Brief Lines: Vampires, Factory Monsters, and Old Ghosts

Recent years have seen a veritable explosion of shorter works in the horror field, with some of the most reputable names in the genre contributing entries and numerous others following in their footsteps. It’s been argued that the novella is the preferred length for horror fiction; long enough to build up suspense and a decent body count, constrained enough that there’s no temptation to pad things out. And these novellas, along with the odd short fiction collection, offer something for everyone. For readers, there’s material from a favorite author. For publishers, there’s the chance to do prestige limited editions in small print runs, eliminating the risk of clogged warehouses. And for authors, it’s an opportunity to publish works that don’t fit neatly into the doorstopper horror novel paradigm, where any book not physically weighty enough to brain a moose with is considered “too short”.

With that in mind, three short works offer an interesting slice of this phenomenon. All three are more or less traditional horror, bound by monster types (vampires, ghosts, etc.) we’re familiar with, and the narratives are straightforward and plot-driven. How they take advantage of this new format is of interest, even if it isn’t always entirely successful.

The first (I Travel By Night by Robert McCammon) offers up the unusual figure of a vampire who leaves New Orleans instead of gravitating there. A mix of author McCammon’s original (horror), mid-period (Southern gothic) and current (historical detective) genres, the book feels like the set-up for a longer series. The protagonist, a Confederate officer turned vampire on the field at Shiloh, is a typically tormented dark avenger type. He does good deeds for hire while hunting down the vampire who made him in hopes of killing her and returning to mortal, even as the clock ticks down on his human side being overwhelmed by bloodlust. But the vampires he’s been hunting down take a dim view of this and lure him into a bayou ghost town after a kidnapped girl, the better to either bring him over to their side or destroy him. The action feels overstuffed - there’s a sharp-shooting plucky female sidekick and a bedraggled priest, each with their own lengthy backstories, not to mention a suggestion of rather larger monster populations than the reader sees. The fight scenes drag as well, hampered by weird hiccups in the pacing caused by random attacks of exposition. There’s potential for a series here, but the setup feels rushed and a bit lumpy.

Next up is Brian James Freeman’s collection, More Than Midnight. The first four-fifths of this collection are sadly uninspiring, category horror short stories that make their hurried way toward suitably gory “gotcha” endings. The monster in “What They Left Behind” comes out of nowhere and is never explained, as a simple ghost story morphs into something more over the top. “The Final Lesson” features a pair of villainous teenagers who are overwritten to the point of being cartoons, and “Among Us” is an alien infiltration tale that suffers from an over-chatty narrator. But the last piece in the book, “Answering the Call”, reverses field abruptly. Spooky, understated, and subtle, it redeems the sins of its predecessors. Art from Glen Chadbourne and Vincent Chong spices up the material, but in this chapbook, it’s worth skipping to the end.

Finally, there’s Homestead from James A. Moore, who’s usually at home at much larger wordcounts. Moore is one of the better practitioners of King-style straight up horror out there. His novels of small towns under siege by monstrous forces demonstrate a singular ferocity to his writing, something that’s simultaneously a strength and occasionally a hindrance, leading him to rush to his endings when a slower pace and more development might have served his work better. Homestead feels like a conscious attempt to address that, narrowing Moore’s focus down to one family’s buried history. Living once again in her family’s rural farmhouse after years away, Kathy Erinson’s taken up drawing as a way to fill the hours while her kids are at school. The drawings - skillfully executed by Alex McVey - trigger repressed memories. And these aren’t nice memories. Instead, they’re the slowly coalescing pieces of what happened to Kathy’s best friend, who disappeared when he was 12. The ending still rushes up a bit quickly, but the wistful yet unsentimental look at lost innocence makes this a strong step forward for Moore’s development as a writer. Perhaps the shorter format agrees with him.

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