Apex Publications / June 2008
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Fran Friel is going to make you shudder. And cringe. And look over your shoulder. And when she’s done doing all those things a master dark scribe should do, she’s going to make you cry. Yes, reading the talented New Englander’s Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales – a collection of fourteen shorts ranging in size from flash fiction to novella - is like a therapy session. One can almost see the motherly Friel perched Dianne Wiest-style in her comfy armchair, pen poised over notepad as she explores the darker aspects of the human condition. And at an all-inclusive cover price considerably less than that of the going therapist’s rate, you’re in for a good deal. But be forewarned: therapist Friel is going to poke and prod the psyche – relentlessly and without compromise.
Following a generous introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck, the collection kicks off with “Beach of Dreams,” the story of anthropologist Simon Rodan and his quest to get the perfect photograph of some mysterious giant creatures that wash up on the shores of the unidentified tropical island where he is stationed. What follows is a wildly inventive, hallucinatory tale of surrealism that brings the protagonist from the egoism of discovery to the altruism of self-discovery.
“Gravy Pursuits” is the first of several offerings in which Friel puts her distinctly macabre sense of humor on full display. Many a dark scribe has blundered in well-intentioned but misguided attempts to find that seamless blend of horror and humor – to find that even-handed approach in which neither element emerges dominant. But Friel pulls it off effortlessly in this story of Leonard Hogtire, a gravy connoisseur in search of his one missing ingredient. Like Leonard’s gravy, Friel never overcooks the humor, seasoning the horror with just enough gallows wit to keep the flavor balanced.
By the time the reader reaches “Mashed,” the recurring themes of food and family are made clear. For Samantha Somerville, her aversion to potatoes runs deep, stemming from a childhood prank involving a dark root cellar and an urban legend involving an old witch. If you ever doubted for a second that potatoes could be an unnerving horror foil, Friel will happily disprove you in the chilling denouement to this genuinely creepy yarn. Think The Ruins with spuds.
“The Sea Orphan” is a marvelous cross-genre blend of pirates and witchcraft all wrapped up in a distinctive period piece blanket. When young Will Pennycock finds himself orphaned after his beloved mother is hanged as a witch, he sets off on an adventure that will lead him to the high seas with a band of marauding pirates. It’s at once a story of despair and the occult, of hope and adventure, and walking the wobbly gangplank of life. Impressive in its authenticity and boldness in not shying away from the decidedly nefarious intentions of ship’s mate Duncan Rutt, “The Sea Orphan” is an enthralling read.
It’s both interesting and the single most important testament to Friel’s talent that the most haunting piece in Mama’s Boys and Other Dark Tales is also the most grounded in reality. In “Orange and Golden,” a simple, heartrending two-page story about a man and his dog inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Friel proves that horror need not be chock full of monsters and killers and otherworldly nasties to strike at the deepest recesses of the soul. Horror is more than imagination, its purest form rooted in the everyday circumstances of life and tragedy. Friel tugs painfully at those roots, setting imagination aside and opting instead to explore the horror of unexpected circumstance. For anyone brave enough to experience one of horror's alternate forms and feel something far more affecting than goosebumps, “Orange and Golden” is the story to check out. Bring a box of tissues and a bottle of anti-depressants with you. You will be profoundly haunted by this story long after you put the book down.
Animals and evil dust bunnies take center stage in “Under the Dryer.” Told from the point of view of the family dog, “Under the Dryer” again explores the protective bonds between man and dog told against the nerve-racking backdrop of an unseen world of furry creatures called the Long Tooths. Friel masterfully takes a preposterous premise that verges on silly (evil dust bunnies, come on!) and again creates an emotionally resonant portrait of loyalty amidst the bloodletting.
In three of the short-short pieces that follow, Friel ably shows off her writing skills with some literary acrobatics meant to showcase her economy of prose. “Close Shave” – as Braunbeck rightly notes in his introduction – accomplishes more in a mere 55 words than some writers accomplish in five thousand. Visceral and raw, see if you’re not left rubbing your leg at the end. That’s followed by “Connected at the Hip,” a macabre little piece about conjoined twins and the toll of frustration. “Widow” is a tantalizing tidbit of delicate, graceful interlude.
“Special Prayers – The Making of Mama” explores the insidiousness of evil and religious hypocrisy. Friel demonstrates that she knows how to grab a reader’s interest, and the opening lines from this disturbing tale should be required reading in any course on short story writing:
Babies fell from the skies over Eastville. They bounced, they bled, but none cried. Their silence was eerie – their tiny bodies splatted and split open as they hit the rooftops, the road, and the sidewalks of our little street. For miles and miles, the sky was full of falling babies, dark blots against the blue.
In “Spider Love,” Friel shows she’s got the chops for deft social commentary as she takes on the cosmetic surgery epidemic in this satiric, squirm-inducing variation of Frankenstein meets The Fly. Arachnophobes beware!
Friel launches into one of two novellas included here – a new piece called “Fine Print” – with a harrowing accident scene. Protagonist Donovan Hunter is cradling the head of his dying wife, their unborn child within her womb, when he’s approached with a choice to make between the life of his wife and child and that of another child, one who he’s told will be dead soon anyway by a stranger who claims to be in “the business of checks and balances.” There’s nary a moment to spare and a contract to sign before Donovan is catapulted into an imaginary world of contractual obligations, enslaved dreamers, and secret orders. Friel’s considerable imagination is on full display here as she creates a nightmarish world in which the choices we make come back to haunt us.
After the poetic interlude of the elegiac “Black Sleep,” Friel offers up the piece de résistance, her 2006 Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella Mama’s Boy. A beautiful young psychiatrist crosses paths with a disfigured serial killer deep in the recesses of the maximum security psych ward of Penn’s Asylum. As the patient slowly reveals the heinous child abuse that sent him to the depths of depravity, it’s Psycho meets Silence of the Lambs in this twisted tale of debauchery that explores the relationship between a mother and her son and the unspeakable ties that bind them. Suffice to say that Oedipus never had it so good. Easily adaptable to the current Fear Itself series on NBC, let’s hope that someone had the foresight/hindsight/insight to plant a copy of this masterful work of escalating suspense in the hands of a Hollywood producer.
Kudos to Apex Publications for bringing Fran Friel to a wider audience. With unflinching tenacity, Friel takes the reader to dark, discomfiting places in Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales. You want to close your eyes at times, but Friel has seen to it with her hypnotic writing that you can’t. It’s like she sticks toothpicks under the reader’s eyelids, forcing them to witness the horrors she has uncovered in the shadows of her writing lair. That she’s so unyielding in her pursuit of our imaginations is at once unnerving and enthralling – and the sign of a writer dedicated to her craft. The Friel deal.
Purchase Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales by Fran Friel.