Monday, November 5, 2012

Dark Corners by Michael Bray (2012): Fears Like Fleeting Shadows

There’s a certain amount of trepidation involved when taking on the task of reviewing an item that has been sent to you with the express purpose of having that thing reviewed in mind. Depending on one’s mileage, the reviewer may wish to placate the anticipating party with high praise and hosannas for said reviewer’s own unique purposes regardless of what the they actually *thought* about the product, or they might let their typing fingers fly and instill in their summations every ounce of virulent hatred that bubbles in their hearts when they find the tiniest failing within the work. These are the two extreme poles of the reviewer’s globe, I admit, and I imagine that honesty lies somewhere in the hazy, grey field that lies in between. Today, I walk through the valley of honesty.

The product in question is Dark Corners, a horror collection written by newcomer Michael Bray and put out by, also newcomer, genre publisher Dark Hall Press. Dark Hall has released two titles previous to this, novels Witch by Lorne Patterson and Exoskeleton by Shane Stadler, Dark Corners being its flagship portmanteau title. That’s a pretty neat wave to be riding on, I think, and in the words of the back cover blurb the collection promises to deliver “twelve mind-bending tales of terror from the dark reaches of the human psyche.” There’s no question about whether Bray’s stories are dark; we deal with our share of demons, serial murderers, avenging spirits, queasy illnesses, and the like. Perhaps these tropes are a little more than familiar, but my generally optimistic and short story-loving self thought that it all sounded promising.

The trouble was, after reading the stories, they were all still promising. The thing is Bray knows how to craft and structure a story, and they’re backed by (mostly) intriguing if, again, not wholly new ideas. Some of the stories though feel like they’re late for a train. This was perhaps most apparent in “The Prank” and “The Last Man.” The former is a tale related by the narrator, now in old age, of an incident that occurred when he and two of his ne’er-do-well mates busted into a rundown house with the help of a socially outcast schoolboy. Being the sweethearts that they were, they pulled a prank on the outcast which, of course, Turned Deadly. The practical joke is a pretty nasty one: they toss a box full of blind, baby rats onto the boy (who has a phobia of vermin), causing him to fall down a rotting staircase which results in the other resident adult rats tearing the prank-ee to pieces. Naturally, a revenant comes to claim the lives of the three punks who wronged him.

Bray hits on some intriguing material in the beginning; the old narrator claims that the spirit tracked him down by communicating with “[t]he rats and the spiders, and the festering things that live in the black, wet places of the world.” This conjures up the possibility for some great horror imagery (that sentence is pretty cool in of itself), something akin to the undulating waves of red-eyed rats that shielded Crispin Glover in Willard.

But Bray nixes all of that to make room for expediency when he really doesn’t need it. This is particularly odd in the context that Bray builds one of the ne’er-do-wells up to be a ripe little bastard, the Obnoxious Jerk who deserves the nastiest end, but at the story’s climax his offing is referenced almost in passing. It robs the reader of the cathartic satisfaction of seeing the Bad Guy punished in E. C. Comics fashion, which seems to be the vein the story is mining. Perhaps it was unfair on my part, but I couldn’t help suppressing the thought of all the cool and creepy directions that Bray could’ve taken the story (again, that revenant could have been a real show-stopper). At seven pages, the story leaves one wanting more.

If “The Prank” had a mild cold, “The Last Man” suffers from a terminal case of hurried storytelling. Rick Jones, a magician, is down on his luck and in spirits after losing to a fellow illusionist on a reality TV show. Whilst roaming through the library, he discovers a dusty tome called Heka that’s written in a mysterious language that, through painstaking study, Rick is able to decode. When he begins to think of the words in the text, they seem to take on a life of their own and, in short, allow Rick to make anything from mice to trucks disappear. From this point Rick plans his great comeback: he will make a section of the Great Wall of China vanish in front of a live global audience.

Bray spends a lot of space talking about Rick’s strenuous decoding of the book’s language (Some passages he could read without referring to his myriad of textbooks and research materials.), but in the end all it takes him is to think about the words themselves, and not their actual meaning it seems, to conjure the disappearing spell. This is evident because Rick is flabbergasted by the fact that he can make stuff disappear, which would seem to imply that these “passages he could read” don’t literally mention zapping things from this world. So if that’s the case, why couldn’t Rick just skim the book, give up on trying to crack the language, and have the words haunt his mind regardless? The same effect could have been achieved in half of the time.

That time, much like in “The Prank,” could’ve been used to strengthen other moments of the story that deserved it. “The Last Man” opens with and is related to the reader by Rick himself, now the last man on Earth after having accidentally sent all 7 billion humans to a netherworld occupied by winged monsters. We see him cry and feel generally upset, but the biting anguish that someone responsible for wiping the global slate clean should have is nowhere to be seen. The very weight of Rick’s godlike powers should be the focus* but instead we’re shuffled over into the next scene so we can find out how bummed Rick was at losing that television contest.

Oh yes, that netherealm is where all the disappeared things end up before coming back to our world. Rick finds this out after making himself disappear and we spend all of one very long paragraph taking this strange new place (and those monsters) in before zapping back to this realm. And that’s when Rick decides to make the Great Wall of China disappear, literally immediately after he gets back from Bogey Land. My main issue isn’t the fact that Bray is asking us to accept that Rick is either the most selfish or the dumbest person to breathe air, but the fact that it all just feels so rushed and disengaged. By that I don’t mean detached (many authors can write in a detached manner to great effect, especially about horror), but that Bray’s stories are just the glazing on the donut. The mission here seems to be to get us from Point A to Point B and not to compel us to want to make that destination.

This is not always the case in the collection though. “No Rest for the Wicked” and “Tina” tell similar tales of two people, one a natural born killer and the other a drug-abusing waitress, coming into contact with a debonair man named Monde whom we discover is a demon from Hell. While this “hellspawn-made-me-commit-a-bloody-massacre” type of tale doesn’t inherently interest me**, I enjoyed them for the fact that Bray kept a much more measured pace with them. He gave his characters space to breathe, time to think, and although we aren’t asked to sympathize with them (you don’t have to relate to a writer’s creations, you know), we can at least understand who they are and why they do the things they do.

There’s actually a pretty great scene in “No Rest...” where a famous detective starts to catch on to our killer when the former lends a helping hand when the murderer’s truck breaks down. Bray really wrings some genuine suspense from this moment, and it’s because of this that I’m not willing to dismiss him (I’m walking in that grey field, remember?). And he shouldn’t be. He’s got the spark of talent and obviously the motivational drive to craft an entire story collection, but as seen in the above examples, he ends up defeating himself at certain points. See also the effective description in “No Rest...” where a demon’s eyes are compared to the well that the serial killer threw his brother down. Good moody stuff, indicative of the way that there are also demons of the mind, ones that prey on our past fears and regrets. But, sadly, we also hear about a random legal issue leading up to said murder that the killer’s family had with their neighbors over possession of the well that has not a shred of bearing on anything.

This review is a tad unconventional, given that I didn’t go over each and every story, but I chose these selections since they represent problems and strengths that are common in Bray’s other tales. Bray has a generous amount of potential to make these good ideas into great stories. Some of them need help more than others. The rest just need that final discerning polish to make them sing. Or scream, given what genre we’re talking about.

I say this all as someone who has not had one word professionally published, but I want to make clear that I sympathize with Bray’s mistakes because I myself have made those very same ones. This is not to say “But I’m smarter now!” It just comes from the humble position of a meager blogger saying “I think this can help you.” Frankly the only real defense against the nasty traps that Bray gets snagged in is good old fashioned editing, editing to the point that you as the writer can sit there and say without (too much of) a doubt “Yes, I really think this can work.” And that’s when you turn it over to someone who you can trust to be more-than-liberal with their whipping stick. Given that this is the author’s first publication, the future is ripe for this kind of opportunity. Bray just needs to plumb deeper into that darkness, and I think with time he will.

*Bray is also not doing himself any favors when he writes that the spectacle of the disappearing objects returning to Earth “looked like a cheap Hollywood special effect but it was quite real.” 

**Reason being is that it’s just a little too splatterpunk-y for my tastes, and Bray lets a little line slip that seems to be emblematic of that too-cool-for-ghoul-school niche. Tina from the story of the same name informs ex-friend and soon-to-be-victim Lexi that she’s going to be leaving for warmer climes with her demon lover: 

“I want to go with him, Lexi. Back down there.” 

Tina pointed to the floor, and Lexi knew that she didn’t mean the maintenance basement. 

Yes it’s a nitpick, but oh my gracious does that drive me bananas. It seems neigh impossible to escape this compulsion, especially during a first draft; that of the elbow-to-rib poke of winking self-awareness that genre writers in particular seem to fall victim to. The problem is that if you’re constructing a tale of horror that is supposed to be built on a foundation of disgust or terror or what have you, inserting a little joke like this is the equivalent of knocking a house of cards down with a fart. It yanks the reader from the moment and immediately dissipates any atmosphere of dread that was conjured previously, which in all honesty Bray does achieve to an extent prior to this moment. This type of thing is generally fine if you want your story to have a slight or full tongue in cheek, but again, that doesn’t seem to be Bray’s thinking here. In short: don’t cheat yourself out of your hard-earned creepy vibe by pulling out a rubber chicken.

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