BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Deadliest edited by Patrick Beltran and D. Alexander Ward

The Seven Deadliest is, as the title suggests, an exploration of the seven deadly sins. The concept of the deadly sins has its roots in the desert fathers, but was made most widespread by medieval Catholicism. Now, we are glutted with adaptations of the seven deadly sins, including the glorious epic-fantasy anime Nanatsu no taizai (Seven Deadly Sins). However, impressively, the writers in this anthology have found new ways to explore this age-old theme. The stories in this anthology are novellas, an underrated medium of storytelling that allows them the space to really dig deep into what these sins mean for us in the modern world, and where, perhaps, they come from within us. Mercedes M. Yardley described this collection as ‘the most compelling exploration of [the seven deadly sins] that I have ever read’, and I wasn’t quite sure that it could possibly live up to that; but it surely has, standing among the greats such as Christopher Marlowe’s searingly insightful portrayal of the seven deadliest in his 1592 play Dr Faustus.

(Avarice) Gilda by John C. Foster

First up, we have ‘Gilda’ by John C. Foster. Foster is a master of the unsettling, quite simply, and the way he handles dialogue in this story is exquisite. Every choice he makes is symbolic and meaningful, such as the title of this group’s maitre d’, the eponymous Gilda, which evokes the word ‘gild’, or in other words, to cover with gold.

The story follows a determined woman’s desperate to gain entry into a society of high-profile female influencers. During the course of her semi-initiation, Gilda tells a story about a mysterious man who arrives at someone’s doorstep with a box full of cash and a humble request. As both our present-day story and Gilda’s progress, often intersecting in unusual and downright creepy ways, we begin to see that sometimes admission-by-any price is not worth paying. It is at once a commentary on toxic relationships, an insightful rendition of greed, and a cunning subversion that shows us avarice can take many forms. Foster delivers both adept character studies as well as a rising tension that resolves in brain-scarring horror imagery. It’s easy to see why he is becoming such a name.

(Wrath) A Short Madness by Bracken MacLeod

‘A Short Madness’ is another stellar addition to this collection. MacLeod takes us on an emotional rollercoaster as we explore a priest contending with their desire for revenge. MacLeod uses the space afforded by the novella to create a stunning character portrait of someone wracked by visions, which may be real or stemming from repressed anger, and struggling to find answers.

There is more than a little neo-noir about this story. It feels like an intersection between a film like Calvary, with explicit commentaries on the difficulties of bearing the weight of confession and priesthood in general, but also something darker, such as Drive. In the end, we reach a moment of climax that is hair-raising and mysterious; decisive, yet also bleakly fatalistic. I was surprised by this story and held throughout, a stunning piece.

(Pride) Cap Diamant by Kasey Lansdale

This story had some intriguing ideas, exploring pride from both male and female perspectives. Historical in setting, it engages with the concept of sirens, creating a kind of mixed mythology of a vampire crossed with a demonette. We see that sometimes pride only exists because we choose to feed it.

(Jealousy) Chisel and Stone by Brian Kirk

This was a surprising story, a portrait of a failing marriage and a post-modern quest for meaning among the wealthy. Whilst I didn’t really like any of the characters (I’m not sure I was supposed to), I thought the denouement was stunningly realised. Brian Kirk explores many issues here, from political activism and virtue-signalling, to recovery from imprisonment, as well as the central theme of jealousy. He flips jealousy on its head by asking the question of what happens when we are jealous of good things in others’ lives? Not success, but wholesome spirituality, meaning, purpose, love.

(Sloth) Clevengers of the Carrion Sea by Rena Mason

This was the most overtly fantastical of all the stories in this collection and is all the stronger because of it. The story alternates between two character perspectives: a young blind boy called Danny, and Margaret, a traumatised woman looking to do good. As the two worlds of these protagonists overlap in sinister and supernatural ways, we are finally drawn into a terrifying and dark otherworld where there is nothing to do, save to clean the worms… Original, mind-melting, and beautifully rendered, this is a katabasis, a descent into hell, that delivers on every level.

‘Clevengers of the Carrion Sea’, a title which only makes sense once you reach the end of this tale, is an exploration of sloth in a far deeper sense: a commentary on the horrors of overzealous escapism and the lengths we will go to to avoid our responsibilities and the struggles in our life. It is a blood-curdling vision that takes no prisoners, offering us both horror of the real (the ugly and abusive people around us) and the beyond-real (the beings of a dark fantasy world). At times, this story dazzled and disgusted me with its Slipknot-intensity imagery.

(Lust) Ring of Fire by Richard Thomas

‘Ring of Fire’ is undoubtedly the most ‘horror’ of all the stories in this anthology, an unsettling pot-boiler that seethes with atmosphere and dread. Following a lone researcher at a facility in some unknown snowy location, Richard Thomas is the master of withholding information and creating mystery. It is always as much about what we do not know than what we know; what he refuses to say, as what he says. Our narrator for this story is straight-up unreliable, and the world around them is unreliable too. As we progress, however, and notice these disturbing deja vu moments, these chimes of coincidence, we begin to piece together the deeper narrative of what is happening.

By the end of this story, there are still many unanswered questions, but those that have been answered fill the stomach with churning fear. Richard Thomas plays with us, and our expectations, capturing the kind of paranoia of Blade Runner and mixing it with the existential dread of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are sci-fi elements here, but they are subtle; our narrator seems to barely grasp them, describing his processes and encounters with unease and uncertainty, the vocabulary of a man at his wit’s end.

This story is about lust, yet Richard makes sex conspicuous by absence, all the while amping up the pressure-cooker of sexual tension until we are, like our protagonist isolated in a lone facility, about to implode. As with many Richard Thomas stories, I immediately started re-reading this story upon finishing it.

(Gluttony) All You Care to Eat by John F. D. Taff

This final tale is a worthy conclusion to the anthology, a chilling and insightful examination of a therapeutic relationship as well as our relationship to our own body. The supernatural elements of this plot are disturbing in how casually they are described, opening us up to a world of frightening possibility. However, the real triumph of this tale is that it is written with tremendous feeling and sympathy, whilst never shying away from showing us the extent of the sin. Taff cleverly subverts Gluttony by examining what it would be like to glut on the things that we love: cherished items, pets, and even loved ones…

Overall, this is one of the finest collections I have reviewed as well as a triumphant return of the novella form. D. Alexander Ward and Patrick Beltran are to be commended for assembling such a dream-team of writers and encouraging them to pull off some of their best work. Each story is accompanied by an Afterword from the author where they share rich insights into their tale, and some of these were almost as intriguing as the stories themselves. It seems that there was a certain serendipity in the way the apparently randomised sins fell, each writer connecting with their dice-chosen sin at a deep level. It shows in the work, which is passionately rich.

I highly recommend you swallow your pride and get jealous of everyone else with their copy; buy it by digging into your greedy pocket, get mad if they refuse sale, shag whoever you have to make it happen, just so you can add it to your avaricious collection and spend the day in sloth reading it.

This book really is a bad influence.

The Seven Deadliest is published by Cutting Block Books and is available here.

Authors

John C. Foster, Bracken MacLeod, Kasey Lansdale, Brian Kirk, Rena Mason, Richard Thomas & John F.D. Taff.

If you are a fan of Richard Thomas and want more of his words, he has an exclusive short story in the pages of our horror anthology Shallow Creek – more information below on how to grab a copy!

Reviewed by Joseph Sale

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Shallow Creek contains twenty-one original horror stories by a chilling cast of contemporary writers, including stories by Sarah Lotz, Richard Thomas, Adrian J Walker, and Aliya Whitely. Told through a series of interconnected narratives, Shallow Creek is an epic anthology that exposes the raw human emotion and heart-pounding thrills at the the genre’s core.

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