If I Die Before I Wake: Tales of Deadly Women and Retribution, ed. R.E. Sargent and Steven Pajak (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

DeadlyWomenIf I Die Before I Wake: Tales of Deadly Women and Retribution is the third volume in the Better Off Dead series of themed anthologies, the topic this time being punishments meted out by femmes fatales. The range of variations on this motif turns out to be broad indeed…

“The Long December” by Steven Pojak is a full–length novella in which a mentally-troubled school administrator commits suicide after being abruptly fired, prompting her daughter to exact vengeance against both the doctor who let her down and the employer who terminated her. The story’s length allows it a good deal of emotional depth to explore on the way to its explosive climax – and this is just the beginning of the anthology, with more twisted tales of vengeance to follow. In “Lucy” by R.E. Sargent a man falls for a seductive woman at a bar only for her to make a strange offer: she asks him to chemically castrate her abusive husband. Her machinations, it transpires, reach far beyond this. Meanwhile, Red Lagoe’s “Black Feathered Fury” has an elderly woman with an affinity for birds avenge the murder of her girlfriend with a murder of crows.

Dysfunctional families are plentiful across the anthology. Chris Conteras Bahnsen’s “Sign Followers” is about a family of snake handlers consisting of a widower and his two teenage daughters, whose sheltered and deeply religious upbringing gives them only a partial understanding of their preacher-father’s incestuous desires. “The Door” by Scotty Milder revolves around a girl born to a metal-musician father, who named her Lamashtu after a baby-stealing demoness; the family saga comes to include divorce, bereavement, alcoholism and deals with an eldritch entity.

This last detail brings us to another recurring motif: dark fantasy and science fiction. In Natalie Sierra’s “The Returned” an employee at Arkham Asylum (the Lovecraft one, not the Batman one) becomes embroiled in a disastrous attempt to reanimate the dead, set agaisnt a backdrop of seventies disco. “Take Heart My Child” by Cara Fox depicts a post-apocalyptic society where women hunt men for food, as see through the eyes of a mother as she seeks out male hearts to feed her daughters.

One of the most striking stories in the book is “Forget Them Not” by Claire Brown, which blends dark fantasy with the dysfunctional family theme. This is a grown-up Struwwelpeter story about a woman who wishes that she’d never had children – and a supernatural hag obligingly grants her wish, erasing her kids from existence. As she strives to rescue her children from oblivion, the mother reconsiders what they mean to her. The plot is simple but robust, benefitting from strong psychology and emotions along with a stark ending.

A number of the authors have tried to build entire urban fantasy worlds. “To Hell and Back” by Mark Young is about a woman who once had a career assassinating supernatural entities, and finds herself pressed back into work when her daughter is taken hostage. Her literal journey through hell offers little that is particularly original, but the story is nonetheless solid bit of monster-hunting in the heroic fantasy tradition. In “Fancy Dick McGuffin and the Case of the Recycled Hired Guns” by Nikkolas James a detective named Fancy Dick teams up with a necromancer named Nicki to solve a crime, and the two are embroiled in a Dresden Files-esque world of monsters and magicians. This passage sums up the two main characters:

To Fancy, defending the living meant avenging the dead. For Nicki, avenging the dead was like avenging a doorknob, and in her opinion, any living that couldn’t defend themselves deserved to die.

These tales of heroic urban fantasy often struggle to create a whole world within the confines of a short story. The biggest causality is Scott Harper’s “Chained”: the story of two lesbian lich-hunters, one of whom (implied to be a descendant of a character from Dracula) gets infected. There simply is not enough room for the story to convey the narrative it is clearly striving for.

“Chained” is not the only flawed entry in the book, it has to be admitted. “Political Suicide” by Bridgett Nelson follows a mother who, after the preventable death of her son, vows vengeance against the politician who cut the health budget; she manages to use her own medical expertise against him. While the subject matter is pleasingly provocative, the story is overlong and spells out its plot too early on; it also suffers from clunky prose.

“Predator” by J. H. Moncrieff is a psychologically raw story about a detective who investigates child predators; when she finds a suspicious account online purporting to be her son, she becomes convinced that her husband – the boy’s stepfather – is using it to groom children. Despite a promising start, the story arrives at a weak twist. A better treatment of a similar theme is Spencer Richard’s “Anika”, the story of a female vigilante who seduces and murders predatory men against a background of espionage: while much more glamourised than “Predator”, it is also more tightly-constructed.

The occasional missteps are outweighed by the quality entries. “Foundling” by Lee Rozelle is one of the most entertainingly bizarre stories in the anthology: it kicks off with a specialist in marine life finding that one of her former pupils has been killed by a weird fish-like creature, and then heads off in quietly surreal directions before reaching a (somewhat) logical explanation for all that has happened. The anthology closes on a good romp with a well-rendered monster in “Soul Skeeter” by Renee M.P.T. Kray. Here, a family welcomes in a troubled girl, and only one member – the nine-year-old daughter – realises that they have invited a monster into their home. While young enough to hold tea parties for her toys, the daughter is also sufficiently familiar with the Internet and horror films to figure out what the intruder is and how to deal with her.

Although it is about the least even of the contenders for the Splatterpunk Awards’ anthology category, If I Die Before I Wake: Tales of Deadly Women and Retribution has a lot going for it. The authors have generally avoided the overly obvious angles of rape-revenge and blunt feminist cheerleading in favour of an inventive and varied set of dark stories.

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