This review first appeared in Horrified magazine in 2021
First of all, that’s a great title. This debut solo collection from J.C. Michael is an intriguing mix, showing talent and ambition. Michael lists James Herbert and Clive Barker among his influences, so this collection seemed to be right up my street. How did it bear up?
The title story is first, and is a darkly comic tale displaying an apocalyptic level of misanthropy from a protagonist (or perhaps antagonist) for whom everything is indeed annoying. Such misanthropy has a healthy tradition in horror – Thomas Ligotti, please stand up – but can also be an easy fall-back position to justify morally unpleasant attitudes. This story escapes by following its own twisted logic – but elsewhere in the collection ‘Daddy’ falls into this trap and is largely just unpleasant.
The influence of James Herbert is particularly evident in ‘Ascalon’, which starts like a taut thriller, with explosions at a hospital, and fears of terrorism. But that isn’t how it plays out, and it takes a more fantasy/horror turn once the police are sent a video by the perpetrator explaining his actions. Things get increasingly weird as the story enters a world of corruption and conspiracy, with a torture scene like something from Hellraiser (UK, Clive Barker, 1987). But the end of the story feels a bit compressed, and – like some of the other stories here – would benefit from expansion to novella length.
One of the longer tales, ‘When Death Walks the Field of Battle’ is superb, and probably my favourite. It posits a great scenario without ever explaining everything away: we are among conscripts in what seems like the First World War, but with mention of both Playstations and zombies this is seemingly a post-apocalyptic world, the details of which Michael, to his credit, largely withholds. Private Powley is our hero, faced with the moral dilemma of whether to shoot someone advancing across no man’s land. This story has real depth, and sits a whole level above some of the others. I’d happily read much more of this quality from the author.
Elsewhere, we have another moral dilemma in ‘Chains’, where ‘the devil made me do it’ is no excuse. ‘There Was A Girl’ is an existentialist vampire vignette, and ‘The Nasty Old Troll’ is an enjoyably sweary Swords-and-Sorcery fantasy grudge match: or so it first appears.
Some of the longer stories would benefit from being longer still, because there’s vision at work in this collection, and an ambition that deserves further exploration. ‘Nineham’s Arrogance’ is a sci-fi Western, in which the eponymous character – a time-travelling ‘lawman from Texas’ – faces his 1880s predecessors. The story begins with Nineham at gunpoint, and develops into something between Looper (US, Rian Johnson, 2012) and A Fistful of Dollars (Italy, Sergio Leone, 1964). Nineham warns his captors that if he tells them his tale and they listen to the end, they’ll regret it; but if they leave before he’s finished, they’ll have a great tale to tell at the saloon: a really clever touch. That’s just the start, as Nineham and his companion Yates hunt Jack the Ripper in deepest Texas. There’s also a great twist, and one which time-travel fiction rarely (as far as I know) acknowledges, where Michael explores the implicit arrogance of time travellers who assume that their own actions can’t be judged and subsequently revised by their future, and so on.
Another story that could do with expansion is ‘Scarabs’. This is reminiscent of very early Clive Barker, or perhaps Shaun Hutson: a corporate VP is offered a chance to prove his credentials to run the company by means of a magical, parasitic, gold scarab. Again, I felt that there was more just below the surface that could have been teased out. I wanted to know more about the scarab, and see its effects – and the company president’s game played out – in gory detail.
A bit more character development would also lift ‘The Fisherman’. Here, a thuggish father becomes concerned about the time his son is spending at the local church, in the company of a new vicar. Neil (the father) is drawn in broad brushstrokes, and I felt that a little more nuance would spark an emotional charge in the reader and make for a more complex reaction at the climax.
This is a promising collection, and a little more work in places could really elevate it. J.C. Michael shows potential: some of these stories display an impressive breadth of vision and ambition, and with a bit more development to explore the depths he’s clearly capable of, I’d happily read more.