Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss by Fred Zackel

This is a short story done right. It’s gory, terrifying, and cleverly subverts Asimov’s laws of robotics in a way that makes my skin crawl. I wouldn’t recommend Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss for everyone, but if a mix of Blade Runner and horror appeals to you, pick up a copy and read it.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues with the story. Some of the phrasing is awkward, and the line it ends on should have been stronger. Despite that, this work gets top marks from me for several reasons. First, the author understands the key to writing a good short story is to pick one thing and focus on it. Second, he doesn’t waste words and writes in a tense, quick style that damn near made me squirm out of my chair. Third, it stuck with me.

I’ll start with what I didn’t like. Some of Mr. Zackel’s phrasing is awkward. It’s not terribly frequent, but there is an occasional sentence that stands out as having a particularly roundabout structure, or at least a phrase that doesn’t quite fit in to the right place. Fortunately, the pace of the story is quick enough to drive through these sentences without getting caught on them. There were also a few errors here and there, or words that didn’t quite fit. Unfortunately, the story ends on one of these awkward lines, which takes away from the final gut punch. That’s one of the tricky parts about any short story: each sentence matters much more than it would in a novel, and especially the last one in a clipped, vicious story like this one.

Now, on to the good parts. The entire story sticks to the same trajectory. The main character hunts down rogue robots who range from bank robbers, druggies, rickety hobos, to horrific serial killers. It’s a focused exploration of what would happen if a bunch of corporations flooded the market with knock off robots lacking the required morality or ethics programming, and there’s one obsession of theirs in particular that the author focuses on and builds the story around. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was horrifying.

The entire thing is told in the first person, and the author uses it quite well to flesh out the world and the character’s thoughts in quick snippets that never interrupt the flow of the narrative or action. Normally I’m not a fan of knowing what a character is thinking, but in the first person it works much better, and here the author hits the right film noir tone to really make it work. What’s better, the main character isn’t particularly likeable. Although you can understand why he is the way he is, with a great deal of justification, he’s still a bitter man a bad day away from breaking.

The writing style itself helps to ratchet up the tension. The author uses quick, clipped sentences in sparse paragraphs to flesh things out, and then when the action hits he sticks with the same sort of sentences but uses more of them. It has the effect of turning things into a chaotic, tense jumble. I found myself reading the story faster the further I got into it in a manic sort of way, which fits quite well with the subject matter. I normally don’t talk too much about technical writing in my reviews, but he had a few particularly clever uses of parallel structure as well. I felt like I learned a trick or two reading this story and observing how Mr. Zackel put it together.

On the writing alone, I wouldn’t give the story top marks since there were a few issues, but the way the author explores the subject matter is fascinating. The broken robots aren’t an allegory or analogy. They’re something entirely different, their own thing, and that really makes the story work. There’s one section in particular discussing how the robots want, need, and use money just as much as people that flies in the face of how robots are usually presented in science fiction, especially those modeled after Isaac Asimov’s. Again, it reminded me a bit of Blade Runner, but Mr. Zackel’s take on the entire thing is unique, well presented, and something that’s been rolling around in my head since I read the story.

All of that being said, this is first and foremost a gritty horror story that’s disturbing and gory. The author knew what he wanted it to be, executed it well, and kept it rolling around in my head once I finished reading it. It’s a nuanced take on robot-human relations that makes for a great read.

If you’ve got a buck to spare and the inclination to read this sort of story, get a copy from Amazon here and enjoy yourself. It’s quick, brutal, and thought provoking.

 

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