Yearly Archive: 2008

Quadrophenia

By its musical structure alone, The Who’s Quadrophenia opened my eyes and my intellect to the endless possibilities offered by the metaphor; add to that its compelling and challenging narrative structure, and you’ve got something that, to my mind, qualifies as a masterpiece.

Quadrophenia centers on a young kid in 1960s England named Jimmy. Jimmy comes from a hard-luck, working class family. He wants to be popular among his friends. He also wants to be a good son, a good worker, and a great lover. In the midst of trying to be all things to everyone, he realizes that he presents four very distinctive personalities to the world over the course of his days: the tough guy, the romantic, the crazy fun friend, and the troubled son. All of these separate personalities are represented by a distinct musical theme, and each personality encompasses only one aspect of the real Jimmy; none of them represent who he is in his heart. On top of all this, he’s saddled with having a deeper insight into the human spirit than most people think a person of his station is capable. He admits that even he doesn’t know who he really is. Being a confused angry young man with rampaging hormones, it doesn’t take long before certain aspects of his other personalities start bleeding over into the parts of his life where they don’t belong.

There’s much, much more to Quadrophenia’s story, but that’s the spine of it.

This sounds like a ham-fisted cliche, but hearing this album for the first time changed my life. On side 4 of the album there’s an instrumental piece called “The Rock” which remains for me one of the most amazing and moving pieces of music — and that’s music, period, not just rock music — that I’ve ever heard.

In Tommy, the central character’s epiphany is conveyed through words and music; but in Quadrophenia, it is conveyed solely through music. “The Rock” starts off by repeating each of the four themes separately, then, one by one, begins overlapping them until the four themes blend seamlessly into one, creating a fifth, unique, defining theme as Jimmy finally realizes who he really is.

That was a revelation — ahem … uh, er … discovery — for the 12-year-old me. Pete Townshend and The Who had pulled an incredible musical sleight-of-hand, created a musical Rubik’s Cube that I hadn’t even realized existed until the puzzle was completed.

I knew then that I wanted to someday create a piece or body of work that did what Pete Townshend had done with Quadrophenia’s music; present you with a group of seemingly disparate pieces/themes that in the end converged into a unified whole that was not only rewarding in and of itself (as “The Rock” most definitely is), but also enriched the sum of its parts.

“The Rock” is a perfect metaphor for what we as human beings strive toward during every moment between that first slap on the ass and the last handful of soil tossed on the lid of the coffin; call it the psychological equivalent of string theory or whatever you will: we strive to bring the various Selves together to form the whole that is uniquely ‘me’ or ‘you’, all the while treasuring the journey that has led to this time, this breath, this moment.

The Manchurian Candidate

1962’s The Manchurian Candidate

A lot — a lot — has been written and said about The Manchurian Candidate, the film that put John Frankenheimer on the map as a director. How effective you’ll find the film today depends on your personal level of cynicism.

Candidate — a satire in the truest sense of the word — deliberately sets out to make the viewer uncertain as to whether or not it’s supposed to funny. Admittedly, some of the scenes in the film have an aura of comedy about them which I think was intentional, while others (scenes obviously intended to be serious) unintentionally draw chuckles. Laurence Harvey’s British accent seems ludicrously out of place for a veteran of the Korean War, especially since he’s supposed to be American, but once you get past his voice, you cannot help but admire his rich, complex performance.

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Movie Review: Seconds

Seconds is arguably director John Frankenheimer’s best film. Based on the excellent novel by David Ely, in it we meet middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph in a masterfully shaded performance) whose life is so miserable he walks as if the earth might open at any moment and swallow him whole. His job drains him of humanity. His marriage is hollow and cold. His self-respect is rattling its last breath. He doesn’t know how things came to this. He knows that he was once a decent man but he isn’t any longer and he can’t understand why. He feels alien to the world around him.

Then one day a stranger in the subway hands him a card with an address written on it; the stranger knows Hamilton’s name, and as soon as we see the expression on Hamilton’s face, we know that he has some idea why he’s been handed this slip of paper.

That night Hamilton is called by a supposedly dead friend. “I have a wonderful new life!” he tells Hamilton. “I’m happy, old buddy, and I want to do the same for you!”

It seems there are these “people” who can give you a new life. A new face. A new voice and identity. They can give you a life where you are successful at the thing you always dreamed of (in Hamilton’s case, being a famous artist). It costs a lot, and once the process has begun there is no turning back.

Hamilton, after much soul-searching, decides to go through with it, and embarks on a chilling journey to the secret headquarters where these “people” make arrangements for a new life. (He is taken there in the back of a meat delivery truck–some of the most unnerving black-humored symbolism I’ve ever encountered.) There he meets with the company president (Will Geer, Grandpa Walton himself, who is quietly and absolutely terrifying in the role) who has created this program. The decision made, the work begins, and soon Hamilton is transformed into the younger, more vital Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (played by Rock Hudson), given a new profession, a new home, a new life. Things are idyllic for a while, but eventually Hamilton’s conscience and its questions about his old life drive him to return to his widow in an effort to find out where he went wrong.

Frankenheimer always dealt with extremes in his best pictures, and Seconds is possibly the most extreme film he ever made. His penchant for lean storytelling and muscular pacing is at its peak here, as is his use of his ought-to-be-patented foreground framing technique.

The film’s biggest surprise, perhaps, is the performance of the late Rock Hudson. In a role originally slated to be played by Laurence Olivier (who the studio decided didn’t have Hudson’s box-office clout), Hudson displays a depth and power that viewers of Pillow Talk would never have thought possible.

Hudson’s face is a subtle prism of conflicting emotions; every joy, every sorrow, every triumph and regret is there, etched into his expressions like words on a headstone. When something hits at his core, you see it on his face–and not in any heavy-handed, watch-me, watch-me way; Hudson’s performance is one of impressive constriction, understatement, and substance, heart-felt and affecting, and (like the superb performance of Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler) a rare glimpse at a good but limited actor’s one moment of true and undeniable greatness–which gives this film an added dose of bitter irony when viewed today: had Hudson lived, would he have wanted a second chance to prove his worth as an actor of substance and power?

Movie Information

Release Date: 1966
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: R (disturbing sequences and some nudity)
Color: B&W
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Writers: Lewis John Carlino (screenplay), David Ely (novel)
Cast:

Rock Hudson: Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson
Salome Jens: Nora Marcus
John Randolph: Arthur Hamilton
Will Geer: Old Man
Jeff Corey: Mr. Ruby
Richard Anderson: Dr. Innes
Murray Hamilton: Charlie
Karl Swenson: Dr. Morris
Khigh Dhiegh: Davalo
Frances Reid: Emily Hamilton
Wesley Addy: John
John Lawrence: Texan
Elisabeth Fraser: Blonde
Dodie Heath: Sue Bushman (as Dody Heath)
Robert Brubaker: Mayberry

Movie Review: Sorcerer

Sorcerer, made by William Friedkin in 1977 after his triumphs and numerous awards for both The French Connection and The Exorcist, was his own Apocalypse Now: a film that went over budget and took three times as long to film as originally planned, but one denied Apocalypse’s subsequent fame, notoriety, and audience interest.

A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer tells the story of four men, all wanted criminals, who flee to a nameless Third World country to escape punishment, imprisonment, torture, or death. When a devastating oil rig explosion offers the chance to make some big money very quickly (they have to transport old crates of leaking nitroglycerin over 200 miles of treacherous mountain road), each sees a chance to get out of this hell-hole country and forge a new life elsewhere, far from their regrets and old enemies.

Screenwriter Walon Green (who co-wrote The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah) foregoes a script filled with meaningful dialogue and concentrates instead on expressionistic imagery to tell large chunks of the story. This, coupled with Friedkin’s flair for jittery realism, gives Sorcerer an effective and gritty documentary feel.

I greatly admire both Sorcerer and The Wages Of Fear, but find my preference leaning toward Friedkin’s film, if for no other reason because Sorcerer takes the time to establish these men in their previous lives so the viewer can have some sense of what they’ve been forced to abandon. Sorcerer possesses emotional layers where Wages opts for the coldly intellectual, and though both films are potentially devastating to the viewer, Sorcerer remains the more humane and accessible of the two.

Movie Information

Release Date: 1977
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: William Friedkin
Writers: Walon Green (screenplay), Georges Arnaud (1953 novel Le Salaire de la Peur)
Cast:

Roy Scheider: Scanlon/Dominguez
Bruno Cremer: Victor Manzon/Serrano
Francisco Rabal: Nilo
Amidou: Kassem/Martinez
Ramon Bieri: Corlette
Peter Capell: Lartigue
Karl John: Marquez
Frederick Ledebur: Carlos
Chico Martinez: Bobby Del Rios
Joe Spinell: Spider
Rosario Almontes: Agrippa
Richard Holley: Billy White
Anne-Marie Deschott: Blanche
Jean-Luc Bideau: Pascal
Jacques Francois: Lefevre

Mass Murder

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Former FBI agent Robert Ressler — he’s the man who gave us the term “serial killer” — defines “classic” mass murder as involving one mentally-disordered killer in one location who kills 4 or more other people more or less at the same time.

These days, mass murders are taking place more and more in public places like schools and businesses, but it used to be more common for mass murder to be a more private event.

I worked with a janitorial company for several years in the late 70s and early 80s, and one night I was awakened at 2 a.m. by a call from my boss asking me if I would volunteer to join a skeleton crew for an emergency job. The night would pay $300.00 for each crew member. At first, still groggy, I couldn’t understand why anyone would turn down 300 bucks for four or five hours of work; then he told me why he had to call and ask for volunteers.

Three days before, a local man had snapped, killing his family and then himself. The family was a somewhat prominent one in town, and the surviving relatives wanted the house cleaned as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. Two of the family members this man had killed (with a shotgun) had been children.

I wound up cleaning the childrens’ room.

You cannot help but feel the sick-making silence and overwhelming loss of life when you perform a duty like this. Three times I had to stop work to go outside to either cry or vomit. But I got that room cleaned; I wiped away every trace of those childrens’ existence. There was a lot of blood, as well as other liquids, all of them dried. There was also, in places, bits of flesh and bone mixed in with that blood.

When it was all over, we collected our pay and went back to our homes. I fell asleep somewhere around nine a.m. and didn’t wake up until well after four. I had thrown my clothes from that night into the corner, along with the work boots I’d been wearing. As I was gathering everything up for washing, I for some reason checked the bottoms of my boots, and found a very small but — thanks to the mopping I’d done — still very wet piece of human tissue wedged into the heavy treads.

I got sick all over again. This was all that remained of one of those children. But which one? And from what part of them had this been blasted? Had they died immediately or had they suffered? All this came to me in a rush and I just imploded.

Statistics and definitions don’t give you any inkling of the enormity of the pain and loss a mass murder brings, nor of the nightmares the people left behind to pick up the pieces will have to endure.

Nunzilla’s School of Reading Comprehension

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I read very slowly.

When I was in the second grade at St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, our English teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, required that we read aloud on Mondays and Fridays. Coming from a hard-core blue-collar background, reading was not something that was encouraged in the Braunbeck household. Not that my parents discouraged it, but because both of them worked long hours at hellish factory jobs, they were either too tired or too busy with things like bills and home repairs to find time to read much. Neither of them completed high school, and neither of them ran in social circles where “intellectual” pursuits such as reading were the norm.

No, I’m not blaming them, far from it; Mom would always buy me a book if I found one I wanted, and Dad was more than happy to read to or with me. (Aside: Mom was a big Mickey Spillane fan, and read his books whenever she could, but the only two books I ever saw her re-read were Blatty’s The Exorcist and F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which she thought was “… one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hope he writes another one.”)

Okay, so I’m sitting there in English class one Friday, and we’re taking turns reading paragraphs from some book — I wish to hell I could remember its name — about this kid named Johnny who works odd jobs so he can earn money to go to the movies because he likes to imagine that he’s the cowboy hero or brave fighter pilot or smart detective.

Gets to be my turn, and I’m reading along — slower than the other kids, but smoothly, nonetheless — when I encounter a word I’d often heard but had never actually seen in print before: “aisle.”

I stopped, stared at the word, and tried to figure out how to pronounce it.

Sister Mary Elizabeth made quite a show out of my inability to read this word aloud, so finally, embarrassed beyond belief, I gave it a try.

What I said was something akin to “i-sell.”

Everyone laughed. Sister Mary Elizabeth told me to try it again.

I-sell. Again.

I couldn’t figure out any other way to pronounce it.

Sister then pulled several other books from the shelf and opened them to selected pages, thrust them under my nose, and ordered me to read about twenty-five different words at her random choosing, all of which I’d heard, none of which I had ever seen in print before, among them “redundant”, “envelope”, “digestion”, “automatic”, and — my personal favorite to this day — “repetitive”.

I missed every last one of them.

And everyone got a dandy guffaw out of that.

Most of the kids who attended St. Francis came from fairly well-to-do families, families who financially contributed heavily to both the church and school, who held positions on the school board or church board, and who got to wear dresses and ties to their jobs and sit behind desks.

I was one of a small handful of kids who came from, well … not-so well-to-do families, and there was a marked difference in the way we were treated, both by our fellow students and the teachers. If one of the rich students was having difficulties, well, then, hire a tutor, arrange for special sessions with teachers after school, cut them as much slack as possible.

But if one of the poorer students was having trouble … tough shit. Their families were barely making the quarterly tuition payments, so it wasn’t worth anyone’s time to give them any extra help.

Three days a week, I was provided with a free lunch because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for an entire week’s worth. Somehow, Sister Mary Elizabeth managed to work that into her scolding of me in front of the class that day, as well as several observations about the limited selection options available to me for my wardrobe.

“Go sit out in the hall, you’re holding everyone else back, you dumb-bunny.”

Dumb-bunny. Never forgot that one.

So I went out into the hall and sat there.

Which is how I came to find myself transferred to the “special” English class the following Monday.

Here is what the “special” English class consisted of:

Some assistant coach (or Darrell Sheets, the marvelous, kind man who was the school’s janitor) sat at a table in the cafeteria while the rest — there were five of us — were seated at another table. On this table was a stack of childrens’ books. Twenty of them, in fact. I remember this because these books never changed. Ever.

These were books written for children at the pre-school/kindergarten level.

This is Dick. This is his sister, Jane. Dick and Jane are playing with their Dog, Spot. “Run, Spot, run!” See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.

Goddamn page-turners were these books.

From Grade 2 until Grade 5 that is how I spent my English classes; down in the cafeteria, sitting at a table with four other “special” students, reading the same twenty books over and over. (We were not allowed to bring our own books, we had to read only those that were deemed to be “within” our “ranges of comprehension.” At least at the beginning of every year they gave us twenty different books than the year before. Our big exam was to read two of them aloud at the end of the year.)

As a result of this, and the lack of reading time/assistance at home, I read at a first-grade level until the sixth grade. Even then, I was way behind the other kids. (The “special” program had been 86’d at the end of my fifth grade year because they could no longer find assistant coaches or assistant janitors who were willing to baby-sit us.)

I somehow managed to bluff my way through sixth grade English — I squeaked by with a “C” — but even that summer, I found that I was still having trouble reading books that, by all accounts, I should have been able to breeze through four years ago.

I was given a reading comprehension test at the start of my seventh grade year.

I was reading at a third-grade level … and just barely at that.

But I got lucky. My English teacher that year was a terrific guy named David Kessler who had been made aware of my “learning disability” and who, even though he wasn’t allowed to give me any extra help either in or outside of class, did provide me with books designed to help me read better. I guarded these books as if they were my life savings. Whenever either of them could, Mom and Dad helped me, or one of the neighbors if I offered to cut their grass. But mostly I had to do it on my own.

By the time I left the Catholic School system at the end of my eighth grade year, I was reading at the fifth-grade level.

For me, it was a personal triumph.

I haven’t bothered getting myself tested in decades, because whatever level I’m reading at right now is the level I will read at until I take the Dirt Nap.

But there remain times ….

There were several sections in Dan Simmons’s brilliant The Hollow Man that I had to re-read more than once before fully understanding what I was reading. As much as I admire and enjoy the work of Joe Haldeman, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe, there are times while reading them that I feel genuinely stupid, as if I’m standing there in front of Sister and the class trying to decipher “aisle” once again.

It took me three days to read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a short novel that many people read in three hours.

To this day, I remain angry about that.

To this day, I still have trouble reading at times, and always will, and that has caused some measure of enjoyment to be subtracted from my life, and that saddens me whenever I think about it for too long, because the ability to read is one of the most precious gifts we possess.

Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a great line from William Goldman’s novel The Color of Light: “Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it.”

William Faulkner maintained that any child who managed to live past the age of seven had enough material to write books and stories for the rest of his or her life and never see the well run dry; Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you encounter any authors who insists that their work isn’t in some form autobiographical, they’re lying through their teeth.

It’s not only outward, chronological events that shape our psyches and determine who we become, but our own internal worlds; imagination, impressions, prejudices, fantasies, regrets, passions, likes and dislikes, all of it is eventually filtered through the writer’s sensibilities to make an appearance in their work.

Sometimes a writer has to wait until he or she has gotten enough distance, both emotionally and chronologically, to turn a fiction writer’s objective eye on an event. You can’t use an actual occurrence from your own life and then defend it to people by saying, “But that’s how it really happened.” Fiction cares nothing for how an event ‘really’ happened, only how said event or events fit into the natural progression of the story you’re telling.

You have to learn to put your ego aside when you write a story or novel, even if you’re using something from your life as fictional fodder; you have to care enough to be quiet. Let the story be your guide, not your desire to inflict yourself and your views on the reader.

On writing about child abuse

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A heap of dirty clothes in the corner becomes a nasty, fanged monster after the lights are out. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus’s shield, protecting them from Medusa’s deadly power. Everything is amplified in ways adults find hard to remember.

So can you begin to imagine, just for a moment, the terror, the pain, the agony and confusion experienced by a child whose every waking moment is marked by fear and nothing but?

Childhood is over too soon under the best of circumstances; to strip a child of their trust, to despoil them of the belief that those who love you will always protect and never harm you, to commit the obscenity of taking a child and simply, totally ruining their world, to destroy the joy in their hearts ….

It is, in my opinion, the most unpardonable and irredeemable of human crimes. Period.

If you’re a fiction writer, you’ll see that a lot of editors shy away from stories that involve any harm coming to a child. In some genres, portraying child abuse or child murder is seen as an unbreakable taboo, and to deal with these subjects is to risk your readership if you can even get the work published.

And it often does seem like the lowest of low pandering tactics: you want suspense? To engage a reader’s emotions? Then put a child in jeopardy!

And too often it is used as a cheap effect, especially in horror and suspense. Some authors do seem to sit down to write a piece and say, “Oh, I’ll throw in a dash of child abuse for added depth.” To do that is not only insulting to the reader and a slap in the face to those who dedicate their lives to bettering the existence of children who are in an abusive situation, but it serves to numb people to the plight of these children.

But I believe there’s room for honest portrait of it in good fiction. Not to use a tale as bully pulpit or soapbox decrying child abuse, but to genuinely explore how abuse affects the human condition through the eyes of a story’s characters.

If you write fiction about child abuse, probably the most important thing to remember is to keep your work from becoming what Ray Garton once called “whacking material for pedophiles.” It’s a hard thing to keep a graphic scene from becoming inadvertently titillating — and sometime a story genuinely needs a graphic depiction.

To use what is probably my most uncomfortable example, take “Some Touch of Pity,” a novella that appeared in Marty Greenberg’s Werewolves. Anyone who’s ever read that story remembers the rape scene. I agonized over that thing for weeks, not the least of which because I didn’t want any element of that scene to seem even remotely titillating. Marty, God bless him, understood that a graphic presentation of the rape was integral to the story — the central character relives this moment from his childhood on an almost hourly basis, it’s what defined his view of himself, and it’s what keeps him standing at arm’s length from his own true heart. But Marty said that as the scene stood, it would be just too much for DAW. Understood.

I rewrote the scene so that the reader experienced it only through the sensations and impressions that the child could identify. That’s the version that was published in the anthology. It was still effective, but it didn’t pull the reader nose-first into the painful, filthy, bottomless pit of the character’s suffering. So, when it came time to include the story in my first collection, I restored the rape scene to its original form, which is much more direct, unflinching, and brutal.

God, how I lost sleep over that. I worried that people would read it and think I was simply trying to shock them in the most depraved manner. I worried that readers would find the story offensive and unreadable. Then I realized that, with all the worries I was dredging up, the one which never crossed my mind was: is it necessary to be this graphic?

The story informed me that, yes, it was necessary to present it in this way. I’m relieved to say that, in the years since I published the uncut version, not one person has accused me of being irresponsible in telling the story in the manner that it required. Writing that story was a gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately I think it was worth it.

 

Book Review: Memorial Day by Harry Shannon

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Five Star Press, 2004

For those of you who have read Shannon’s previous novels, Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf, it will come as no surprise that his latest novel crackles with the same brittle dialogue and muscular prose he’s been honing over the past few years. What might surprise you is that Memorial Day isn’t a horror novel — at least, not in the commercial/marketing sense.

Memorial Day is very much a noir mystery novel, and with only a few minor bumps along the way, Shannon makes the kind of smooth transition between genres that most writers can only dream about. Reading like a cross between Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, the novel tells the story of psychologist/television celebrity Mick Callahan, who, as the novel opens, has hit rock bottom thanks to booze, drugs, women, and his own out of control ego. With nothing left and nowhere to go, he accepts a job hosting a radio talk show in his home town of Dry Wells, Nevada. One of the callers to whom he speaks one night is murdered, and Mick–who made his reputation on television partly by investigative reporting–takes it upon himself to track down the murderer.

Fairly straightforward, traditional mystery elements, yes, but what makes Memorial Day stand apart from the majority of first mystery novels is Shannon’s unflinching, lean, and unsentimental portrayal not only of Callahan, but of all the characters who populate Dry Wells. Not only is Callahan trying to get his life back on track, not only is he dealing with a truckload of guilt carried over from his previous life, not only does he make enemies out of seemingly most of Dry Wells’ population, but he’s also dealing with memories of his own abusive childhood that are being brought to the surface as his investigation uncovers tawdry secret after tawdry secret.

These are a lot of character elements to deal with in a novel; that Shannon not only grapples with these elements but resolves them — and does so in a tight 266 pages — but he also draws fully three-dimensional characterizations for everyone in Dry Wells that Callahan comes into contact with. No easy feat, and one cannot help but applaud Shannon’s craftsmanship.

Which is not to say that everything is on solid ground; there are times when a line of dialogue comes off as self-consciously noir-ish ("You might as well paint a target on your forehead", "This town’s got a lot of dirty little secrets", "You move, you die" etc.), one very important clue is delivered in too-obvious manner, and in the final third of novel, Callahan suffers one brutal beating after another, only to quickly recover and come back for more.

But these are, in the end, minor quibbles that do not adversely affect the overall strength and readability of Memorial Day; at best, they reduce a **** novel to ***1/2.

With Memorial Day, Shannon has made a strong and memorable mystery debut. Mick Callahan has the makings of a fascinating series character in the traditional of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain or Andrew Vachss’ Burke. Personally, I think it’s high time we had a new series character like Callahan, and a new mystery writer as skillful as Shannon. Even if mystery is not your usual cup of tea, I still highly recommend Memorial Day.

Book Review: 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
Raw Dog Screaming Press

Those of you who have visited Arnzen’s web site, or the Raw Dog Screaming Press site, or have already purchased this book, know that I provided a blurb for the cover, so you can safely assume that this is going to be a positive review. I stand by what I said in my blurb, but decided I wanted all of you to know why I said it.

Of all story forms, the short-short (defined as a story clocking in at 1000 words or less) is by far the most difficult, and the one that can often defeat even the most seasoned writer. The short-short requires a poet’s skill at encapsulation of imagery and ideas, as wells as the fiction writer’s ability to employ these same elements in the telling of a cohesive and coherent story — and I emphasize those two words because (more often than not) the short-shorts that appear in the horror field are written by folks who mistakenly assume that those terms are mutually exclusive, which they are most decidedly not.

Even the most surreal of short-shorts must adhere to the structure and internal logic of the short story, regardless of how dreamlike and bizarre the prose might be. The late Donald Barthelme was arguably the master of this particular form of story, but with 100 Jolts, Arnzen, without laying claim to it, emerges as the inheritor of Barthelme’s crown.

Consider the following story, used here in its entirety:

A Worse Mousetrap

As I type, the mouse climbs my shoulder and leaps into my breast pocket. I laugh when his furry gray head pops out. He twitters his whiskers, watching as I finish my apology. I hug him against my heart. Later, I will sign my note as the rat poison makes it way through my system.

Looks easy, doesn’t it?

Trust me, it’s not.

In five sentences–count ’em, five–Arnzen not only employs the poet’s skill at encapsulation and the storyteller’s ability to form a cohesive and coherent narrative, but also manages to leave a great deal of the horror unspoken. This is a complete story in every sense of the word; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a central conflict; and it adheres to the single most important rule of fiction: its central character undergoes a change between the start and the finish. That Arnzen chooses to convey this through subtleties rather than graphic depictions makes it even more effective and affecting, adding a great deal of power to that final line.

Every story in 100 Jolts does this, seemingly effortlessly, time and time again.

One of this collection’s most jaw-dropping achievement comes at the very beginning with the section entitled “Skull Fragments”; it contains 12 separate short-shorts, all of which can stand on their own as disturbing horror stories, but when taken as a whole, tell a 13th and even more deeply nightmarish tale.

I think 100 Jolts is a remarkable achievement, and a book that all serious readers of horror fiction should have in their hands and on their shelves.