Still Life: Nine Stories
by Nicholas Kaufmann
Necon Contemporary Horror #13
Necon E-Books (2012)
It's a good year for short story collections, at least in my estimation, because of books like this. Bringing together seven previously published short stories and two brand new ones, Nicholas Kaufmann's myriad approaches to the macabre are put on display.
In James Moore's introduction, he says, "You can read a story by Kaufmann and you can hear the rhythm he's writing to." I kind of get what he's talking about there, because Kaufmann's stories are written in a way that immediately evokes the characters, the emotions, and the stakes they face. I really hadn't read his work prior to this collection, though I certainly read and heard plenty of praise from readers and writers alike. With Still Life, I think I have a better handle on just how good a storyteller this guy is.
My favorite story might be "The Jew of Prague," a noir-ish supernatural tale that has a man named David flying into Prague in search of a diamond. Plenty of people on the black market would love to get their hands on it, but David's benefactor's have the inside scoop on where it's hidden. The fusion of hard-boiled intrigue with the supernatural elements of Jewish folklore felt almost seamless, and I'm a sucker for this blend of crime and horror these days, anyway.
If I have to pick one of these stories to be the runt of the litter, I'd go with "The Beat of Her Wings." I love monster stories, and this one has a lot of excitement and suspense to it, but it's a story that shifts back and forth between two timelines. Margaret, the main character, was great. Having to endure a lecherous husband, then come to terms with her own indiscretions with her husband's rival, as each man is on the hunt for an ancient relic from the days of the dinosaurs. I liked it, but I think I would have liked it a whole lot more if the story was told in a more linear fashion.
Each story comes with a very brief introduction from Kaufmann, giving a glimpse as to where his head was at or what he wanted to accomplish. It's the kind of little extra that a reader like me appreciates. Stories like "Mysteries of the Cure," with their grim and relentless portraits of humanity, just jab at your ribcage, then stories like "Go" offer a heart-pounding assault on your inner optimist. You're never promised a happy ending with Kaufmann's stories, but you definitely get an engaging one. And for any J-horror fans out there, you will need to skip to the end of the book and read the final story, "(F)earless." It's a treat.