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Thirteen Specimens / Jeffrey Thomas

ththirteenspec.jpgDelirium Books / July 2008
Reviewed by: JG Faherty

Jeffrey Thomas is one of those writers who was new to me when I picked up his collection of short stories. Right away, the title caught my attention: Thirteen Specimens. A cool title. One that had me anticipating stories of the strange, oddities and freaks perhaps. Or, as the back cover says, ‘...a collection of bizarre and disturbing short stories, poems, and odd bits and pieces found preserved in dusty jars of formaldehyde in a sealed-off room in the condemned museum of the mind of author Jeffrey Thomas.’

Well, in reading this book, I got more strangeness than I bargained for.

Thirteen Specimens includes short stories, novellas, and poems. Thomas handles all of these forms well, although he is strongest, I feel, with the short stories, and weakest with the poetry. He writes with a fluid, natural style that is at once literate but not pretentious; complex but still easy to read.

Unfortunately, the stories themselves didn’t, for me, compare to Thomas’s talents as a writer.

The tales in Thirteen Specimens all fall into a broad category of sci-fi/horror; demons and monsters strut happily alongside aliens, Hindu goddesses, murderers, and alternate realities. This isn’t a problem - God knows people have argued for years about whether films like Alien or Pitch Black are horror or sci-fi, when the truth is they’re both. It’s actually a nice departure from the regular, horror-at-home stories we usually see.

No, the problems I found were of two kinds: sometimes the weirdness grew so weird that the story no longer made sense, and sometimes the endings just weren’t there, as if the entire purpose of the story was just to create something weird.

Reading this book was like taking a hit of low-grade acid; everything felt off-kilter, out of step. And it may be that a lot of readers will enjoy this feeling, but I’m not one of them.

Let’s take a look at some of the stories.

The first story in the book, “These Are The Exhibits,” gets off to a great start. A woman is visiting a museum filled with weird animals that don’t exist in our world, but do in Thomas’s alternate Earth. Giant bugs, cannibal oysters, mythical gazelles. While there, she gets a private tour from a museum guide, who tells here the sordid stories behind each exhibit, all of which have to do with the man who supposedly founded the museum and his dead wife. It’s only after the tour is over that she finds out from someone else that the guide had inserted himself and his own into stories taking place hundreds of years in the past, and that the museum owner’s wife never existed. And, that the museum has no guides.

What was Thomas going for here? I don’t know, but after reading this story, I found myself saying, “Huh? That’s it? What’s the point?” 14 pages of great story ruined in 1 paragraph.

And it doesn’t stop there.

In “American Cchinnamasta,” we tag along as a young Indian (from India, not Native American) woman dwells on her sad family situation - a father who impregnated a white woman, and then abandoned the family because he wanted an Indian woman and child instead. The narrator goes on about how she compares herself to her sister, and wishes she was full Indian. She also drones on about Hindu gods and goddesses. In the end, however, all the build-up leads us to a rather pedestrian ending, and the entire story turns out to be nothing more than a case of murder.

“October 32nd“is perhaps the oddest and most maddening story in the collection. A man is driving along on Halloween night, in a car that is alternately running on empty and filled with gas. He sees strange things in the mist - mysterious figures, something that might be a werewolf, a crossing guard who is still sitting in the middle of the road at night. In the end, the narrator fills up again, pays the man/monster at the pump, and then can’t decide whether to go home and watch a horror movie or drive around and enjoy the magic of Halloween some more.

Again, I had to say, ‘Huh?’ Once more I was left hanging, dangling in the mist of the story’s ambiguousness.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that all the stories were bad. In fact, I enjoyed two of them (“Close Enough” and “Monster”) quite a bit. “Close Enough” takes us to an alternate Viet Nam in flashback, and it’s a deeply thoughtful, emotional story, which I can’t go into more detail about because it would give away the ending (it really has one!). And “Monster” is simply a good, straight sci-fi story involving plastic surgeons at an off-world, multi-species colony who find that treating alien patients can sometimes be quite dangerous.

According to the back of the book, several of the stories (including “Monster”) take place in alternate realities that Thomas has written about before, so fans of his should be happy about this.

All in all, this collection didn’t do it for me, but judging from Thomas’s past record (he’s been nominated for Stoker Award and been featured in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, his writing has plenty of fans. Perhaps it’s me. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’ve looked him up on the web, and his previous story collections and novels have gotten great reviews. Thomas’s writing is strong enough for me to definitely give him another chance. Maybe his other stories are more in line with what I prefer - concrete endings, as opposed to tales that just fade away or stop somewhere unexpectedly.

But if you like tales of the strange, stories that take left turns to nowhere, and alternate universes where anything is possible, then this book might just be for you.

So, my final verdict is that while it wasn’t my cup of tea, I’d recommend giving Thirteen Specimens a try, because everyone’s tastes are different.

Purchase Thirteen Specimens by Jeffrey Thomas.

Posted on Monday, June 23, 2008 at 09:44AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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