Filler content with short story collections – Part 3

The third part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS (continued)

From Australia we have THE ABANDONMENT OF GRACE AND EVERYTHING AFTER (Brimstone Press hc, 288pp, AU$16.99) collecting together thirteen stories by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, three of which are original to this collection. In addition we have some forty odd end pages, with samples from Cummings’ other works, and Cummings provides explanatory afterwords to each individual story.

After an introduction by Stephen M. Irwin, we get into things proper with title story ‘The Abandonment of Grace and Everything After’ which has about it something of the film Prophecy as a demon and a fallen angel confront each other and discuss the End of Days. It’s an intriguing piece, Cummings giving an original spin to such matters as the Fall and the coming of the apocalypse, in a story where sparkling dialogue vies for attention with moments of visceral horror. Len is drawn to ‘The Song of Prague’ only to find himself enlisted in an epic conflict on the outcome of which the fate of reality may depend, the story starting slow and thoughtful and then moving to a crescendo of sorts, just like a symphony itself. There’s an old school horror feel to ‘The Garden Shed Pact’ which details a man’s relationship with a fearsome spider, with more than a suggestion of Dahl in the mix. Ultimately it is a slight piece, but nonetheless eminently entertaining.

In hospital and rendered deaf, Blaine finds that he can hear things nobody else can or should have to in ‘Hear No Evil’. The idea is an interesting one, that being deprived of a vital sense can open up our perception in other ways, but Cummings doesn’t really explore the implications so much as use the concept to empower a schlock horror outing that is satisfying but not really convincing in how it plays out with mad doctors committing carnage in the hospital basement. ‘Dark Heart Alley (An Urban Fable)’ contains a powerful evocation of a blighted urban landscape, one in which a remorseless killer stalks his victims, inflicting horrible death. Cummings extrapolates the slasher trope into stranger territory, taking it to a place where creatures from other dimensions fight for a foothold in our world and the desuetude on every side is symptomatic of some spiritual/metaphysical decline. Beautifully written and with striking imagery, engaging characters and novel concepts, this story is one of the highlights of the collection, giving us an original and striking monster and offering food for thought along with the expected thrills and chills.

Summoned to a hotel room in which a young woman has hung herself, Detective Taylor finds evidence of an occult ceremony, but ‘A Picture of Death’ reveals the true and alarming state of affairs. Expertly crafted, this story has the ring of verisimilitude about its depiction of police procedures, such contrastingly mundane matters playing counterpoint to the occult aspects in a piece where only the reader is privy to the whole story. ‘Blood on the Indian Pacific’ combines the romance of a long train journey with the threat of vampirism in a fast paced and gripping story that is superficially entertaining but doesn’t have much to offer in the way of originality other than the setting. As with a long train journey, we enjoy the trip but are slightly disappointed to find ourselves at a place that is really no different from the one we departed. The nadir of the collection for me is reached with ‘Ian’ whose premise might have made a decent flash fiction at two pages but stretches credibility and reader patience at six. Actually credibility was never really an issue, but in this case the attempt at ambiguity didn’t really come off. It might have been better simply to have the story’s protagonist unaware of how strange their situation is and leave the reader to fill in the blanks.

Rising television starlet Danica is abducted in ‘Razor Blade Anthropology (Guerdon for the Beautiful People)’, but the nature and motivations of her captors have about them more than touch of poetic justice. At heart this is a punchline story, initially appearing to give us a depiction of an afterlife of sorts, then snatching the carpet out from under the reader’s feet to reveal something far more intriguing, albeit it does fizzle out somewhat with the slice of black comedy at the end while seeming to promise so much more. ‘The Black Door’ reads like a metaphysical or weird version of Saw with Dr. Innes both threatened and cajoled to step over its threshold. Psychological horror entwines with the supernatural and hints of murder in a story that felt like it had more substance than was actually there, with the final cut feeling like a melange of special effects rather than a journey with any end in mind. Egyptian mythology features in ‘Sobek’s Tears’ as a soldier makes a pact with a god to wreak vengeance on Moses and the Hebrews who have overthrown all that he holds dear. This was a clever story, one in which humans are used by beings that are older and more powerful, and yet who also depend on our worship for their continued existence, in the process suggesting an explanation for the way in which the Jewish people have suffered at the hands of history in the many centuries since their flight from Egypt.

Also included are ‘The Cutting Room’ and post-apocalyptic novella ‘Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves’, both of which I have reviewed previously. As with the Oliver above, I’ll post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blogCase Notes blog for the benefit of completists.

And last, but certainly not least, we have ZOOPRAXIS (Gauntlet Press hc, 220pp, $60/$150), the new collection from the word processor of Richard Christian Matheson containing twenty two stories, twelve of them previously unpublished. There are forewords by John Shirley and Chet Williamson, and an afterword by the author, who also provides pithy, informative introductions to each story. There’s also an afterword of sorts from artist Harry O. Morris detailing how he first met Matheson, and in addition to this Morris provides a number of his distinctive black and white illustrations as interior artwork as well as the cover image, all of which makes for a very attractive package. The book is produced in a signed numbered edition limited to 500 copies and costing $60, while for those looking for something that truly bit special (and collectible) there’s a 52 copy signed traycased lettered edition retailing at $150.

Opening story ‘How to Edit’ starts off calmly enough, with a professional writer giving advice on how to write better, but as the story progresses the tone changes, with hints of insanity creeping in and the reader left to discover how far our narrator will take his worship of minimalism. Given Matheson’s own reputation for word economy it could also be taken as a case of the writer poking gentle fun at his own methods. ‘133’ uses an idea that I’ve previously seen used by Orson Scott Card, but Matheson’s take is shorter, smarter, more cutting, as a serial killer gets his deserved comeuppance in spades. The longest story in the book at a mere seventeen pages, ‘Transfiguration’ presents us with a snapshot of madness in the form of a long haul trucker driving through the Alaskan landscape, the bleakness and inhumanity of the setting a reflection of the character’s fractured psyche, with the reader left to fill in the gaps and figure out for him or herself how much of this is real.

‘Infomercial!!!’ is another short, sharp shocker, with the nature of the product being peddled enough to traumatise the most hardened devotees of the shopping channels, and a subtext that satirises our love of consumerism by wondering if there is anything we won’t buy. ‘Making Cabinets’ is a subtle examination of the effects of serial murder on the innocent, unsuspecting relatives of the killer, the guilt engendered and mixed with inevitable feelings of horror. A man develops the ability to ‘Listen’ to the point where he is almost psychic, in tune with all of creation, but too much information proves more curse than blessing, the story delivered in staccato bursts of communication, with the layout at times suggesting lines of poetry spewed across the page. ‘Dead to Me’ is a deal with the Devil story without the Devil, Julie cursing her ex and the joy of the story resting in the delicious twist in the tale that Matheson serves up. Communicating with your pet dog turns out to be something of a double-edged blade in ‘New Tricks’ as Mike learns more than he bargained for from a pooch with attitude.

Next up we have a different spin on the subject of ‘Bulimia’, with a woman attempting to expel her personal demons, the story striking for the originality of the conceit and the feeling of toxicity conveyed by the stream of words. We get a form of survivor guilt in ‘Venturi’ with a man who has lived through a fire that burnt down his neighbourhood finding that he is now hyper-alert for the roar of flame, his whole life poisoned, the story giving us a vivid picture of what it means to be haunted by a premonition of personal doom. The shortest piece in the book, ‘Demise’ is a bitter and heartfelt threnody on the theme of imminent death, and that theme carries over into the next story, the harrowing ‘Sea of Atlas’ in which Matheson addresses a very personal fear, the words cutting like razor blades and nesting their imagery deep beneath the reader’s skin, so that we can never look at things the same way again, never feel so blasé about a simple, everyday aspect of our global village. It reads like an hour and half long disaster movie condensed into a mere two minutes, and is all the harder hitting for the brevity.

In ‘Kriss Kross Applesauce’ we peer into the psyche of a mental patient, a woman driven insane by the enforced bonhomie of the festive season, the effect rather like having Michael Myers reinvented as a suburban housewife. Abandoned lovers find a consolation of sorts courtesy of ‘The Embalming Machine’, the story a metaphor for the ways in which we try to preserve the past, the best of days, underlining how hollow and sterile such endeavours are, a way to side-track our lives. We’re back with bizarre mental states in ‘Pronoia’ with its tongue in cheek depiction of a man who puts a positive spin on everything. ‘Slaves of Nowhere’ concerns JoJo, who finds herself cursed by the expectations of others, words blistering on the page, evoking feelings of both compassion and dread.

There’s a double whammy of plot twists in the tale of a man who collects ‘Last Words’, offering us a meditation on the nature of suffering and death, and at the end the reader feeling just a slight twinge of sympathy for the monster who was made rather than born. Another two pager, ‘Ground Zero’ is a study of revenge gone awry, soliciting understanding from the reader and horror at how badly it all comes undone. The next story is as close to light-hearted as Matheson gets, in ‘Evil Twins, Temporary Blindness, Bikers, and Amnesia’ inviting us to wonder about the relationship between a writer and the characters he creates and how deep run the waters of imagination and the life of the mind. ‘Bedtime Story’ puts a novel twist on the idea of night terrors, the hag who comes and sits on your chest as you sleep and steals your breath (but Matheson’s iteration is nothing like that). More a joke than story, ‘Interrogation’ made me chuckle, though I won’t argue that it isn’t the weakest story here.

Finally we have ‘The Talking Man’ in which various experts try to make sense of the life experience of Jasper Quillar, who never stopped talking, his whole life one unending and unpunctuated monologue. It’s a Fortean tale and, taken in conjunction with first story ‘How to Edit’, a fitting way to bookend this collection from a writer for whom brevity seems to be not only the essence of wit but the heart and soul of horror. A true original, one of those rare few whose work is remarkable not just for its subject matter but also for the highly distinctive way in which he writes, Matheson is at the cutting edge of the genre and this state of the art collection is a demonstration of what horror is capable of in skilled hands and when illuminated by intelligence and a penetrating insight into the human condition. I loved this book.

 

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