Short Story Review: “A Child’s Problem” by Reggie Oliver

“A Child’s Problem” Reggie Oliver
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsReggie Oliver’s tale of a precocious young boy’s summer adventure reads like a Hammer movie with the gore reined in. What it lacks in blood and guts (“lacks,” perhaps, being the incorrect word, as the story doesn’t need the grue) it makes up in a rich atmosphere and measured, assured storytelling.

“A Child’s Problem” is one of the longest stories in A Book of Horrors, and to boil down its plot to a sentence or two would do it disservice. So I’ll give you the setup: young George is sent to live with his uncle, Augustus, on a sprawling countryside estate. The boy is more than a little bratty, and unafraid to flaunt his status in front of strangers and servants alike, but he’s also intelligent and insatiably curious. Augustus recognizes this and sends the boy off solving riddles about the estate to keep him busy, never suspecting what the boy might be able to uncover.

Oliver is a playwright, and you can feel those stylistic instincts at work in the story’s deliberate pace. It’s not all atmosphere – there are moments of pure horror punctuating the quieter beats – but it is that sense of place that Oliver is most successful at conjuring. “A Child’s Problem” takes time to warm up, but it’s time well invested.

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Short Story Review: “The Man in the Ditch” by Lisa Tuttle

“The Man in the Ditch” by Lisa Tuttle
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

Horrors“The Man in the Ditch” is a tense and unsettling contribution from veteran genre author Lisa Tuttle. It starts with a simple yet disturbing image: a dead body by the side of the road. Or, at least, that’s what Linzi thinks she saw. She can’t convince her husband J.D. to turn around, but the idea of it – and the fact that she saw it so close to the land where the couple is about to build a new home – shakes Linzi to her core and throws a pall over the whole day.

Linzi’s refusal to let the idea go is just another wedge in what appears to be a somewhat shaky marriage. There’s a dark secret between Linzi and J.D., a single misguided act that resulted in a large gap in their marriage. It leaves Linzi on an island, and Tuttle takes a nearly sadistic glee in ratcheting up that sense of isolation throughout the story. In her marriage, in her new home out in the country, in her inability to conceive, and in her absolute belief that something dreadful is haunting her, Linzi is alone at every turn.

This is the kind of horror story that finds true fear in the details, the subtle moments, that quiet pause before the big explosion. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. It’s the kind of story that makes collections like this so damn good.

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Short Story Review: “The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” by John Ajvide Lindqvist

“The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” by John Ajvide Lindqvist
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsA father moves himself and his son into a small house as part of his efforts to help them get over the death of his wife, the boy’s mother, lost to a car accident several months before. The boy, 11, is retreating into the world of violent video games, and the father is desperate to make a connection with him. That connection comes in the form of a piano, the only thing they have left that belonged to the boy’s mother. When the boy grudgingly agrees to take lessons, the father is relieved – until he discovers that the connection being made is not between father and son, but between the boy and something malevolent that still calls this house its home.

John Ajvide Lindqvist is the author of the novel Let the Right One In, which has been adapted twice for film (as Let the Right One In in Sweden and, in America, as Let Me In). As in that story, a palpable sense of isolation comes to life here, an isolation realized not only in the depiction of the brutal winter enveloping this small house, but in the very real season of loneliness these characters are trudging through. There’s a brief moment of hope when the father first listens to his son’s tentative plinking at the piano, but its quickly snuffed out as both of them realize the music is coming from a place deeper and darker than they can possibly understand.

Although Lindqvist’s story isn’t the most original idea in the world – it is, after all, a take on the concept of “you got a great deal on this house because something BAD happened in it” – his execution of the idea is all that matters. This story is truly scary, the kind that makes you turn on an extra light or two as you’re reading it (and, maybe, you’ll leave those lights on when you go to bed). It’s that rare piece of writing that doesn’t just present a situation in which the characters feel fear; the reader feels it too, and quite strongly. That’s the strongest compliment I can give a piece of horror fiction, making this another standout story in a collection that continues to top itself.

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Short Story Review: “Tell Me I’ll See You Again” by Dennis Etchison

“Tell Me I’ll See You Again” by Dennis Etchison
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsA young boy taps into a primal survival instinct as he tries to move beyond an unimaginable tragedy. He’s helped by a young girl, a friend, who seems to be tapping into a primal power of her own.

Dennis Etchison’s story feels more like a sketch of an idea as opposed to a full-blown narrative, but that’s actually part of its power. The spare nature of the prose adds to the story’s haunting tone. With what feels like a minimum of words, Etchison is able to portray grief and melancholy in a very real, immediate way. This is truly “quiet horror” at its finest, and the dramatic difference between this tale and some of the earlier, more visceral selections in A Book of Horrors only strengthens the collection’s overall impact.

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Short Story Review: “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” by Angela Slatter

“The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” by Angela Slatter
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsI love stories that explore old-world traditions, bringing to light the customs and techniques that are fading fast in the technology-driven world we live in today. In “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” Angela Slatter writes about burial customs that are all but lost to us – the covered mirrors, the coffins stuffed with lavender and locked with gold clasps to make sure the dead stay buried. Those traditions are far removed from today’s sterile, brightly lit funeral homes, the polished sheen of mass-produced caskets, and the impulse to expedite the grieving process rather than embrace it.

In times past, bucking tradition was done at one’s own risk, which is part of what makes Clatter’s character Hepsibah so compelling. She’s a woman in a man’s trade, brought up in the craft of coffin building by her father, who passed his knowledge to her reluctantly after realizing he’d never have a son to teach. Hepsibah is also courting taboo by falling in love – or, at the very least, lust – with the daughter of a recent client.

Hepsibah’s infatuation with the young Lucette appears to be mutual at first – at least, until Hepsibah’s job is done. It’s then that the coffin-maker discovers Lucette’s attentions may not have been as genuine as first believed. It’s also then that young Lucette comes to discover that Hepsibah’s knowledge can be used for dual purposes – either to break the spirit’s tether to the earth, or to leave the door open for them to come back home.

“The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” is my first exposure to Angela Slatter’s work, and I truly enjoyed the way she works in the tradition of quiet, gothic horror. Succinct and atmospheric, it’s a welcome introduction to an author I hope to read more of in the future.

More reviews from A Book of Horrors

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Short Story Review: “The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King

“The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

Stephen King continues to churn out plus-sized books at a remarkable rate (recent novels Under the Dome and 11/22/63 combine for nearly 2,000 pages in paperback), yet he can be lean and mean when he wants to be. For proof, look no further than “The Little Green God of Agony,” the first story in the new anthology A Book of Horrors. 

“Agony” reads like Night Shift-era King, back in the days when he was churning out “one reel horror movies” that were always quick, to the point, and wildly entertaining. King seems to have regained his appetite for short fiction over the last several years, reaching back to his stint editing the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, and stories like this one, “The Dune,” and “In the Tall Grass” (co-written with his son Joe Hill and reviewed by me here and here) show that he’s still got the chops for it.

In “Agony” we meet Katherine MacDonald, a nurse providing physical therapy to Andrew Newsome, plane crash survivor and “the sixth richest man in the world.” MacDonald has been with Newsome for two years and has seen little progress in her patient – not because of a deficiency in her services, but rather because Newsome is, in her eyes, unwilling to put in the real work and sweat it takes for people in his situation to fully recover. MacDonald is an experienced nurse and prides herself on being able to distinguish between physical pain and the phantom pain people often conjure up to get out of doing something tough. Newsome, she believes, is haunted by such phantoms, and he’s determined to overcome them with money rather than effort.

Reverend Rideout, on the other hand, feels that Newsome is haunted by something far more tangible, and he’s come to Newsome’s palatial estate to cast that something out. This immediately puts him at odds with MacDonald, who views him as a charlatan who will only relieve her boss of a sizeable chunk of his money.

King portrays all three of the principal characters as people of unwavering faith. MacDonald’s faith is in science, while Newsome’s faith is in his buying power. Rideout, of course, has placed his faith in the holy power of God. Before the night is over, one of them is going to have their faith shaken to its core.

King’s masterful character work is on full display here. Rideout could have easily come across as a cliche’, a Bible-thumping holy man of flash and swagger. Instead, King writes him as a blue collar worker (he even shows up in work boots and carries a lunch box), a man who confronts his task with the weary resignation of someone who knows the job is hard and that only he can get it done. Newsome is confident in his ability to get what he wants, but he’s far from the cackling egomaniac he could have been. And MacDonald is someone who is tired of having her efforts devalued by a man who only wants a quick fix, which is something that she will not ever be able to provide.

In describing Newsome’s predicament, King draws on his own experiences (and, perhaps, frustrations) with physical therapy stemming from the 1999 accident in which he was struck and nearly killed by a van. For the rest of the story, he draws on his innate ability to close the doors, dim the lights, and scare the living fool out of anyone who dares stay in there with him. That’s a skill he didn’t buy; rather, it’s something he’s honed over decades of hard work. The results of his dedication are on full display here, and horror fans are in for another treat from the Master.

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*

Review: ‘Darkness on the Edge’ edited by Harrison Howe

There’s a reason Bruce Springsteen is still around as a vital part of the music scene. It’s because he’s no shallow pop singer, no hack interested only in writing hooks that are equally playable and forgettable. Bruce Springsteen is a man with something to say, and he’s been saying it through his special brand of bruised poetry for decades now, with no sign he’s ready to hang it up.

That he’s influenced countless musicians should come as no surprise; that he’s influenced a number of writers probably shouldn’t be a surprise, either, but it was to me. In Darkness on the Edge, an anthology of stories inspired by Springsteen songs, it’s apparent that Springsteen is not only an influence on many writers, but he’s capable of driving several of them to some of their finest work.

In his introduction, editor Harrison Howe calls Springsteen’s songs “lyrical short stories,” and I can certainly agree with that. It’s a comparison  that I thought back on time and time again as I read through the stories, many of which flowed by as smoothly and effortlessly as a Springsteen song. It’s obvious that the writers who made it into the anthology were able to tap into more than the lyrics of Springsteen’s songs – they tapped into the soul of them, something far more difficult to do. There are no literal interpretations here, no simple transcriptions of songs into story forms. Instead, you’ve got tales that tell a different story than the songs that inspired them, yet share enough traits that the connection is obvious.

I like that Howe printed the title of the song along with the story that inspired it, and that he gave each author space to expound on the connections between story and song at the end of each piece. I recommend that anyone reading the book do what I did – listen to the song, read the story it inspired, and then listen to the song again. You’ll be amazed at how most of them go hand-in-hand, and if you’re like me, you’ll forever associate some of those songs with the stories from this book.

There were virtually no weak spots in this collection, but as always there are some standouts. These include:

“Something in the Night” by Lee Thomas (inspired by “Nothing Forgiven”): Thomas builds a classic ghost story around the idea of guilt. One man does all he can to flee an incident from his past, but finds that once he returns home those old ghosts are waiting for him. They still know his name, and yes, they remember what he did.

“Atonement” by Gary A. Braunbeck (inspired by “My Father’s House”): Braunbeck brings his trademark bleakness to this story, one which is just as haunting and melancholy as the song that inspired it. The narrator is the daughter of a broken man, and she does something for him that is both touching and disturbing at the same time – an act that was meant to heal, but instead leads to a tragedy fueled by rage and jealousy. This is one of the darkest, most intense pieces in a book full of them.

“From the Dark Heart of a Dream” by Tom Piccirilli (inspired by “Adam Raised A Cain”): This is a dark, at times surreal examination of the mysteries of the father-son relationship, with a particularly wrenching section in which the author discusses his relationship with his own father.

“Ain’t No Angel Gonna Greet Me” by Guy Adams (inspired by “Maria’s Bed”): This one’s a bit lighter on the introspection than the others I’ve mentioned, but it’s a whole lot of fun. In it we meet a man with the unique capability of talking with the dead, a man forced to put that talent to use for someone he doesn’t respect. Eventually, he’s able to use that talent to exhume some long-buried secrets along with the bodies he’s charged to find, and it all leads to the type of “bad-guy-gets-his” conclusion that would make EC Comics proud.

All in all, this is a well-rounded collection that combines horror, crime, and Springsteen in some unique and thought-provoking ways. It’s also a lot of fun, as the weightier pieces are balanced with some straight-up scary short stories. I’m a little late to the game with this one – PS Publishing released it in 2010 – but as far as I’m concerned it’s never too late to recommend a good book. Check out the PS Publishing site or scour the Internet for a copy of your own, and be sure to have some Springsteen handy when it arrives.