Having published over 65 stories in the past five years, in addition to a novel (Transubstantiate, Otherworld Publications) and a short story collection (Herniated Roots, Snubnose Press), Richard Thomas is a workhorse who is no stranger to dark fiction. But with his newest anthology of short fiction, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Thomas cranks the intensity up a notch while simultaneously turning the dimmer switch all the way down. To say these stories are dark is somewhat of an understatement; they’re a razor blade slice away from pitch black.
Staring Into the Abyss brings together twenty previously published short stories under one amazing cover (even if you’ve already read all of these stories elsewhere, the value of the convenience is doubled by the fantastic cover art by George Cotronis). The styles featured here run the gamut of dark and depressing literature, from neo-noir to speculative to the oft-undefinable label of transgressive. The monsters featured in these stories aren’t zombies or werewolves or aliens, they are us; a father full of regrets, a cheating wife, a girl looking for vengeance, a brother and sister following in their parents footsteps. Oh, and Stephen King. For real.
The writing throughout is great, the short story format allowing Thomas’ style to shine as he creates the bleakest of settings, then drops unsuspecting victims in and lets them fight, suffer, and fail. Although occasionally stumbling into clichéd territory (mainly the women, who are often painted as either submissive, beautiful playthings for the dominant male characters or conniving, beautiful playthings for the dominant male characters, which is unfortunately fairly commonplace in this style/industry), almost any of these stories would still stand out in most neo-noir or dark fiction collections.
In “Splintered,” the author presents a choose-your-own-adventure style format that is far darker than the typical find your lost dog story. We are plunged into a depressing story from the perspective of a man who is beginning to suspect that he is being cheated on. At first just a suspicion, things keep getting worse as we read on, confronted with choices like “If you decide to be a man, go to page 6. If you decide to live in denial, keep reading.”
“Victimized” presents a dystopian world where the justice system has opted for a Fight Club-meets –Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome approach in punishing crime. Now the victim (or victim’s family) is given the option to take on the guilty party in a fight to the death, while a motley crew of onlookers place bets on the participants, only here, the Van Damme character is traded in for a girl named Annabelle. The story goes back and forth from the present day, as our protagonist watches in the arena, then back to her memories of what happened to her and who was responsible, all culminating in a final, brutal showdown.
First appearing in a collection alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub, “Stillness” is a very dark story in the vein of Last Man on Earth about Michael, a man all alone with his automated home as his only companion. He pushes back distant memories of a family long gone as he trudges through each day, fighting off the creatures that have taken over his world. Two years since his last contact with another living human being, Michael waits and clutches onto the hope that one day he can leave his post. But what then?
Throughout Staring Into the Abyss, Richard Thomas varies his approach to story-telling, much to the enjoyment of the reader. “Twenty-Dollar Bill” focuses on four broken down, sad characters, but following a twenty-dollar bill through their hands to tell the story. It’s like wheresgeorge.com, but with “backslash misery” added at the end. In “Stephen King Ate My Brain,” we have a humorously dark story where the narrator/King fanboy trades a part of his brain to the author in exchange for an unpublished but guaranteed best seller. “Ten Steps” advances the story of a dangerous human being in ten gradual sections, each detailing the next step in creating a monster. “Interview” tells the story of a man who is at odds with his wife while also attempting to hire a babysitter, the suspense and horror increasing with each mention of an item recently purchased at the local hardware store. Also included in this collection are “Twenty Reasons To Stay and One To Leave,” a Pushcart nominee, and “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears,” a story first published alongside horror legend Jack Ketchum in Slices of Flesh.
Richard Thomas presents his gritty vision of despair at an unflinching, rapid-fire pace; twenty stories appear in just over one hundred thirty pages, making this collection a very quick read. The depressing, creepy feeling that he leaves you with, however, will linger much longer. Always disturbing, mostly original, and with an occasional pinch of (dark) humor sprinkled in for good measure, Staring Into the Abyss deserves a place on any fan of the genre’s bookshelf.
Book Review: Staring Into the Abyss – Author Richard Thomas