Damage, by Stephen Shea (40:00)

IOD-DamageToday we see that dread does not come from a firehose. It trickles at us with surgical precision, dripped in tiny installments from an eye dropper.

What I gleaned about the story: Rand, Conn and Tyler are three misfits. Once highschool friends, their lives took separate arcs, but now they find themselves drawn back to their old stomping grounds and to each other. But why? And how can they possibly resume their friendship where they left off, now, after what they’ve seen? Not to mention what they’ve done.

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Kudos #1: Great opening image

Details: As I’ve said many times, with some authors, you get an immediate sense that you can trust them. In this case, it’s in the opening paragraph, describing the sound of a car racing down the highway in the middle of the night. It splits the stillness of the prairie night like a ship splitting a wave. With that one line, I can actually feel myself relaxing. I already have a sense that the prose is not going to be awkward with this one.

Note: The first two “chapters” (one was called an “Overture”) are both very short. Chapter One doesn’t even make it to 200 words. This is by no means a problem, but it has put me on notice that the pacing might be different from what I usually find. So I consider myself duly warned and forge ahead.

Kudos #2: A very clever lantern

Details: I’ve mentioned before how unsettling I usually find present tense, and I suspect the author either harbors similar reservations himself, or is at least aware of the problem, because the scene in which I first noticed the presentness included the following excerpt:

Nineteen years on this earth and this was the only truth he could trust. The truths they preached in schools and churches had deserted him. There was only the present, because no matter how much you grabbed, scraped, and pulled, the past slipped out of your grip and the future, the future, ha! the future was shit.

Now that’s a fabulous example of how to hang a lantern on the issue without making the lantern itself conspicuous. Don’t like present tense stories? Well, in this case, hombre, there is ONLY the present. I chuckled aloud when I read it. And you know what? Another ratchet of relaxation clicked within me. I find myself trusting this voice.

WTF #1: Echoing headwords

Analysis: This problem runs in fits and starts throughout the book. It never gets intrusively dense, but there are a number of sections with three and four such echoes. Sometimes it might be chalked up to rhetorical intent, but most often it just seems like something the editor didn’t spot.

Kudos #3: Delicious suspense

Details: One thing that often seems heavy handed in dark fantasy and horror is the troweling out of dread. With most books I’ve seen, dark and creepy things happen very early, as though the authors are trying to prove they’re in the right genre. But in more experienced hands, oddities and strangenesses are dribbled out slowly at first, and just left there, to burn their acidic way into the reader’s brain. And in my experience, this is much more effective. So I’m delighted to see that same slow corrosion building here. We know from the get-go that we’re witnessing strange times, but we have no idea yet what is strange about them, or what is at the root of the odd little beats we witness. And the result? That sick in the pit of your stomach feeling that something truly awful is about to come.

Note: Okay, things just got dark. I think I’ve now met the villain, or at least one of his henchmen. The acid bites a little deeper and the first stray tendrils of pain/dread/fear begin to flutter in my subconscious.

Marketing Note: I find the cover to be an oddity. It’s serviceable artwork and all, but seems to be selling the wrong story. That great staring eye seems to suggest a gargantua or some great unblinking reptile from Hell. But having read the entire book now, I don’t see any of that inside. This is very much a tale of malevolent ghosts, but I don’t get even a hint of that from the cover.

 

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

The Devil You Know, by Richard Levesque (40:00)
Mysterious Darkness: Short Stories, by Melvin Rivers (1:08)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.