"He had lived next to death for months, side-by-side with it, and now that he had managed to escape and find shelter in, for him, the safest and most beloved place on earth, he realised that the horror had only preceded him there, to welcome him home."
But what he hasn't realized is that the true horror is only beginning.
In "Alina's Ring," a wounded soldier wakes up to discover himself in a farmhouse, being taken care of by a young woman named Alina. He notices that "there was something not quite right" in her eyes; and that she "was determined to unburden herself of the thoughts that were cascading through her mind." As they talk, he's looking for a "way out" -- and about this story I will say no more. "Sand Castles" finds an elderly man returning to his beloved Villa Dora which he'd been away from since 1945, at age nine. As Italy was "being rebuilt," his family took him to Bologna, where he'd rebuilt his own life right on through to retirement. Now in his mind, it is time to go back to the Villa Dora, to give "destiny the chance to complete the plan designed for him." When he finally arrives, he hears his old childhood pals "calling out his name..." Weintraub notes that in these stories, it's "the actuality of the war and its aftermath that lead to madness, obsession, and significant 'collateral damage'," and in these three stories, all of these elements scream loudly from the page.
Six incredibly dark stories remain in this volume, nearly all of which are gut-level disturbing and much darker than I normally tend to go in the realm horror fiction, but god help me nothing short of a bomb blast in my living room would have made me put the book down while reading them. I'll mention two here. First, "Professor Aligi's Puppets," in which a young boy's fascination with puppet theatre takes a turn into nightmare territory, and "Striges," my favorite story in the book, which thoroughly chilled me to my bones. In that one, a man looks back in time to recall something he'd witnessed in his childhood that left a "kind of knotting" in his stomach (a similar reaction to my own with each step of this story, by the way) when he thought about his friend Francesco, the "prisoner of a situation so horrible its true nature could hardly be fully understood." As kids, Francesco and his friends were fascinated with spiritualism, flying saucers, divination and "on and on," fueling their imaginations with comic books, television, horror novels, movies etc. The trouble begins when Francesco reveals to his buddies that his mom is writing a "study on witches," and would be going on a trip throughout Europe. As the narrator recalls, the boys got a bit of a charge over that, knowing that "whatever she might bring home would launch us further off the face of the earth," before offering his observations in hindsight that "she would be bringing us the burial, once and for all, of our childhood, and much worse."