(Editor’s note: SHORT SHOTS is a column where I review short stories from horror anthologies.)
“Still Life” by Kelli Owen is one of sixteen stories in the Bram Stoker Award-nominated anthology titled Arterial Bloom. Released in 2020 by Crystal Lake Publishing, Arterial Bloom was edited by Mercedes M. Yardley and includes a foreword by Linda D. Addison, a 2017 Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
“Still Life” opens with a killer first paragraph: “The body was found, as dead as the dried section of riverbed it had settled into, along the portion of River Road where the gravel looks like chips of gleaming bone.”
Owen’s stark image of a young girl’s corpse sets the stage for a slow-burn story packed with observations so detailed and descriptive that I found myself shaking my head in admiration many times at the craftsmanship of the writing.
“Still Life” is mostly seen through the eyes of a female “death artist” who enjoys sketching darker subjects. Concealed on the bank of the river, the artist ponders the unsolved murder while perched above the location where the young girl’s body was found.
“She wished she’d been there when the body had first been discovered,” Owen writes. “To draw the fleshy bits still clinging to bones and witness the wildlife pick what it could from the remains. She always seemed to find her subjects after death had claimed and cleaned the scene, once life was still.”
The death artist is seemingly alone: “With no human activity down at the river’s parking area, the world was quiet, yet screaming in the silence.”
Another favorite observation of mine is about the missing person poster:
“Torn and clinging to the tree by the now-rusted staples, the ripped edges of the paper flapped gently in the breeze — ghostly butterfly wings against the bark. Here, the poster had been left as an obituary of sorts, while elsewhere in town they’d been stealthily removed like forgotten yard sale signs.”
The artist’s deep thoughts and vivid descriptions lulled me into a false sense of security. I thought I was reading a story about the sadness in a forgotten girl’s death. However, a vicious double twist ending takes the tale from quiet solemnity to hard-core horror in one stroke of a charcoal pencil.
Owen’s “Still Life” is a standout story in one of the best horror anthologies released in 2020.