Review by Togo
We all remember fondly all those times when we were young and sat near the bonfire, joking and playing with each other before someone, or someones, also took a seat. Everything would go quiet as these persons, each taking turns to speak, started to narrate a story. Ghosts, vampires, aliens, and more peppered our experiences throughout the night as we passed around a sachet and sprinkled the Midnight Dust into the fire as...no, wait, that was a TV show. Anyway, The Haunted Den by Thurston Howl Publications follows a similar premise: seven authors, each bringing us a ghost story, all tied by a single overall theme. Hauntings.
CW: This anthology contains references and descriptions of, but is not limited to, suicide, death, gore, violence, dubious consent, domestic abuse, among others.
The anthology has a strong start with "The Well" by Anastasia Spinet. In this story, we follow Jonah, the patriarch of a family of ring-tailed cats, and his fascination with the eponymous deep well located in the garden of his new home, one that seems to have changed hands quite often. While I liked the slight The Shining vibes and the way the main character develops throughout the story, I think that what most makes it stand out is how it mixes its "furry" elements with its plot (surprisingly, something not as common in furry literature as you might think). However, I feel like this story could have maybe used a few more pages, as once the ball starts rolling it starts feeling quite rushed with everything that happens.
Next is "The Road to Kyoto" by Alison Cybe. In this story, we follow Roka, a fox-spirit-turned-Shinto-monk in a pilgrimage who, in a manner similar to Aura, soon finds himself at the mercy of an old innkeeper and her underage daughter. The story has tension written all over it, with the main character never getting a moment of rest as danger and dread follow him everywhere he goes; however, for a short story, I feel that there were several superfluous elements introduced. A few of them do kind of make sense, aiding to the tension of very specific scenes before being discarded altogether, but others just have no payoff or any bearing with the story at all.
Changing things up a little, we have "Postmortem Plundering" by Ferric. Unlike the rest of the anthology, the titular haunting refers to a person and not a place as we follow John, a blue jay who receives an unexpected visit from a former, not-so-dead lover. My biggest gripe with this stor is how, for the most part, it feels more like a paranormal romance and not bonafide horror, only changing that tone very near the end of it (though in a very effective way, I might add); but I guess that could be a big plus for someone else who's into the actions and type of relationship being portrayed. Also, in an unrelated tangent, this story has the honor of being the only one with an individual Content Warning right at the start of it.
Next, we have "Saturn in the Sky" by Will Sidel. Kind of following the same trend as the previous story, here we have a more personal type of horror as we follow Lou, a lioness who not only has to deal with the haunting memories of her dead father, but also with his rapidly expanding corpse. While I like the setup and the relationship of Lou with her father, especially regarding the mysterious rules he had her follow, I feel like there was not much of a payoff in the end. Though I'll admit that maybe it was just me as I get the feeling that there was some underlying symbolism I didn't understand, and that left me in the dark with no explicit explanation in the text itself.
Returning to our regular schedule, we have "Snowblind" by Robert Shelters. In this story, we follow a rescue team sent to investigate a remote research station after losing all contact with it. The vivid and detailed descriptions really make this story stand out, and that coupled with nice pacing really help set the mood of the story, yet, in spite of them, the story has an overall feeling of lack of tension. The research station, in all its dilapidated and dangerous glory, feels like an aftermath for the most part (which, to be honest, it is) rather than an actual setting, and Neil, our raccoon protagonist, never really feels like he's in any actual danger.
Next is "Old Callow House" by Nathaniel "LeCount" Edwards. In this story, we follow a trio of friends as they investigate the long-abandoned house of the Callow family, left like that after the mysterious disappearance of its previous occupants. Much like in the previous story, here we can see a lot of detail given to the description of the eponymous house, its current state, and history, which almost makes it feel like the house itself was another character. Overall a nice read, but the story at times gives vibes of something that you could find in r/noSleep, both in a good and a bad sense.
Last, but definitely not least, we have my favorite: "The Buccaneer's Bay" by Nathan Hopp. In this story, we follow the host of "Trent Explorers", an otter named Trent, as he ventures into the eponymous waterpark which was abandoned after the deaths of several parkgoers. The meta-narrative format coupled with a good use of dread and tension are what made the story for me, not to mention that it has the most likable protagonist in this anthology, which made me more invested in the story and his story as a whole. My only complaint would be the epilogue, which felt kind of unnecessary.
While the anthology as a whole had a few misses, overall I can say that I had a good time reading The Haunted Den. The different takes on what is a haunting and the ways the authors handled them was interesting, and I have to applaud the illustrations by Nik Raccoon both in art style and how well they fit their individual story. However, I feel that the anthology could have used a little more developmental editing, as many of the stories could have used some very small tweaks to better play to their strengths and fix their most glaring issues.
In an unrelated subject, if the editors of this anthology - or any editor for that matter - see this review, I'd like to bring up again the individual Content Warning of Postmortem Plundering. This was a great idea (even if it was weird that only one story had it) and something that I'd personally love to see in more anthologies; especially for cases like horror, where the content and subjects are meant to disturb the reader, and you risk having specific topics that might be too much for very specific readers.