by Gary A. Braunbeck
Here are some short reviews of collections I've enjoyed lately.
Four Octobers by Rick Hautala: The flap copy for this quartet of novellas from Hautala (who some of you may know as A.J. Matthews) would have you believe that the four tales are "...loosely connected..." Well, sure, if all you look at are the physical locales and the element of some characters making peripheral appearances from tale to tale, but look closer and you'll see that more connects them than just people and places: there is a palpable sense of overwhelming loss that permeates every story, so that "loosely" thing? Not so much. This beautiful edition from CD Publications boasts a gorgeous cover and interior artwork from the redoubtable Glenn Chadbourne, and collects 2 of Hautala's most accomplished novellas -- "Miss Henry's Bottles" (a personal favorite of mine) and "Cold River" -- as well as 2 brand-new works, "Tin Can Telephone" (reminiscent -- and deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as many works -- of Ray Bradbury) and "Blood Ledge". The result is one of the year's finest single-author collections, and further proof that Hautala is much, much more than just "...that other author from Maine."
Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories by Christopher Conlon: As with Eyes Everwhere, I have to confess to a certain bias; Chris asked me to read this collection in manuscript form with an eye toward providing a cover blurb. After I finished reading it, I told him, "No, I won't do a blurb -- I want to write the Introduction!" So I did. Conlon is best known as an award-winning poet and anthology editor (the most recent anthology being the excellent Poe's Lighthouse from CD Publications), but he's also a stellar writer of fiction -- he just doesn't write it all that often, which is a real loss for readers. Thundershowers at Dusk is a hands-down brilliant collection from first page to last, every story is a winner, and it contains one of the finest novellas I have ever read in any genre, period, "The Unfinished Music". As rich and rewarding a collection as you'll ever read. (And I will add here, for any publishers who happed to read this, that Conlon is now shopping around a stunning first novel entitled Midnight on Mourn Street that is going to bring a lot of sales and accolades to whichever publisher is smart enough to snatch it up.) I maintain that Conlon is a better writer now than I could ever hope to be, and Thundershowers at Dusk more than proves it. Hence my deep-rooted resentment of him.
American Morons by Glenn Hirshberg: Paul Miller's Earthling Publications gets the Hat-Trick Award this year for having published 3 exceptional books in 2006, the first being this collection, Hirshberg's follow-up to The Two Sams. While I greatly admired the first collection, American Morons surpasses it on several levels, mostly because Hirshberg's writing has become even more focused and polished; he's going to be a major force in the field in the next few years, and while his writing has more in common with that of Steven Millhauser than Stephen King, it is nonetheless some of the most nerve-wracking and unapologetically literary work being produced in the field. All of the stories are winners, but the book is worth its price for "Safety Clowns" and "Devil's Smile".
The Tenant by Roland Topor: A million thanks to Millipede Press for putting this short novel back into print, along with 4 rarely-seen short stories and Topor's own artwork (which reminded me of the surreal work of Heinrich Kley). It's an utterly gorgeous book, boasting an intelligent and articulate Introduction from Thomas Ligotti ... but mostly, there is The Tenant, which remains today just as terrifying, eloquent, and compelling as it was when originally released in 1965. The 4 shorts accompanying it are equally impressive, resulting in a genuine must-have collection.
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel: Hempel, in case you've not read her work, is one of the finest short story writers of the last 25 years, and this omnibus assembles all 4 of her collections, including the hard-to-find At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. With the exception of the jaw-dropping novella "Tumble Home", most of her stories run less than 10 pages in length, and stand as a testament to what a skilled writer can do in a very limited amount of time. This collection contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried". If all so-called "literary" fiction were as exquisite as Hempel's, the world would be a better place.
The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer: It's been 10 years since Spencer's last collection, The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories left readers screaming for more, and Spencer delivers in a big way with this follow-up. For my money, Spencer;s work -- be it in short stories or novel form -- has always read like a head-on collision between John Cheever and Donald Barthelme; which is to say, it's rooted both in the humane and the surreal. The title story is both tragic and nightmarish, containing some of the most chilling imagery you'll encounter. Spencer doesn't write nearly enough, so grab this superb collection and keep it near to bide your time until he releases his next book.