By George Ilett Anderson
Paint it Black
I have to be honest and say that this year hasn’t exactly been a bundle of joy for me on many levels. Over its course, I’ve noticed a growing sense of detachment and disconnection from the world around me; things that normally would have given me great joy and pleasure such as reading and reviewing have disappeared into this hazy, numbing fog through which very little penetrates. Part of me thinks that this state of affairs hasn’t exactly been helped by my choice of reading material which has tended to err on the darker side of horror fiction encompassing tales of despair, alienation and loss. So I find it somewhat of a surprise that the book that I’ve just read has resonated so strongly with me and cut through the emotional dissonance that I’ve been experiencing. It isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a book that I would define as being filled with light and joy. In fact, “Bones are Made to be Broken” by Paul Michael Anderson is quite the opposite, a trawl through some of the darker and more disturbing recesses of the human condition.
I can’t say with any clarity just what it is about this collection from Dark Regions Press that has struck such a deep chord with me but it most definitely has touched something. As I sit her and rack my brains as to what it is, the thought that keeps popping up over and over is that well known quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “And when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” To me this collection has this almost reflective quality to it, mirroring things I’ve thought and felt. It does strike me as a very personal and intimate body of work and one in which the incisive knife wielded by Anderson cuts rather too deep in places. Yet despite that compulsive urge to look away, the nuanced observation of what makes people tick coupled with the quality of the storytelling is mesmerizing. As I sit here typing, I find myself a bit lost for words as to explain how damn good this debut collection actually is. However, seeing as this is a review rather than some sort of confession, I’ll just have to do the best that I can.
I think it’s probably safe to say, at least from my perspective, that Bones are Made to be Broken is an outstanding collection. It’s one of those books that I think I’ll be revisiting time and time again for a read. Each successive read thus far has peeled back more of the layers that Anderson works into his stories, whether that is the ideas or the fully realized and recognizable characters that inhabit and breathe throughout his writing. It’s the kind of collection that is both beautiful and ugly in equal measure and blurs the line between different styles of genre fiction, especially horror and science fiction. The one constant is how terrifying the depths of the human mind and soul can be.
Following a foreword from Damien Angelica Walters and a short introduction by the author, the collection kicks off with “Crawling Back to You,” a refreshing take on that old horror fiction staple, vampirism. The story focuses on the abusive and parasitic relationship between vampire and servant where each is as equally corrupt and manipulative as the other. As an introduction to the collection, I can’t fault the writing on display here. It’s a deliciously wicked tale of moral ambiguity and nicely sets the tone for what you are about to be served, stories of individuals trapped in a maze of conflicting emotions where the choices aren’t easy and the outcome is invariably going to err on the bleak side. In a similar vein to its predecessor, “Survivor’s Debt” squeezes fresh blood out of the tried and tested ghost story. Recounted from the perspective of Silva, a widowed teacher, this follows his encounter with his colleague and friend Billy Kinson who appears to be haunted and hunted by the ghosts of his past. Billy is a Vietnam veteran who is convinced that his survival was dependant upon the sacrifice of his squad members and he is required to restore the balance of karma. I really liked the ambiguous nature of the story here. I couldn’t really tell whether Kinson’s ghosts were real or symptomatic of a mind damaged by his experiences of war. What I can say is that this is a damn fine piece of storytelling that plays around with your expectations and makes something old seem new again.
The next story in the collection, “Baby Grows a Conscience” is another story that plays around with your perception. It starts off with a man called Rich waking up disorientated and armed in a house with a card that reads, “Kill them all and survive.” Encountering three other adults and a young girl, Rich is forced to do the unthinkable. However, looks can be very deceiving, especially when you are dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Again, I can’t fault the writing on display here, Anderson paints a growing sense of unease that all is not right with the world depicted until the final moments where the titular character realises the full extent of her power and influence over those who appear to contain and control her. Similarly, the next few stories in the collection blur the distinction between horror and science fiction.
The first of these is “A Nice Town with very Clean Sheets” which starts off in a pulp science fiction style before mutating into something that feels like it was pulled from the pages of Weird Tales. This follows the survivors of a crash landing who find themselves stranded on an isolated mining outpost in the middle of an intergalactic war but find that there are far more insidious forces at work in the universe. What can I say? I thoroughly enjoyed this story about the effects of isolation and how it influences your choice in the face of a cold and uncaring cosmos. That feeling that cosmic horror engenders of an indifferent void is heightened in the excellent, “The Doorway Man.” Jake Reznic is a man who wants to get places fast and in his desperation to ascend the corporate ladder, turns to the titular character for help. Given access to a pill, Jake finds that drugs can literally be a gateway to a different state of being. Though whether the doors of perception are ones you want to open up and step through is another matter entirely, especially if what lurks beyond the threshold is painfully hungry. I really liked the stark and foreboding tone in this story and it’s playing around with what the consequences of an addiction really are, especially if you have an empty soul. It is just a fantastically bleak slice of otherness.
What really lurks in the soul, biding its time, is reflected in “Love Song for the Rejected.” This is just a beautifully observed piece about the precarious nature of emotions and relationships. Evelyn, born with a stained glass window in her breast plate, literally has a window to her soul; a soul that increasingly dims with the pain of rejection and proves to be an attractive lure to something far darker and destructive from her past. I think this was about the point where I was dumb struck as to how captivating Anderson’s style of writing is. He just weaves this great tale that is ostensibly about rejection but threads in these ideas about fate and destiny with hints of family curses and witchcraft thrown in. It is, for want of better words, a bit of s Bobby Dazzler! The nature of memory and how time influences and shapes it is examined in the excellent “The Universe is Dying.” This feels almost like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone as James McIntyre finds himself trapped in a small town where what he perceives as time and reality are put to the test and he is forced into a confrontation with a past he’d rather forget. This is an absolute peach of story that has this steadily encroaching sense of dread permeating it as John goes round and round in ever decreasing circles to his inevitable fate. By comparison, “Surviving the River Styx” feels almost like a breather and a bit of comic relief. Well, in as much as cruise passengers slaughtering each other after a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning can be that is. It certainly offers the protagonist a rather unique form of therapy to cure his anxieties and phobia, especially when he is all at sea in his personal life.
With the next story however, we plunge back into altogether more familiar waters with the dark depths of “The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready Made Victim),” a gut twisting tale of the tenuous nature of familial relationships. This follows Ben, coming to terms with the abuse meted out to his younger sibling Jude by the world around him, especially from those closest to him. Much like its title indicates this story is an excruciating look at the pain and anguish that a person can have thinking about things that cannot be said for fear of where they will lead you to. This is just a devastating story that will leave you feeling hollowed out and empty come the conclusion. The idea of achieving what you yearn for without consideration of the real consequences is brought to the fore in “Reflecting the Heart’s Desire.” Set in the aftermath of what appears to have been a natural disaster in which a town’s inhabitants have vanished; this follows a student called Janine who is supporting the effort to investigate just what actually happened. Searching through the remnants of a shop she discovers the means to cut through her present reality and view that which may have been. Unfortunately for her, craving a different reality isn’t without its consequences, especially when anger and jealousy are part of the deal. It is a sharply effective weird horror tale that is perhaps best summed up by the phrase, “Caveat Emptor.”
How the echoes of the past influence the present is brought to the fore in the science fiction tinged tale of ghosts that is “To Touch the Dead.” This is set in a future where the history of human existence is commemorated through the work of Memory Coordinators in the People’s History Project. The MC’s are ostensibly historians psychically attuned to experience the residual lives that people leave behind on everyday objects after death. One such person is Gregor, whose efforts to research and document the lives lived has become rather an all too consuming passion and one where his interest has far reaching consequences. I don’t really want to say more about this story rather than it’s another quite startling take on the ghost story form.
The question of what it means to exist is at the forefront of the protagonist’s thoughts in the excellent “In the Nothing – Space, I am what you made me.” Set in the same universe as the fourth story in the collection, the story follows a bored space technician manning an isolated space station way out on the frontier. In a bid to combat the loneliness of his solitary vigil he decides to upload his mind into the systems running the ship. Unfortunately, there are very specific reasons why Alan is separated from the rest of his crew and this is made painfully obvious as his virtual copy becomes increasingly erratic and malicious in intent. This is a suitably dark and introspective slice of horror tinged science fiction as Alan is forced into a battle of wills where his very thoughts are his enemy.
Which brings me to the dark jewel in the crown that is “Bones are Made to be Broken.” This novella length story is a really rather brutal and unflinching look at the war people can have with themselves. If there’s one story in here that’s guaranteed to get under your skin and stay there, burrowing deeper into your thoughts it’s this. The story is an exceptionally well drawn and harrowing slice of writing about the pain of living in an untenable position whilst attempting to dealing with your personal demons. I can guarantee you that this story makes you feel like Anderson has flensed your flesh to expose the raw tissue and nerves beneath but with the added bonus of pouring salt on your wounds. It’s the story of Karen as she battles to provide for her son in the face of an impending divorce and the war going on inside in both her head and heart. This is an incredibly harrowing tale of psychological horror where the knife cuts deep and will undoubtedly leave permanent scars on your soul long after you’ve finished reading. That’s a sentiment that I would also levy at the final story in the collection, “All that you Leave Behind” which deals with the regret and sorrow of a couple following the miscarriage of their first child. This is another gut wrenching story that takes a psychological horror approach but adds ghost story trappings to tremendous effect; juxtaposing the life that could have been with the reality that exists to create this mesmerizing portrayal of the disintegration of reality and sanity. Much like the story that precedes it, this will leave you a bit floored.
Which is probably the easiest way that I can sum up the experience of reading Bones are Made to be Broken. Not only do you have excellent stories but each one is accompanied by a highly evocative illustration from Pat R. Steiner that really nails the sombre mood. Reading this review some of you are probably wondering where the actual horror is but like the genre as a whole, horror comes in all shapes and sizes to suit. In this particular case what you have here is a breathtaking collection of vividly realized stories bursting with style and striking imagery but with a whole stack of heart and soul. For me, it’s the kind of book that has reawakened and reinvigorated part of me that I thought was lost. As I sit here and type these words, I can understand that that sounds somewhat pretentious but Bones are Made to Be Broken has definitely rekindled the passion and joy that I have had for the written word. Do yourself a similar favour and buy it, this really is quite a stunning collection of work.