'There were bodies, human bodies, attached to the trees. The corpses stood upright against the knotted trunks everywhere the eye could see, each body tied with thick ropes around the chest and legs, though Officer Wesson thought he could see wires added for extra strength on some of the near-skeletal remains.'
I first encountered Calvin Demmer’s work ‘Deadman’s Tome II: Monsters Exist’, a riveting anthology which included Demmer’s chilling short story ‘Never Sleep Again’ about two detectives investigating the aftermaths of a bizarre serial killer. This was an engaging, chilling and well-written story, so I was excited when Demmer asked me to write an honest review for his debut collection The Sea Was A Fair Master: 23 Stories, a bringing together of his horror flash fiction containing themes of revenge, sinister magic, serial killers, strange children and alive with a whole host of characters that beg the question: just how far will we go to get what we want? Those wants range from the metaphysical – a man harvesting hearts to throw into the sea he worships – and the physical, such as an android hooked on the emotions generated by a faulty mechanical heart. This was a probing collection and certainly one I was interested to read from a technical point of view, as I was intrigued to see how Demmer would invoke horror in only a few hundred words per story.
The stories that best represents Demmer’s skill as a writer for me were ‘Yara’, ‘The One’, ‘Fear the Clowns’, ‘Trashcan Sam’ and ‘Snakes or Humans?’ While not necessarily the most horrific stories in this collection, I felt they were the most complete in terms of narrative story-telling and they displayed a playful cleverness. In ‘Yara’, undoubtedly my favourite, we meet the android Yara who is overusing her cobbled-together heart to experience the pain and longing left by death. The heart will drain her power and leave her for scrap, but her desire is stronger than cold fact. Demmer’s interpretation of an android as calculative but not unfeeling, logical but not all-knowing, was refreshing. Yara is also one of the few female main POV characters in this collection, which is mainly dominated by male serial killers, police officers, navy men and fathers. The pacing of ‘Yara’ was gentle and the story itself sorrowful, which I felt was out of place when compared the rest of the stories with their bloody horror themes. I would argue the sister-story to ‘Yara’ is ‘Graves’, where it is the dead perceiving the living, a man watching his wife at their daughter’s grave. In this story, colour plays a wonderful role and the touching sentimentality of the piece tapped into the closely held beliefs we have as a culture: whether we assign ourselves to a religion or not, we still hope there will be a paradise after death.
The other four stories sit much more comfortably within the collection. ‘The One’ is a chilling tale about the lengths a man will go to win the woman he loves. It is clever and structurally succinct, though there were a few too many similes for my tastes. Both ‘Fear the Clowns’ and ‘Trashcan Sam’ have funny, unexpected endings. Two great reads for anyone with a dark sense of humour! ‘Snakes of Humans?’ also had a clever ending, though I have to admit I would have liked to learn a little more detail about the main character’s setup and how he creates illegal poisons to target specific insects. While I do not expect all the answers in flash fiction, given the limited word length, I felt this was glossed over.
There were other stories where I felt the flash fiction format worked against the stories ability to immerse the reader. ‘Not Suicide’, where Billy Morgan is asked by Father Morris to take him to the exact spot on the sea where his pre-teen niece died, left me questioning. How did his niece die on a school field trip by drowning, when every school for legal reasons has to put their young students in life jackets? Was it that the life jacket was faulty? Had she taken it off? I wanted a line about how the tragic event was allowed to happen. The same went for ‘Sea Ate Nine’ – how did a single man harvest nine hearts in one conference room and get away with it? No CCTV? There must have been a lot of blood in that room and somehow no one caught up to him? We see him washing the blood off his body, but nothing is ever mentioned about the room or how he managed to take down nine fully-grown men with only a knife and a baseball bat.
Language is always tricky element in horror fiction. How do you make a reader feel unsafe? Disturbed? Paranoid? Some writers keep it simple, such as Stephen King with crisp and clear prose, while others take on a H.P. Lovecraft grandiose style. While I enjoyed many of Demmer’s stories, I found the language was often in conflict with the flow of the narrative. This was most frustrating during scenes of action, where I would expect the language to reflect the immediacy of the situation, yet found a more passive approach was used and often this stole the energy of the scene. In stories such as ‘Underneath’, this language works well as the story isn’t designed to shock but chill with the casual reaction the narrator has to the discovery of bodies and the power of a cursed house. It reflects the spell he has been put under. However, in ‘Revenge of the Myth’, the language slows the moment the action increases, with phrases such as ‘needing to inhale’ adding unnecessary passivity as a man is captured by a mythological horror. In ‘Not Suicide’, Billy awkwardly says “a part of me was unsure if this was reality” and in the clever, chilling ‘Evolution = Crime’ the narrative reads “a loud clang alerted Ricky and Alex of activity at the end of the alley”. As standalone stories, this tendency would likely go unnoticed, but as a collection the language a reader hears more of the writer’s voice and can pin-point the habits. The same can be said for words frequently used such as ‘paralysis’ as well as repeated references to moonlight and blood. Demmer also has a general A to B structure to his flash fiction: something happens then the result follows. This built up a predictability as a collection, particularly as many of the stories end bloody. I would therefore enjoyed more stories like ‘Yara’ and ‘Graves’ to help water down the mix.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection, both from a reader and a writer’s point of view. It was a daring collection and many of the stories will stick with me. I am not easily frightened by fiction, horror or otherwise. So while I did not find this collection scary, that lack of reaction allowed me to appreciate their construction and the storytelling elements. I always enjoy seeing the skeleton under the skin.