Well, the time has come for me to once again take the easy route and delve into the world of the short short story (seriously, is there no other name for this form?). As is my habit, I grab a handful of these things, read them, and do a usually not-literally bullet point run down of them. The last two years of The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! have been slightly hampered in this regard, from my point of view, by the fact that I have two big collections of these kinds of stories, but for the longest time could only find one, 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, edited by Al Sarrantonio and Martin H. Greenberg. Well, in the time between last Oct. 31 and today, I found the other one, called 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and, yes, Martin H. Greenberg. I'm trilled, I must say, because not only do I have a new pool from which to draw, but these ones are about creatures.
I'll begin with the least of the bunch, "The Gargoyle Sacrifice" by Tina L. Jens. It's about a 14-year-old Goth girl named Marissa, whose 18-year-old boyfriend Rudy has pressured her to get her nipples pierced, and in the skeevy tattoo/piercing parlor and occult store where they've gone to have this done, Marissa finds her eye caught by clunky-sounding gargoyle necklace, the ruby stone prominently featured therein being "the size of the lenses in her Lennon glasses." It was right about here that I said "Oh, Jesus", and I was right to do so. Jens piles on the terrestrial horrors for Marissa to endure, before bringing in the dull otherworldly version. The shrug-inducing nature of "The Gargoyle Sacrifice" is highlighted by the big payoff at the end, in which a character we've never met and know very little about meets with a demon or Satan, and we find out why what just happened just happened. What's so goofy and anti-climactic about this scene is that the guy talking to the demon says "There, I've done this terrible thing a whole bunch of times, so that should cover my end of the deal," and the demon says "No, you haven't done it enough...you have to do it seven more times!!!" And that's it. The number seven, as opposed to eight, or six, is ,I suppose, meant to add that last little chill.
"The Gargoyle Sacrifice" highlights the dangers of the short short story by showing that the unusually abbreviated length is not always the result of having a particular idea that suits the form, or the wish to play with said form, but of having not much of an idea and not developing it enough to reach past three or four pages. Two stories that have a better grasp of the form are "Dark Brother" by Donald R. Bruleson and "The Feather Pillow" by Horacio Quiroga. The brevity of "Dark Brother" is justified in part by the fact that it's told from the point of view of a family cat. I most disdainful family cat, who is aware, while its lumpish owners are not, that a malicious spirit lurks within their home. The cat revels in the spirit's torment of the man and woman who foolishly believe they own their house, and "Dark Brother" chronicles the cat's truncated view of the proceedings. The story goes where you'd think, with no surprises, but the fate of the couple is describe with a disturbing restraint, and a lack of empathy, that is very effective:
[Dark Brother] shoots out a tendril to thicken upon her and take her down, moaning, in the hallway, where, pulsating, he worries at her face until the screaming stops.
That "worries at her face" is unpleasantly evocative, I think.
Like "Dark Brother", Qurioga's "The Feather Pillow" shrinks a fairly large chunk of time down to a few pages, and I find this approach to time to be the most effective in this format. It allows for a certain style and gloss that something like "The Gargoyle Sacrifice" doesn't understand. Qurioga's story is about a pair of newlyweds, Alicia and Jordan. Upon returning from their honeymoon, Alicia finds her new home badly contributing to her already nervous demeanor, to the point where she's first terrified, and then ill. "The Feather Pillow" charts her rapid decline, at the end providing evidence that what's behind her sickness is a horror staple before revealing a far stranger truth. What I liked best about "The Feather Pillow" is the last paragraph, which transforms the story from a straight piece of horror into an almost zoological cautionary tale.
To round things off, I went with two especially short stories, each one only two pages. Orlin Frederick's "The Throwback" is nothing too special, merging, as it does, the horrors of war -- World War I, in this case -- with the horrors of, I don't know, werewolves probably. It's not bad, by any means, but you have a character, Heinz, part of a German battery whose face is evil and who occasionally loses it completely, disappears for a night, and then the next morning someone has died violently and mysteriously. It's simply a brief metaphor for cruelty and bloodlust in war, and if you've read one of those, you've read "The Throwback".
Finally we have Steve Rasnic Tem's "There's No Such Things as Monsters". I went with Tem, even though I've written about his work more than once, because the short short seems to be his chosen form, and I find him fascinating. Not that "There's No Such Things as Monsters" is a masterpiece, but it's a moving little bit of enchantment about the fears of a small child, storytelling, and a monster's restraint that confirms that Tem is a most unusual and unexpected talent. I'd love to see another major work from him soon, but there's still so much of his past fiction I've never read, there's no reason to look too far ahead just yet.