I promise, I promise. This is my last book review for a while. I've just enjoyed doing these short little bits on the craft of someone else's writing.
Today, we have another short story collection, this one by Apex editor Jason Sizemore. It's a book with a lot of hype to it, even before you hit the first story. The prologue even says to skip the prologue and get reading.
I will say that Mr. Sizemore deserves a fanbase. Let's talk about what works in this collection.
In Pursuit of Pure Horror
If you haven't read the article "In Pursuit of Pure Horror," do that sometime. It's well worth it. It is a round-robin discussion between authors of things like Psycho and The Vampire Tapestry. These were people who crafted more than one generation's perception of the horrific and they had a very interesting conversation about the nature of fear.
In this article, these writers point to a familiar tale--"The Tell-Tale Heart"--and analyze what works about the horror construct of the story. They talk about human experience and universality of themes. And they say it's all well and good, but it would take a little more to truly terrify a modern audience than a corpse's heartbeat. They propose giving the character an established mental illness. They discuss what would happen if he were acquitted of the crime for reasons of insanity and set loose to do it again.
The article itself is a masterpiece and I had to read it in my sophomore writing elective on horror, science-fiction and mystery.
With Sizemore, we get a bit of everything that scares the human race. We have the fight against a devil. We have the children who see their cruelty turned back on them. We see a world in which humanity no longer exists and the androids roam freely instead. We see actual senseless acts of violence, where there is no motive and no real malice, just murder. We see anarchy in Times Square. And yes, we see aliens and asteroids and even a vampire.
Sizemore has a very good grasp of the horrific. What is remarkable about him is that he is able to craft stories around common fears in very uncommon ways. He takes the fear of death and twists it into helplessness or a bargaining chip. He turns something universal into something primal and for me, that makes very effective horror.
Stories to note
The collection begins with "Caspar," a solid vignette about a man whose greatest tormentor is himself.
The next, "City Hall," is a slightly lazy slasher flick of a narrative contained in a few pages and a government building elevator. There is no glimpse of psyche that makes horror work for me. The characters are stock. Of course, the fat, sweaty woman is the hysterical one who must die. It really didn't do much for me.
Then, because this is an Appalachian horrorfest, there's the obligatory Southern Baptist revival that seems very out of place with the rest of the book.
It was not until "For the Sake of Pleasing" that I stopped reading this collection in bits and pieces. That one not only has a rich tapestry of characters, from the mysterious Aspen to the faceted terror that is Van Cleave. It takes you until halfway through the story to figure out their nature and once you understand the intention, this is one of the most original premises that I've ever seen.
From there, the collection only got better. Yes, we discover that Sizemore is fond of the word "orgiastic" and that he envisions the end of the world as a rape-and-ripping festival that make Dothraki weddings look like Catholic Mass.
The most impressive work in the collection for me is "Samuel." It has a Faustian theme to it as the eponymous Samuel tries to stave off death and the Devil not for himself, but for his dying mother. The devil sent to fetch his mother tries to turn this negotiation to his own benefit and is more demonic than devilish. Demonic suggests the origin of the word--"wise one"--and this one is crafty. He's intelligent. He's brutal. And though we genuinely feel for "Samuel," we are more horrified by the true no-win nature of the situation at the end than the means that were used to achieve that end.