Clive Barker is justly acclaimed as a master fantasist but I firmly believe that 'Cabal', his 1988 novella, is an underrated title in his bibliography, even though he was able to adapt it to film as 'Nightbreed'. It was always a deliberate attempt at mythmaking and I'm frankly surprised that it took over a quarter of a century for any expansion to occur. When it finally did, it's in the form of this anthology, which contains 23 new stories by varied hands and a preface from co-editor Joseph Nassise. Barker's introduction is not a new piece, being reprinted from 'The Nightbreed Chronicles'.
The time honoured anthology rule, that not every story is created equal, is obvious from moment one with an odd piece from Lisa Majewski that feels more like a preface than a short story and an unsatisfactory one at that. Things do pick up immediately after that, though, with two fantastic stories to get us revved up for the rest.
In case you're new to this mythology, I should provide a little background. 'Cabal' introduces us to the Nightbreed, who are less a race and more a set of creatures that humankind would view as monsters. Outside of that, they're as different as they are alike, but they live underground, safely away from the sun, below a ghost town called Midian, located somewhere in the Canadian prairies. The events of the book prompt their dispersal following an attack on Midian and we're left with a diaspora of the survivors, all with the hope that Cabal will bring them together again in a new Midian.
What's immediately notable about 'Midian Unmade' is that the lead character in 'Cabal', Aaron Boone', hardly appears in this book and, when he does, it almost always ties to his role in the end of Midian. In fact, few characters from 'Cabal' show up here, though a few authors do select one on which they can riff. Most create new Breed, along with a connection to Midian and their own way forward. Also, there's very little hope here that Cabal will deliver on the task given him. It's telling that this mostly shows up very late, as if as a counter to the lack of faith in New Midian that pervades the book, a sop to fans who, after 23 short stories, will still want more.
Those two early highlights are by Seanan McGuire, an author I know well, and Kevin J. Wetmore, whom I don't know at all. McGuire's story is the template for many others here, taking a single Breed (here Babette, who played a part in 'Cabal'), placing them into a new location (Seattle in this instance) and setting up an interaction with humans. Wetmore's follows that template with a new Breed, Drummer, in Los Angeles. In both instances, their interactions with humans are excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed McGuire's Breed, who lived in Midian, being introduced by humans to what they erroneously think Midian is and perhaps are turning into. I was blown away by Wetmore's story.
While I'm not seeing it called out much, it was easily my favourite piece of this entire book. It's called 'The Night Ray Bradbury Died' and it's a great look at what it means to be different and how much connection means to such people. Drummer is mute because he has a pig-like snout in place of a mouth, so drums as communication. He meets a human girl, a burn victim who hides a missing ear and a disfigured face under a hat and scarf. She's crying in the street when he meets her but not from pain; it's just that Ray Bradbury died and she feels the loss. I teared up at this one, the best example of what it is to be human and what it is to be Nightbreed.
Many other stories impressed me while many others left me unmoved. It's the way with anthologies where different readers while find different highlights for personal reasons. Many people call out Nancy Holder's story for special mention but it left me dry. What I look for may not be what others look for, but it's important to note that none of the stories here, whether I was able to connect with them or not, seem like they shouldn't be here. Not one is an unworthy inclusion, except maybe that odd Majewski snippet.
I was highly impressed with the editing, because Nassise ordered these short stories so well that they flow from theme to theme. There's a point where a few authors have humans and Breed living together. Kurt Fawver's story isn't Brian Craddock's story in the slightest, one spawned from good will but the other from very ill will, but they're thematically similar and appropriately sit next to each other in this book. Both are good stories, with neatly hard endings. Like the Nightbreed, they're united by difference.
Another theme, visited by C. Robert Cargill and Weston Ochse and brought to a different focus later on by Stephen Woodworth and Kelly Dunn is that of a monster for the monsters. I liked these stories on their own merits but I'm not convinced that they really adhere to the common mythology. What I liked wasn't how well the fit but what else they did: Cargill's new flesh, Ochse's setting and twist, Woodworth and Dunn's chesslike moves and mythic outcome.
Maybe Lilith Saintcrow has the best angle on this, as inevitable when faith in New Midian dies. If what defines you is taken away, what do you become? I think that's a very human question but the answer is likely to be dangerous when asked by "monsters". There's cynicism in her story but hope too and the theme that dominates the end of the book is very much hope in the ability to come together again.
Rob Salem's story is a bittersweet example of this, perhaps the most obvious part of a bigger mythology. Most of these stories stand in isolation but his can only be seen as part of something bigger. I get why it does what it does and why it ends how it does, meaning that it does its job exactly right, but I want so much more and that's a mark of its success. It's part of something and, frankly, every story here should carry that feeling but so rarely does. David Schow's story does that and so does Christopher Monfette's, concluding the book with just the right connections to define how the next step should unfold, somewhere outside the pages of this volume.
This is good stuff. I would recommend that you read 'Cabal' before venturing into this collection. Even though few count as actual sequels, 'Cabal' is a necessary grounding to understand what these stories do. It wouldn't hurt to watch 'Nightbreed' too, even though it's not quite the novella and it was a flawed project because of studio intervention. I'm happy that I started with them and I'm happy that I finally got around to this. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Joseph Nassie click here