Most of the stories within this horror collection feature characters who hate something: cats, homosexuals, bullies, heavy metal, themselves. There’s even a guy who’s not sure why he’s so full of hatred. And most of the time, the hatred does not pay off.
Garton has a talent for transforming a seemingly inane situation – a talk show interview or hospital room interaction, for instance – into an attack of ancient Roman barbarity. Some stories have all the subtlety of a hook through the cheek, while others go out on (or detach) a limb to show the repercussions of abuse, moral rigidity, and herd mentality.
In “Bait”, one of my favourite splatterpunk (and extremely controversial) stories, a nine-year-old boy and his younger sister living in a seaside town discover what’s been happening to the missing children seen on milk cartons (yes, that used to be a thing). The short but terrifying read shows mankind’s potential for cruelty. It also slips in an ecological message, as well as a warning about taking the focus off our children.
The heavy metal musician protagonist of “The Devil’s Music” dies and meets Satan but refuses to believe it’s him. The story, reversing the common belief that the devil likes heavy metal, takes a shot at censorship and politicians who take a moral high ground.
“A Gift From Above” starts like a Hallmark Channel film and warps into a bloodbath worthy of early Stephen King. Margaret, once spurned by her classmates and living in her sister Lynda’s shadow, has reinvented herself as an attractive and successful advertising agent. Then she receives a supernatural gift of healing but is warned it could “sour” her. The story offers a supernatural take on the ramifications of holding on to grudges.
In “Cat Hater”, a feline version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Clive Allen Trumbles (note the initials) has always hated cats. He thinks them conniving, snobby, and even intent on taking women’s attention away from him. When he accidentally kills one, he starts to believe the cats in his neighbourhood are conspiring against him.
“Ophilia Raphaeldo” – the name is a clever mixture of once-popular talk show hosts – takes a jab at exploitative talk shows. Four women watch a show hosted by the titular character. An interview with a novelist devolves into an indictment against him for not calling a woman back after a first date and an attack on his chauvinistic writing. Though the author’s explanations seem perfectly rational, Raphaeldo fans the flames growing within her female audience. The story comments on how groupthink can cause one to abandon one’s beliefs and even rationality.
The lead character in “Choices” embraces capital punishment, rails against abortion, and shames those who think differently from him. A severe electrical storm projects him into a bleak future, where he discovers his way of thinking may have consequences.
In “Pieces,” Garton substitutes the typical psychological impact of sexual abuse with a physical one. The resulting short tale achieves a surprisingly moving outcome.
“God’s Work” is a story that every Christian (or anyone who aspires to be a good person) should read at least once a year. Paster Gill Freeman – that surname is no coincidence – is new to his congregation, whose members like to cast judgment on others who clash with their ideals. The story, flipping between Freeman’s sermon about acceptance and the congregation’s protest of a horror author doing a signing at a bookstore, offers a rare Christian argument for free speech.
Though neither victim nor perpetrator is likely to escape unfazed in Garton’s tales, the reader will likely emerge with more to chew on than flesh – that’s something that doesn’t always happen in horror.—Douglas J. Ogurek*****