I have to admit to having an ulterior motive for picking this one up. As a writer, I'm intrigued by experiments in form, and the notion of 99 horror stories, each written in 99 words, proved to be an irresistible pull. I had two questions going in: could the authors actually pull this off? And if they did, what on earth would it be like to read?
Well, the answer to the first question is a pretty emphatic 'yes'. Andrew Garvey and Mike Staples pull off the premise with some aplomb, actually. Each 99 word section is indeed a story, with character, plot, and in I think all cases, a twist ending, or at least dark punchline. The stories run the gamut, 3rd person, 1st person, historical, present day, a huge rage of settings and voices. All are dark, and all are grounded – no out-and-out bizzaro stuff here. There is a bewildering array of stories presented, with no obvious repetition or recycling of characters or ideas. As a work of sustained imagination, it's incredibly impressive, albeit occasionally disorienting.
Which begs that second question – what is it like to read? Well, it's a different experience, that's for sure. Running to just under 10,000 words, it's a slender volume, but the sheer density of content means there's a lot going on within those pages. The wide ranges of styles, voices and settings, compounded by two authors with their own distinct approaches, did occasionally lead to what I suppose I would describe as stylistic whiplash. Occasionally, I found myself longing for a recurring character or motif, something that might hint as a deeper, master narrative, but it wasn't to be. In fairness to the authors, it wasn't advertised as such, so that really is on me, and speaks more to how much this approach is different from other anthologies than a fault as such.
The one thing that all the stories do have in common is a twist ending. Again, given the requirement for each 99 word section to be a story, as opposed to a vignette, this was almost certainly unavoidable, and while many of the twists were both unexpected and earned (an amazing feat to pull off in such restricted circumstances) inevitably some of them didn't quite land for me. Additionally, because I was reading a new story almost every page, I found myself experiencing twist fatigue at some points.
Similarly, though on the whole the prose was flowing and skilfully executed, there were some moments where I could feel the writers straining against the word count restriction, leading to some occasionally unusual word choices or sentence structures, and some stories felt of necessity abrupt.
Overall, though, I found this collection to be a triumph of ambition and imagination. I encountered some truly inspiring and disturbing stories, and this collection has also made me think much more deeply about economy of story telling, and just how much can be achieved with 99 words and enough ideas, patience, and skill. If you're in the mood for something very different, and in particular if you have any interest in the genre of flash fiction, I can happily recommend this fine collection.