December 13, 2013

Monsters Vs. Alienation: a review of Stephen Volk's "Monsters in the Heart"

Monsters in the Heart
by Stephen Volk
Gray Friar Press (2013)
262 pages
ISBN: 978-1-906331-42-9

My first chance to read Stephen Volk's work came in the form of a novella published by Spectral Press, entitled Whitstable, which wound up being one of my favorite reads of the year. So when I was presented with a PDF review copy of a new collection of his short fiction, I was quite eager to peak inside its pages to see if lightning might strike twice.

With the theme of monsters, the collection manages to run the gamut with both real and imagined, the human and the very much not human. And the book manages to kick off by highlighting one of the most famous--and one of the biggest--monsters of all in "After the Ape". King effing Kong. Okay, King Kong's dead, but there's more to the story it turns out with the spotlight placed on the actress saved from the beast's clutches, now holed up in a hotel, desperate and terribly alone while the giant ape's carcass in broken down piece by piece in the bloodied city streets. Sad bit of nostalgia with some gruesome atmosphere just outside her balcony window.

Another bit of Hollywood horror comes from "Who Dies Best," as the country's impoverished and financially crippled are offered an out of sorts, and Hollywood gets to exploit their plight for all it's worth. And it's worth their very lives at the end of the day.

Harkening back to something a little more gothic, a little more British, was "Hounded." This was one of the meatier stories in terms of length, but also subject matter, because it acts as an homage as well as a followup of sorts to "The Hound of the Baskervilles." I mean, seeing Dr. Watson attend a spiritualist-style seance in the wake of burying his old friend, Sherlock Holmes, was mesmerizing.

Going a little more subtle is "A Paper Tissue." Have you ever had one of those moments where you have a chance to do something, but you don't? You let the bad thing happen. Well, this story plays with that, as a married couple run across an old friend--of sorts--and his new girlfriend, who hands the married man a note pleading for help. Like a drop of blood in pristine water. Definitely unsettling.

There were stories that felt familiar to me, like "Pied-a-Terre", which I had read in the House of Fear anthology last year, and "Monster Boy", which was a great little Hellboy story. Then there were stories that were downright surreal in their imagery like "Swell Head," which reminded me a little bit of Joe Hill's "Pop Art" from his 20th Century Ghosts collection.

Like any collection, it's a little hit or miss, but the book offers more of the hits to my way of thinking. It serves as both a time capsule of Volk's work over the years, but also his diversity in how he crafts his stories. You may not walk away liking all of them, but I'll bet you'll walk away loving one of them. For me, the bar was set the highest at the very start with "After the Ape." I mean, come on. King effing Kong.

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