I’ve been tremendously lucky to have read four absolutely astonishing (and appropriately horrific) short story collections of late. Lucky, or possibly easily entertained. Your choice, but either way I’m gonna rave about ‘em!
In the spirit of the short story, my reviews will be brief, concise, and effective. I’ll go alphabetically by author, to ensure favourites are not played here. Because it’s very easy to be impartial when you love everybody and have nothing bad to say. Nobody’s going home with a note here! But the reviews probably will sound a little similar to each other. I promise, I’ll read some bad fiction soon and tear it to shreds for your entertainment, I promise, ‘k?
North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud
This Bram Stoker Award-nominated collection is (okay, yeah, I am playing favourites, sue me) one of the most astonishingly original, memorable, haunting, and all-out fantastic collections of horror fiction I’ve ever read—and that includes anything by Stephen King and Clive Barker, my go-to authors for everything horrific and good in this world. Nathan Ballingrud inverts the possibilities inherent in the genre, presenting stories that would almost past for superb kitchen-sink-style slices of life if it weren’t for that monster lurking in the corner. The title story is a fine example, a tender portrait of a man trying to reconnect with his family yet failing because of his own selfish tendencies, while the gruesome remains of…something rot on the beach nearby. Little is spelled out here; all is subtlety and grace, paired against unnerving glimpses of the unknowable. Nothing against the other nominees (whom I’ve yet to read, but I’m certain they are all fine people), but if Ballingrud does not win the Stoker for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection (there’s a mouthful), the award is moot.
Horror Story and Other Horror Stories, Robert Boyczuk
A collection that calls itself Horror Story better have at least one damn good horror story, lest you think it a parody of the genre such as Scary Movie. Plus, it better be better than Scary Movie. No problem here: Robert Boyczuk (whose novels Nexus: Ascension and The Book of Thomas prove him a master of both the short and long form) has put together a collection that rivets you to your seat even as it pulls the rug out from under you. “Cure for Cancer” is a nightmare of twisted love, and “Query” is a masterpiece of literary insanity that anyone in the publishing industry will connect with. The story “Horror Story” would make such a terrific movie, I’m surprised no one has done it yet.
Monstrous Affections, David Nickle
David Nickle’s on quite a tear lately, with recent novels Eutopia, Rasputin’s Bastards, and The ‘Geisters proving him a talent of vast range, depth, and awesomesauce. Yet Nickle could have stopped with this collection, his publishing debut, and I’d still be in thrall to his every whim. In Monstrous Affections (which may have the greatest book cover ever conceived), we discover the wisdom of talking fish, the heroism of witches, the persistence of flies, and the ugliness of love. Rich characters and a love of unique twists top off a captivating and sometimes gruesome collection of nightmares.
And lest you think Nickle only a spectator when it comes to horror, he’s also a reporter who often covers Rob Ford’s continuing efforts to debase the concept of the Canadian politician. So Nickle is brave as well as talented, and he knows true horror when he sees it.
Every House is Haunted, Ian Rogers
Winner of the ReLit Award for Best Short Fiction, Ian Roger’s debut is a corker, a paean to everything that scares us. Like the best of horror fiction, Rogers’ stories defy easy categorization. A jazz club may or may not be Hell, but is certainly not a place you want to visit. A loveable housecat proves adept at exterminating pests of all sizes. A campfire story takes an unusual turn. And in “Deleted Scenes” (my favourite in a collection rife with nominees), an actor finds himself employment by filming scenes never meant to be seen. Rogers has a way of tweaking even the most mundane idea and making it sparkle anew. Believe me, I’ll never look at a spider the same way again. Or ever again.