Listen: The Sound of Fear is a collection of ten stories from nine different authors. Each tale of horror and unease features themes of sound and portrays (to varying degrees) the lives of queer people. This collection has something for everyone! There are historical pieces (Kill Your Darlings), gay and lesbian MCs (Her Little Joke, The Knocking Bird, Haunt), transgender (maybe questioning) MCs (Holy Water), and more. This is a great collection to sample different authors’ works. The anthology’s format was also very good. Before each story, there were content warnings that sensitive readers should find helpful. Personally, I like knowing what’s coming in an abstract sense like this because it whets my appetite. The blurbs at the end gave a brief introduction to the authors. This was how I discovered that many (if not all) the stories are own-voices. I read all but two of the stories, so the rating is based on those I read. Some of my favorites are included below.
Kill Your Darlings by Ridley Harker
Theo and Cillian work in a secondhand shop. The economy is struggling and their boss has made it clear one of them has to go. Knowing that Cillian has to support his sister and infant nephew, Theo wants to save Cillian from the hardship. Suddenly, however, there’s a hot ticket item at the shop: a phonograph. Theo sells it one day, and it mysteriously reappears on the shop step the next. At the same time, Theo begins to realize tragic events befall whoever buys the device. Soon, Theo finds himself at the mercy of the wicked phonograph. He must work fast if he hopes to solve the mystery of the phonograph before he puts the life of the man he loves in danger.
This story closely resembles the average romance novel. There’s a get-together element going strong between Theo and Cillian. Their relationship gets thwarted by the cursed phonograph, which compels Theo to get to the bottom of the curse to save his chance at happiness. And there’s a happily-ever-after. Harker does a great job building suspense by how often the phonograph is bought and sold. He quickly ratchets it up by having the characters discover that selling the phonograph coincides with one or another grisly sort of event befalling the most recent owner. And when that curse seems to target Theo, I loved the struggle he faces between what he knows and wants versus what the curse knows and wants (and is willing to use whoever has the phonograph to get it).
On the Other Side of Sound by Jon James
He survived a traumatic car accident that left him hospitalized for weeks. And when he finally woke up, there was a grating sound, a whining whirr that never went away. At first, his doctors told him it would go away on its own, that’s what usually happens with trauma-induced audio hallucinations. Then it gets worse and his doctors say it’s because of the metal plate they put in his head after the accident. Then it gets even worse, but he realizes the sounds are almost like language. He starts paying attention, much to the chagrin of his young children and partner. More and more, he focuses on the sound, on trying to appease it. And when he finally discovers what he thinks it wants, it’s no small matter to engage in a little “body modification” for the sake of finally getting some peace. Because how could there be anything other than peace as long as he obeys and satisfies the sound?
What I loved about this story is how creative it is. I loved how James plays with the text. The main character is nameless until one brief, flashback kind of mention halfway through the story. His focus is always on the sound, but James does a fabulous job describing how that focus changes. At first, the sound is pure annoyance and by the end of the book, the MC is desperate to appease it. But to “appease” the sound, the MC first has to understand it. I thought James’ solution to showing the sound in English text was pretty brilliant. At first, the MC believes the sound is a kind of code, so instead of a “sound” or a “tone” or a “whirr,” it becomes “RR28” or “Y.6c.” As he starts to decipher the code, the MC sort of translates that back into English. And as the MC is finally convinced the way to appease the sound to is follow the instructions he believes are reflected in the sound, the representation of that sound changes again. I’m a translator; I work with and think about textual representation a lot and that gave me a huge appreciation for James’ vision with this short story.
Bride of Brine by E.E.W. Christman
Many locals insist that so-called Brides of Brine sing their siren songs to earth-bound mortals. For Sylvie, it wasn’t a song so much as a constant drone. She was never happier than when she left that seaside fishing village. Gone was the endless sound of waves breaking on the beach; it was replaced with the glorious stillness of the desert. For years, Sylvie reveled in the dry heat and quiet, estranged from her childhood home. But then, her father called. Normally, Sylvie wouldn’t have thought twice about ignoring a call from him. After all, she and her father all but severed ties years ago. But this was different; Sylvie’s brother was missing, so she had to go home. Upon returning home, the sound of the ocean was a living thing within her. And soon, she would discover just how much water the old wives tale about brides in the brine could hold.
For me, this piece is all about the mood. I was delightfully surprised by how Sylvie finds solace in the silent desolation of the sun-baked desert. The combination of quiet and solitude are exactly what she’d wanted and I thought Christman conveyed Sylvie’s appreciation for the desert so well. It was a great contrast to how Sylvie experiences the ocean. The descriptive writing provides a solid melancholy sense. Sylvie finds everything about the ocean distasteful and balks at how her own father seems to be completely oblivious to (or maliciously aware of) how desperately Syvie wants to escape the gray town. There is a scene where Sylvie and her father go to the beach to look for Sylvie’s brother and here, Sylvie has a sort of epiphany. Afterwards, her thoughts on the ocean do a complete one-eighty and, suddenly, she wants nothing more than to become one with the water…or whatever is in the water. I really liked how the story continues for a small bit after Sylvie basically confronts her connection to the ocean. The ending took a story that felt very linear, where the beginning and end are poles apart, and provided a sense of Sylvie coming full circle.
Overall, I think Listen is a wonderful collection. It runs the gamut, so if you’re looking to explore horror themes with queer characters, this gives a broad sampling. There are curses, ghosts, unknown (or unknowable?) entities, haunted places, poltergeist themes, and more. The queer representation also fairly broad with lesbian, gay, and transgender representation. If you’re looking for eerie tales or wanting stories to help you push your boundaries without committing to a full novel, then I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy here.