by Al Sarrantonio
Many folks first actual exposure to Al Sarrantonio’s work may be the amazing anthology 999, and that’s a very serious collection. If so, your expectations for Toybox should be high. Over the course of this read, and comparing back to that anthology, you may see a unique quality emerging. It’s assembly, not merely the merits of the stories themselves, that help this collection be so effective.
Toybox doesn’t start very strongly, despite the solid opening of “Pumpkinhead.” It’s a good one, ostensibly about fitting in, but more importantly it establishes the kind of text and style we’re about to see from the author. These horror stories about children can seem quite uncompromising as we are generally focused on them in supernatural situations, often learning life lessons they’re not ready for.
The first story smacks us a couple of times, says “wake up, you’re not safe, I want to show you something.” He goes on to spin a few more, each maintaining the authors voice but losing the momentum established with “Pumpkinhead,” until you’re about 1 quarter of the way through and beginning to seriously question the work. Then “Bogy” hits, and you realize the slaps you’ve absorbed so far have really served as appetizers and you are now ravenous for Al’s particular brand of horror. Then the real feast, as some of the sedative from the first few stories is called upon to deal with the trauma of the next, and so on as the stories build upon each other not in a literal sense, but in the reader’s sense of curiosity and foreboding. You get serious, but still somehow rip-roaring horror, gaining momentum nearly right up until the end, but all in Sarrantonio’s distinctive voice with which he took the time to acclimate you in the beginning. Assembly.
“Children of Cain” was a favorite, very closely followed by “Bogy”, “Garden of Eden” and “Father Dear.” “The Corn Dolly”, “Snow”, “Red Eve” and “Richard’s Head” to be exemplary as well. Most of the rest is just pretty damned-good.
As a whole the book would not have been as effective in any other order of story presentation. Like 999, he has brilliantly laid out the terrain for you to follow, and it works similar to a roller coaster except for the whole ‘1st hill has to be the biggest’ thing–well planned and executed pathing. Like a fine piece of music, the right notes are firing at exactly the right times.
Loving the book considering the whole, this masterful skill with putting together the story list has one wondering if he’s not only an impressive author but truly a master-level editor, and uses that editorial skill to elevate his stories further in Toybox. Overall this was an excellent, disturbing read, and while it does spend a large majority of its time with young children for characters, is that really a problem? It certainly doesn’t make things any less scary.
Well done, Mr. Sarrantonio.