Brian Malone's Review (May 2007)
**Taken from Brian Malone's Blog for prosperity!**
I read widely in the speculative fiction genre, from fantasy to science fiction to horror to just-plain strange. I'll admit to certain biases: I'm not overly fond of Conan-type stories or military science fiction in the Heinlein vein, I shy away from gratuitous blood and semen, and I'm not usually a big fan of the clever plot twist in the last paragraph style of writing. But still, I like to read very widely, and my writing, likewise, tends to wander back and forth across the always hazy borders of genre.
This is why I was delighted to get my hands on an advance copy of In the Shadows, an anthology of short stories by Justin Thorne.
Shadows collects about ten years of Thorne's short fiction writing and is about equally distributed between fantasy, science fiction and horror--with a few non-genre stories thrown into the mix. And mix is the appropriate word, as In the Shadows shuffles together an eclectic melange of style and subject.
Just as importantly, most of Thorne's writing [features] a wry, sarcastic wit that naturally appeals to me. And though the writing is certainly well-crafted--all of the periods are in place and most commas appear where they should--the true strength of Shadows lies in Thorne's characters. Wary and world-weary, as are all who live (or lived) interesting lives, there are characters who truly do come to life on the page, vivre veritas, or something like that. But more on that later.
So, what is the bad news? Well there really isn't any, as the nature of an anthology should suggest. I enjoyed some stories more than others, a few I did not care for (see, biases, first paragraph) , and one turned my stomach. But that is to be expected for no writer has ever produced a story universally loved without reservation. Still, for the few stories that just did not appeal to me, Thorne gives many others that really satisfy. So with all that being said, let me hit the highlights.
The best entry in Shadows--but only by a hair--is Dotted Line, previously published in Nocturne Magazine. Clever, sarcastic and ultimately sad, Dotted Line actually retells the old tale of an artist striking a deal with the diabolical. Needless to say, though, Thorne brings a unique and deliciously dry wit to bear on the story of the artist with nothing to lose but his soul. (Indeed, Thorne revisists this theme later in The Comedian).
Following up on Dotted Line, is the wonderfully subtle Monumental Words in which a well meaning gesture turns into a night of zombie-terror. But don't expect the usual, for this is no mere Romero rip-off, but rather a sensitive treatment on the spiritual power of symbols. Monumental Words first appeared in Be Which Magazine.
Rounding out the top three stories is the previously unpublished Monkey Puzzle, one of the non-genre entries in Shadows. Easily the longest story in the collection, Monkey Puzzle tells a story that is more a crime thriller/detective than fantasy or horror. Here Thorne tones down the sarcasm to explore the always thorny ground of racism, overt and covert, knowing and unknowing. Although the 'mystery' becomes readily apparent at least half-way through, knowing (or at least strongly suspecting the ending) does not detract from the message of this story. Thorne toned down, however, is still not preachy; the moral of this story must be written by the reader.
There is no space for me to continue, not if I want to also talk about Thorne's characterization, so it must suffice to mention just a few of the other excellent stories in Shadows, in particular: The Only Constant, The Medium is the Message, Worms, The Comedian, The Doorman, and most especially, Soundtrack.Character, character, what is a good story without good characters? Well of course there's more to it than that. Dialogue, structure, plotting, the artistry of the words themselves. Short fiction is particularly difficult because so much has to be done in so few words. In short fiction a compelling character can make, or break, everything. And Thorne's strength in his short fiction is character.
From nothing to lose Tim Blaine, the writer ready to make a deal with the devil, to the unnamed paragon of stubborness in Worms (yes, that was the story that turned my stomach, but still a great character) Thorne's creations seem all but real, as if Shadows were really a collection of biographies. Thorne is also a musician/singer/songwriter, and so perhaps he is well-used to making great characters come to life in only a few verses. Whatever it is, it works. And, well, let me just leave you with a taste of what I mean, from Dotted Line (I wonder what I would do in his place):
Tim stared across at the man and for a while, both men sat in silence. He took a deep breath. "Okay, so worst case scenario is a grisly death, followed by an eternity of individuality. Plus, you can’t tell me when my death will occur?"
“Correct. Unfortunately, the other team control life spans, that was the deal the Chief and . . . the other Chief, came up with.”
“What if I sign the deal, walk out and get hit by a car?” he asked.
“That is the chance you will have to take, Tim. And as per the terms and conditions, it would likely be something a little more . . . unpleasant than a simple motor accident.”
The waitress approached the table carrying a jug of stewed coffee. The man waved her away without looking up.
Tim would have accepted a top-up, had he been consulted. “I take it I don’t have any time to think about it?” he asked.
“Sorry,” replied the man, “This is a one-time deal, offered once and accepted or declined at the time of offer.”
Tim looked down at his briefcase containing his work, his craft. How many times have I said that I would do anything to make it?
“Probably no more and no less than every other passionate artist, poet or writer out there,” replied the man.
Tim nodded, not comprehending that the man had just answered his unspoken thought. “Alright,” said Tim excitedly, “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Where’s the dotted line? I’ll sign it.”
The man smiled and held out his hand for Tim to shake. Tim grasped the hand and shook it twice.
“That was it Mr Blaine, the dotted line . . . and you just signed.”