TITLE: At Home in the Dark
EDITOR: Lawrence Block
259 pages, Subterranean Press, ISBN 971596069176 (Hardcover) or ebook from LB Productions
Disclaimer: Although I bought the Subterranean Press edition, the editor also sent me a free e-ARC in exchange for a fair review.
DESCRIPTION: (from the Introduction): The crime fiction canopy's a broad one, with room to give shelter to writing of all sorts, as editor Lawrence Block shows with At Home in the Dark: “Some of these stories have one or both feet planted in another genre. James Reasoner's story is a period western, Joe Lansdale's is bleakly dystopian, and Joe Hill's novelette slithers through a little doorway into another world. “And now that I've singled out those three, I suppose I should go ahead and list the rest of the gang: N. J. Ayres, Laura Benedict, Jill D. Block, Richard Chizmar, Hilary Davidson, Jim Fusilli, Elaine Kagan, Warren Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Ed Park, Nancy Pickard, Thomas Pluck, Wallace Stroby, and Duane Swierczynski. “If you're looking for a common denominator, two come to mind. They're all dark stories, with nothing cozy or comforting about them. And every last one of them packs a punch. “Which is to say that they're all very much At Home in the Dark—and we can thank O. Henry, master of the surprise ending, for our title. 'Turn up the lights,' he said on his deathbed. 'I don't want to go home in the dark.'”
MY RATING: 4 stars out of 5
MY THOUGHTS: Man, do I love short stories and novellas that take dark turns or explore the darker end of morally grey situations. Not that such stories are all I read – I like a nice balance of hope and despair in my reading over the course of a month and enjoy a good upbeat ending as much as anyone – but especially when it comes to short fiction I seem drawn to the dark. Which is maybe why Larry Block keeps sending me ARCs of anthologies like this one. I’m practically the ideal audience.
Of course, even the ideal audience can be disappointed occasionally. While I enjoyed most of the seventeen stories Block has curated here, and in fact outright loved more than a couple, not every single story worked for me. I struggled with Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Flagellant.” Despite some beautiful prose, despite the fact that I normally enjoy Oates’ short fiction and am intrigued by unreliable narrators, I could not fold myself into the dense, unhinged mind of the main character. Your mileage may vary.
The stories I enjoyed the most were, interestingly, for the most part the genres other than crime. I’m not a widely-read Western fan, but James Reasoner’s “Night Rounds” engrossed me from first word to last. If it were filmed in the heyday of the genre I’m sure Jimmy Stewart would have played Sheriff Dave Blake; now I picture Jake Gyllenhall in the role. Reasoner works a small frontier town’s night-time silence and moonlit streets into a frenzy of revenge that builds tension perfectly throughout. Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team” manages some impressive dystopian world-building in a short first-person narrative, along with high character tension and plenty of remembered bloodshed. “Faun,” Joe Hill’s novella, combines portal fantasy with “the most dangerous game” in a way that had me guessing and then second-guessing what would happen – and unexpectedly cheering in a public place when a certain character gets what’s coming to him. And Laura Benedict’s “This Strange Bargain” is a fairy-tale retelling with a conflicted lead character and some creative twists. I will be greatly surprised if the Lansdale, Hill, and Benedict stories do not each appear in at least one “year’s best” SF, fantasy, and horror anthology.
Among the crime stories, almost every sub-genre is represented. Thomas Pluck’s “The Cucuzza Curse” is an interesting blend of mob story, cozy mystery, and generational conflict that tweaks not only the characters’ expectations of each other but the readers’ expectations of who these characters should be, and I’m grateful to Block for including a story that touches on issues of perceived masculinity and living in the closet as sub-plots. Jim Fusilli’s “The Eve of Infamy” is a classic con-man narrative that culminates on a particularly infamous day in United States history. Duane Swierczynki’s “Giant’s Despair” is a neat bit of Appalachian family drama with drugs, murder and cover-ups at the core, along with a main character who is hampered in his actions by carpal tunnel syndrome gone too long untreated – too real a situation with the current American health insurance climate. “Nightbound,” by Wallace Stroby, is a straight-up robbery-gone-wrong gun and car battle across Brooklyn (I picture Michelle Rodriguez in the lead for the inevitable adaptation of this one.) And Hilary Davidson’s “Cold Comfort” is perhaps the quietest of the crime stories in tone, centering on a dead pregnant woman, her accused ex-husband, and the family priest. Jill D. Block’s “O, Swear Not By the Moon” plays with the current “guilty until proven innocent” social media mentality while Ed Park’s “The Things I’d Do” is deep psychological horror.
The stories in this collection may all be dark, but they’re not all grim. There are some happy endings (for certain values of “happy”), but the road to them is not particularly easy. And several are even funny. The ending of “Rough Mix” by Warren Moore will probably not surprise anyone, but the narrator’s voice will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever played in a garage band. “If Only You Would Leave Me” would probably be far less funny in less capable hands, but Nancy Pickard wrings all the morbid humor she can out of the machinations of a husband and wife who each want a divorce without being the one who asks for it. And Richard Chizmar’s short, punchy “Whistling in the Dark” features so much awkward humor I couldn’t help but laugh.
If I have any complaint about the anthology, it’s that Block didn’t write a story of his own this time out, as he has for most of the recent anthologies he’s edited. Hopefully, he’ll contribute to the follow-up anthology he’s already planning.
The Subterranean Press hardcover edition is sold-out but Amazon is still mistakenly taking orders. If you didn’t order the hardcover direct from the publisher, you should be able to pre-order Block’s e-book and paperback editions by the time this review posts.