REVIEW: GAMES CREATURES PLAY / AUTHOR: CHARLAINE HARRIS, WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER, JAN BURKE, JOE R. LANSDALE, CAITLIN KITTREDGE, BRENDAN DUBOIS, DANA CAMERON, SCOTT SIGLER, ELLEN KUSHNER, BRANDON SANDERSON, MERCEDES LACKEY, SEANAN MCGUIRE, ADAM-TROY CASTRO, LAURA LIPMAN, TONI L.P. KELNER / PUBLISHER: JO FLETCHER BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
As the title and lengthy author rundown would suggest, Games Creatures Play is an anthology of supernatural short stories, revolving around the concept of the games and sports in which otherworldly entitles participate.
Ghosts form the largest proportion of tales, featuring varyingly in seven of the collection’s fifteen stories: as deceased baseball players marked for exorcism by freelance monster hunters (Scott Sigler’s The Case of the Haunted Safeway), damned souls playing a desperate game of hide and seek with their tormentors (William Kent Krueger’s Hide and Seek), cursed Native Americans challenging unwary hikers to a bloody lacrosse match (Brendan DuBois’ On the Playing Fields of Blood), reanimated spirits summoned into a boxing bout with living contenders (Joe R. Lansdale’s Dead on the Bones), a young fencer haunting an upper class girl’s school (Ellen Kushner’s Prise de Fer), a drowned girl trapped in a frozen pond freed by two skaters (Laura Lipman’s Ice) or dead gamers playing a real-life round of capture the flag on city streets (Brandon Sanderson’s Dreamer).
Anthology editors Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner both went for witches, bookending the collection with, respectively, In the Blue Hereafter, where magic is exercised to manipulate a high school softball game, and Bell, Book, and Candlepin, featuring a cursed bowling alley.
Less standard sports also feature, most notably in Seanan McGuire’s Jammed, a supernatural murder mystery involving a roller derby league of humanoid mythological creatures (although it won't do much to enlighten those who know little of the sport beyond roller skating girls in fetish gear with bad pun nicknames racing around a track while battering each other); while in Dana Cameron’s The God’s Games, a wolf man must prevent a murder at a 5th Century Olympics by winning the pankration (akin to an ancient Greek equivalent of MMA).
Stakes are raised a couple of times when the Devil himself makes appearances: he features in Mercedes Lackey’s False Knight on the Road, where a moonshine runner gets sucked into a drag race with Old Nick on a desolate mountain road, and Caitlin Kittredge’s The Devil Went Down to Boston, where the youngest daughter of a low level criminal family of Irish immigrant fae gambles with Lucifer to free her brother from the death sentence he placed on himself after stealing from a dangerous gangster.
Mixing things up are Adam-Troy Castro’s Hide and Shriek, a deadpan and blackly humorous Lovecraft parody featuring a trio of childish Elder Gods wiling away the aeons with a game of hiding themselves where unwitting humans might discover them after uncovering the right clues, and Jan Burke’s Stepping Into the Dead Zone, which fuses the myths of changelings and the events of Goethe’s poem Der Erlkönig with the rules and logistics of navigating a new primary school and the violence, exclusion and degradation of dodgeball.
Being mostly fantasy writers, many of the authors choose to set their tales in the universe of one of their ongoing series (or in the case of Charlaine Harris, a non-canon crossover), but the stories are all standalone entries with no prior knowledge required to enjoy them. Indeed, in the case of False Knight on the Road, it’s only if you’re unaware of what the Serrated Edge series features that the story’s twist even works.
From bleak violence to self-aware metafiction, the tales vary wildly in tone, and with so much variation in the games featured, even if some of them don’t appeal to you there’ll be something completely different within a few pages.