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Like a Chinese Tattoo / Cullen Bunn, Rick R. Reed, David Thomas Lord, and JA Konrath

thtattoo-l.jpgDark Arts Books / March 2008
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Dark Arts Books is on a mission. That mission: to expose the horror masses to the many unsung literary voices that populate the genre. Following 2006’s Candy in the Dumpster, last year’s Waiting for October, and this year’s earlier Sins of the Sirens collections, Like a Chinese Tattoo is the innovative publisher’s latest conduit through which it intends to spread the good word. Like DAB’s previous collections, Tattoo features four very different voices – Cullen Bunn, Rick R. Reed, David Thomas Lord, and JA Konrath – and held loosely together by the nonspecific theme of “inscrutably twisted.” Indeed, several of the tales here preclude scrutiny by virtue of their sheer audaciousness.

Cullen Bunn kicks off the collection with the competent “Tomorrow, When Demons Come,” a story about lust and devotion, personified human emotions, and a particularly sinister Korean bathhouse where troubles and inhumanity are washed away for twenty dollars. “Remains” is a marvelous tale, at once chilling and heartbreaking, told from the POV of a teenage boy whose suspicions about the mysterious stranger who comes to work on his family’s farm come to tragic fruition. Bunn shows real talent here, capturing that period between adolescence and manhood with genuine authenticity. He deftly maneuvers between the horror and humanity of the story in a style reminiscent of early Stephen King (think It or “The Body”) and imbues the story with a deep emotional resonance that never detracts from the horror yet stays with the reader long after the last word. To follow the praiseworthy “Remains” with “Granny Kisses,” then, is like watching a double-bill of Stand by Me and American Pie. Crude and nasty, “Granny Kisses” is the literary equivalent of toilet humor taken to the unimaginable extreme – and this will be either high praise or scathing criticism depending on your own reading tastes. For this reviewer, the story detracts from Bunn’s obvious talent and comes off as a mere shock tactic. Herein lies both the beauty and Achilles’ heel of collections like this: showcase an author’s diversity and range at the peril of the reader walking away without a clear idea of the author’s true voice. Is Bunn a serious writer letting off some steam with “Granny Kisses” – or he is a literary shockmeister who had a fluke with “Remains”? Hard to tell, but I’m betting on the former with fingers tightly crossed.

Fortunately, I’m familiar with Rick Reed’s work because, again, his contributions here range from the ingenious to the inane. “Purfleet” is an inventive take on a horror staple that involves a wife on the run from a seemingly abusive husband who takes refuge in a psychiatric hospital. But all is not as it seems and Reed pulls out a whopper of a twist in the end that will leave Bram Stoker enthusiasts smiling from ear to ear. Likewise, “Moving Toward the Light” is a capable revenge tale first published in The Crow: Shattered Lives and Broken Dreams in 1998. Gritty and not for the faint-of-heart, Reed’s story of one young woman hitting rock bottom and the otherworldly forces that avenge her brutal rape and beating in order to build her up again is one of hope and redemption in the midst of hopelessness. Astute Reed fans will instantly recognize this as a sequel of sorts to his 1992 novel Penance (Dell), about a serial killer preying on child prostitutes on the streets of Chicago. Although Reed’s third contribution mines the same juvenile humor of Bunn’s “Granny Kisses,” there is at least a recognizable plot. “Stung” is part of the ongoing misadventures of a recurring character from Reed’s fictional stable named Amelia. Here readers find the overweight, socially awkward heroine joining a company getaway at her employer’s summer home. Joined by her nagging, shrewish mother, Amelia runs characteristically afoul of trouble – found here in the form of a wasp that stings her in the rectum. Ample bathroom gags abound, with flatulence and clogged bowels meeting KY jelly and a well-placed toilet plunger. You do the math.

If the first two author showcases leave you feeling a bit uneven, David Thomas Lord knows how to straddle the line between literary and lighthearted without losing his voice. He starts off strong with the previously published “The White Room,” a visual treat of color and monotony in which white takes center stage and reveals the true colors of madness. “The Great White Ape” is the standout story of the entire collection, and Lord crafts a remarkable tale of bait and switch…of spider luring the fly to its web… that has the timeless feel of a classic. Part travelogue, part period piece, “The Great White Ape” reads like an enthralling adventure epic, morality play, and cautionary tale all rolled into one – Gulliver’s Travels meets The African Queen meets At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Some underlying eroticism helps imbue the story with its constant sense of low-lying tension as Lord moves the story to its heartrending conclusion. “Da’s Boy” - Lord’s literary quickie here - wisely circumvents the bawdry humor of Bunn’s and Reed’s stories and opts for more gallows humor in this dialect-heavy tale of a tragic bond between grandson and grandfather.

Mystery scribe JA Konrath was an adventurous choice to round out the anthology’s quartet, and Dark Arts should be commended for such an inspired choice. The three Konrath stories included here are a fine introduction to an author who can pull off experimental (as in “The Confession” which is told entirely through dialogue), black comedy (as in “The Necro File,” a bold crime noir/horror parody that’s Scary Movie meets The Naked Gun), and deceptive (as in the seemingly straightforward torture/revenge tale “Punishment,” which kicks the legs out from under the table in the last paragraphs). Konrath demonstrates that irreverent humor need not be gratuitous to be effective, using the mundane events of everyday life as fodder for his sharp wit, as in this passage from “The Necro File”:

Next, I checked my email, where I discovered I’d won the Irish lottery, inherited eighty million dollars from an unknown relative, and was asked to shuffle funds into my bank account from the President of Rwanda. They all got my standard response: enthusiastic replies with an attachment supposedly containing my routing number. The attachment really contained an email bomb, which once opened would bombard their computers with tens of thousands of naked pictures of actress Bea Arthur. I called it the Maude Virus.

Bill Breedlove waxes nostalgic in his introduction to Like a Chinese Tattoo about discovering Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum in the library as a kid and the hunger that collection set off for him, satiated only by devouring other like tomes. Along the way, he was introduced to the voices that would gradually form his own primary literary interests. He uses this formidable childhood experience to espouse the virtues of the anthology format, making the case that for a limited commitment in terms of time, money, and patience, the rewards to readers are immense. His point is well-taken with Like a Chinese Tattoo. With superb standouts like David Thomas Lord’s “The Great White Ape” and Cullen Bunn’s “Remains” overshadowing the few questionable misfires here, Tattoo yields large returns for those willing to invest a little patience. Like literary tapas, the stories in Like a Chinese Tattoo offer a small taste of some big talent. Another noteworthy addition to the impressive (and growing) Dark Arts catalog.

Purchase Like a Chinese Tattoo with stories by Cullen Bunn, Rick R. Reed, David Thomas Lord, and JA Konrath.

Posted on Sunday, May 4, 2008 at 01:58PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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