Monday, September 13, 2021

Book Review: Drifter: Stories by David Leo Rice

Drifter: Stories by David Leo Rice
Paperback, 284 pages
Published June 15th 2021 by 11:11 Press

 I got to start by being honest that I had never heard of David Leo Rice before he reached out to me to offer a review copy. I am glad he did as I really enjoyed this collection even if I was skeptical after reading blurbs that compared him to powerhouse writers like Bradbury, Brian Evenson, and Thomas Liggoti. I mean those are some serious towers of weird fiction and normally I happen upon voices like that On my own. OK, that is on me not David Leo Rice I may still think those comparisons are a bit strong but this collection is pretty impressive.

The introduction by Matthew Spellberg who I just learned teaches at Harvard did give some good insight into the collection but the poetic two pages about the author and video stores didn’t land with me.  His inability to rent R-rated movies didn’t feel like the inspiration for this collection of stories. When I think of video stores I think of trashy movies. That made me think of writers like Bryan Smith or Edward Lee. This book is filled with weird stories but nothing about it is trashy.

These stories are more sophisticated than the R-rated movies the author was not allowed to rent by his parents. These have more in common with the tales of Beaumont or Bradbury that young people happen upon at the library and the parents never know about. The tone reminded me of the types of thing T.E.D. Klein was buying and publishing in the Twilight Zone magazine. Anyone old enough to have read those knows there was a quality to them that matched the storytelling skills that Serling and the California sorcerers brought to CBS.     

The book is divided into three sections. HERE – THERE – WHERE. As a structure guy I like that they are different types of stories laid out in sections  The first of them HERE appear to be stories that have a hometown feel to them, the section THERE has many stories that take place across the pond in Europe and the last section are plain weird and surreal. Well they all are weird and somewhat surreal but WHERE is dialed to 11 on the unconventional bizarro scale.

My favorite story of the HERE section was the story House Sitter, which was about the title character it was would Richard Matheson would have called off-beat. This was interesting narrative style of being slightly surreal with what seemed to me to be a ghost story. The House Sitter Point of view gives the outsider feel to the strangeness of the home. This paragraph below is where I first raised an eyebrow took note and dog eared a page.  

“The screams filled first his room and then every room, like a gas leak. He closed his eyes and pictured the father’s pharmaceutical pad fluttering off across the kitchen floor and away to a place where it would never be found.”

I also enjoyed Snow Boy and found the balance of weird and vivid impressive.  Notice here in this one paragraph Rice displays a balance for the surreal and grounded…

“He yawned, scratching the surfaces around him, agitating the wreckage of the dead mind he inhabited: the summer steppe, Tarkov at nineteen. A farmhouse, a family at ease around a broad unsanded table with benches on two sides, bowls and platters in the center, high seats for patriarchs at the head and foot, bottles making the rounds.”

From the wreckage of a dead mind to unsanded tables I like the mix of the surreal and the very physically real. This balance is one of the things DLR does very nicely throughout the book. This is a feature, not a bug. Some parts of the prose are very grounded and give a strong sense of the moments the characters inhabit like this moment from the story Out on the coast which helped that story to feel very grounded.

“The ghosts were like mosquitoes-seasonal, pack animals, given to hanging out by the water. Max swatted at them and dabbed blood on his skin with the edge of his shirt, tasting some of it before it soaked in.”

In the THERE section came one of the most powerful stories if not the best of the collection to was one that perfectly balanced the two tones. Hate Room. Mostly made up of mood and tone as a story that at times felt surreal and supernatural but also vivid and alive. Contrast these two quotes from that story.

“They could hear tonight’s guest throwing himself against the walls and barking, screaming out his hatred for god and his wish to be put out of his misery now.”

“He always entered the Hate Room soberly, steeled for the grim business of cleaning the black matter out, but he always left it in rattled, in more of a hurry than he wanted to be.”

I also really enjoyed the short but powerful “The Painless Euthanasia Roller Coaster.” This one part did so much with so little. It was interesting to me that one of the shortest stories in the collection was one of the most powerful I read.

“Over the course of that day, spent, as all days, wandering the old and drafty streets of the city, from the edge of the university where he’s no longer welcome to the alley of used booksellers whose wares no longer speak to him, Anders comes to see that the roller coaster, and nothing else will be the culmination of his tenure on the planet.”

The best of the WHERE section is Ultra Max. I don’t have much to say about the most surreal stories of the collection. These are stories that you sorta let wash over you like sitting in a tide. DLR has a way with words so these stories are more like reading a flow than story. I am not complaining I enjoyed these more than anything.

The only thing that held me back on this collection was that I didn’t feel much connection to any characters in the book. The nameless Housesitter and Anders the disgraced character from one of the shortest tales were the first two that come to my mind as I thought about this. This type of style is one that is better suited for the short form. It is why we get so many more Brian Evenson collections than novels.  This is a minor nitpick as I liked the stories overall.

Drifter: Stories is a smart high-class collection of weird fiction. Sometimes horror, sometimes dark humor, and always the product of a fresh voice. OK David Leo Rice you have my attention now and hope my readers will check out. Leave the comparisons aside, I know why we do it but I am not super comfortable with this time. All that matters is David Leo Rice is a writer with a voice and talent worth exploring.  

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