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Book Review: Bones Are Made to be Broken by Paul Michael Anderson

“Every tale has one thing in common: Anderson’s ability to craft a compelling, thought-provoking, dark and beautifully heart-breaking story displaying the darkest depths of the human soul.”

Bones Are Made to be Broken - Paul Michael Anderson - coverBones Are Made to be Broken is the debut collection from author, editor and journalist Paul Michael Anderson. And what a debut it is. Featuring two new stories and twelve of Anderson’s greatest hits of the last six years, this collection takes the “Horror” label and twists it, tears it, stretches it, to create stories that are both literary horror, and something more.

The opening story, ‘Crawling Back to You’, concerns a vampire and his familiar. But this is not the tale of a member of the 18th century European aristocracy who sequesters himself in a dark castle and enslaves a manservant to bring him comely maidens. The contemporary setting and the relationship between the two main characters, Thomas and Patty, set this fang-tastic offering apart from your typical vampire story. Anderson concentrates on the relationship between these two, hinting at their past and how they came to be in their current situation, offering a fresh and entertaining take on an old theme.

‘Survivor’s Debt’, one of the original stories to this collection, again begins with a classic trope of the horror story; the ghost. But the ghosts that haunt teacher and Vietnam vet, Billy Kinson, aren’t trying to scare him; they just have some unfinished business and need a helping hand from a kid they saved during the Vietnam War. Anderson’s ability to craft three-dimensional characters and make them relatable, so much more than mere stereotypes, is masterful and on full display in this story.

‘Baby Grows a Conscience’ begins with what might be one of the most disturbing lines in the book:

“It was easier to aim a gun at a little girl’s head than Richie thought.”

 

This sets the stage for a surreal and violent story that begins like an offering from the Saw franchise (a comparison the protagonist himself makes in the story), but ends on a far stranger note.

Anderson continues to display his broad range with ‘A Nice Town with Very Clean Streets’, a bleak slice of horror masquerading as a science-fiction story concerning the inhabitants of a mining outpost on an isolated planet during a larger, intergalactic space war. With his deft handling of the futuristic descriptions and settings, which may have proven boring to some horror fans in the hands of an author of lesser skill, Anderson seamlessly envelops the reader in a story of a town under the control of one leader, much like a cult. But to whom do this cult offer worship? A fine example of Anderson’s ability to find the horror in any setting and deliver it to the reader in an entertaining and gripping way.

‘The Doorway Man’ incorporates elements of science fiction and a Cthulhu story to deliver another thoroughly entertaining story. Protagonist Jake Reznic needs a boost to get along in his office job and just happens to meet the helpful Doorway Man at a party. Jake accepts a pill from the stranger and what follows is something of a roller-coaster for Jake as he experiences the highs and lows of chemical dependency until he is at the whim of the stranger and things become increasingly weird, with talk of other dimensions and an ancient race who wish to rise up again. This story rockets along at quite a pace as we join Jake in a race against time to curtail his part in the approaching doom, until we arrive at the crushing conclusion.

‘Love Song for the Rejected’ begins like an urban fairy tale as Evelyn, a young girl who has just lost her only parent, must come to terms with the fact that she has a shard of glass, in the shape of a heart, in the middle of her chest. It begins as a colourful rainbow when she is just a young girl but, as she grows older and must endure the heartache that life invariably brings, her fragile heart begins to fade, bringing with it health problems that begin to cause Evelyn to panic. But she allows herself one more chance at love. Until the prosthetic cover that hides her heart begins to display unusual and sinister characteristics that lead to a horrifying conclusion.

Up until now, this collection has been filled with many different types of story. But only that last one hinted at horror in heartache. In the next story, ‘The Universe is Dying’, Anderson doesn’t hold back. Although it begins much like an episode of The Twilight Zone (the reader could even attempt reading the second-person intro in Rod Serling’s voice) with a mysterious phone call leading James to wake up in the seemingly deserted town of his childhood and the story quickly unravels. James wanders the streets, fighting the repressed memories that these long-forgotten surroundings conjure forth, until he can fight it no longer and is confronted with the worst memory of them all. This is easily one of the most powerful and moving stories of the collection and will leave many a reader with a lump in their throat.

Given the heavy nature of the previous story, the next, ‘Surviving the River Styx’, is a welcome change of pace. Here Anderson puts his own unique spin on another old classic when passengers aboard a cruise ship succumb to a terrible case of intentional food-poisoning that leads them to attack one another. Readers may see where Anderson is taking them early on in this story, but he still manages to deliver with his own wonderful characterisation and writing style.

It was only a temporary reprieve, as the next story, ‘The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-made Victim)’ again brings us back to horror of an emotionally-crippling kind. Here, Anderson tells the story of the Sheever boys, father, Marcus, and his two sons, Ben and Jude. Their mother long since dead, Ben has taken it upon himself to save his brother from their father’s tough-love approach. Having somehow managed to survive high school and be on the verge of leaving for college, Ben worries for his younger (and softer) brother, Jude. This worrying leads to a heart-breaking conclusion after one final confrontation between father and son. A real gut-punch of a story.

In ‘Reflecting the Heart’s Desire’, Anderson again shows us the horror in heartache, this time in the aftermath of a natural disaster which has left many inhabitants of a small town missing. Volunteers from many walks of life, including University student Janine, are tasked with the job of finding out what happened. But Janine finds the answer, and more, in the ruins of an old antique shop. Here, Anderson asks what we would be willing to sacrifice in order to get what we truly desire. How far would you go?

‘To Touch the Dead’ takes place in a future where it is possible for humans to access the memories of the past using artefacts such as old spectacles and other objects. Certain humans possess the ability to look back in time while in contact with these items to witness the deaths of their owners. But what if the past could not only glimpse the future, but also interact with it? With this story, Anderson manages to fill a small number of pages with compelling and well-rounded characters and ask a simple yet effective what if? question.

‘In the Nothing-Space, I am What You Made me’ seems to be set during a similar, if not same, space war as in ‘A Nice Town with Very Clean Streets’, although he continues to focus on the relationship between two characters, in this case a technician in an isolated outpost and his seemingly artificially-intelligent self. What follows is a battle of wills as the AI tries to gain control and mobility while Alan tries to prevent any harm coming to his team. Anderson manages to write an exciting story while posing the question of how dangerous technology could be if left unchecked.

The penultimate story is the title novella of the collection, ‘Bones Are Made to be Broken’, concerning the relationship between Karen, a single mother, and her son, Kevin. Struggling to make ends meet financially while raising her seemingly quiet and lonely son, Karen resorts to self-harm to relieve the pressure. But faced with an intervention from her best friend and increasing pressure from her ex-husband to give up custody, she seeks help from another source; a church situated in an abandoned bowling alley. Despite her best efforts, her life continues to unravel. Anderson doesn’t shy away from sharing the despair that Karen experiences, describing every worry and depressing thought in horrific detail until the final harrowing scene.

The final story is the unflinching ‘All That You Leave Behind’, the tale of a married couple struggling to get over the miscarriage of their first baby. Interspersed with facts about the development of the foetus to offer more harrowing insight into the living nightmare, the story follows the couple as they struggle to get past the worst experience of their lives. As they continue to drift apart, the wife experiences disturbing visions of what her life could have been like if she had carried the baby to full term, resulting in a terrifying ordeal on the due date. A fitting finale to a collection full of gut-wrenching stories.

Anderson’s debut is full of character-driven, emotionally-charged stories of horror in many guises. Whether the setting is a far future mining colony or contemporary America, whether the story is about the dysfunctional relationship between a vampire and his familiar or a man coming to terms with the terrible truths of his past, every tale has one thing in common: Anderson’s ability to craft a compelling, thought-provoking, dark and beautifully heart-breaking story displaying the darkest depths of the human soul. It is fitting that the introduction was written by Damien Angelica Walters as there are many comparisons that can be made between the two, not least the quality of their prose and their ability to describe the horror of humanity. If this collection is indicative of what is to come, Paul Michael Anderson truly has the potential to make a substantial and lasting impression on the writing community.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Written Backwards/Dark Regions Press
Paperback/eBook: (441pp)
Release Date: 29 November 2016

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