AFTER THE PEOPLE LIGHTS HAVE GONE OFF BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
As a lifelong fan of short fiction, the books that most fill my heart with joy are horror anthologies and single-author horror collections. For me, there’s nothing better than a great bunch of disparate tales gathered together, thematically or not. When it works, it’s THE BEST. So, it was with sadness that I found out recently that short story collections don’t sell. I had no idea! Talking with more than one publisher has confirmed this dumb fact, so for several posts during the remainder of this year’s 31Hath, I’ll be highlighting recent anthologies and collections guaranteed to blow your mind’s socks off…
This guy can WRITE, people! He is also a serious student of writing, in all sorts of genres (as well as a being a fiction professor at Texas Tech). One look at his voluminous bibliography is enough to show you that he can pretty much do it all–horror, suspense, fantasy, memoir, crime, mainstream, and literary genres are all part of his bag of tricks. As a horror fan, what I most appreciate about Jones’s scary work (aside from the excellent writing) is his intelligent discourse with the tradition, itself. He manages to take things like haunted houses (in the title story and others), werewolves (“Doc’s Story”), and even vampires (“Welcome to the Reptile House”) into fresh, new and exciting places.
In “The Spindly Man”, a book club discusses a Stephen King story, and the eponymous character shows up to great, sinister effect. “Thirteen” deals with an urban legend attached to a local movie house. “Xebico” is about the effects on reality of performing a theatrical version of a famous horror story at a community college. “Spiderbox” is a short and sharp mini cosmic horror epic about the accidental discovery of a father and son. The title story is a masterpiece, and deals with a couple trying to recover from a terrible accident in their unfinished new dream home. Details pile up as the tone gets increasingly creepy, until the tale’s final traps are sprung.
Character and inner life and dialog are all strengths of Mr. Jones (the show off!), and even his most unreliable narrators have sparks of humanity that make them so vital, as to be worthy of empathy. There are two stories, “Brush Dogs” and “Father, Son, and Holy Rabbit” that are emotionally-packed wallops about fathers and sons, that both had me in tears as well as creepified.
That’s part of the charm of this book, the way things sneak right up on you. Jones is so intelligent and so in control of his prose that he can lead us on and then pull the rug out pretty much whenever he wants. The endings of his stories tend to feel extra horrifying in that regard, leaving us in a state of destabilized reality. For me, there isn’t a weak piece in the bunch, and the overall effect of so much good stuff in such a compact collection is similar to how I felt the first time I read NIGHT SHIFT by that one guy.