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.