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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My Review Process

Reviewing is an honor.

Image by goXunuReviews via Flickr

Writers labor alone.  We strive to bring forth the truth of the tales that have chosen us, but no matter how close we get, we know we can do better.  How?  By seeking out literary comrades, by enlisting the aid of other laborers who will not flinch from telling us what they see.  A good review is the product of care, attention and compassion.  There is no piece of writing so bad as to have nothing praise-worthy.  There is also no piece of writing so good as to have nothing deserving of criticism.  The good reviewer will recognize both and write an honest critique that is neither sycophantic nor cruel.  It is an honor to be permitted to review a fellow writer’s work, and it is a task I take seriously.

When I review another person’s writing, I read the work three times.  The first time I just read.  The second time, I read and make notes.  The third time, I go back through the work and my notes to compose the critique.  I find that this is the minimum number of reads necessary to provide an honest, useful, and through review.

The first reading allows me to  experience the story as it is.  I apply as little judgment as I can with regards to mechanics, quality, point of view, or any of the other ten thousand things that go into a literary work.  I read the story in the spirit it was intended, allowing it to transmit its own unique truth.

In the second reading, I switch from being a reader to being something more like an editor.  I pay attention to as many of those ten thousand things as I can.  I hold a pen and put my judgments in the margins, in the space between lines, on the back of other pages.  Often, the second read is the one that takes me the longest.  If something troubles me or delights me, and I cannot pinpoint why, I re-read sections until I can draw conclusions.  It is good to be able to explain why something is wrong, especially if that ‘wrong’ is more an aesthetic or intuitive ‘wrong’ rather than a quantifiable R-O-N-G.  It is also good to be able to explain why something is working.  This may tell the author a bit about their own technique, but it serves the secondary purpose of helping me learn what does and doesn’t work.  A good review teaches the reviewer as well as the reviewed.

The third read is the capstone.  I go back through my notes and arrange them in some less spastic order. Often, many of my comments condense into a few higher level points with various supporting examples.  Now I am not not reader or editor, but reporter.  I use my computer instead of a pen.  Where care and attention predominated in reads one and two, compassion is dominant in the third reading.  I consider how I would feel reading my comments.  I recall that no matter how kindly put, no one enjoys the realization that the bit of sloppiness they thought they could get away with was noticed.  I write and I revise until I get a version of the review that I would want.  Not the all glowing, you are Goddess of Writing review.  No.  I revise until I get to the honest review that has both deserved praise and deserved criticism.  I may not always be spot-on, but I guarantee you that I have tried my best.

I am very excited to be reviewing my first collection of indie horror stories.  I linked up with the author via an online writer’s group, and he was kind enough to provide me the Kindle format of his collection. I am in my first read, and had to drag myself away from the book to write this post!  This is my first Kindle review, so I’m wondering how I’ll manage the second read.  I know I can type comments and highlights, but I think I’ll still use pen and paper and some sort of notation system to tie my comments back to the text, since there are no page numbers on a Kindle. I have no doubt I’ll be able to bridge the technology gap, though!

What about you?  How do you review?  Do you listen to music, use a special pen, or sit in a particular place?

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Why Horror?

To Americans of my generation, nothing says horror like 9-11. My generation has not survived a World War or endured the Great Depression. We were here for 9-11, though, and were shocked, frightened, angered and, yes, horrified.

Everyday we experience varying intensities of horror. There are kidnappings, rapes, evil bosses, impossible loves, untimely death, home devouring wildfires, debilitating ills of both body and mind. Each to their own, all are horrifying. Even if the vast majority of us escape the truly gristly or damaging forms of terror, we are all visited by suffering and we are all going to die. What then is the purpose of heaping more horror on this monstrous pile? Why does the horror fiction genre exist, and why is it prevalent in print, movies, and television? What is the place of horror in a horrifying world?

creepy

Horror in a Horrible World

 

One could posit that horror exists to entertain. I personally find the entire spectrum of horror from literary terror to B-movie campiness to be enjoyable. Yet I don’t think that entertainment alone is sufficient to account for the prevalence and attraction of horror. Comedy and romance entertain, and often manage to do so without anyone being eviscerated, walled-in, or chased by someone wielding an axe. If entertainment were the entire answer, there wouldn’t be any reason to go for the gross-out.

Given that horror fiction entertains by scaring readers, perhaps the purpose of the genre is to satisfy a craving for the sensation of fear. Well-executed horror brings on a breathless jumpiness via induced fright. The reader is terrified in a situation devoid of any real threat. I am not a psychologist, but it seems reasonable to hypothesize that reading horror expends some psychological energy that would otherwise be channeled into fearing reality.

Like all fiction, horror offers readers the opportunity to evaluate the fitness of choices made by characters. Should that pretty blonde run or should she hide? Should she really be doing any of this in her cheerleading outfit? Would I wear that, no, but would I hide? Would I sacrifice someone else in my party for my own survival? Would I stay behind to give the others a chance? Did you notice how quickly and how naturally the questions shifted from third to first person?

The introspective horror connoisseur gains insight into her own core values because horror fiction invites contemplation of psychologically and physically perilous scenarios. Analogies can be traced from fictional scenarios back to very real threats. Bad things can happen on an otherwise unremarkable September day; bad things can happen any time.  Horror fiction gives readers an opportunity to examine how they might react if faced with an awful reality. There is a practical value to a deep and mindful experience horror fiction.

How many of you have gotten the post-horror jitters? Or asked your husband if just for one night, you might sleep with the lights on? Or heard noises in your house that you’d never noticed, and found the rooms you know to morph into ominous territory? When well done, horror fiction is capable of making me much more aware of my surroundings, at least until the adrenaline aftereffects subside. This period of hyper-awareness allows a horror aficionado the opportunity to experience the full richness of all five senses. It demonstrates how much we miss in daily life, and how much more we can apprehend when we are attuned to our surroundings. Survival has a lot to do with awareness, and horror fiction gives a good way to practice fundamental observational skills.

The purpose of horror fiction, it seems, is at least threefold. First, it serves to depressurize the psyche by expelling fear before it can become paralyzing in real life. Second, it begs the reader to examine moral and literal actions that might be taken under duress. Third, horror fiction incites a deeper awareness of one’s surroundings. All three of these purposes lend themselves to practical application with intent to survive.  To wit, a person who has discharged emotional energy is calmer and more prepared to be rational. Rational choices are in turn generated by brains which have been given the opportunity and material to think things through. The actions that result from rational choice are greatly aided by close attention to the surroundings.  Sometimes it makes sense to hide, sometimes it makes sense to run, but in order to know which to choose, you need to know where you are and what is out there to help or harm you.

In short, we generate and consume fictional horror because we live in a world full of real horror.  We horror authors aren’t ‘adding’ to the horror, but preparing ourselves and our readers for the day we confront the darkness.  And, as far as survival toolkits go, horror fiction just happens to be the most entertaining one around!

 

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Habits that Helped Me Finish My Novel

I was browsing the aggregated posts over at Indie Horror and found this one by Glynn James.   He answers the question of how he manages to write when he has many responsibilities, including a  job and a family.  His response boils down to two main points :

  1. Make writing a daily habit.  Every day.  Birthday included.
  2. Don’t leave the well dry; stop at a point in the narrative that will make it easier to get back into the story next time you write.

I confess I do not have, nor have I ever had, a daily writing habit.  The most I’ve gotten up to is a six-out-of-seven-days and I did not sustain that pace long. If I don’t skip more than a day between sessions and I obey Glynn’s second point, not writing daily slows me down but doesn’t derail me.

Where I Write

What matters to me is that when I do write, the routine is consistent.   Same place, same time, same amount of interaction from the other living beings in my house.  When I wrote my first novel, I dedicated from 5 until 7 in the morning to the effort.  I have a laptop, but I always sat at my desk.  In the winter, the sun did not even begin to come up during those two hours; indeed, I often saw the moon set.

I wrote in the morning for two reasons.  First, writing in the morning  guaranteed that I had no excuses and no conflicts to prevent me from getting words on the page.  The rest of the day was for the world, but those two hours were for my craft.  I held sacrosanct my pre-dawn writing sessions.  By remaining steadfast, I made the statement that I  respected the act of creation and the Muse that chose me.  My second reason for writing in the morning was that it helped me avoid my inner critic.   My self-doubt is an indolent creature; she takes a full two cups of coffee and a complete sunrise before she even considers tormenting me.  Most mornings, I could get in a couple hours of work and wrap up for the day before I even got the teeniest niggling of disquiet.

It was good to have a routine, but even better to know that I wasn’t going to get that horrible, panicky sense of being stuck the next time I sat down  to write.   Like Glynn, I made a conscious decision to stop before I got to the end of what I ‘knew.’   In addition to making it easier to regain the right frame of mind in the next session, waiting also built excitement.  As an author, dedication is a must, but dedication is easier when you just can’t wait to finish what you started.  Who doesn’t like feeling excited when they sit down to write?

 

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