What do an old-fashioned movie theater, a thrift store hoodie, an old fruit box, a butterfly, and a hand-held, laser-emitting, thermometer have in common?
In Stephen Graham Jones’s latest collection of short stories, they’re all everyday items he uses to keep you awake at night.
With razor-sharp prose, starting with the first line of “Thirteen” (Here’s how you do it, if you’re brave enough), he pummels us in a full-court press of discomfort, paranoia, and a desire to keep the lights on.
Jones is a very prolific writer, yet his stories are fresh and intriguing. Never predictable, his stories always keep you guessing until the last moment.
When you read the endnotes, you’ll see that these stories are ALL based on things that scare Jones. They’re not just cool ideas crammed into the guise of a short story. He digs deep and unzips his outer layer right onto the page to show us the dark holes inside of him.
In “Thirteen,” horror is pulled right off the big screen of the Big Chief Theater. The narrator relates a Bloody Mary-style trick where the movie’s scariest moments can be pulled straight off of the movie screen and into the life of the viewer. At its heart it’s a simple love story, with the characters struggling with divorce and childhood romance:
I would have stepped in front of a truck for her. And I wouldn’t have closed my eyes, either.
Those sentiments are what really haunt the protagonist, but an unintentional conjuring of the Big Chief’s power interferes with his first blossoming love.
In “Welcome to the Reptile House,” a man, still dealing with the death of his sister, spends the late night hours tattooing corpses during his friend’s night shift in a funeral home. One of the man’s “clients” begins to visit him at home as the young tattoo artist is forced to deal with demons both past and present. Jones weaves in the bitterness and hopelessness that can pervade a broken family, hitting us with a double-barrel blast of story telling.
And it only gets better. By “better” I mean letting your kids stay up past bed time so that you’re not reading alone in the living room.
Spouses and couples always have their preferred side of the bed, right? Nothing surprising, there. In “After the People Lights Have Gone Off,” that simple habit causes a crippling injury, while the guilt-ridden husband lies awake, in a dark, isolated home, wondering what his wife is doing in the middle of the night—without her wheelchair. When Jones dissects these relationships and the pain that’s burrowed itself deep inside, it can’t get more intimate than that.
For good measure, Jones mixes in a good old-fashioned werewolf yarn in “Doc’s Story.” The author’s able to turn this trope on its head and offer a fresh take. In it, a child in a family of white-trash werewolves relates the patriarch’s darker past and family conflicts. As I read this one, I couldn’t help but picture the old TV show “All in the Family” with Archie Bunker, but with werewolves in Texas instead of a loudmouth bigot in Queens.
After the People Lights Have Gone Off is just one of three offerings from Dark House Press this year. With an anthology of neo-noir (The New Black) and the neo-noir thriller Echo Lake by Letitia Trent, it’s gonna be a great year in dark fiction.
And as for Jones’s collection, due to be released in September, the only thing that sucks about it is how long you’ll have to wait to read it.
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