Review: ‘Martyrs & Monsters’ by Robert Dunbar

Robert Dunbar wants to scare you, but not in that Boo!-from-behind-a-door kinda way. He’s not looking for quick shocks, and he’s not going to be satisfied if you squeal in fright in one minute and then laugh with relief in the next.

Dunbar, you see, is one of those guys that likes to scar you while he scares you.

Many in the world of genre fiction have appreciated Dunbar’s talent for quite some time. His novel The Pines is considered by many to be a horror classic, and its follow-up The Shore has been just as well received. In between his full-length works, he has developed a habit of popping up in magazines and markets big and small, thrilling readers with something unique and dreadful each time. Many of his standout pieces are collected here in Martyrs & Monsters, a 2009 collection by Darkhart Press.

It’s not that the subject matter of Dunbar’s stories is all that unique. In these pages you’ll find creatures, emotions and situations familiar to anyone who reads horror. It’s the way Dunbar transforms these things through carefully crafted phrases and an oddly bent perspective that makes it all feel fresh. Yes, for example, we’ve all read vampire stories, but most don’t have monsters (and victims) as sad and affecting as those found in “Gray Soil” and its companion, “Red Soil”.

“The Folly” puts us on an island with an odd and isolated family slowly being picked off by a legendary, unseen creature. The house is shaped like an alligator, the creature is a cunning hunter and the family, for the most part, is nowhere near its match.

“Explanations”, another favorite of mine, looks at a man so removed from life that his only connections and influences are those made through movies. When his regression becomes so complete that it drives the only two people close to him away (and towards one another), he reacts in a way learned from a classic piece of cinema – and as soon as Dunbar reveals the title of that film, you’ll have a good idea of the way things were resolved.

There are stories in Martyrs & Monsters that I really connected with, and a few that I simply didn’t connect with at all. In some cases, the characters were just too cold and distant to be brought to life even by Dunbar’s skilled hand. That the occasional weak story isn’t strong enough to collapse the entire collection demonstrates just how good the good stories are. This collection is an achievement Dunbar should be proud of – a group of stories that burrow deep and continue to bring the dread long after you’ve moved what you thought was a safe distance away.

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