Out of Tune (Ed. by Jonathan Maberry)

Out of Tune is a short story collection edited by John Maberry.
[I got this book from a LibraryThing Early Reviewer Give-Away. I am not early with my review, but honest.]
Finished on 8.9.2018

Content Note: sexualized abuse, rape

All of the stories in Out of Tune are based on old ballads. To make the connections between the retellings and the originals, each story is commented on by Nancy Keim Comley. I really appreciated those comments. In fact, I would have liked a more extensive commentary and more info on the folklore behind the stories.

Overall I found the collection rather middling, with a couple of highlights that literally stood out from the rest of the stories.

More about each of the stories separately after the jump.

Wendy, Darling (Christopher Golden)

It’s the night before her wedding and Wendy Darling can’t go to sleep. That’s when the Lost Boys visit her again. She hasn’t seen them in years, and seeing them now is not easy, either.

I love Peter Pan, so that the first story here is a combination of it and classic folklore was pretty nice. That being said, I am not 100% sure if the movie manages to steer clear of the misogyny that is inherent in the trope it references. I mean, on the one hand, Wendy’s punishment is harsh, on the other hand, the story stays with her and makes you empathize with her. So I’m leaning more towards subversion of the trope, but it’s a close call.

Sweet William’s Ghost (David Liss)

Maggie regularly works out and when one of the trainers at her gym hits on her, it doesn’t take long for them to start sleeping together – even though Maggie has a fiancé, William.

The story is narrated by the gym trainer and he was such a misogynist asshole that I couldn’t stand reading the story. I am aware that his assholery was the point of the story – he is not supposed to be likeable at all – and that it did attempt to examine toxic masculinity. But the dive wasn’t deep enough here and since the narrator keeps the last word, it got pretty aggravating.

Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair (Del Howison)

Elwin and his wife are about to become parents when she tells him that she has poisoned herself and plans to take the child Elwin had been waiting for all his life with her.

Although the pay-off at the end of the story is damn great and the story is well-written enough, it is a story about a guy who is doomed by three evil women in his life. That is misogynist enough in itself, but given that birth, midwives and witches are implicated as well, it ramps things up even more. Sigh.

John Wayne’s Dream (Gary Braunbeck)

An ageing musician tries to go to an AA meeting but finds it canceled. Instead a young woman asks him if he, too, wants to go the the ghosts’ concert. He joins her and is confronted with his own ghosts.

For lack of a better descriptor, I have to say that the story was too male for me: the ageing alcoholic, the young pretty girl, the last stand – it was all such a male fantasy and just didn’t work for me. And there is not really anthying new the story brings to the table either. I was all rather meh for me.

Bedlam (Gregory Frost)

Tom sails his pirate ship back home to get his great love Maddie who has waited for him. Or at least that’s what he thought.

I loved the pirate part of the story and if the story had left it at that, I would have loved the entire thing. But it wanted to be clever and took a twist at the end that I really didn’t appreciate. For me, the story ends with Maddie rejoicing in pirate life.

Awake (Jack Ketchum)

The musician is home with his daughter and his wife, who are both already sleeping. Only he is still awake, drinking, smoking and pondering death.

I have to admit that I was so taken aback by the musician as a character that I first completely misread the story. The way he sexualizes his own daughter was narrated so that I really wasn’t sure at first whether it was meant to be creepy or whether it was just a dude being a dude and not realizing how creepy it is. In the same way, it took me a while to realize that it is a story about an abuser and a rapist because I was so focused on the musician, I didn’t pay attention to his wife. One could say that this makes the story great as it reflects what happens with abuse in real life a lot as well, but personally I would have liked more clarity.

John Henry, The Steel Drivin’ Man (Jeff Strand)

John Henry is a steel driving man and he is the very best there is: he hammers those spikes in the rock like nobody else. When a mechanical hammer is invented, all of the workers’ jobs are threatened – and it’s up to John to prove that humans still work better than machines.

John Henry is a funny story and that in itself was a nice change of pace in a collection that was so far filled with downer stories. I thought the idea was pretty nice, but the story did overstay its welcome a little. Repetitions are something that work much better for songs than for short stories after all. But I did enjoy it for the most part.

Fish Out of Water (Keith R. A. DeCandido)

Cassie has a boat with which she takes tourists diving. They are on a tour when the Coast Guard passes them, telling them that another boat is missing – a boat that claims to have seen a mermaid. Cassie has had her fair share of dealings with the supernatural, so when she stumbles upon the missing boat, she decides to check it out.

I liked the tone of this story and I loved Cassie, but the story did feel like it is part of a long-running series – and chronologically somewhere in the middle of that series. There was just a lot of “and then there was that and there was that guy and back then they did”. It got a bit much, although it was tantalizing. A little bit of trimming here and there wouldn’t have hurt. But overall, I really had fun with this one.

Making Music (Kelley Armstrong)

Izzy is a songwriter, but despite a couple of big songs, she feels a little stuck. When she is approached by Beau Wallace, former boyband-member turned solo-star, it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity.

Making Music was a nice read, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the direction the story takes. Not only was the supernatural part a bit surprising, the ending was a little meh. [SPOILER] It’s not just that Beau gets away with it, Izzy dies and he takes over her talent [/SPOILER] and that’s just infuriating.

Tam Lane (Lisa Morton)

Janet’s father just bought the newspaper building designed by May O’Greene, an architectural masterpiece in Janet’s opinion. She always loved that building and now she can’t wait to explore it, despite the fact that much of it is unused and supposedly haunted.

I liked this story. It was a really nice read. I was suprised though that there wasn’t a surprise or a twist at the end. Actually, almost disappointed, although a twist ending would have felt a little tired. That’s what expectations do for you, I guess. In any case, I liked that we got a happy end, even if the baby was a little much for my taste.

John Barleycorn Must Die (Marsheila Rockwell, Jeffrey J. Mariotte)

John was assigned to write an article about a new brewery in the area. It’s a punch in the gut for a dry alcoholic like him, but at least the brewery is run by three intriguing young women, that’s a plus. But he soon discovers that there’s more to the brewery than appears.

I pretty much hated this story. The protagonist is straight out of a hardboiled detective novel and that’s not really my thing. Additionally, he is pitted against (and triumphes, of course) three women who turn out to be evil witches, because young, beautiful and successful women have got to be witches. A sexist trope if ever I read one. To top it all off, the final showdown was written so confusingly that I lost track of the characters and sequence of events several times. So that one was a complete fail for me.

In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound (Nancy Holder)

Edgar Allen Poe visits distant relatives in the hopes of finding a little money and stability. But instead he finds something far more sinister.

Holder emulates Poe’s style in this story and I admit that I found it a little tiring. In addition, the story was again filled with evil women who ruin poor men – and that has happened way too often in this collection already. Nevertheless, there was a certain charm to it, even though it didn’t win me over entirely.

Driving Jenny Home (Seanan McGuire)

When Leigh is released from the hospital, her first trip is to the cemetery to see Jenny’s grave. She doesn’t expect to see Jenny herself, but that’s exactly what happens.

Driving Jenny Home was my absolute favorite story in this collection. Easily so. It’s beautifully written and has a nice sense of humor. It’s touching and has vivant characters (even Jenny). Plus, it’s queer. What’s not to love about all of this? I also liked that McGuire actually included a song, calling to mind the idea behind this collection much more clearly than a lot of the other stories.

Hollow is the Heart (Simon R. Green)

Jason Grant was fired as a journalist, but he still tries for a story assignment and a foot back in the door. He wants to tackle a local legend, the legend of the Hollow Women. He gets the job – and finds more than he ever thought.

I liked the idea of the Hollow Women, but not much else about the story. It’s again a story with a hardboiled, fallen-from-grace male protagonist and a woman who ultimately dooms him. The love story generally set my teeth on edge and the Emma Tee equals empty pun made me want to headdesk really, really hard. The ending was no surprise, either. All in all, a pretty lukewarm end to the collection.

Summarizing: Maybe if there had been more stories by women in the collection, I would have liked it better. At least there were some stories I really liked.

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