Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Book Review: In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley
In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley
(Due out August 2011, Available for pre-order on amazon now)
Every year at the world horror convention writers compete in an annual “Gross-out contest.” If you have a strong stomach the stories tend to be funny or unbelievably awful. One might think when they see the title to this book is 300 pages of gross-out madness. That is however not what makes John Shirley's short fiction extreme. Forget gross, (although a couple of the stories certainly qualify) the extreme nature is found the unflinching peek into the dark realms of the human condition. Opening this book is like staring through one of the worst peepholes you can imagine.
There is no author working in the horror genre today that does a better job of shining light of the horrendous human condition while maintaining a moral center. Horrible and brutal things happen to many of the characters but even the more outrageous and darkly funny pieces Shirley is not mocking or exploiting the suffering of the characters.
I often read collections out of order but Shirley has taken great care to create a rhythm with the stories revolving between comical, brutal, thoughtful and at times moving. Some highlights include CA heart breaking story of a bike messenger trapped in a subway during an earthquake called 'Cram', the haunting ghost tale 'Just a Suggestion,' The hilarious “I Want to get Married says the World's Smallest Man, and to me the most heartbreaking of all was the Science Fiction short 'Call Girl Echoed.' I read Call Girl Echoed when it was first collected in the best Dark Wisdom – It is the story of technology and the horrible dis connect we are headed towards. Shirley is a master at story and non- preaching message, the reality is there is only one better example than this story. Near the end of the collection a powerful story called Animus Rights. Worth the cover price alone, some might think this story is a little heavy handed but considering the title of the collection an extreme point of view works perfectly for me.
I know the word extreme is quite connected to hyperbole, and creates visions of motor bikes doing triple flips but the word couldn't describe this collection better. This best on display in stories which involve characters that are very non-traditional when it comes to Horror fiction. We as writers are taught to create characters that the reader will care about or relate to. Shirley does an amazing job of involving us in characters like methheads, sex-workers, homeless junkies etc.
His masterpiece horror novel Wetbones took place in the same arena and here some of the best stories features characters you don't often see in horror fiction. Stories like 'You Hear What Ray and Buddy Did,' is about bi-sexual junkies turning tricks,'Tighter' is about a single mom/prostitute who has a John who never thinks he is close enough to dying during sex, and 'Just like Suzie' is just as gore drenched as anything by Edward Lee, but this story of a prostitute who dies while giving oral sex to a John is so disturbing that it makes you cringe, feel gross and awful for being amused all at the same time. I am not sure in all my years of reading horror I have been more uncomfortable reading a single story.
Only two stories failed to connect with me, 'Ten Things to be Grateful for' felt like a predictable filler, it felt like a bit of heavy handed messaging, and certainly Shirley has plenty of amazing stories that could have filled that spot.
The horror short story is an art form all to it's own. Stephen King and Clive Barker in my opinion are masters at the short tale, they sometimes suffered from the word count. King has Skeleton Crew and Night Shift as amazing examples of master doing some of his finest works. Take any of six books of blood and you could teach master classes on the short story. In Extremis to me is the third in a trilogy of collections by John Shirley that rank that highly. Black Butterflies (which one the international horror award and the Bram Stoker), Living Shadows and now In Extremis. Any serious student of the short story needs all three books on their shelf.