Cerberus Rising consists of nine stories in all, with the three authors – Patrick C. Harrison III, Chris Miller and M. Ennenbach – each tackling three specific themes.
The first theme is cabin fever. “Insides Out” by Patrick C. Harrison III is set in a farmhouse were a family gathered together for Thanksgiving and then died, leaving the father of the house the sole survivor. Narrating the story, the father is in no hurry to divulge the exact cause of the mass death, instead showing a curiously apathetic attitude towards the relatives whose corpses now surround his house as he details events leading up to the tragedy. First comes weird atmospheric phenomena, then surreal body horror involving levitating organs, then the emotional deterioration of the survivors until the father reaches his present insensitive state. The familiar (to Americans, at least) annoyances that sometimes come with extended-family Thanksgivings are twisted into a grotesque parody.
Chris Miller’s take on the theme is “Into the Light”, the story of a family that has spent ten years in a bunker at the behest of its paranoid patriarch, who insists that “they” are on the outside. The narrator, Myla, was born on the inside. The story builds up the quirks that define each character: the father’s all-consuming fear of a “they” that he cannot even identify; the mother’s ability to draw a shell around herself and accept the situation as normal; the growing frustrations of teenager Bobby; and the unquestioning obedience of Myla, who simply knows no other existence. When Bobby breaks the family’s golden rule by taking a step outside, Myla is caught between her parents, her brother – and, perhaps, “them.”
The final story of cabin fever, M. Ennenbach’s “Fifty Words for Writer’s Block –A Decline–”, is the most grounded of the three. Here, a frustrated poet with the unfortunate pen-name of Phlegm struggles with his latest manuscript, deliberately secluded from the outside world in a remote Alaska cabin. The story captures Phlegm’s despair convincingly: his desperation to move on to prose, while contractually obliged to finish one more poetry volume; his determination to start a poem with a particular line, simply because it was suggested by an attractive co-ed; his fading hopes of becoming an object of fame and desire. All the while, the surrounding wilderness grows increasingly forbidding.
The next three stories are themed around letters. Chris Miller’s “The Final Correspondence of Thomas Baker Wolfe” is framed as a series of letters by the assistant of an inventor, describing an attempt to view another plane of existence – with all of the wonders and horrors that entails. The story is set in 1926, and does a good job of evoking science fiction from that era: Lovecraft is the main reference point, but there are also shades of Hugo Gernsback’s magazines.
“Blame Jonathan Swift” by Patrick C. Harrison III is another epistolary narrative with a period setting. This time, the story is framed as a confession written by an Irish nobleman in 1730, in which he describes reading Swift’s “Modest Proposal” and not only failing to notice the satire, but also concluding that the essay’s solution to starvation was actually rather a good idea. Like its source text, the story derives dry humour from conveying utter atrocities with a matter-of-fact yet eloquent tone, making some satirical digs at the class system along the way. Unlike Swift, it also incorporates Irish folklore.
M. Ennenbach’s “Baptized by Lethe” is the only one of the three letter-themed stories not to use an epistolary format. It turns out to be a comparatively sedate narrative about a college freshman who faces a struggle to fit in, a crush on her quirky best friend, fading memories, and a series of enigmatic letters relating to Greek mythology.
The third and final motif is chaos. Alongside M. Ennenbach’s “Incident at Barrow Farm”, which is currently up for Best Short Story at the Splatterpunk Awards, we find “Taking the Loop” by Patrick C. Harrison III. This lengthy exercise in stream-of-consciousness surrealism begins with the main character in a nightclub looking for a drink, a journey that puts him into contact with a talking camel, a monstrous childbirth and all manner of bizarre bodily transformations. This passage sums it up:
Ben screams and as he screams the pressure reaches its precipice and a volcano of semen soaked, fairy dusted fairies explode from his cock rocket in a simultaneous big bang of pain and pleasure that is beyond measure. Fairies spray from his cock like a high-pressure fountain, hitting the bleeding eyes in the…eyes (they do not blink or look away) and Ben keeps screaming and watching the eyes and the fairies and fairies are smiling and laughing and they’re all orgasming with him and he sees his cock losing its new found knotted girth as it spews them out and he actually feels a little dismay over this but he keeps screaming and screaming and screaming.
The final story, “Day 69” by Chris Miller, depicts America hit by a virus; although described simply as “a new strain of influenza” that originated in China, this is clearly meant to be COVID-19. The main setting is a supermarket that descends into pandemonium as various shoppers panic-buy in preparation for lockdown: what starts as a battle of words ends up as an all-out bloodbath. Combatants (a number of whom are named after the collection’s authors, a recurring motif throughout the book) include the gun-toting, rebel flag-waving Harrison Brothers; a ranting crank who insists that the virus is a Democrat plot to undermine the president; a racist elderly woman; a knife-wielding butcher; and the local police force, who do not handle the crisis particularly well. Caught in the middle is the protagonist, a father who finds that his son has gone missing in the chaos. The action is extremely bloody:
Someone behind Mike screamed in pain, but he couldn’t turn to see who it was, because he was stuck in place by the horrifying sight of Patrick Harrison’s lower jaw transforming into crimson obliteration, teeth and gums and meaty pulps flying apart like an organic Big Bang, blood spraying in all directions as the man’s eyes stretched to their maximum and his whipping tongue flapped hysterically beneath his upper jaw like a drowning fish. Without his jaw, the cigar tumbled to the floor in the tumult and its cherry hissed out in a spattering of someone’s blood. Then he collapsed full on his face and began to quiver as a scarlet corona formed around him.
“Day 69” emphasises the overarching theme behind the book’s three central topics. Intentionally or not, Cerberus Rising is an anthology of the pandemic, the motifs of cabin fever, long-distance communication and overall chaos all being grimly relevant to the present crisis. And as is often the case with a crisis, there is much cathartic pleasure to be had in seeing current anxieties being twisted and warped into offbeat horror fiction.