Taff, John F.D. Little Deaths. Books of the Dead Press, 2012. Kindle edition.
Recently, one of my FaceBook friends made an astute comment about contemporary horror:
I hate to say it: Horror is boring. Authors seem out of ideas, out of approaches.
The stuff I'm seeing … is average, for the most part; a few things are spectacular, but are not really horror: they blend things together, and have a high level of craft.
In general, there is too much reliance on zombies, zombies, zombies... Or vampires... Or serial killers... Or Cthulhu... Or they try to make it gory, just to shock or disturb (which fails -- I was a slasher film kid, come on! Savini, Romero, Cronenberg, etc).
Get with it folks! Have something to say. Dig deep. Study people other than King, Koontz, and the horror-boom guys of the '80s. There's more to life. Think differently.
This is not to say that there are no interesting recent takes on the conventional creatures—witness Joe McKinney’s energizing Dead World Series, Brett Talley’s Stoker-winning Lovecraftian pastiche That Which Should Not Be, and a host of other books that manage to invigorate older patterns.
But in some ways, horror does seem boring.
Having recently attended two cons that featured horror (I was a Special Guest at both, so perhaps got a closer look at things), I did see a surfeit of standards…especially zombies. But the others came into play as well. And having read manuscripts for a professional publisher of horror, I can attest to the number of neophytes that seem to think that more blood and gore equals better horror. Or, worse perhaps, a higher occurrence of harsh language (you know, the kind that used to be indicated in polite venues by d**n and now by f**k) equals better writing in general and, when used by particularly unappealing characters whose primary purpose in the story is—presumably—to be horrifically slaughtered by the maniac-of-the-hour, it constitutes good horror.
Good horror fiction is like anything else. Well-written. Carefully crafted. Thoughtfully conceived. And above all…imaginative.
Which brings me (finally) to John F.D. Taff’s neat collection, Little Deaths.
Occasionally, when I read a single-author collection, I leave with the impression that the author was straining to write enough stories to fill a book. The tales seem, as it were, of a piece. Something about tone, atmosphere, certainly about characters and settings make it clear that all of the stories came from the same imagination. And the collection seems limited by that sense.
Little Deaths is definitely not one of those collections. Nor is it merely another series of zombie stories, or vampire stories, or serial-killer stories.
In fact, there is essentially only one zombie, one vampire, and one mummy in the whole book…and they all appear in the same story, a quiet little gem called “The Tontine” that, in its own way, summarizes the history of horror as a popular genre.
Every tale seems intended to take readers into new dimensions of uncertainty, ambiguity, terror, and dread. Each—whether ringing a change on Lovecraft or Frankenstein or coming up with something entirely different—exists in its own little world, divorced from the rest; each is an individual, unanticipated journey of discovery.
Little Deaths is particularly well written. Taff uses words that might be outside many vocabulary ranges but always does so with a purpose. In one instance, the title of a story reveals itself to be a pun on two words—one typical for horror fiction, the other meticulously built from an obscure Latin root to support the entire narrative. (I’d identify which title, but that would in effect give the story away.)
Some favorites: “Bolts,” “The Water Bearer,” “Darkness upon the Void,” “The Mellified Man,” the above-mentioned “The Tontine,” “Box of Rocks,” and…well, just about everything in the collection. All well worth reading and thinking about.