The Crypt-keeper, you remember him? – that cackling bag of worn and dirty bones. Some good memories I’ve had with him as an husky young boy: taking trips across town to see my grandmother, eating fried chicken and mashed potatoes and cheese and macaroni (because there was more cheddar than pasta) – and pulling weeds from around the hedges, and chasing hens around her backyard. My grandmother was the nearest family member who knew the thrill of cable television. And it was a twenty-five minute drive to her modest country home in North Jacksonville: across an overpass that took us over a cemetery a few blocks from her front door. I didn’t like sleeping at my grandmother’s house, for what I think are obvious reasons; because in the dark, I always thought of the cemetery.
What made it worse was the Crypt-keeper. The first time I saw his likeness was in the T.V. guide (am I giving away my age yet?)He grinned with his rotten teeth and dared me to meet him when the night was heavy. So when the laziness of the Sunday set in, and my parents chatted with my grandmother over tea and crackers, I went off to her room, and I saw the Crypt-keeper for the first time.
Tales Most Strange, written by Jeremy Hayes, reminded me of the Crypt-keeper: of the scampering camera wandering through the creaking front doors of his house, of the descent down the murky stairs, a quickening rush to the corpse’s tomb, and the ghoul himself laughing hysterically to greet me.
I didn’t sleep for days because of the Crypt-keeper.
And it took me the rest of my adolescence to gain the balls to see the Crypt-keeper again, thereafter. But I did. And I ate the black comedy like candy.
Black comedy, to me, has a fairly simple formula: a straightforward progression of events, a twist ending, just desserts. What we see in Tales Most Strange, at least to me for that matter, is a walk through similar foliage. And it’s refreshing to see it resurface.
One of the problems though, I think, with the animal that’s black comedy, at least in anthology form – through comics, prose, or late-night cable television sitcom – is the simplistic nature of plot. It relies less on actual story telling than it does on its headlong rush to each tales twist conclusion. Consequentially, the stories lose their novelty fairly quickly — even with new characters, new plots, or new situations. Maybe that’s part of the reason why there were so many guest actors on Tales From the Crypt – because with the same faces the show would have died within its first season.
Susceptible to the weakness of Black Comedy, the Achilles heel of Tales Most Strange, is lack of diversity: both in voice and point of view. Each voice sounds the same: whether it be a troubled teenage boy without a backbone — or a business woman, the lone survivor of a plane crash in the dessert. The ventriloquist in Throwing Voices and the middle-aged writer in Writer’s Block think and amble around in the same pair of loafers, harboring the same fears. This, paired with tales that often reference each other’s places and events, and originate in some way, from the same nameless “Big City”, while cute, at first, gives each tale the same atmosphere and feel. You turn the page to the next story; and yet the tempo is unchanging.
I think, the only way to fairly judge an anthology, is to rate each of its stories separately, then average them together. The average you get should represents a good approximation of the reader experience moving forward through each tale in the volume.
The true worth of a good story rested solely on its ending, of this I firmly believed. I built my career on it, in fact. A twist, an unforeseen event, anything the reader did not see coming, left them with a sense of awe and ensured they would talk of the story for years to come.
-Excerpt from Writers Block (Sub-rated 3.5/5).
Writers Block is among the stronger tales in the volume. It’s, of course, about a writer, who is blocked (Or at least that’s how if often feels, doesn’t it?). It’s paranormal in nature. And this particular tale poses the question pondered by many of us story-tellers for eons: is writers block real? And if so, where does it sleep? Is it in the authors themselves – or is it something else, entirely? Hayes tackles this question with plain, cut and dry prose; and the conclusion is black comedy at its finest. These stories are good for whetting a leisurely reading appetite. There aren’t many, but there’s enough to keep it interesting.
The others riding shotgun:
Throwing Voices (Sub-rated 4/5).
Before the Gates of St. Peter (Sub-rated 3.5/5).
The Panhandlers Will (Sub-rated 3.5/5)
I should at first mention the immediate sense of horror I felt after discovering the ghastly truth of the floor that we tread upon. It felt even and I quite nearly tripped before I crouched low for a closer inspection. I gasped out loud but it did not seem to startle Sebastian, as he had already made the same discovery as I.
-Excerpt from Tombs of the False (Sub-rated 3/5).
Tombs of the False lingers with the bulk of the books contents, in the middle. These tales each have a beginning, middle and end. But there isn’t much more to offer that’s fresh and new; the prose is tight and plain, like before; but the storytelling lacks something. Indeed, many of these tales read like an interview with someone on the five o’clock news; perhaps the event that came before it was shocking or compelling in its own right. But the reporter, or the eye-witness, lacked the voice to make it touch the viewer, to bridge a connection with an interesting or fresh perspective.
Some of the others, sagging the middle:
The Weeping Willow (Sub-rated 3/5).
Mars-Four, Can You Hear Me? (Sub-rated 3/5).
Shooting by the Light of the Moon (Sub-rated 3/5)
In each of those places, someone went missing and was never found. The monster that was named Erwin Baardwik left a trail of death everywhere that he went. Now he was here in Vandenbourg and I needed to find him before he chose his next victim. I just hoped that I was not already too late.
-Excerpt from One Less Hunter (Sub-rated 2.5/5).
This quote, minus whatever places were mentioned before, the name, the new place, Vandenbourg — is, more or less, the theme of pages upon pages of fiction, long written and enjoyed before the day of this review. This is beyond mere horror fiction, and has bled into dark fantasy, and crime fiction, and thriller, and drama. Clichés are what I’m talking about; and are one of the unfortunate burdens that anchor these bottom dwellers on the dark and rocky sediment, pressing them into the watery abyss.
And those lowly few, whose mouths evolved to the bottom of their bodies, for they can only feed from the floor of the ocean:
Jungle Johnny (Sub-rated 2.5/5).
My Haunted Chambers (Sub-rated 2.5/5).
The Unremembered Solder (Sub-rated 2.5/5).
I should be clear: for those of you who’ve missed the guilty pleasure of black comedy, (which are probably those of you much younger than my Sega Genesis) this volume may offer you (albeit, to a lesser degree) something structurally different, even refreshing, at least for a spell. There are certainly laughs to be had, a bump in the night here or there. I’d be lying to say I didn’t smile at least a few times reading this little volume. Once, however, you’ve made it a few tales in, you’ll likely be very familiar with the formula dictating the prose. The “twists” of each ending will start to jump at you before you get there. And once you’ve arrived you’ll have little left to look forward to.
Final Rating: 3/5
About The Author: S.T. King is an aspiring novelist with a ravenous appetite for the dark, and an insatiable thirst for the ink of the fantastique. Currently he’s a mental health counselor, helping people purge the skeletons from their closets – though admittedly, he thinks it’s more fun putting them back in.