Book Review: Little Black Spots by John F.D. Taff

“From body horror, to vampires, to the downright strange, to horror of a quieter nature, the full spectrum of the genre is on display. The through line is the exquisite storytelling of a skilled and masterful author.”

 

Known to imbue his work with a sense of emotional tribulation, “King of Pain” John F.D. Taff has earned the nickname and reputation with work including the Bram Stoker Award nominated The End In All Beginnings (Grey Matter Press, 2014), a collection of 5 emotionally-charged horror novellas, and The Desolated Orchard (originally published in 2016 as a standalone, now part of Cutting Block Books Volume 1, 2017), not to mention the numerous works of short fiction included in anthologies from Crystal Lake Publishing, Grey Matter Press and Bloodshot Books. He is also the author of novels The Bell Witch and Kill-Off, as well as his first collection, Little Deaths (all republished by Grey Matter Press in 2018).

The Opening story, ‘The Immolation Scene’, is a horrific love story revolving around protagonist Corey and his once-girlfriend Amy. The catalyst for their break-up is the thing that makes them different from most people, the thing that could make them a part of the immolation scene, if only Corey would accept it. But he fights against it, against Amy, fearing that which makes him unique. The scenes shared by Corey and Amy are beautifully written by Taff, but it maintains its horror at the core.

‘The Bunny Suit’ wears its body horror image like a badge of honour. After an unsettling introduction to the first-person narrator while he indulges in his secret pastime away from home, we see him discussing Halloween costumes with his wife. While he secretly bemoans the tradition and how it is so unlike his truly dark nature, he goes along with his wife to choose their costumes. She selects a full-body bunny suit that proves to have a disquieting effect on her which, in turn, has a deeply disturbing effect on him. A bloodier offering from the author, but one which displays his range.

‘The Depravity of Inanimate Things’ sees “movie distributor” Nick disturbed by the voices that whisper gruesome suggestions in his ear when some kids ruin his recording in a movie theater. But where are the voices coming from? Taff doesn’t waste time in leading up to the surreal events of this story and, so, to say much more about the story would be to spoil it. But the dialogue and characterisation are brilliant and, although it is markedly different from the first two stories, it is crafted so well, just as we would expect from this author.

‘A Winter’s Tale’ concerns three young siblings—David, Howie, and Maggie—and one less-than attentive mother. There is more to the story, obviously, but the interaction between oldest sibling David and their mother as well as the descriptive language about the mother’s lifestyle and her lack of concern is so well done that, if the author had chosen to steer clear of the horror and the Lovecraft undertones, this could have worked just as well as a character study of a dysfunctional family and alcoholic parent. The relationships and interactions between characters, as well as peeling back the layers of characters, are especially strong points of Taff’s craft.

‘Their Hands’ is Taff’s attempt at flash fiction, the shortest story in the collection.  And he manages to do what only the best can; convey so much while saying so little. He hints at a deeper story as a strange lone traveller picks up two young women at a campground and takes them back to his RV. We are offered only a glimpse at the troubled man’s psyche, but it is as much the way Taff describes the man, as well as what he doesn’t say, that makes this story so effective.

Taff’s take on the erotic horror subgenre, ‘Just a Phone Call Away’, finds a newly unemployed woman, Cynthia, struggling to figure out what she can offer prospective employers that will make her stand out. Then she remembers colleagues’ reactions to her husky voice. A chance reading of an ad in the newspaper gives her the idea of a phone-sex line. But she doesn’t bargain on the unusual kinks of her callers. Or how it will affect herself. Not for the faint of heart, due to some graphic, yet highly effective, violence. And a truly stunning finale.

In ‘Everything Must Go’, while on a date, and to the chagrin of Kaylie, Brian becomes fascinated by a previously overlooked storefront. Perhaps if his level of interest hadn’t passed ‘fascination’ and headed straight on to ‘obsession’ things could have turned out better for Brian and Kaylie. As it is, he keeps returning to the storefront, the entrance hidden behind a black curtain, the shadow cast by the awning seemingly blocking all light and sound from the passing traffic and oblivious pedestrians. What lies beyond the curtain? Brian needs to know, but at what cost? The description of Brian’s descent into obsessive madness is compelling.

The premise for ‘Purple Soda Hand’ is simple, if disturbing. A young boy finds an unopened bottle of purple liquid he takes to be grape soda. It’s a hot day. The seal on the bottle appears to be unbroken. His mouth grows drier as he stares at the refreshing liquid. Only when he takes a sip does he notice the item inside the bottle. The boy and his friend are disgusted. But it doesn’t stop them from taking the bottle home for their sleepover. The strange happenings and the power of the thing in the bottle are only the beginning, but they are not the true horror of the story. That lies in the effect the purple soda has on the two boys. This story has a very strange premise, but the characters make it gripping and horrific. A real page-turner and proof that Taff can take the strangest situation and still deliver a creepy tale with heart.

‘A Kiss From the Sun for Pardon’ opens with an unknown protagonist awaking in a motel and suffering from amnesia. This is often cited as an overused opening, but Taff doesn’t allow his character to linger long in the motel. Instead, he finds a business card that leads him to a private club and, ultimately, the answers he seeks. On the surface, it is a short vampire tale. But, at its core, it is a tragic love story, where the protagonist must reconcile his desire to be human once more with his love for another. He can’t have both. For many readers, the mere mention of vampires is enough to make them skip a story. But, if you are familiar with Taff’s work, you know this would be a mistake. He possesses the necessary skill and experience to eschew the done-to-death tropes, not to mention the new, angst-ridden teenage-friendly neckbiters, and instead offer something wholly original with a fresh perspective.

‘The Dark Level’ explores the horror of the high-rise parking structure. Not just what everyday dangers could be lurking in the shadows, but the nature of the building itself. Exasperated with the lack of affordable parking near his office, Jim drives around town, looking for an alternative. What he finds seems too good to be true. But when he tries to park in his new spot on Monday morning, things take a surreal turn. It begins slowly before taking a truly weird, and wonderful, detour. Taff ramps up the creep factor with nightmarish imagery and blood-chilling terror. It is an excellent and strange tale that taps into the human nature to survive, and delivers a terrific ending.

In ‘The Bitches of Madison County’, nature photographer, Donald Harmon, finds himself out of work and back home after three decades of globetrotting. His latest project came to an abrupt end, the cause of which only hinted at, but it appears that Harmon is to blame for a fairly serious incident in Kenya. We soon learn, though, that there is a darkness in Harmon who, when left without work, makes work of his own. He rents an apartment in a complex that is popular with single women and does what he does best; studies his subjects through his camera lens. He fills notebooks with detailed notes of behaviours and patterns, but nobody catches his eye. Until he witnesses his neighbour, Jayne, seduce the paper boy. Thus begins an obsession that leads the ever-unravelling Harmon to go to disturbing lengths to get his ultimate shot.

‘The Night Moves’ sees Taff stretch his poetry muscles. It still fulfills all the criteria for a short story, with a beginning/middle/end, characters, and a plot. But the way it is delivered is unlike anything else in the collection. Taff gets more colourful with his descriptive language and similes, his prose becoming almost musical to the reader’s ear. A man wanders the street at night, encountering many strangers, each reacting to his gaze by remembering some forgotten truth or shameful secret. Each experience their hidden thoughts in some visceral way, everything beautifully documented by the author.

‘Gethsemane, In Rain’ offers four snapshots of a small town, each segment taken by a different resident. The vignettes are interwoven with seemingly effortless ease and, while the horror is subtle and any supernatural elements merely hinted at, the writing is perfect. An elderly man bemoans having to drive to the pharmacy in the rain for his sick wife, until a haunting interruption sends him straight home. A man visits an upholsterer with whom he shares an unknown and potentially heart-breaking connection. A man with terminal cancer and months to live receives a plea for help from an unknown neighbour. A young boy, seemingly in foster care – or something more sinister – reflects on his horrible situation. Taff excels when it comes to character development and revealing exposition through dialogue and inner thoughts of his characters. He gives the reader enough to keep the stories moving forward at a steady pace without revealing everything in one go. Often the strongest stories hint at deeper emotions and allow the reader to find their own way.

One of the longer stories, ‘The Coriolis Effect (Or, Chiromancy for Beginners)’ concerns the unnamed narrator and his brother, Stephen, returning to their childhood home to prepare it for sale after the passing of their mother. They are both fully grown men and, during the long drive, reminisce about their childhood, specifically, the night a naked man attempted to kidnap them through their bedroom window. The story jumps back and forth seamlessly between the road trip and memories the narrator has about his past, and the disturbing truth about their family. Perfectly paced, the revelations come at the right times, urging the reader on to the ending and the one terrible revelation that still remains for the narrator. A fantastic read.

The final story is an alternate version of the final days of President Abraham Lincoln. ‘Lincoln & Booth at the Orpheum’ opens with Abraham and Mary Todd residing in San Francisco, the country still coming to terms with the Civil War, the Confederate Army victorious. Living in disgrace, troubled by aches and pains and the unsettling feeling of a greater wrong, the former president has a chance encounter in the street with an actor, John Wilkes Booth. After the meeting, Lincoln notices that his aches aren’t as severe, causing him to become obsessed with the actor, determined that he holds the answer to the ominous feelings and dreams that have been plaguing him. As a thought experiment, it considers the idea of predestination and fate. As a story, it is wonderfully executed, the characters ringing true and the setting beautifully rendered. Taff truly captures the voice of the era.

Whether it is author or publisher or a combination, whoever is responsible for the placement of the stories is to be commended. From the first story to the last, every one was so unique that no-one could foretell what each held. From body horror, to vampires, to the downright strange, to horror of a quieter nature, the full spectrum of the genre is on display. The through line is the exquisite storytelling of a skilled and masterful author. Taff has earned his moniker through years of hard work and diligence to his craft, so some may take this collection for granted. But his offering, in a year of strong entries in single author collections, should not be understated. This is one of the best collections of the year.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Grey Matter Press
Paperback: 310 (pps)
Release Date: 17 September 2018

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