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Story Time Christopher Treagus Review by
Christopher Treagus
selected works of Drew Williams and Joe Nassise


An uneven introduction for two talented authors

SPECTRES AND DARKNESS is a new short story collection published by Medium Rare Books, by authors Drew Williams and Joe Nassise. Both have novels currently out with Barclay Books, Williams with NIGHT TERRORS and Nassise the Stoker nominated RIVERWATCH. Both those novels are strong first efforts, proving that these two talented writers are destined to have a healthy career in this genre. Yet the short stories in this collection don't seem to live up to the potential of their previous published works - which is not to say that all the stories herein are in any way bad. Some are, in fact, quite good. But as a whole, the book comes across as uneven, with some stories paling beside their stronger cousins. Even in the most hum-drum of these tales, however, Drew Williams and Joe Nassise show that they have an excellent gift for prose and character development, which is certainly a hallmark of greater things to come from both. SPECTRES AND DARKNESS stands as a decent introduction to their talent, but after the superb thrills of their respective novels, I was left wishing that they had presented us with another novel instead of these shorts. Even, perhaps, something written jointly. For their styles do seem to compliment each other nicely.

Drew Williams' writing dominates most of the book, with him contributing seven tales, while Joe Nassise only gives us five. In addition, it seems that it is Williams whose stories stand out more in the mind when the final analysis is taken, which is odd, considering that Joe Nassise's growing reputation in the industry seems to outshine that of his partner in these pages.

The collection opens with Williams' "Art and Becoming" which was originally partially serialized on the Art of Horror web site. I was pleased to see this story here, for as that only the first few chapters appeared previously, I was finally to have the chance to read the conclusion. As one of the longer pieces in the book, it is also one of the best. The characters are very well developed and the story line is quite original, with an unique and unexpected ending, expertly combining two simultaneous sub-plots into a satisfactory conclusion.

The basic story revolves around Phil Luxor and Jeff French, who both work for the Allegheny County Morgue, picking up bodies at crime scenes and shuttling them to the coroner's office. But Phil, who is also an artist, happens to pick up other things as well. From every victim, he claims a personal article, which he later uses to inspire his creations. Jeff is a former porn star, on the run from a horrible past that yet haunts him even though he had thought he made a clean break. When the two are teamed up and bond over beers at a local bar, a mix is blended that will only lead to more horror and prove that sometimes you can't escape your past or your destiny, no matter how hard you try.

Joseph Nassise's "Carrion Man" is the next story in the collection, and tells the tale of a man with supernatural and psychic powers who sometimes assists the police looking for serial killers, and other sorts of criminals. In this case, it is the murderer and kidnapper of several children. This plot is fairly standard, but where Nassise's story defers is in what the 'carrion man' does with the knowledge he gains from his investigation. Once determining the guilty party, he decides to go after the murderer himself, instead of leaving it to the cops - with horrific results in a grandiose fashion. This is a comfortable tale we've seen before, however with a nice twist at the end.

The next number of stories set off on an unbalanced path through the many aspects of horror literature, experimenting with the supernatural, the monstrous, the horrible, grotesque, psychological, and the bizarre, quirky, sometimes even humorous tales. There quite easily could be something for everyone here, save for the fact that some of the lesser tales come off as uninspired, and on a number of occasions, the twist endings are predictable, particularly in Drew Williams' case.

The most obvious of these is Williams' "Funky Chickens." It is not a particularly horrible or grotesque tale, but has an ending that is intended to give it the only 'weird' twist that would make it truly fit within the genre. Unfortunately, you can see it coming from early on, when a newly wed couple are visiting a farm rumored to have a two headed chicken, the result of some radiation that tainted land, and accept some home grown lemonade, I don't think you have to be told what happens when that couple give birth several months later to their first child.

"Twilight at the Cairo," also by Williams, again reflects this same failing, though is taken with a more serious tone. This tells the story of a failing drive in theater with magical properties, soon to be overrun by corporate America. The man responsible for the destruction of the drive in is in fact a child of parents who used to visit and love that very same theater, yet this bit of nostalgia does not stand in the way of his intention for progress. Until, of course, he is mystically transported back in time, and finds himself disturbing a young couple in the back of their car during one of the shows...

Despite these lesser, predictable stories, however, Drew does have some expertly crafted and creepy tales in this collection that show just why he is one of the genre's up and coming writers. My particular favorites are "Headlines," and "Coming Soon To Video," with "Soft, Sweet Music" coming in as a not too distant third.

"Headlines" is one of the occasions when the twist does work. Jack Klinger is a reporter for The Pittsburgh Tattler who asks an old writer friend Garth Guzman to assist him with a story about devil worship in an old abandoned building. Garth is not necessarily enthralled with the idea, considering the piece more of a tabloid type article than anything else, but he is out of work, so he agrees. What Klinger needs his old friend to do is go to the warehouse and watch it through the night to see if anything happens. Seems simple enough. But after Guzman has been staking out the building for several hours, and just when he thinks nothing is going to happen and prepares to leave, he meets a very unexpected horror. This time Williams'surprise pays off. What Guzman finds there is not exactly what you would expect, giving you a very satisfying story.

"Coming Soon To Video" is also a strong offering from this writer, though I found a reference to his own novel "Night Terrors" as a new movie on video to be a bit self-indulgent. This tale takes place in a local video store just recently taken over by a new owner. Jay, a loyal customer, is a horror buff, particularly in the more nasty, pornographic films. He is sucked in when the new owner introduces him to a new series that displays the worst serial killers in history in the midst of their atrocities. Soon Jay can't get enough. And what's more, he discovers that the films are in fact real. This does not come as a surprise when it is revealed, however, the path to which this story leads from this point on is rather unique. Again, Williams satisfactorily ends this story with a twist that will leave you not only disturbed, but also thinking.

"Soft, Sweet Music" is a fairly grotesque story, if somewhat outlandish. When a young boy finds a severed finger in his youth, his obsession with it begins to take over his life, eventually leading him to all kinds of terrible acts and crimes. The story is interesting, and unique, though I found it a bit implausible. I didn't really understand how this finger could really hold such power over the protagonist. Perhaps he was the victim of a sick mind. At any rate, the story is well executed, and did remind me of some of the short work of Bentley Little. It is an intriguing tale if you don't look too deeply.

Throughout this collection, though he has fewer stories within it, Joe Nassise fairs better. A few are take it or leave it stories that seem to not add much to the assortment nor the genre, such as "Carrion Man" and "Down Among The Bosnian Dead," though he does have three more which are quite outstanding. "That Cleansing Fire" is my favorite in this book. It was the only story that actually left me wanting more, which is good, considering that it is the subject also of Nassise's next novel. Cade Williams is a modern day member of the Templar's order. In Nassise's world, they have not been disbanded and destroyed during the middle ages, but have in fact existed to this day, now serving the role as investigators and exterminators of the supernatural for the church. After a run in with a fallen angel, Cade is not only scarred, but left with psychic and other supernatural powers. He uses these in order to combat evil. In this case, the evil that Cade and his squad hunt down are the Ch'iang shih, a pack of chinese vampires.

As I stated before, I enjoyed this story very much. However, there were some elements that I found lacking within its structure and content. The characters were interesting, and the concept intriguing enough that I want to know more about the order, and its members. Yet it was the enemy, and the plot structure that did not ring quite as satisfying to me. For one, I like the fact that Nassise uses the Ch'iang shih myth as the enemy in this story, however, it seems to me that he missed much of the truly frightening aspects of this Asian demon. They come off just like another group of vampires, not that much different than the rest, whereas the Ch'iang shih of folklore were much more vicious and unique. I would have liked to see them used to their potential here, rather than just as generic blood suckers under a different name. Second, the ending concludes in what appears to be a very contrived manner. It is not Cade and his specialized crew that wins the day, but a number of cops that appear at just the right time to put the evil down. I felt rather cheated. For it seemed it was luck, rather than the characters own skill that enabled the Templars to get out of what seemed to be an impossible situation. That no withstanding, I will definitely pick up Nassise's novel on this theme when it comes out, I just hope he ends it better than this story.

One of Nassise's other offerings "The Eye Of The Beholder" is, however, much more satisfying, though, not unlike many of Drew Williams' work in this collection, there is a predictability to it. The story is about a blind artist who is able to capture the most brilliant, startling scenes as though he had seen them with his own eyes. When the protagonist Steven Jessup notices that the images of one of the more recent paintings is an exact scene that he had witnessed only a few days before himself, he begins to suspect that something may be going on that is not what it seems. For how could a blind man capture such images so perfectly? He decides that he must investigate, and discovers, much to his own horror, just how the painter is able to do this. You can see the end coming, but it is still just as satisfying when it arrives. If you don't already have an idea, I won't spoil it for you here.

The last story in the book, "The Urge," also by Nassise, is a thrilling tale of revenge and justice. Again relying on a theme he used earlier, Nassise portrays an individual, Jackson, who does not feel that the justice system is properly punishing those who commit the most heinous crimes in this country, so he undertakes to do something about it himself. Jackson captures one such villain and inflicts upon him the same torments that he had done to his victims, all the while being encouraged by an unspeakable urge. The protagonist is cruel, and sadistic, but it is with cause, so we cheer him on. Yet it is chilling to realize that there is not that much difference between him and the other killers; just in how he expresses it.

SPECTRES AND DARKNESS is not a bad book, but it unfortunately does not compare to the quality of Drew Williams or Joe Nassise's previous novels, either. Yet it does serve as a good introduction to their writing, and does display their burgeoning talent quite nicely. Particularly strong in both writers is their characterization, and their love for the gruesome (especially for Williams). But in these shorter tales, elements of plot often seem redundant or standard. I would recommend it for anyone who might be interested in either of these authors and not willing yet to commit to a novel, but for anyone else, I would suggest that you go for their other books first in order to get the true experience that these two talented up and coming authors offer the genre. I give the collection three bookwyrms for the stories where they succeed, which are well worth checking out.


This review copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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