Every collection of short stories has some that work and others that don’t for any given reader, and this volume was no different. More of the stories didn’t work for me than did, but when I was able to connect with one it hit with an impressive impact. As a whole, this was a respectable but inconsistent body of work, and to review it I’m going to focus on the broad problems I saw with the stories as well as on the individual stories that resonated with me.
The stories that didn’t work for me tended to have the same two problems: first, the turn from mundane to fantastical happened so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to savor the building sense of dread; second, the horror elements tended to spin out of control so quickly I couldn’t really keep a coherent image in my head of just what was going on.
It’s not easy to write something that creates a fundamental sense of dread, and often the author managed to do so. When he didn’t, though, it was because the world in the story would go from normal to nightmarish faster than flipping a light switch. In addition, there was rarely a ‘why’ that explained the reasons for what was happening. This made what were abrupt transitions particularly jarring.
I usually got the sense that the bad stuff was happening simply because it did. There was no real explanation for me to latch onto, and I have trouble buying into something if I don’t know the why. There are a lot of readers that specifically seek out the kind of horror stories that lack explanations because they find the fear of the unknown particularly engaging. I do as well, but with such fast transitions from normal to surreal, I didn’t have the time to anticipate the dreadful thing that was coming.
The best way I can put it: I often felt more like I’d accidentally cut my finger while cooking instead of being tied to a chair while someone chopped each digit off in succession, and with this kind of inexplicable, anticipatory horror, that’s what really sells it. Some of the stories that were guilty of this: “The Onion Test,” “Lifestreams,” and “Corrosive Agents.” Although the stories didn’t click with me, “White on White” and “Exposure” did better jobs of building up to the finale.
The second problem, the lack of coherence once the fantastical elements took charge, is largely attributable to the author’s diction and use of language. The sentences become fast and frantic but use words that aren’t common in everyday speech. I consider myself a (somewhat) literate person, but there were quite a few instances where I had a choice of either grabbing a dictionary or forging ahead.
I always chose to forge ahead, and as a result I could never quite form a mental image to accompany the text. Given a little more space, or simpler descriptions, I think the writing would have been more compelling and would have drawn me much deeper into the worlds than it did. Short stories are notoriously difficult to write well, and I think the author’s focus on magazine publication forced him into such small word counts that his talent didn’t have time to shine through.
There were, however, some truly unsettling and engaging stories in this collection worth discussing.
The first was “Fourth Person Singular,” which was a horror story more in the crazed-psychopath-for-a-father sense than it was because of anything fantastical. It was a straightforward, simple idea that lasted just long enough to unsettle me. Part of what made it work was there was nothing supernatural, just a gradual build to the payoff the reader knew was coming.
“Memory Games” was a fantastic entry and a perfect example of how the ‘why’ of a situation can pull me in. In short, shape shifting monsters disguise themselves as humans, angels, and other such things to try and breed with humans. The downside is that the birth is fatal (in a pretty horrific way for the human).
But rather than focus on this, the story deals with one woman and her lover, a mix of uncertainty and desire. On the one hand, she can’t be sure he’s not one of the monsters; on the other hand, she has a strong desire to have one person in the world she feels safe being with. Part of what makes this story so good is that it uses horror to magnify the issues that might already exist in a relationship, which makes the main character’s dilemma entirely relatable. Also, the fantastical elements were simply background material rather than the focus, which is where this author shines.
My absolute favorite story, however, was “Razorwings.” The author describes the genre as splatterfairy, a spinoff of splatterpunk, and it’s an apt description. The imps in this are fey creatures that jump into human hosts to survive then feed the human souls to an imp king. I’m not going to say too much about this one other than it was fantastic. Sproule did a great job selling just how horrific what the imps did to humans was, as well as how awful it was being an imp. The final confrontation ran away from the writer and lost some coherence, but the overall delivery was spot on.
“Masks of Flesh” and “Touching the Screams” were solid post-apocalyptic stories, but that’s not a genre I really jump on most of the time. Both were interesting, but there was nothing in either that grabbed me.
Overall, this is a decent collection of short stories, but there are some real gems in there worth reading through. I think the author shines better when he gives himself some breathing room to write, and it’s clear he has the talent to produce high quality work. If I rated each story, I would have been giving everything from a 2/5 to a 5/5. The collection as a whole, however, measures up to 3/5.
I suggest picking up a copy here. There should be at least a handful of stories in this collection for everyone, and the price of entry is low.