I knew I was in for a good time when Spontaneous Human Combustion, the new short story collection from award-winning author Richard Thomas, started with quotes from some of my favourite books: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. It really set me up for what “vibe” the stories were going for. Plus the cover art by MSCorley, featuring a red, snarling wolf emerging from the cracked porcelain face of a woman, is haunting and beautiful. It’s without a doubt one of my favourite covers, and I’m pleased as punch to have it as part of my library.
It’s also a fairly quick read, with the majority of the stories under 20 pages (besides the final novelette, “Ring of Fire”). I’m a firm believer that short, snappy writing is better than padding for length. I generally read collections like these one story a day with time to reflect in between. Maybe I’m getting old, but the idea of tackling a longer novel (let’s say 800 pages) makes me want to take a nap. I’ve started several books that I give up on because they just drag things out or take forever to establish the setting. What I’d consider a sign of a master is how authors like Thomas can get out everything you need to know within the first few pages, expertly crafting a narrative in less time than it takes me to write this review. And to do it again and again? I can’t say I’m not envious.
The collection starts with a bang. “Repent” involves a man going from a seemingly upstanding, family man to an unwashed murderer-for-hire. It should come as no surprise that a person who is drawn to violence and a “feeling of immortality” becomes a cop. For once though, (and I’m sure you could joke that this makes it unrealistic for a person of his profession) he feels guilt, eventually attempting to redeem himself in a complicated act of self-sacrifice with a dash of occultism thrown in for good measure.
Complicated could describe many characters in these stories, with “Battle Not With Monsters” and “Requital” being standouts. Most, if not all, end up being served some form of justice. When “Nodus Tollens” started, I was positive this would remain a trend throughout the rest of the book; I was swiftly proven wrong. There’s even a happy ending that really helped break up the (delicious as it is) misery. While almost all of the stories within contain elements of horror, some lean into magical realism: “How Not To Come Undone” and the sci-fi “Open Waters.” I appreciate that throughout, I never quite knew where the stories were going.
I’m far from the last person to point this out, but reading a short story collection is almost like setting out to eat a full-course meal. If you’re served the same dishes over and over, you’ll get bored. By switching it up, you’ll keep a reader’s attention.
In fact, there are two stories involving clowns: “Clown Face” and a very giallo-esque title, “The Caged Bird Sings In A Darkness Of Its Own Creation.” The latter is not just about the uncanny valley aspect of the profession but a truly unique creation myth and scientific misunderstanding twisted up into a balloon dog, both familiar and alien.
“From Within” might be my favourite: a father and son work in the mines of Moosejaw, living in servitude to blobby alien overlords. (How often can you say a story takes place in Moosejaw?) Having a story throw you into the thick of it always gets my imagination into overdrive. Even Lovecraftian horror is covered in “In This House” using a second-person perspective to hit us directly. “Undone” is a breathless single 1500-word sentence, and if I’m keeping up with the food analogy, then it’s a shot of hard alcohol before a return to fine dining.
I love this strange back-and-forth a reader and author can have without ever meeting. What my mind conjures up to fill in the before and after could be completely different from the intent, or even from another reader! That’s fascinating; we can have so many different responses to the same material. I’m probably getting a bit carried away here but it just shows how powerful stories can be.
The final story, “Ring of Fire,” was originally part of The Seven Deadliest, an anthology where seven authors were assigned a deadly sin to write about. I would have never guessed Thomas’s was Lust unless you told me; it’s an incredibly lonely dystopian tale with a man performing mundane tasks, soon revealing the sinister behind-the-scenes observations that plague him. If you’ve seen Moon with Sam Rockwell, you might get an idea of what’s going on here.
Finally, Thomas ends with notes detailing the writing and background details on each story. These added details are wonderful to me as a beginner writer. Hearing that it took “Battle Not With Monsters” seven years to find a home is reassuring. Rejection is something I deal with on a regular basis, and I can get into a really negative headspace as a result, which is something I’m working on.
In a similar sense, hearing his inspirations, from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series to various Black Mirror episodes, reminds me that as writers we take bits and pieces from everything we consume, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s very human. It’s how you mold it into something new that counts. The differences between homage and rip-off are generally clearer in the film than in books, but you can pick things out after learning an author’s style, and that itself can be fun!
Overall, this is just an outstanding collection. I always feel very lucky to be given the opportunity to review books, and this might be my favourite thus far. I’ll readily admit I’m a newcomer to Thomas’s writing, although I’ve heard of him—consider me a fan now!
A copy of Spontaneous Human Combustion was provided for review purposes. It will be released on February 22nd.