Book Review: Unpleasant Tales – Author Brendan Connell

Unpleasant Tales

EibonVale, July 2010
321 pages

“From the comic to the shocking, from the refined to the visceral, and blurring the boundaries between all four – Unpleasant Tales is a remarkable new collection of some of Brendan Connell’s darkest stories. Drenched in gluttony and decadence and with a scope stretching from the depravity of rulers in ancient Greece and Renaissance Spain, to phantasmagorical body alteration in Zurich and New York, these are supremely refined and elegant, creepily intelligent and, of course, exquisitely unpleasant stories that pack a tremendous punch, both individually and collectively. Stories that are not easily forgotten.”

There is something exciting about being thoroughly creeped out. Creeped out so well that when you try to explain to someone else why you are so creeped out, you can’t manage around the cringing and shivering you experience just thinking about it. And there is certainly something naughty and a little dangerous about being so excited about being so creeped out. What does that say about the person who creeped you out? What does that say about you? To find a writer who can creep you out in such a way that you get those pleasant yet unpleasant shivers at just the memory of his words is both wonderful and a hint more than a little bit frightening.

The stores in this collection by Brendan Connell aren’t just weird, they are surreally bizarre; they aren’t just original, they are stomach-churningly unique. They are unapologetically freakish in the most lyrical and beautiful way. And if that doesn’t sound like it should be the biggest contradiction ever, I don’t know what else does. But that is the power of the writing here. It breaks contradictions and in some cases does it in such an impossible way that its a bit terrifying to wrap your mind around admitting just what these stories are and how they make you feel as you read them.

I have heard many novels described as “great examples of prose” before, but this is truly one of only a few modern books I would easily give such a title to. One of the only ones that a word such as “prose,” with its implications of poetic achievement in non-poetry writing, would really seem to fit. The descriptions here, the choices of words that flow across the page, are so lush and deep and lovely (even when describing the most horrible of things) that it was as if I could see them painted on canvas across my mind’s eye. They were real, they were surrounding me, I could smell them and touch them and taste them on my tongue (and considering some of the subject matter I would have probably preferred that my senses were left well enough alone thank you very much). And all of these beautiful, brilliant descriptions and lush paragraphs were used to flesh out the weirdest things I have ever read.

Because when you get down to it, past the creepy factor and the beautiful factor, and the just plain strange factor, what the stories in this anthology really amount to is one giant pile of weird. “The Tongue” stars a man whose tongue decides to make a bid for freedom, and the steps the man goes to in order to retrieve his wayward organ are so mundane and non-dramatic that it feels like it could be just an average every day occurrence. “A Dish of Spouse” (I’m sure you can figure out where that one is going) takes a similar turn with a dinner party with a meal that should have people screaming in fear but instead is treated like its completely normal. In this collection weird is the new mundane, and people becoming instruments is as normal as women seething in jealousy over the seductive power of flowers. Here men parade as murderous unicorns because no one wants them, and sea captains marry native monsters amidst a flurry of bloodlust, and dentists are practicing evil rituals in order to one day take over the world. The weird seeps through every tale and mixes with the ordinary and normal until nothing is normal and everything is strange and nothing makes sense anymore except that everything kind of does.

These stories are not for everyone. They are grotesque and strange and graphically unpleasant and nauseatingly creepy. They follow no rhyme or reason, no rules or values. Some are only two page vignettes that give brief glimpses into horrible worlds, while others go on for dozens of pages into the fantastic and obscene. Coming to the end of this anthology you know you have experienced something that will stay with you for days, weeks, even years after you have read it. Even if you can’t ever make yourself read it again it will still stick with you, in those dark corners of your mind where all of the uncomfortable and horrifying things hide. Its a fantastic achievement in horror literature, even if you don’t want to admit that a book this strange could have affected you so much.

Unpleasant Tales – Author Brendan Connell

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