Comet Press, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-936964-64-2
Wrathbone and Other Stories is a collection of horror stories, and as most collections tend to be, it is a mixed bag.
The opening story Wrathbone is Jason Parent’s own take on actual historical figure Henry Rathbone’s descend into madness and the tragic repercussions of his insanity. Henry was there with his fiancée Clara – right next to Abraham Lincoln when the President was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Henry was stabbed by Booth, and he will always blame himself for not being able to save Lincoln. Even prior to that, it seems like Henry is already showing signs of losing his mind, and this guilt only hastens his mental decline.
This one isn’t bad at all, but something is missing. I never get this edge-of-seat feeling that I’m supposed to have, and the denouement feels like a predictable kind of inevitability rather than something that is meant to be both tragic and chilling. I feel that this is because there is never any fleshing out of the protagonist’s madness. I occasionally wonder whether Henry has really lost it or he’s genuinely being plagued by a demon. If it is the former, well, was it some kind of PTSD during his soldier days that is driving him nuts? If it is the latter, why does the demon bother? Is it because Henry accidentally relieved himself at some demon-y shrine or something? And if Henry is genuinely nuts, how come he seems to know that he’s insane by the last page of this story? Who knows? This story ends up being a well-written tale of someone going nuts, but it lacks enough context to engage me in a visceral manner.
Every horror author seems to make it a self-impose rule to have at least one story bashing lawyers, and Jason Parent’s story is The Only Good Lawyer. Bradley Walsh is proud of being a crooked lawyer – he’s very good at being one too, using every trick he has and then some to make sure that his clients always win. At least, until the father of his client’s victim decides to do some voodoo thing to make sure that both he and his client pay, pay, pay…This one is just too absurd and over the top to be taken seriously, yet at the same time, the comedy isn’t effective enough to make up for it. The story is mostly just Bradley running around behaving like a headless chicken whose rear end is on fire, like a rejected Tales from the Crypt script.
Next is Dorian’s Mirror. I know, Dorian Gray, that’s never been done before, snort. Here, Dorian Clarke is gorgeous and utterly amoral. After telling me how gorgeous he is and how he deserves all the adulation of other people because he’s worked hard for his looks and body, he is stunned to see his reflection ageing before his eyes. Oh no, what is happening? Is it a demon? Is he crazy? Overdosed on who knows what drugs he took earlier? Who knows – the whole reflection thing comes out of nowhere and the story ends without any answers. This story is like a more superficial version of Wrathbone – the demon or madness thing just comes up out of nowhere, and it offers a poor payoff. This story is the written equivalent of a pointless jump scare.
For the Birds is the next story. Our protagonist Nev’s scarlet macaw Joji demands to be fed red meat. This is not a good thing when two sadistic men break into his house and… well, I suppose I shouldn’t spoil this one. This is the first story that gets a rise out of me, but that’s because I have a love for low budget, violent schlockfest and this one makes me go, “Ooh, that’s so cute and disgusting!” The only thing that spoils this one somewhat for me is the author’s awkward efforts at making the two sadistic men crack jokes like they are in Quentin Tarantino’s movie or something.
Finally, there is Revenge Is a Dish. Maurice, a former rising star of a chef who crashed when he was accused of embezzling from his employer, thought he had a good chance at making a comeback when he became the personal chef of Dr Nigel Flickenhoffer and his much younger wife Olivia. He was sleeping with Olivia, cook for the two and the staff of their yacht, and making good money while seeing the world in the process. What could go wrong? Well, things had gone wrong when the story opens, and I will find out just how wrong as I turn the page.
And I have to say: this is the easily the best story of the bunch, so kudos to whoever it is that arranged the stories so that this one comes last. I find it interesting that this collected is touted as a collection of psychological horror stories when the most effectively chilling ones are actually those more focused on gore. Of course, if you want to be mean, you can argue that it’s easier to write gore compared to psychological horror, but let’s be nice here – good gore is not easy to write, as it is easy to cross the line and end up trying too hard to elicit a reaction from the reader. This one is done just right: the gore is well done, but not too over the top to feel tasteless or exploitative. There is enough tongue-against-cheek moments here to keep things from being too dark, but not to an extent that the humor breaks the atmosphere. Like I said, just right, with all the flavors in balance. If the previous stories had been as well done as this one, this collection would have been a party of a read.