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Voyeurs of Death / Shaun Jeffrey

thVoyeursofDeathCover.jpgDoorways Publications / August 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Single-author short story collections are often hit or miss with readers. While some authors excel at the craft of the short story, others prove that the format isn’t everyone’s forte. Fortunately, Shaun Jeffrey falls firmly into the former category with this deliciously macabre collection of 15 twisted tales dealing with observations on death – often told from the viewpoint of the deceased or soon-to-be so.

The collection starts of strong with the whimsically titled “Flibbertigibbet”, a well-crafted tale steeped in Scottish lore and dripping with atmosphere. Jeffrey takes a jab at corporate life here with the simple story of a revived pagan God loose on the moors of a tiny Scottish island marked to become a commercial resort and the company man who learns that corporate dedication doesn’t quite hold the promises he thought. Jeffrey excels at description here, from the baleful mourning of the stag-like creature to the seaside fishing village and old pub.

While in “Flibbertigibbet” one marvels at how Jeffrey manages to pull off a fairly ambitious story in a mere ten pages, the second story demonstrates that economy doesn’t always satiate. “Watchers” boasts the most intriguing premise of the collection – a modern-day lover’s lane with a voyeuristic twist – and blends elements of impending dread with the erotic to excellent effect. The inherent problem here is that this is a story with long legs that’s chopped down at the knees. While satisfying, the story feels constricted and rushed in the short word count, leaving the reader to wonder what horrors the story would have held had it been allowed to breathe a little. It’s a bit like eating one’s favorite meal while standing up, on the go; you simply wish that you had the time to sit down properly and savor every morsel.

In “Paranoid”, Jeffrey puts a uniquely disturbing spin on Tooth Fairy mythology, here set against the backdrop of a thinly-veiled psychiatric wing and employing amnesia as an atypically clever red herring to keep readers sympathizing with the wrong character. One of the finest of the collection, “Paranoid” is a showcase for Jeffrey’s unmistakable talent in the short story format.

“The Tunnel” is a surprisingly effective ghost story that explores the bonds between brothers and how those bonds transcend life and death. Imbued with a sense of childhood nostalgia that evokes Stephen King’s own uncanny explorations of adolescence best exemplified in It, Hearts in Atlantis, and his short story “The Body”, “The Tunnel” spooks while tugging on heartstrings, leaving the reader with a satisfying mixture that’s simultaneously bittersweet and chilling.

It’s in stories like “The Quilters of Thurmond” that readers really catch a glimpse of the storytelling genius that Jeffrey seems destined for. With shades of How to Make an American Quilt crossed with The Witches of Eastwick, “Quilters” offers up a delicious dose of surrealism wrapped in a tidy little tale of rites of passage and how our own sense of tradition and history are integral to our future well-being. Jeffrey fashions a cautionary tale here, warning readers not to forget where they come from. It may very well be what saves us in the end.

Like the aforementioned “Watchers”, “Sin Eater” also suffers from its meager length. Jeffrey sets out to put a fresh spin on the idea of a creature who sustains itself by feeding on the sins of others, but the story fell quickly flat for this reader and left hunger pains in place of a full stomach.

Luckily, in the title story of the collection, Jeffrey again boils an ambitious narrative down into a breakneck-paced story in which every word counts and the reader is left engorged on a satisfying story of life and death and what happens when one straddles the line somewhere in between. A car accident, marital infidelity, betrayal and revenge come full circle in this action-packed story.

“Life Cycle” is a trippy, hallucinogenic tale of a drug-addicted mother-to-be and her offspring. Again richly steeped in atmosphere and mood, “Cycle” nonetheless feels slightly out of place in the collection. Jeffrey once again shows remarkable imagination here as he explores deeper themes in which the bonds between mother and child are put to the extreme.

Jeffrey channels Brian Keene’s Dead Sea in “Dark Inside” in which cruise ship passengers are overrun by some particularly nasty rodents carrying an unnamed plague that turns them into the living dead. Whereas much of popular zombie fiction is told from the survivors’ POV, Jeffrey adds a refreshing first-person narrative to his zombie contribution, allowing the reader to experience the transformation from living to dead to living dead first-hand. It’s a wise choice that saves the story from cliché.

As a reader, I’m again struck by King’s influence on Jeffrey’s work with the well-crafted “Clockwork”. With its distinctive Pet Sematary vibe, “Clockwork” is a creepy chiller in which a deaf boy uses his penchant for making clocks to reanimate some unfortunate critters. Jeffrey soccer-punches here with his King-esque ending.

“Venetian Kiss” is the standout of the collection. Building on the anxiety of its “stranger in a strange land” theme, “Kiss” tells the story of an ill-fated tourist couple on holiday in Italy during carnivale who run afoul of a secret society of decidedly carnivorous Venetians. Again, Jeffrey uses his carnavalesque setting to optimum effect – from the 18th century masks and costumes to the classical music emanating throughout the narrow streets and gondola-laden waterways of Venice – and creates a thoroughly moody nightmare. It’s a shame that Showtime decided to axe its Masters of Horror anthology series because this reviewer could easily see “Venetian Kiss” being adapted for the screen.

Having explored the bonds between brothers and those between mothers and their children in previous stories, Jeffrey ventures into father-son territory for “The Peacock Lawn”. A malevolent marshland takes center stage in this story of a son who has failed to live up to a tyrannical father’s expectations and is reduced to a stuttering incompetent in the man’s paternal eyes. Strong imagery courtesy of shrieking peacocks, a labyrinthine hedge maze, and spectral visions in a foggy marsh add up to an effective little shiver with a competent Tales from the Crypt-like ending.

Narcissism and the idolatry of celebrity are the vices in need of otherworldly retribution in the red carpet shocker “Envy”. Perfect for this time of year as we are about to be inundated by an awards show season in which what dress someone wears overshadows actual artistic achievement, “Envy” tells the story of a rising actress who’s consumed by finding the perfect dress that will make her the stand-out at an upcoming movie premiere. In the most classic “be careful what you wish for” sense, the young starlet finds out that high fashion can have dire consequences. Brilliantly satiric in this age of Paris Hilton superficiality, “Envy” is another standout in the collection.

Even talented writers aren’t immune from current trends as Jeffrey proves with his uneven “The Snake Charmer”. What starts out as the promising and titillating premise of wife swapping gone bad (or more on the “be careful what you wish for” theme) quickly goes Hostel on the reader with a ghastly climax involving genital torture. Not for the faint of heart.

The collection ends somewhat abruptly with the shortest story in the compilation, “Park Life”. Jeffrey seems determined to show us what he can do in as few words as possible, and he ably accomplishes that with this page-and-a- half zoological shocker in which tables are turned and all is not what one thinks at first glance.

Reading Voyeurs of Death is like going to a wedding and gorging on the appetizers – delectable tidbits of taste that aren’t necessarily satisfying individually but satiate when consumed in volume. The handful of tales offered here show a writer of notable promise and talent, one who has a refreshingly original imagination and the lean writing chops to make us hungry for the full buffet likely to follow. Even when occasionally under seasoned (“Watchers”, “Sin Eater”, “The Snake Charmer”), Jeffrey’s five-star ingredients (“Venetian Kiss”, “The Quilters of Thurmond”, “Clockwork”, and “Envy”) make Voyeurs a mouth-watering stew of short fiction. Pick out the carrots and consume heartily.

Purchase Shaun Jeffrey’s Voyeurs of Death.

Posted on Monday, January 7, 2008 at 11:26AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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