about apocalyptic events, this is exactly what I am looking for. I want to have that sense of things happening on a huge epic scale, but still retain that personal, human element.

I would offer one word of advice however; if you are not a fan of (a) giant insects or (b) body horror you may want to give this a miss. There are bucket loads of visceral imagery described. There are some nasty transformations, decapitations, births (yes I said births) and deaths that all rank pretty highly on the Ick-ometer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This collection is published by Anachron Press and is available from 1st December 2011. The good news is that according to the publisher’s website there will be further short story collections next year, including a second visit to the City of Hell.

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