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Book Review: The Soul Standard by Caleb J. Ross, Nik Korpon, Richard Thomas, and Axel Taiari

“These four brilliant authors have brought their collective genius together to paint this unflinchingly violent, oppressively bleak city with the adroitness of world class painters, drawing vivid images on your imagination in varying shades of gray and frequent splashes of red.”

Shared world anthologies are rare in dark fiction, and when they do come along they are often subpar at best, with one or two good stories shoring up a collection of mediocre ones. So it’s a pleasure to come across one such as The Soul Standard, a book that brings us four outstanding authors with a quartet of tales all vying to be the best one in the bunch. While not technically horror, the book is as horrific as the worst nightmare you can imagine, each story sporting a cast of desperately broken characters and unreliable narrators, all living on the edge of the deep end, one or two of them maybe just past it.

Technically speaking The Soul Standard is an anthology of four interconnected novellas, but it doesn’t really read that way. The four authors brought together here, while all being very different in style and approach, have managed to bring the collection together so masterfully that it reads more like one novel length story, each novella a thematically intertwined, vocally similar chapter, often referring to people, events, and locations from the ones that have gone before. And while those similarities do exist, the authors in no way restrained themselves from doing their own thing, adding their own unique flavor to this brutal, black as night collection.

In Caleb J. Ross’ entry, ‘Financial District: Fall’ a man and a woman hunt for the source of an information leak, introducing us along the way to the harsh, often violent realities of the broken city. Here, money is losing its value, society beginning to place more worth on barter and “favors” and, because of this, organ harvesting is becoming the new get rich quick scheme for the city’s elite. Much like the financial moguls of our current generation, they’re not much concerned with ethics or honesty when it comes to amassing this new kind of wealth, even going so far as to con people out of their organs or just outright steal them. In addition to being an introduction to the new rules of this dangerous den of iniquity, it’s also a great start to the book as it propels the reader into the setting with incredible speed.

Amazingly, the book gets darker and bleaker as it goes. Nik Korpon’s ‘Red Light District: Punhos Sagrados,’ is the story of a boxer vying for a large prize purse so he can get his mentally ill wife the help she needs. One of the bloodiest, most violent tales in the collection, it shows us the dirty underbelly of a city that already seemed horrific, and the mood and outcome of this and all the rest of the stories in the book don’t get any brighter as we progress into Richard Thomas’ entry. The shining star in a collection comprised of shining stars, ‘The Outskirts: Golden Geese,’ introduces us to a sick man trying to come to some kind of terms with the sins he’s committed. The story is dark, bloody, surreal, and heartbreaking and not one that you’ll soon forget. Thomas’ creative genius lies partly in his ability to build incredibly emotional, beautifully broken characters that you find yourself committed to, living with them for the duration of the story and deeply caring about their fates.

Finally, we come to Axel Taiari’s ‘Ghost Town: Jamais Vu,’ and you couldn’t ask for a better, more powerful end to this outstanding collection. It’s the story of a man searching for his missing daughter, abducted three years ago from her school. The problem is, he has a condition called prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces, even of those he knows intimately. This adds layers of complexity and difficulty to an already frustrating search. Like the rest of the stories in the collection, it’s a brutal and bleak narrative, as dark and violent as they come, but it also serves the purpose of injecting a hint of hope and redemption, a touch of good in a city full of horrors.

The Soul Standard is unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year, or this decade. Think Sin City meets Blade Runner meets David Lynch and you’ll begin to have an inkling of what’s in store for you, but only a very small one. These four brilliant authors have brought their collective genius together to paint this unflinchingly violent, oppressively bleak city with the adroitness of world class painters, drawing vivid images on your imagination in varying shades of gray and frequent splashes of red. Dzanc Books has a reputation for only publishing the very highest quality fiction and The Soul Standard does nothing to tarnish that rep. This book is nothing short of excellent from cover to cover. If you’re looking for a great summer read, you’ll find it right here in The Soul Standard.

SHANE DOUGLAS KEENE

Publisher: Dzanc Books
Paperback: (280pp)
Release Date: 12 July, 2016

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