Book Review: Dark and Distant Voices—A Story Collection by Tim Waggoner

“If you’ve never read anything by Tim Waggoner, this would be a fine place to start. If you’re already a fan, you’ll want to dive right in as soon as you can.”

Tim Waggoner is a name which should be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in genre fiction. Even if you haven’t read any of his work (and that’s something you really need to rectify), you’ve probably seen his books—both adult and YA—on bookstore shelves. He has been published by the likes of Angry Robot, White Wolf, Severed Press, and Crossroad Press amongst others. His many, many tie-in books include work for the series Supernatural, X-Files, and movie tie-ins like Kingsman: The Golden Circle and xXx: Return of Xander Cage. In addition to these, he has over one hundred short stories in publication. And now his latest short story collection is released through Nightscape Press and contains a staggering 19 stories. Let’s get straight to it.

‘For She is Fearfully and Wonderfully Made’ is a brief exercise in paranoia and mistrustful narrators. Yet even in its brevity, it still manages to give depth of character and creeping chills. A masterclass in concise story-telling. ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ is sharp tale of an adult forced to face a brief childhood trauma. Waggoner draws his two characters in quick detail—the overbearing, insensitive girlfriend and the timid, wishes-to-please boyfriend—spinning a Weird tale with some laugh out loud moments. Following this is ‘Blood and Bone’, an alternate reality tale in which everyone is a shape-shifter. The instincts of the beast are transposed to the modern, “civilised” world, juxtaposing the law of the jungle and office politics. A great story that begs to be explored further. In ‘Water’s Edge’ we have an apocalyptic tale of cosmic, Lovecraftian strangeness told in second person. Beautiful and striking imagery accompanies the horrors—born of nature but twisted, devolved—and though it feels but a fragment of something bigger, it is also strangely complete.

‘Cleaning Up’ follows an unnamed cleaning woman who starts a new job at a big, old house. She only has to follow two rules; stay away from the father working in the basement and leave the bedridden mother in the top room alone. But this house hides dark secrets. Luckily, so does our heroine. A deliciously dark tale that teases out its surprises and constantly shifts the narrative from our expectations. In ‘Weeper’, the trope of the Doppelganger is given a fresh, interesting take. A man is living with his wife and young daughter when he hears a noise in the garage. Investigating, he finds a copy of himself trying to park. He kills the interloper with a baseball bat. And then we discover this isn’t the first time. What follows is a moving and twisting tale of trying to recapture a moment in time. ‘Doozer is a Happy Cancer’ follows a homeless man living—if it can be called that—in a tent-town with others like him. It’s the bottom end of the scale for those lost and discarded. There, he meets a woman and her daughter who seem out of place. Soon, he finds out just why. Grim, mythic with a touch of the cosmic, it’s a fantastically well-conceived piece with a kicker of an ending.

‘The Talking Dead’ posits a world in which the deceased find a way to talk to their living relatives. But their message is not one of comfort or love. It is grim, hateful, and bleak. This story examines the descent into chaos such an event might generate. A truly affecting story, with wince-inducing, horrific imagery. Wonderful. ‘This is not a Horror Story’ is a brief little excursion to a DMV office with a terrifying secret. But despite its well-realised depiction of the monstrous hidden behind a façade of the official, it seems over before it can really explore its premise. This slight piece is followed by ‘None so Empty’, a surreal, almost magical realism story. Pete finds a plastic head in his apartment block’s dumpster and takes it home. As he cleans it up, it seems to exert a strange pull on him. He also spends his time trying to avoid the—to him—romantic attentions of his neighbour, Renee, who just happens to have no head yet can talk, eat, and drink as though she did. There’s a deep thread of black humour running through this one, yet there is also a sense of tragedy, of the lost and lonely. A wonderful, absurd literary work with fantastic central imagery and an unpredictable ending. Next up is ‘The Last Fear’, and an immersion in one of humanity’s most common fears; waking in the middle of the night convinced someone is intruding in the home. Waggoner takes his protagonist—and the reader—through the full gamut of emotions, thoughts, and worries, before pulling the rug with another unexpected yet fully integral ending.

‘In the Silence of the Night’, Waggoner uses the urban legend of the “Black-Eyed-Children” to weave a tale of loss, grief, and misplaced hope. It’s a lovely, understated piece that teases out its backstory while providing serious chills with the unfolding creepiness. Be warned; do not read this one alone at night. Or do. It’s genuinely, wonderfully frightening. ‘Day 12’ is another offbeat tale, in which a man is the last living passenger in a plane that seems to have come to life. Ravenous, predatory life. It has sucked sustenance from his fellow passengers and is now intent on feeding on a smaller plane. Our hero must stop it somehow… Offering zero explanation for the plane’s unlikely animation—often the best choice—Waggoner instead treats us to a quick tale of desperation and a battle against seemingly insurmountable odds. Another hugely entertaining story that works despite its brevity. Meanwhile, ‘Sun Hungry’ follows our tragic protagonist as he reluctantly attends his niece’s birthday party. The reason for his hesitance? He believes the sun is a sentient, malign being that steals life essence form those on the planet. What begins as a tale of deeply held paranoia shifts and mutates as it goes. Another fine piece.

The shortest story in the book, ‘Exit Strategy’ is a surreal journey into nightmare. To say any more would spoil it, but rest assured, despite its brevity, it is a worthy inclusion. ‘The Goggen’ introduces another monster, one which is reputed to be able to tell the future of those who seek it out. Yet the twist is, most don’t live to see this life. Our hero believes he can buck the trend. A nicely twisted tale that satisfies, though the ending is perhaps telegraphed just a shade too soon to truly shock or surprise. More monsters, this time vampires in ‘What Once was Flesh’. Here, Waggoner introduces both a new twist on the old myth and some interesting characters. It’s a hugely entertaining story, and one would hope to see more in this world. ‘Trespasser’ is a dark, psychological piece mixing mild obsession and charged, erotic memory. Some gorgeous imagery and a perfectly paced narrative drag the reader through the ringer to the entirely unexpected ending. Great stuff. Finally, we come to ‘Sky Watching’, a story that mixes styles. It begins—to this reader’s mind—with an almost tongue-in-cheek observance of the horror writer’s life, before shifting subtly into pure horror territory. Some really skin-crawling moments lead into to a terrifying cosmic-horror sensibility. It’s a great, and fitting, end to a fantastic collection.

Though every story is original and inventive, each one shares crisp prose and a clear intent to entertain and horrify, however that manifests. There is pretty much no fat here; each story is lean and muscular, the distillation of pure horror. If you’ve never read anything by Tim Waggoner, this would be a fine place to start. The book is lovely, solidly put together and with unique illustrations by Luke Spooner preceding each story. If you’re already a fan, you’ll want to dive right in as soon as you can. Another excellent addition of horror writing that comes highly recommended.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Nightscape Press.
Paperback: (214 pages)
Release Date: 26 May 2018

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