Author: Michael Stone
Genre: Short fiction, horror
Stand alone or series: A stand-alone book comprised of four novellas.
Summary: (from BaysgarthPublications.com)
Four novellas of dark and darker fantasy from Michael Stone.
San Ferry Ann
Spencer’s humble blue caravan, standing in the centre of a courtyard, glittered with hoarfrost. Beside it, stripped to the waist in the forbidding night air, cavorted the Amazing Mackenzie. The Australian raised a taper to his lips and spat a tongue of fire that bathed the chateau walls in orange light.
The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark
Kasper reluctantly lowered himself to the floor, foisting the suitcase before him like a shield. He tried not to stare at the man’s hairless body, which was the coppery red of sun-dried tomatoes and glistened with aromatic oils. Kasper could see that he was being ignored in favour of a chessboard that lay between them. He hated chess. Although not as much as he hated sitting opposite a man who was lying fully exposed, propped on one elbow and flaunting a penis large enough to merit its own cushion.
The Terracotta Warrior
Every detail sang of care and devotion to the sculptor’s art – from the cruel quirk of the lips to the texture on the boiled-leather plates riveted together to form articulated armour.
What is he?” breathed Sol. “I never saw the like.”
“A terracotta warrior. He has guarded the entrance to the mausoleum of the First Emperor for the last two thousand years.”
“Terracotta, you say? Then he’s nowt but a gurt flowerpot-man.”
The being blinked slowly, his long gold eyelashes glinting. “I must introduce myself. I am a principality of the Third Choir. You will follow me.” He strode away, leaving a silvery line of footsteps in the dew. John noticed then the wings sprouting from between the principality’s shoulder blades; small and inchoate, like vestigial organs or something intended for purely symbolic purposes.
Why did I read this book: On the recommendation of Joel A. Sutherland (whose Fried! anthology we reviewed earlier this year), Michael Stone contacted us with a copy of his soon to be re-printed collection of novellas. When I saw the cover alone, I was instantly sold!
When it comes to horror as a literary genre, really, truly good novels are hard to come by. Sure, there are the easy scares, the cheap thrills and senseless gore that saturate most of the works in the market–nothing against cheap thrills or gore, as I have a soft spot in my heart for both. But the truly scary novels that make a reader think, those novels that shock on a deeper level are few and far between. This debut collection from Michael Stone, however, manages to do just that. Fourtold frightens, disgusts, delights, and–most importantly–provokes an eerie sense of unease that resonates long after closing the back cover. I absolutely loved it.
As one can surmise from the title, Fourtold is a collection of four short tales. The opening story, “San Ferry Anne”, is a tale of redemption, of hope lost and found again for two men, in the aftermath of the first World War. Charles Spencer is an Englishman who will not return home, and travels from town to town peddling his medicines. Kevin Mackenzie is a young Australian veteran, who refuses to return home to his family for the guilt he feels over his brother’s death on the battlefield. Together, Spencer and Mackenzie wander in the cold, with their Clydesdale-pulled wagon, selling their wares and drifting along companionably. Until one night when a young girl, naked and clearly very sick stumbles into their camp. Mackenzie immediately takes her in, compelled to save the poor waif’s life, while Spencer looks more indifferently on the scene–with a cold detachment Mackenzie has never seen from him. Surmising that the girl probably has the deadly influenza, Spencer would rather leave her in the cold, but Mackenzie refuses to give up on her.
The journey these two characters make is an emotional, spiritual one–coming to grips with their pasts, learning to forgive and see that the fragile light of salvation has not yet abandoned them. While this is my least favorite story of the four, it certainly holds its own as a poignant tale. In the few pages of this novella, one comes to deeply care for both protagonists–the cathartic path for these men is truly touching.
The second story, “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark” is a Boschian delight, and my favorite of the bunch. Kasper is an average man, working an average job, and with a somewhat average personality. He’s mild mannered, avoids aggression, and keeps his head down. Kasper, however, has one very non-average characteristic–his small uneven gash of a mouth is located in the center of his forehead, while the skin beneath his nose down to his chin is smooth and bare. A birth defect, Kasper’s physiology is completely unique and defies surgical correction–as doctor after doctor tells him after endless CAT-scans that there is nothing they can do. That is, until Kasper’s case is accepted by a secretive radical plastic surgery clinic. Kasper is reluctant to go through with the surgery when he sees the eerie location–seemingly in the middle of nowhere–but is spurred on by his girlfriend Julie, who refuses to marry Kasper until he corrects his abnormal appearance. What Kasper discovers in the clinic, however, is not exactly what he signed up for.
“Kasper Clark” is written in a completely different tone and is much darker and far more surreal than the raw, straight-forward style of “San Ferry Ann”. “Kasper Clark” oozes blood and crunching bone, it seeps under your skin with its delightful, twisted images of nightmares and rancid scents. The entire story is a psychological jump–literally–into depravity, with Kasper painfully re-making himself in his own image. What I love the most about this story is the gradual changes we read in Kasper himself–how he changes from mild-mannered average joe afraid to take the jump, to craving the pain and the rush–and eventually, even the thrill of punishment. And all the while, the Prince of Darkness watches patiently. Mr. Stone’s vivid descriptions and brutal characterizations in this piece cannot help but evoke a sort of “Garden of Earthly Delights” comparison–and I completely loved every second of it.
“The Terracotta Warrior” is the third story in this piece, and again Mr. Stone shifts tone and atmosphere for this next tale. While “San Ferry Ann” is more of an emotional journey and “Kasper Clark” was an exercise in the descent to willing, loving damnation, “Terracotta Warrior” is more of a traditional ghost story. Set in the swing of 1925, a young insurance agent named Solomon Barley sets off to evaluate an old war hero’s property. Charles Morris, Major, retired of the 6th Heavy Brigade is a real working man and enjoys taking the piss out of pencil pushers like Sol. He’s also an eccentric collector of rare artifacts, as Sol comes to see when the old Major enlists Sol’s help in carrying a crate with his newest addition–a terracotta soldier. Unfortunately for Sol and the retired Major, something ancient and menacing is alive in the statue, and it isn’t happy.
“The Terracotta Warrior” is another solid entry by Mr. Stone–it’s a cool new sort of twist on the mythical cursed mummy, this time in the form of a clay soldier(and please keep in mind this was written before the latest Mummy franchise movie came out). Of all the novellas, I believe this is the best overall story, a good campfire tale chock-full of action and suspense. The characters in this yarn are also wonderfully developed–I felt myself eagerly cheering on Sol and the Major as they come together to destroy an ancient, regenerating evil. With makeshift flame throwers. On a motorcycle.
The final story in Fourtold is “Lemon Man”. This is the perfect way to finish the collection–and this is the one tale that lingers long after reading it. In my humble opinion, “Lemon Man” is the standout best of all four novellas, and certainly the most haunting. Russell Hamilton is a man who is married to the woman he loves. The story begins with a recounting of Russell’s memories, and how Maria has always been–and always will be–the love of his life. The memories of happier times, however, are interspliced with real-time events, and despite his better efforts, Russell’s marriage is falling apart. Since his late adolescence, Russell has developed increasingly severe narcolepsy, coupled with cases of sleep paralysis and hallucinations. To try to counter its effects, he tries stimulants and other drugs, with disastrous, heartbreaking effects.
“Lemon Man” is a winding, strange gem of a novella–the reader is not quite sure exactly what is going on until the bitter end. As I myself am a sufferer of sleep paralysis, I could relate somewhat to the main character’s fears and the more surreal elements of the story, but the truly terrifying portions of the novella come in Russell’s sleepless, drug induced haze. The other part of this story takes place on a different plane, involving Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim; of Angels, Archangels and Principalities. The schism of the City of Heaven, and how the angel hordes fit in with Russell’s story is deftly handled by Mr. Stone. I loved this imaginative, well researched novella, in all its strangeness and tragic beauty.
Fourtold is like a non-stop run of some exceptionally great Twilight Zone episodes, or flipping through a collection of favorite Tales from the Crypt comics. Finishing the final novella left me hungry, yearning for more. Michael Stone certainly is a shining new talent–and I cannot wait to read more from this promising new author.
Notable Quotes/Parts: A particularly memorable scene from my favorite novella, “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark”–concerning a story about a water-borne insect larvae, hatched and burrowing its way into Kasper’s brain:
“Now things turned ugly. You forced the tip of a knitting needle down your right ear, smearing the needle with petroleum jelly to help it slide in that little bit further. Your ear and nose bled pretty badly, but what did deafness and blood matter when there was a brain-eater in your head?
“Then inspiration struck one morning when you gargled with mouthwash and the minty fumes roiled up in the back of your throat to fill your nasal cavities. You’d smoke him out. You’d never smoked in your life – filthy habit – but got through a pack of twenty by two o’clock in the afternoon and threw your guts up at two-thirty. You blew your nose and smacked your temples, listened for the chittering inside your head. Nothing. But that meant jack shit, as far as it went.
“So you uncapped a bottle of bleach and filled your mouth, inhaling deeply through your nostrils. It took a few seconds for the pain to hit.”
Additional Thoughts: On the cover–isn’t it a stunner? It warms the corners of my heart, as it reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s The Corinthian (from The Sandman graphic novels)–one of my favorite characters.
Rating: 8 Excellent – and easily my favorite short fiction collection of 2008.