By Jeani Rector (Publish America; 2008)

Another fine volume of old school horror stories by Jeani Rector, following her terrific debut collection AFTER DARK (2006).  This new book is stronger, executed with much greater confidence and originality–indeed, stories like “Monday Night Dive” and “Cold Spot,” with their unpredictable narratives and wildly off-kilter yet satisfying conclusions, really aren’t like anything else I can think of, heralding the development of an altogether fresh and distinct voice.

More traditional, though still quite fine, are “A Case of Lycanthropy,” about a woman who becomes afflicted with bloodlust after she’s bitten by a dog, and “The Burial,” about the coming of age of a Native American boy during a funeral ceremony.  There’s also “Cat’s Eye,” in which a man becomes obsessed with a one-eyed cat, and “Ebola Zaire,” a true story of how back in 1976 a young African woman nearly unleashed the Ebola virus upon the world.

As for the standout stories, I’ll have to go with “Under the House” and “Ghoul.”  The first is a pointed exercise in apprehension, relating how an abused girl ventures into a dark area under her house and finds something truly horrible.  The novella-length “Ghoul” already appeared in Rector’s previous collection, but in a truncated version.  The text here is apparently unabridged, and it’s a sterling example of pure storytelling magic, being a twisty account of a voodoo curse containing a macabre surprise at every turn.

That leaves us with the final piece, “Open Grave.”  It’s a veritable mini-novel and easily the most daring of the book’s contents.  I wish I could report that’s it’s a roaring success, but…

Well, it’s a partial success, an imaginative portrayal of a college student under the influence of a devil-worshipping seductress named Raven.  The tale is interesting in the way it inverts the classical format of most like-minded stories, which are nearly always told from the point of view of a third-party observer; here, by contrast, we’re given an up-close-and-personal account of the cursed individual’s sufferings.  There’s a grim fascination in the way the protagonist finds himself hopelessly enraptured by Raven and then manages to break away, only to fall under her spell once again.

Unfortunately it’s also here, in the first-person narration, that the story goes wrong.  Woman-centered stories told by male writers are rarely ever convincing, and same is true here, with a woman attempting to replicate a man’s point of view.  As a member of the latter gender I found that quite a few details just didn’t ring true, particularly those describing the protagonist’s (overly chaste) infatuation with Raven (the most descriptive this guy gets is his timid admission that “my groin ached”).

“Open Grave” also suffers from an over-baked narrative.  With its relentless succession of twists within twists it’s a bit like the abovementioned “Ghoul,” but that story was told quite successfully in a fraction of the length of this one.

I recommend this book.  Its signature piece may not be entirely successful, but taken as a whole OPEN GRAVE bears the stamp of a one-of-a-kind talent–and promises even better things to come.