Nightmare Carnival is a short story anthology. The included works are generally gothic in their tone and tenor, and — as indicated by the title — they all relate to a carnival or carnivals in one way or another. With some notable exceptions, the included tales are generally amateurish. A surprising number of the authors have not mastered basic concepts that pertain to the craft of writing (e.g., they overuse and needlessly repeat words; they fail to use paragraph structure to establish tempo; and they include labored dialogue that is usually more distracting than informative); however, it is also true that a number of the stories — or, more specifically, the ideas — that are conveyed in these pieces are entertaining and do deliver the anticipated “goods” — scary carnival-themed events. For these reasons, the work can be recommended to anyone who has a well-worn VHS of Killer Clowns from Outer Space, but it can’t be recommended to a general audience.
Let’s consider several titles in the anthology – “Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip,” “Last of the Fair,” “Hibbler’s Minions,” and “The Mysteries” – as these stories provide a representative view of the collection’s major strengths and weaknesses. In “Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip,” the reader is treated to a racially charged wrestling match. While the situation is intriguing, the author has a hard time describing the actual violence that occurs along the way. Fight moves are collected into long, stymieing paragraphs, described with a general lack of detail, and are sometimes complicated needlessly with awkward or empty similes. There is also a curious mix along the way of interior thoughts intruding on the immediacy of the wrestling itself, which is distracting to the reader; however, at the same time, there are characters in this work that the reader comes to care about and would like to know more about — and who could benefit from a second or subsequent draft.
In “Last of the Fair,” the reader is presented with a tale of remembrance and lost that straddles — awkwardly — the styles of stream of consciousness and limited omniscience. The narration moves into and out of the main character’s troubled head with a series of sentence fragments and loose analogies, but it lacks the specificity to convey any particular images that will stay with the reader. As a result, it is hard to get invested in either the interior or exterior worlds descried in this piece, and the reader leaves the document wishing that things had been fleshed out a bit more. Several moments are designed to surprise or perhaps disgust the reader, but the quality of the writing fails to either achieve or sustain the effect.
“Hibbler’s Minions” is a relatively imaginative piece that does a good job of balancing an interesting plot with notable dialogue and good descriptions, though it does go on at times and could benefit from a good ten to twenty percent reduction in overall length. Similar comments can be offered for “The Mysteries,” though the entire work struggles under the author’s overuse of the word “I,” which is a tell-tale sign of a developing author who is unsure of his or her vocabulary. If these comments strike you as needlessly technical, I politely remind you that Nightmare Carnival is asking for your money, so it should be judged to professional standards. The entire work feels like a collection of either early efforts or often-rejected stories that happened to find their home in this niche market collection. If you have not yet read Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man or Stephen King’s It, or even Joe Hill’s far less accomplished Wraith, I would recommend that you consider all of those first. If after that you still find yourself deeply interested and in need of carnival-themed horror, then you might turn to this book. Or you might simply visit any actual carnival instead.