Michael Marano’s Stories from the Plague Years is a book that is going to challenge readers on multiple levels. In fact, it’s a challenge to write a review for it, because I have to balance my appreciation for the book’s depth against my belief that it’s not a book that everyone is going to enjoy.
Let’s address the challenges that I think work in the book’s favor. In many of these stories the subjects have doubts about what’s going on around them., calling into question the truth of what we, as readers, are being told. If that’s not a situation we can apply to living in today’s society, I don’t know what is. That’s a very real fear that plays out every day in our world, and Marano distills that fear directly into the marrow of his work.
In “Displacement,” for example, we have what appears to be the simple and familiar scenario of a serial killer talking to his therapist, laying out the reasons for his killing spree. It’s a carefully constructed backstory complete with animal torture and abusive parents, until the end when it all begins to unravel before the killer’s horrified eyes.
Marano does this in story after story, whether he’s making us doubt what we’re reading or causing us to take a good, hard look at the way we’re living, listening and behaving outside of the books we read. A quick read through the author’s notes at the end of the collection show that he’s seen some tough things in his life, horrific scenes that he’s trying to work through in his fiction, and it will certainly give pause to those of us who usually only deal with fear in a vicarious manner.
It’s not all heavy lifting, though. “The Changeling,” for example, stands on its own as a damn fine spook story. It’s about that mythical “thing under the bed” that has terrorized so many childhood bedtimes. This particular “thing” is a shapeshifting boogeyman that adapts to the times and feeds off the fear and hate in the household it haunts. When it says “I had been the gleam of a hook where there had been a hand,” you know you’re dealing with an evil both ancient and familiar.
So, subject matter, themes, scares – these are all strong points. Keep in mind that what I’m going to point out as a potential weakness may in fact be a strong point for some. I’m referring to Marano’s writing style, which is dense and evocative but is no breeze to read. For me that’s a plus – as a writer myself ,I like to linger over complex phrases and sentences, and I admire creative punctuation and unusual narrative choices. But that type of thing isn’t for everyone. Marano simply doesn’t employ the smooth storytelling voice of, say, Joe R. Lansdale. He’s clearly writing in his own voice and style, and that’s the only way a writer is going to do his or her best work. But the truth is that Stories from the Plague Years is a more challenging read than some are going to want to tackle. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.
Stories from the Plague Years was published earlier this year by Cemetery Dance.