J.F. Gonzalez and Garrett Peck (editors),
Tooth and Claw, Volume One (Lone Wolf Publications, 2002)

Lone Wolf Publications' Tooth and Claw, Volume One is a true multimedia experience. Available only on a limited run of three hundred CD-ROMs signed by the authors and editors, this anthology of horror stories "focusing on tales of consumption" not only features fine writing, but also filmed interviews, the script adaptation of one story, contributors' e-mail and Web links, copious photographs, and accompanying — and appropriately horrific — illustrations with a separate art gallery by artist Allen K[oszowski].

In the video introduction, editors J.F. Gonzalez and Garrett Peck show some of the creatures that are reported to be "man-eaters" and then, while Gonzalez holds a yellow python on his shoulders, Peck describes the intent of Tooth and Claw, Volume One: that while man usually thinks himself to be at the top of the food chain, this anthology will prove otherwise.

The first story is F. Paul Wilson's "Bugs." An excerpt taken from the final novel in his Adversary Cycle, Nightworld, it involves Hank and his struggles to survive the monstrous man-eating millipedes, belly flies, spearheads, dragonflies, and chew wasps that are taking over the world. He becomes so obsessed with fighting them that his wife leaves him. After gathering supplies, he takes off for the Jersey Shore, where things really start to break loose. Wilson's main talent lies in writing action sequences where the energy never lets up. This serves him well in this tale of motion, death, and rebirth.

"Red Wood" follows by Brian Keene, about killer trees that use increasingly clever predatory methods towards those who invade their forest. Just one more reason to yell "Timber!" "Dam Beavers!" — speaking of trees — concerns the creatures who use them to stop the flow of water, and how one farmer got a little selfish and had to pay. This revenge story by Edo van Belkom is introduced by a funny short film in that vein, directed by the author and starring his son.

Loving description is commonplace in this collection, so those with weak stomachs need not apply. The same goes for the artwork by Allen K that heads each tale. It seems as if he found the most gruesome aspect of each one and chose to illustrate only that aspect. Not that I'm complaining, it merely made it difficult to read this on my laptop while riding the commuter train, as few of my fellow passengers were prepared for the intricacy of Mr. K's work and chose to find other seats.

Another short film accompanies Gord Rollo's tale, "Friends of the Forgotten Man." The story is a good idea that feels poorly executed, but the film is something else entirely. Starring Rollo as the forgotten man and Dean Heid as his captor, this adaptation somehow manages to altogether miss the point of the author's own source material. It's entertaining in a Grade Z, Troma Studios kind of way — except without the gratuitous violence and nudity that keeps viewers interested in an otherwise bad film. Yet it remains fully watchable and I could tell that the makers put a lot of effort — if not money — into its creation.

A different kind of media comes packed up in Selina Rose's "Fish Story." For those of you who don't like to read for yourself, Lone Wolf has included a Real Audio file of Rose reading the story for you. Doing a southern U.S. dialect is hard, but Rose captures it accurately and respectfully, never making her characters seem stupid. The audio version, read by the author, appears to be a one take job with vocal mistakes included, but is still serviceable, sounding like a live reading. Probably just worth one listen.

Hugh B. Cave's "Mighty in Battle" — about a woman whose cabin is invaded by a gang — is a good enough story, but is connected to the theme only minimally and doesn't play fair with the dissemination of necessary information, making the ending feel like deus ex machina. But one of the true highlights of Tooth and Claw, Volume One is Roger Range's "Scavengers." A family on vacation gets a flat tire in the desert and is eventually fighting for their lives against a pack of coyotes. The suspense is fabulous and the surprise ending even better. Range also took pictures of the setting and they are included with his bio.

"Do You Know This Girl?" by Jeffrey Thomas started out promising — even with a science-fiction thread running through it — led me along an intriguing storyline about a man in a strange town and his involvement with a mysterious blonde, tore me through its gut-wrenching climax, and then dropped me cold with a sorry ending. Fortunately, this bad mood was remedied by "Teacher's Pets," a bit of cleverness by the duo of Simon Clark and Tim Lebbon. Miss Grundy doesn't like how three of her students treat animals, so she decides to get revenge in kind. I was surprised when I noticed that two people had written this, as the voice and vision are notably singular.

When Lake Wachnapachta floods Heaven's Cove, Sheriff Ralph Clarkson goes to investigate, making the worst mistake of his life. Man-eating tadpoles reign supreme in "Raingods Dancing" by Michael Laimo, a yarn that is another solid offering in this anthology, but which brings up another question. Why do writers, after some particularly gruesome carnage, feel obliged to tack on an epilogue that implies it's about to happen again? One page less and "Raingods Dancing" would have been an ideal adventure, but that final page takes it down ever so slightly from perfection.

Excess dramatics kill the effect of the final scene in Guy N. Smith's "Savage Safari." On the search for a rare sort of big game, a group of hunters led by a cocky guide find more than they were prepared to deal with. Even at nearly thirty pages (one of the longer offerings), "Savage Safari" reads like gangbusters, and I was taken willingly. At least until the end, when someone decided that the "surprise" at the end needed to be italicized, thus killing any effect it would have had. Don't try to force excitement on me. If it's there, I'll find it for myself.

Scott Thomas's "Eldon Weeks and the Salem Witch" skirts the theme a bit, preferring to focus on its central human characters, and ending with a reminder that acts of survival are not always pleasant to read about. Arachnophobes will have a time with "Curly's Story." John Pelan spins a yarn about a humongous spider seen on a hunting expedition. This is a mediocre chronicle that ends with a forced bad joke — and an inaccurate one, as well.

"Dust Bunnies" carries with it a warning from Mary Ann Mitchell. Beware of the dust gathering under your furniture, because large insects may decide to make it their home, and take over. Clever use of a normal fixation makes for a timeless tale. Short, quick, and to the point at twelve pages — one of the shortest.

"Once Upon the End" by Weston Ochse closes the anthology, and it is a doozy. The North Carolina invasion of humanivorous beasties called Maggies, Smokers, Swimmers, and Caddies — increasingly larger maggot-like creatures (Caddies are the size of Cadillacs) that kill from both outside and in — can only be held at bay by salt, and the proverbial ragtag bunch of losers are holed up in a cabin awaiting their eventual demise. At least until a young boy, inspired by their teamwork, inadvertently shows them another option. Ochse has included all the ingredients for a bang-up story: suspenseful plot, interesting characters, buckets of conflict, and the struggle to retain hope against a seemingly undefeatable and innumerable foe. Even though it runs sixty pages, it's none too long and ends when it should.

"Once Upon the End" is by far the premier tale in Tooth and Claw, Volume One. I liked it enough to read it twice, as it is available in prose and in a 102-page screenplay. Some changes are made for the screenplay, of course, in addition to expansion. Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is featured, one of the group's state of infection is found out much sooner, and flashbacks and the addition of a new character round it out, along with particular attention to a more visual style of storytelling. The two formats are as different as they need to be, and yet retain the essence of the story, making them both equally good. The perfect ending to a nearly impeccable collection.

The formatting of this electronic book is simple but with enough flourish to be pleasant to the eye and remind one of a book made of paper instead of code. The table of contents is everpresent at the left side (unless you choose it not to be) and is comprehensive, which I found helpful in navigating from one story to the next, and also in navigating the links provided within the texts.

Tooth and Claw, Volume One could only have been completely successful in this format. After all, where else but an ebook can you "turn a page" and immediately be treated to a short film? In addition, these pages will look as pristine as the first viewing for as long as you own the CD. Of course, I still prefer the tactile sensation of holding a paperbound book, but nevertheless, in spite of my personal prejudice, I was kept enthralled the whole way. This book has made me look at ebooks in a new way — as not simply a different format, but one with much greater potential for entertainment. It's the first CD-ROM I've seen of its kind and all the extra goodies enhanced my enjoyment of the stories. Gonzalez and Peck (with Lone Wolf Publications) have created a product of which they can be truly proud. And if this kind of thing is your cup of tea, Lone Wolf offers more of the same for sale on their Web site, including Tooth and Claw, Volume Two.

[Craig Clarke]