Review: THE COLLECTOR AND OTHER STORIES

I had the luck of meeting Mark Reynolds over at the online Indie Horror Convention. He was looking for a reviewer, and I was looking to get back into the practice of reviewing. I was too excited and didn’t read the review instructions before saying I’d love the chance to review Mark’s collection of dark fiction; turns out, to be an officially recognized review on Indie Horror, we have to exchange our work. I don’t have anything ready for review at the moment, so we couldn’t make that exchange … yet. Despite my inability to read directions, Mark was open to letting me read and comment on his work. With his permission, I am posting the review here.  If you’re looking for some creepy reading, check out THE COLLECTOR AND OTHER STORIES!

THE COLLECTOR AND OTHER STORIES by Mark Allan Reynolds is a fast, spooky read.  The stories are unique and even where Reynolds examines a familiar horror theme, he adds a new twist.  For example STICK MAN is a take on the ‘deal with a devil’ trope, but the story’s focus is more on the revolving cycle of self-serving cruelty than on the transaction with the devil figure.  This illustrates one of the themes of the collection: cruelty enacted upon others will come back on the original enactor.  STICK MAN, THE TEST, and a LESSON IN DISBELIEF each examine that theme in very different scenarios, but with the same negative result for the protagonist.  The titular tale, THE COLLECTOR, takes on the inverse.  In THE COLLECTOR, the main character chooses not to harm another person and is instead harmed by the person he saved.  The resonance of theme builds the overall horror of the collection, but my one gripe is that the stories are not arranged in a way within the collection that makes it overt that they play well off of one another.

When I read, I am sensitive to that vicarious heat that comes from a well written piece.  It is very rare for any author to write a ‘true’ story, where by ‘truth’ I mean that the story is a match for the actual shape of the thing in itself. Yes, I did study Plato at an impressionable age!  I still argue that that the best any of us can do as writers is give the world our closest approximation of the story the universe wanted us to share.  The closer we get to the truth, the more heat there is in a story.  In THE COLLECTOR AND OTHER STORIES, the story IN THE HUSH BEFORE THE SCREAMS has heat.  IN THE HUSH BEFORE THE SCREAMS, Reynolds is in tune with the setting, the characters, and the fear of things that gnaw flesh in the night.  IN THE HUSH has the best dialog in the collection; I believe that real people would say these things, and that real people would behave this way in the situation.  Not only do setting and characters have verisimilitude, Reynolds delivers the spooky as well.  I read this on a break at work, in the daylight, surrounded by chatting co-workers and still got frightened.   As a horror writer, Reynolds knocks it out of the park with IN THE HUSH BEFORE THE SCREAMS.

A LONG STROLL TO QUIET HOLLER is another story with heat.  It is written in a placid, almost dreamy pace.  Reynolds gives intimations of something ‘off,’ and uses atmosphere to heighten emotional tension.  The build to the final reveal is beautifully executed.  It is always a pleasure to get a variation in emotional pitch, especially in a collection of scary stories.

Several stories in this collection are told from the viewpoint of children.  This is a wonderful way of going back to the raw fear of childhood.  Reynolds even states this explicitly in STICK MAN by saying, “[they] were giddy with the sort of excitement that only comes with being ten, that moment in time where belief and disbelief coexist…”.  Yes, the age of 10 is technically a year, not a moment, but we understand. A LESSON IN DISBELIEF, LITTLE BOYS and portions of STICK MAN zoom in on the inherent cruelty of childhood, and the wonton drive to destruction that seems innate to boys.  In addition to helping build the overall theme of the collection, A LESSON IN DISBELIEF also has a very satisfying ending; you want to cheer for a troll, but you’ll have to read the story to understand what I mean!  LITTLE BOYS takes a fun and gross look at an old nursery rhyme.  The STICK MAN moves back and forth through time, and there is excellent use of the sense of smell to describe the devil-figure.  Another tale told from the perspective of a little boy is CLICK CLACK.  In this story, Reynolds plays on the fear of being driven insane.  Although WATCHING AND WAITING is told from the perspective of an eighteen year old, the protagonist is similar to some of the younger protagonists in that he has definite issues with his parents.

I read THE COLLECTOR AND OTHER STORIES on the Kindle, which means I am not going to complain about the formatting of the prose poem IN MERE SECONDS.  I am not convinced this piece should have made it into the collection; it is a stylistic departure from the rest of the collection.  IN MERE SECONDS and VOICES AND SUNSHINE both feel a bit unfinished in comparison to the polish evident in A LONG STROLL or IN THE HUSH. Another formatting annoyance is that in some stories, Reynolds opts to use ‘***’ section dividers, while in others he switches to numeric section labels. My personal opinion of visual section dividers is that they should be replaced by a transition sentence or scene.  That said, if the dividers are going to be used, they should be consistent.

There are a few minor instances of awkward phrasing in the collection, but I only noticed one instance of Reynolds resorting to a cliché (“sickening thud” in THE TEST).  Overall the writing is solid; it is not flashy, but it is not weighed down by overuse of adjectives or convoluted phrasing.  It is evident Reynolds loves to write horror, and has taken the time to hone his craft before releasing his work to the world.  As a fellow indie author, I applaud and thank him for his dedication.  Now, I’m going to go back and re-read WHILE HE WATCHES, a deliciously twisted cautionary tale, and I recommend you read it, too!

 Order the collection by indie author Mark Allan Reynolds on Smashwords or Amazon

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