Prime Books / November 2010
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Reviewing the works of Stephen Graham Jones is a daunting task. Not because of any shortcoming or lackluster aspect that requires the careful deliberation of words but because the work, quite frankly, is so brilliant at times that it demands the most circumspect, most diligent of analyses. To put it another way: A review of Stephen Graham Jones’ work necessitates living up to the quality of the work itself. Anything less would feel…well, somehow unacceptable.
Indeed the thirteen tales that comprise Jones’ cerebrally chilling short story collection require refreshingly more from the reader than your run-of-the-mill compendium. And, yes, while there are glimpses of comfortingly familiar genre tropes sprinkled throughout The Ones That Got Away in the form of zombies and werewolves and ghosts aplenty, there is nothing comforting or familiar about the context and texture in which Jones wraps them. The situations his characters – who are achingly real at times – find themselves in are painful and discomfiting in the best sense of the words. In turn, the reader is challenged to keep up, to survive the horror with his characters, even when it’d be easier to simply close the book and set it aside on the nightstand. Laird Barron, in his able introduction to the collection, characterizes its literary ambiance perfectly:
“The Ones That Got Away is a slippery collection; it resists and gnaws at the bonds of genre, yet may be the most pure horror book I’ve come across. The cumulative effect of these stories includes dislocation and dread — the manner of dread that arises from what is known by our soft, weak, civilized selves through rote and sedentary custom and symbolic exchange of cautionary fables, as well as a deeper, abiding fear of the ineffable that’s the province of the primordial swamp of our subconscious.”
Dislocation takes center stage in the collection’s first offering, “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit”, in which a father and his young son are lost in a snowy wilderness. Although the unsettling cannibalism at the story’s center is masked within the boy’s delusions of heroic bunny rabbits that provide sustenance in their dire circumstances, there is a gorgeous humanity here in the form of the lengths of a father’s love for his son juxtaposed against how childhood minds can mask the cruelty of adult realities.
The resiliency of the child’s mind also factors heavily in “Till the Morning Comes”, in which an uninvited houseguest comes calling in the form of a hippie uncle – complete with a collection of Grateful Dead-style velvet posters sporting creepy skeletons that greatly unnerve the story’s twelve-year-old narrator. When a spooky story involving a Dad who sings to dead kids in the back of a VW bus wreck spurs more than the narrator’s sudden onset bedwetting, Jones ratchets up the familial tension to the breaking point. “Till Morning Comes” is a shining exploration of the lengths children will go to keep the skeletons that frighten them in the closet where they belong and a heartbreaking tale of how families are pulled apart and put back together again.
In “The Sons of Billy Clay”, more cannibalism as a veteran prison guard regales –then horrifies – his young trainee with tales of the souls of bloodthirsty killers trapped inside bulls. Jones shows a real flare for spot-on dialogue in this prison-set, Southwestern-flavored campfire tale.
“So Perfect” finds Jones revisiting his patented pitch-perfect present tense narrative structure that feels deceptively experimental while really sporting quite a polish. He nails the Pretty Little Liars-esque narcissism and catty banter of adolescent girls in this cautionary tale about body image run amok. And ticks. Lots of icky, creepy-crawly ticks.
“Lonegan’s Luck” exemplifies Jones’ sharp knack for blurring genre lines, here taking the Old West and infusing it with modern-day zombies in this story about a nomadic snake-oil salesman who peddles his own unique brand of zombie virus to unsuspecting, God-fearing townsfolk. In classic woman-scorned style, Jones doles out satisfying dollops of literary comeuppance in this thoroughly entertaining genre mash-up.
Cujo meets the living dead in “Monsters”, a surprisingly poignant coming-of-age tale during which first love blooms with nightmarish consequences. This at-once relatable “one of those magical summers…” stories is easily one of the best examples of Jones’ ability to creep the reader out and then suddenly wallop them with a profound dose of humanity that threatens to rip the heartstrings from the chest. Consider the unadulterated gorgeousness of the following passage in which Jones goes from horror to humanity in the space of a single (albeit long) sentence:
“I swallowed, my eyes full with what had happened, with who, or what, I’d led to Elaine, with what he might be picking from his teeth right now in whatever dark place he was holed up in for the daylight hours, and then, to make up for it, to start making up for it, I draped my new granddad’s arm across my shoulders, to help him up the hill, and understood a little even then, I think, about what it might be like to have spent your whole life alone, so that just one person reaching up to help you along could mean the world, and save your life, and make everything all right for a few moments.”
In “Wolf Island”, a shipwrecked werewolf, some playful dolphins, and a killer whale are the unlikely characters that populate this story of lycanthropes versus marine life — with a surprising winner. Jones’ work here perfectly illustrates his uncanny ability to throw seemingly random ingredients into a pot and yet somehow manage to serve a literary stew impeccably balanced in flavor.
A cancer-riddled homicide detective is on the hunt for a seeming anthropophagic serial killer in “Teeth”. Perfectly blurring the lines between reality at the story’s start and surrealism as his protagonist’s disease process progresses with the story, “Teeth” is (again) infused with subtle hints of humanity. When the detective wonders if the animal control facility he’s visited earlier in the day leaves lights on for the animals at night, Jones adds marvelous depth and dimension to what could be – in lesser hands – a forgettable stock character.
The Stephen King influences are on fine display in “Raphael”, which sports some of the best introductory paragraphs you’re likely to ever read in a camaraderie-amongst-teenage-outcasts story. Think It or “The Body” or even Dreamcatcher in spots and let Jones morph into the master for a few thousand words and carry you through this tale of an unsettling childhood mystery that becomes a heartrending adult tragedy.
What can this reviewer say about “Captain’s Lament”, Jones’ Black Quill Award-nominated tale of merchant marines and urban legends? Well, this.
In “The Meat Tree”, Jones brings that forlorn face-on-the-side-of-milk-carton (or, in this case, on a flyer stapled to a telephone pole) to life in this story of damaged children growing up into broken adults. With childhood demons in hot pursuit at every trippy twist Jones lobs at the reader, aimlessness and obsession collide with extortion, vegetarianism, and one man’s quest to find himself — quite literally. One of the more cerebral offerings in the collection that will require some mental calisthenics before, during, and after the reading experience.
In the collection’s titular story – and its shortest – Jones paints a bleak picture of wayward teens awash in juvenile delinquency. One botched kidnapping mistaken for a home invasion later, childhood itself becomes the harbinger of lost opportunity that follows the story’s protagonist into adulthood. Caution: Recurring theme ahead.
Jones seemingly takes each striking element from the dozen stories that precede it and with “Crawlspace”, the collection’s closing novella, offers a master class in short fiction. An ingenious premise (a baby monitor as an otherworldly conduit), a lead character so well-drawn that you think he’s actually in your cell phone contacts by story’s end, an air of mystery (here revolving around paternity) mixed with a palpable sense of tension (here involving infidelity amongst friends) all make for a page-turner of unexpected proportion. Again, Jones will jump out at the reader from amidst the spooky goings-on to surprise with a penetrating reflection on the humanity of his characters, this time giving keen voice to the comforting intimacy of friendship between men and the bittersweet hopefulness of shared dreams:
“Quint laughs, rubs his dry bottom lip with the back of his hand, and joke-punches me on the shoulder, and for a moment it feels like I actually wasn’t lying the other week — that we are all still the same. That our kids are still going to be born the same year, to grow up together like we did. That our wives are going to sit in the kitchen with weak margaritas while we burn things on the grill, one of us always running down to the store for ice and beer. Taking just whichever truck’s parked closest to the road.”
Jones is really a maverick among today’s dark fiction writers, his writing style brilliantly nonconformist while remaining engagingly accessible. The Ones That Got Away is the perfect showcase for his wide-array of literary acrobatics and eccentricities that often fall just outside genre boundaries yet always seem firmly entrenched in darkness, each story in this exceptional collection a cerebral Ritz cracker to feed the farthest corners of the darkest mind.
Purchase The Ones That Got Away by Stephen Graham Jones.