Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Martyrs & Monsters

by Robert Dunbar

in this excellent collection of short stories, Dunbar mines both horror tropes and, more interestingly, the inevitable degradation of self within a varied range of vividly depicted and toxic closed circles. the breadth of these stories - from tenement to moldering southern 'mansion' to space station (maybe) to killing fields of the distant past - is impressive. as is the verve and finesse in which Dunbar approaches his topics and paints his imagery. he really knows how to bring the literary to literary horror. there is an abundance of dread and melancholy and creepiness, and a good number of squalid squirmy scenarios, but not much in the way of gore or viscera. if you want the pornographic detail of torture porn, this is not for you. but if you want thoughtfulness and ambiguity and to be forced to think a bit, then this is an interesting and rewarding book to pick up.

the companion stories "Gray Soil" and "Red Soil" are worth the price of admission alone. these take place sometime long ago, on a field that that is a post-battle graveyard in one and in the other, the site of forced labor on some strange folly at the behest of some strange nobleman. we see a mother and her children forced to deal with the horrible scavenger that haunts the battlefield and we see a brave lad trying to look out for his sister as a host of these scavengers attack his camp. the creatures are fascinating; what happens to these characters is even more compelling. the prose in these stories is spare and resonant, as suits a myth or fable. haunting and disturbing and, best of all, leaving the reader to figure out on their own what comes next.

the very amusing and enjoyable "The Folly" takes place in a very oddly-shaped home on an isolated swamp island in the South. Dunbar revisits the Jersey Devil of his novels The Pines & The Shore but does so in a very different manner. the creature is fully recontextualized as a worldwide phenomena (although that was present, a bit, in the novels) and is also made somehow less mysterious - yet still quite threatening. a creature that is described as looking like a giant muskrat is indeed still scary if it wants to tear you to pieces! but the creature is not really the best part. i liked the bizarre home (and actually wanted more of it), i enjoyed the nascent lesbian affair on the horizon, and i really loved the wonderfully arch and wry tone of the story. charm + slaughter, a lovely combo.

"Saturday Night Fights" is a fun ticket to an old-fashioned monster battle, this one featuring a punk rock about-to-be-a-couple fighting a disgusting beast in some repulsive apartment building somewhere. some sharp characterization - the subtlety of which really sticks out, in a good way, when taken in context with the broadness of the story itself. plus kittens and a feel-good ending! awww.

"Full" is ingenius. it takes the whole paranormal subgenre - hey, vampires & werewolves & zombies walk amongst us and we have to deal with it! - and boils it down to one hopeful walk in the dark by our moody protagonist as he goes to meet his boyfriend. the story does really amusing things with zombies and a vampire and a horny Frankenstein's monster type creature. and it does an awesome thing with the werewolf - simultaneously illustrating why that creature is such a pervasive erotic fantasy while not forgetting that making love to such a creature may be a bit... problematic.

"Explanations" was, sad to say, my least favorite story. it is witty and the characterizations were full of depth and humor, but there was also an unpleasant veneer of sneering condescension that reminded me too much of John Shirley's Black Butterflies (a book i loathed).

"Getting Wet" and "Are We Dead Yet?" weren't my favorite tales in the collection, but there is no denying the sheer artistry on display in these stories about sociopathic boyfriends living in a very dirty world and making it dirtier. Dunbar's ability to get into the head of our twitchy protagonist and to make the protagonist's boyfriend threateningly opaque yet still very real - to make these two human cockroaches come alive even as they turn on others and each other... very, very well-done. and the dark, watery, empty world he creates for them to live in is just as impressive.

"Away" is one of those rare stories that made me feel sort of dimwitted and confused when reading it, as if i should be understanding what was going on but some lack in me made that nearly impossible. the story of a paranoid outsider who may actually be right all along really left me mystified and unsure about what i had just read. was it too subtle? no, there is no such thing. that story is going to force me to re-read it. and when a story can do that: Like!

there are several other worthy stories, but i'll close on my favorite - perhaps even one of my new all-time favorite horror stories - the strange, haunting, tense, sorta sexy and sorta disgusting, eerily evocative, wonderfully understated "Mal de Mer". a cold-blooded lady taking care of an old woman about to die. a house near a beach. a mysterious and violently sexual man. two exceedingly creepy children. something big and monstrous that manages to be, somehow, disappointed and scornful as well. lacerating self-analysis and lonely contemplation and needle-sharp teeth and bloodstains on the floor. in a word, brilliant.


  1. I read this collection last year, and it alone made me rank Dunbar as one of the best horror writers I've found in recent years. Mal De Mer was my only personal favourite too - I wrote a blog post on it in my 'Strange Stories' feature, actually. And a lot of the rest of the collection runs that one close in terms of quality.

  2. Hey James would you mind posting a link to that blog feature? I would love to read it.

  3. Sure thing: