Gristle and Bone is a collection of seven... long short stories? Novelettes? Novellas? Let's just call them 'tales of varying lengths,' shall we? Seven dark tales. And I'm not messing about with that label – Mr. Ralston writes horror fiction that is unflinching and pulls no punches – many of these yarns do a fine job of invoking that sinking feeling, the creeping certainty that Very Bad Things are about to happen.
And then, they do.
'Baby Teeth' is a case in point. The opener is a bleak study of loss and alienation, an all-too-common tragedy that pulls a couple apart. This is raw, painful subject matter, and Ralston handles it with deftness and sensitivity, without ever sugar coating or dipping into maudlin sentiment. It's a skillful and assured piece of storytelling that tightens the screws with ruthless efficiency as it builds to a horrific and surprising climax.
From there we visit 'Fat Of The Land', another couple with relationship problems, and a restaurant recommendation that leads to... well, best not to spoil the surprise. What really stuck with me on this one was the sense of the characters. The husband and wife depicted here are superbly realised, and the contours of their relationship manages to be both unique and depressingly familiar. It's a real tour-de-force of characterisation, such that when this couple start to become imperiled, I really felt like I knew them, and was rooting for them, despite their flaws and foibles.
'Beware Of Dog' is more traditional fare – though, again, Ralston does a really good job of evoking the way the ghosts of childhood can bleed into the modern day – how the grudges and fears of our youth can often return to us as adults with surprising power. These sections of the story really shine – especially the sequence where the protagonist meets one of his former tormentors in a supermarket, and the man tries to be friendly. It's a genuinely tense, uncomfortable, and thrilling sequence, all with the most banal of trappings – two men talking in a shopping aisle. This is assured, skillful writing, and the prose is lean and flowing – Ralston seems to know when and how to get out of the way and let the characters tell the story. A rare talent.
'//End User' evoked a personal nightmare of mine, so it's kind of hard to judge this one objectively. Suffice it to say that Ralston found one of my buttons here and mashed it good and hard, and by the end I was pretty comprehensively freaked out. At the risk of belabouring a point, the lead character is again superbly well drawn.
'Viral' manages to find an interesting angle on digital youth and the 'YouTube' generation, which probably qualifies the author for some kind of award, given how many times this has been attempted and failed. And yet again I find myself banging the character drum, both the lead and also the grief stricken parents. It's painfully well observed stuff.
'Artifact (#37)' took me closer than I'd care to get to the seedier underbelly of Internet porn, and the colourful people who make it. The sense of dread in this piece builds with the reader faster than with the none-too-bright protagonists, but yet again the skill of Ralston's characterisation is such that I did not find myself taken out of the story by their relative stupidity, but rather felt a twinge of sympathy for these unpleasant, flawed, but undeniably human characters.
‘Scavengers’ closes out the collection with what feels like a classic urban myth treated very seriously indeed. It's an intriguing central concept, and the first person narrative an interesting choice. The voice of that narrator is arguably too well done, in that at points I found his digressions and turn of phrase almost intrusive – but again, the character feels utterly authentic and uncomfortably real.
In summation, and this is not a trigger I pull lightly, but the writer I was forcibly reminded of when reading this collection is one of the grand masters of the genre – King. Like King, Ralston seems to have an instinctive grasp of both voice and character. Like King, Ralston seems to understand that true horror comes from putting people we understand, care about, know, into peril. And also like King, he knows not to look away when the fur starts to fly.
I am not saying Ralston is as good as King. I AM saying that, with time, dedication, and luck, he has a lot of the raw ingredients needed to write at that level. I have read a lot of indie fiction in the last three years, as I've begun my own journey into the strange world of creative writing, and Duncan Ralston is one of the brightest talents I've yet encountered. As good as this story collection is, I really feel like this guy is just getting started, and I'm beyond excited to see what he does next.