by Mark Allan Gunnells
“There was always the Bible in the nightstand drawer, but whoever had dubbed that the Greatest Story Ever Told had apparently never read The Stand.”
The collection starts very strong with “God Doesn’t Follow You into the Bathroom,” about a young girl confiding in her reverend the relationship with her boyfriend who is pressuring her into her first sexual encounter.
Very good stories follow in “Jam,” about a massive freeway pileup and what happens to those trapped on the road, “Acts 19:19 Party,” dealing with book-burning, and “Playing Possum”, about a man having episodes where he sees a talking possum that attempts to help him straighten out his life.
“The Barter System” was another good story, about a quarreling couple on the road who end up at the wrong service station.
Stepping back up to great is “The Room Where No One Died,” about a man trying to figure out why one of the rooms in his house is haunted and how to free the ghost, and “The Gift Certificate,” when a man receives a certificate in the mail for a free, unknown service that was obviously meant for someone else, but his curiosity eventually gets the better of him.
“Christmas Getaway” is another very good tale as a boy is terrorized by his mentally ill father, who seems to have hit a breaking point.
“Big Dog” is excellent, one of the best here, about a struggling writer who upgrades his word processor to something more modern only to hit the wall of writer’s block and the lengths he goes to trying to remedy the situation. You’ll love it, and it comes complete with a superb ending. Only slightly less satisfying was the wonderful tale of Exclusivity Press, about the ultimate collectible book publisher, in “Collector’s Market.”
Then follows the crown jewel of the book, the near-perfect story “Accidents Happen,” detailing a couple who is dealing with a tragedy where one of the men had accidentally killed a small boy with his vehicle and was exonerated by the courts but is being consumed by guilt. This one’s nasty, tragic and brilliant.
It’s impossible to follow a story like that up, but “Snuff,” about the film type, and “The More Things Change,” about a well-adjusted gay teenager singled out by a guidance counselor for help that the boy doesn’t need, are both good stories.
“Out of Print,” is among the least effective in the collection but still garners a rating of fair as it details the lengths book collectors will go to for that ‘must have’ book, taking place in online exchanges where the author gets involved.
Finally, the collection ends with “The World’s Smallest Man.” This one was electric, and while a few stories here were even better the style here pounds you straight through to the end, somehow addictive. It’s about a dwarf in a circus freak show who is upset by the newest member of the troupe, a magician who murders small animals on stage while massive crowds cheer him on.
The writing throughout most of these is high-caliber but vulnerable–difficult to put down stuff. Important here is the way the characters interact and support each other in terrifying circumstances. Mr. Gunnells uses a natural form of dialogue that’s about as real as it gets, and while there are the obligatory high levels of creativity throughout any good collection, what cements this one are the mental and emotional wounds the characters are often operating beneath while dealing with the horrors.
And this guy can end a story.