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Butcher Shop Quartet, edited by Frank J. Hutton Book Review | SFReader.com
Butcher Shop Quartet, edited by Frank J. Hutton Genre: Horror Anthology Publisher: Cutting Block Press Published: 2006 Review Posted: 2/10/2007 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 9 out of 10
Butcher Shop Quartet, edited by Frank J. Hutton
Book Review by James Michael White
Have you read this book?
In the world of small presses, independent publishers come and go with all-too-common regularity, partly the result of distribution woes, partly the result of small budgets and a consequent inability to adequately promote their work, but in large part they fade because of a lack of consistent quality. Either the books are poorly produced or the writing in them simply isn't top notch, or mainstream, either, these publishers struggling in their own niches where finding an audience, and keeping it, may be all the harder. This isn't to say that good work can't be found or doesn't exist in the small press. It does. Indeed it does. But a lot of the time it doesn't exist there in sufficient numbers to consistently draw a sufficient batch of buyers to offset the costs of production.
Into this dodgy world comes Butcher Shop Quartet, a horror anthology sporting four novellas by genre newcomers, with a foreword by editor Frank J. Hutton. In it we find a tale that's something of a throwback to early adventure movie plots updated for modern times, a tale of college buddies caught up in psychologically scarring interpersonal struggles stretching through World War I, a humorous take upon the lengths to which people will go to repair deformity, and an erotic tale of family destiny, also set around World War I.
The book looks nice enough, with a color cover depicting a cutting block on a mountain road, an oddly deformed looking ribcage upon that cutting block, a meat cleaver prominent at one edge, lots of drippy blood there, too, and whether by design or cut'n paste happenstance, everything on that cover looks a little warped and out of perspective and improperly illuminated, given the angle of the setting (or is it rising?) sun. This is somewhat indicative, too, of the stories inside, none of which have much to do with the picture on the cover, which sets up an expectation of bloodletting and gore that none of the stories exhibit.
Editor Hutton's foreword speaks of nightmare and its ability to yield to us special awareness, yet does so in a generic seeming way that doesn't address the stories specifically or connect them firmly to this thesis, as if the forward is there more because such books usually have one rather than because the foreword has something especially insightful to say. Maybe I ask too much, but I do like it when forewords take a more personal approach and reveal something new.
Nonetheless, there are stories here, and the innards of the book in which they appear share some curious similarity to the outers; namely, the minor oddity of strange perspective and proportion exhibited by the cover occurs in a different way inside. Although the lines in each paragraph are regularly spaced, the paragraphs themselves are separated from one another by seemingly a half or full space. Looks kind of odd. Kind of like the use of the double dash as a separator instead of the em dash. Neither issue proves terribly distracting, but both seem outside the mainstream of how things are usually done in books.
So now to the stories.
The Last of Boca Verde
by Boyd E. Harris
4 out of 10
First of the lot is "The Last of Boca Verde," by Boyd E. Harris, in which a timid egghead goes looking for his lost über-mensch twin brother in the jungles surrounding a rumbling Central American volcano where mysterious creatures and an ancient curse are set to bedevil the expedition.
In setting and scope, this one looks like a grand throwback to the era of "Lost World" type action movies (that title in fact being a 1925 one) in which our intrepid heroes trek into darkest and most remote regions for noble purpose only to run afoul of forgotten creatures and, usually, other very normal but very gigantic ones. No exception here, and the story starts with great promise as we see the twin brothers in a carnival setting during their youth, only to discover that this is a dream with a tragic end, a dream occurring as the timid brother is flying over a volcano on his way to find the missing one. The interweaving of dream and reality seems like a good way of establishing the familial connection, back story, and providing entry for some of the spooky elements of the story's underlying prophecy -- one in which local legends of doom have been hybridized with Biblical ones -- except almost none of that is there. What the dream sequences instead establish is the recurring mode of the lost twin's death, one that fans of The Omen will probably recognize, which connects to an almost completely undeveloped (though not unguessed) reality regarding the lost twin. It's the lack of development on this tack that hurts the story by limiting the ways in which Harris could indulge in clever storytelling. What we get instead is a fairly typical "jungle adventure" for the first three acts of this five-act gig.
What's more, the local spooky prophecy, one mixing imported notions of the anti-Christ with local legends of doom, posits for us the arrival of a villain who shall come looking like everyone else, yet who shall bring destruction to mankind. Seems pretty clear, in the context of the story, who this must be. Since there's little here to disabuse us of this suspicion, the moment of revelation isn't shocking.
So anyway, our intrepid hero ascends the rumbling volcano to find his brother, finds himself stalked by Black Congo monkeys that will seem all-too-familiar to Michael Crichton fans, and then engages in a battle for the fate of the world. Unfortunately, this battle is an atrocious abomination of clichés with every appearance of an author casting about wildly for ideas and coming up with some utterly common and muddled ones. This is largely the result of the story failing to support the moment by adequate development before we get there, having instead concentrated upon "jungle adventure" rather than exploration of the back story, which in this case means not only issues of family history, but issues of local history as well.
In short, readers will probably be left wondering if Harris had a clear idea in mind from which to write, and if not, why he didn't keep revising his drafts until he did. What we're left with is writing that lacks sharpness, flails to make sense during its climax, then crashes inexcusably during that climax before moderately redeeming itself at the end.
The House on the Hill
by Clinton Green
9 out of 10
Set before, during, and after WWI, "The House on the Hill" weaves a tale of an exclusive college fraternity and the trial-by-haunted-house that its applicant members must suffer through if they are to prove their mettle. It's the consequence of one of these nights, though, that gives the story its force, its mystery, and its single failing in an otherwise excellent tale that makes the book well worth its cover price.
Story goes like this: White and Baker are college freshmen desiring entry to said exclusive fraternity where an upperclassman, Rutherglen, is both their tormentor and shining standard, a fellow of privilege, wit, and stern constitution. And it's the latter, that stern constitution, an unflappable nature, that the exclusive fraternity seemingly desires most of all in its members.
Thus White and Baker are brought to a decrepit old house in which terrible things are said to have happened, and they are expected to stay there the whole night through before being admitted to the fraternity. What twice transpires in that house establishes the relationships among the three characters that will last through the war, and it's this relatively long part of the story, the college part, that sets up and makes all the more powerful the events of the war in which the three collegians find themselves once more in one another's company. It's the war, too, where the unflappable nature of these good college men finds itself more sorely tested. It's also there, upon the battlefields of the Somme, that Green's already good prose dovetails with plot and circumstance, giving us what may be the most powerful image in the collection, that of one officer driving a reluctant other forward into battle, a scene in which all the insanity of the larger war finds itself encapsulated as a struggle among three men who have yet to deal with their own terrible past.
And though it may seem that the past is dealt with during that long moment, and though justice, too, seems fairly meted out, there is still the matter of the house that lingers upon the hill as surely as it does in memory, a house that none of the survivors of the Great War who spent time there can escape.
Green gives us ample reason to believe that the house should maintain just such a draw, and when he brings characters back there once more, it seems an inexorable demand of the story rather than a contrivance of plot, it seems a poetic necessity of psychological closure, too, and it even puts a stamp of finality upon the reputation of that house. Yet the moment of the end -- the very end -- seems truncated. The rhythm established by all of the story before this moment seems to suggest a moment more of reflection, reminiscence, observation ... but instead the story just stops.
Nonetheless, there remains far more good about this story than bad. Clinton Green has produced a fine tale of psychological horror. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark
by Michael Stone
7 out of 10
Kasper Clark's mouth isn't where it should be; it's on top of his head instead of below it, and how it got there and why, and where he goes to get it put right and what he discovers while there, makes for an entertaining story about human nature and vanity. It's all done for love, too, as getting his face put right is a condition Kasper's fiancée demands if they are to marry.
So Kasper visits a special clinic populated by the quirky kind of staff one might expect in an absurdist/surrealist tale, where nothing is quite what it seems, neither the place nor the kinds of treatment he undergoes. In an underground facility his room sports a bucolic view of a little town beneath an open sky. When he visits a doctor for a pre-operative examination and thinks he's having his face marked for surgical procedure, he instead discovers that the doctor has penned a game there. The cleverness of the latter kinds of incongruities, though, is that they do not exist merely for their oddity, but that the scenes in which they occur have something revealing to say about Kasper's motivations and self perception in a world that digs conformity.
All of which means that the story isn't really about a deformed fellow getting his face repaired; it's much more about a spineless fellow finally growing some backbone, and it's this objective that his strange meetings with the staff and other patients appears designed to achieve.
That this occurs in a diabolical setting seems puzzling because it raises more issues than are adequately addressed; namely, what purpose the clinic director may have for offering such services, or what he might want in return. To stand convention upon its head is certainly not a bad idea in generating interesting fiction, but here we're left wondering if the proverbial other shoe will drop, if Kasper will suffer for his dealings with a shady character, and though this sense of impending consequence helps draw us through the story, that it comes to no forceful fruition punctures the tension of such anticipation, especially since the story concludes without consequence, leaving us to then wonder what point was achieved by using a diabolical setting in the first place.
On the whole, though, Michael Stone's "The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark" is a largely well done piece of entertainment. That it doesn't reach quite as far as hoped merely keeps it smaller than it could be.
by A.T. Andreas
4 out of 10
"Darkling Child" is a mediocre tale of erotic horror that concentrates too much upon the erotic and not enough upon the horror.
Things begin well enough. Our protagonist, born in 1892 by the Mississippi river, grows up to find himself caught between farm parents who want him to go to college and make a better life for himself and a grandfather who'd rather he stay close and learn the "Old Ways." This part of the story sounds good, rolls along smooth and nice, has an engaging voice setting up our principal characters and the world in which they exist, and in these early stages there's great hope and expectation that the rest of the story will unfold with equal grace and build to something smashing.
But there are hints in this early part that the story may well teeter between aspirations of high art and kitsch. When the protagonist realizes that he's disappointed his grandfather by choosing college, Andreas gives us a great line like, "At times as the evening grew dark, I saw on him the mask of a man who'd held tremendous gifts, then lost them." That's great writing. But then we also have moments like this, in reference to an interesting clearing in the woods, "It wasn't certain to me if some unremembered ancient hand had created the place, or whether the earth itself had sprung it whole from its loins." Although the sentence begins okay, it falls flat with "loins." The word clunks like a lead nickel, and the image, too, because it strains too much for the poetic, lapsing instead into the absurd. Unfortunately, there are more and more such moments as the story develops, restraint of the opening moves giving way to purple prose.
Plot-wise, the matter up for storytelling is one of revenge regarding an eternal struggle between the forces of light and darkness -- and it's pretty much phrased as such, wherein our reluctant hero finds himself at once enthralled with his newly discovered grand role and quickly growing weary of the petty, oblivious humans he's charged with protecting. That this psychological growth of character is so utterly mundane, so utterly commonplace to such heroes, disappoints. It occurs with a quickness that renders the change in the fellow more a service of plot rather than a carefully explored result of telling interactions between him and the folks in his community.
What's more, this transformation largely occurs as the result of reading a book, his grandfather's book, one detailing the long history and heritage of the family, as well as his grandfather's own struggle against the forces of darkness.
Unfortunately, Andreas relies too much upon this book, and his hero's reading of it, to carry much of the dramatic weight of the story when, indeed, reading a book about a guy reading a book simply isn't dramatic. And the action the hero undertakes to initially deny the burden put upon him and to therefore attempt an equal denial of the impending confrontation that burden demands, bears much more a "told" quality than a "shown" one. It doesn't bring the hero into increasingly dramatic confrontation with the villains, nor does it bring him into conflict with any of the local folk who might otherwise inform or shape his struggle, much less his seemingly lately-developed arrogance toward them.
The confrontation, too, suffers because of these omissions of story. When the hero confronts the villains, we don't feel the moment as an inevitable one, nor do we feel it as a powerfully dramatic one. This is partly the result of how Andreas chose to relate his hero to his villains -- they are not merely tied by historical antagonism, but by an interesting sort of relationship that is both a shame to give away and a shame that it wasn't played upon some more, its being so very Greek, after all -- and it's partially the result of a lack of appropriate development.
One of the lapses of development is that the story's height occurs with World War I as a backdrop. Though the protagonist is not engaged in soldiering -- he's trying to rejuvenate the family farm instead -- the thematic juxtapositioning of a metaphysical eternal war against the Great War seems too good an opportunity to pass up. But Andreas does pass it up in a way that, much like his handling of story development, seems to indicate that in this, his first published effort, he's still learning how to put compelling stories together. We can see that the tools for generating a more interesting story are here, and that he even has the skills to do it, but in this story, "Darkling Child," he's not done it. Rather, he's produced an uneven work that starts with much promise, flares brightly with flashes of prose and interesting things to say, before finally poofing out.
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