Daniel Soule’s In Tooth & Claw (Rotten Row Publishing), an anthology of surreal and supernatural horror stories, begins with the novelette, Plight of the Valkyrie, the story of a soul-reaping guild that seeks out a empathic, medically skilled serial killer for recruitment. The premise is fascinating, however, the deployment of a extremely lengthy monologue midway into the story concerning the purpose of the spectral guild to which the protagonist (Mortimer) belongs both saps the story of its tension and, at the same time, creates a build-up without a pay-off. That the guild angle is central to the story and also the very thing which removes the unsettling atmosphere the story generates in its impressively moody introduction suggests that the story might have been more effective without recourse to supernaturalism, as Val’s murderous medical proclivities proved sufficiently intriguing so as to have been able to carry the tale in its entirety, should the author have so-desired.
The next story—The Breed—is one of the best in the collection. The tale centers on a number of paratroopers from Nevada who are sent to the Middle East to liquidate a number of Farsi-speaking and thus, presumably Persian, terrorists at the behest of the US military. Of course, given the title, one can assume the novel angle: The soldiers are werewolves, born out of a secret nazi experiment that was coopted by the US government. Despite deploying a premise reminiscent of David Brückner’s Iron Wolf, the narrative nevers falls to schlocky mediocrity, firstly, owing to the deftness and three-dimensionality with which the paratroopers are detailed, secondarily because of the competence of the prose and the structure of the story, and thirdly because the narrative threads are drawn together with a seriousness and authenticity typically absent from the kind of exploitation and shock-horror film it brings to mind. The 1987 film Predator is mentioned in the story’s opening and presents itself as a good point of comparison, as The Breed is as different from Iron Wolf as the beginning of Predator is from its own middle and end.
To Kill A Quisquilia (a title I first erroneously read as ‘To Kill A Quesadilla’) concerns a young woman’s death and a supernaturally gifted boy’s contention with a demon (the titular ‘quisquilia’) disguised as a garbage truck (which, as far as disguises go, is quite original). The tale provides a tonal break from the two proceeding tales, as it begins as a grim mystery and swiftly develops into a jaunty, macabre comedy. A welcome bit of levity to break the tension of the preceding tales.
Next is The Switch, a psychologically introspective murder mystery. Its interesting in that the mystery lies not in who the killer is, but in why the killer did what she did (the reveal is quite gripping, so I shant spoil it).
After that is The Breed: The Last Watch, a continuation of The Breed’s mythos. It fails to match up to the original, chiefly because of its clumsy structure, as the reader is constantly jostled between numerous underdeveloped characters which are scattered throughout different time-periods. The problem with the story is not that there are time-jumps, but rather that one has no idea what is going on as a consequence thereof.
Next up, Only Some Things, the story of a deformed man waiting at a bus stop. Though emotionally evocative, it feels unfinished, namely because it ends so abruptly. As a sketch for a longer work, however, its thoroughly intriguing.
Next is Witchopper, my personal favorite in the collection, which tells the tale of a father and son who set out to investigate the veracity of a local urban legend. Unlike, The Breed: The Last Watch, the time-jumps are very deftly deployed such that never once did I have to re-read a line or skim back up to the preceding page in a attempt to understand what was going on. It also features several scenes of impressively atmospheric tension.
Concluding the anthology is The Lostling, which, much like Only Some Things, is a story about which little can be said, as it also feels underdeveloped. There is no middle or end, but only the introduction of a introduction. That being said, it is also one of the most ambient and haunting of all the pieces.
In Tooth & Claw is a thoroughly mixed-bag, but never a boring one.
My thanks to Mr. Daniel Soule for providing me with a early copy of the anthology.