Monday, June 20, 2011

Lesser Demons

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm not a particular fan of crime and suspense fiction.  Under the right circumstances it, like horror fiction, can explore aspects of our existence no other type of fiction can, but only the few finest examples of that exploration are apt to interest me.  When crime and suspense are crossed with horror, however, that's another matter.  Supernatural Noir was such a book, and Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge is another.  These ten stories offer the hard-boiled characters and lean prose of detective novels, westerns, and other gritty fiction, but in addition to human monsters, they showcase giants, werewolves, and even odder beasts.  The hells the characters face are not only personal and psychological but, all too often, literal and deadly.

Partridge's heroes (mostly men) are the strong, silent type.  They aren't much on book-learning or other ruminations.  They've seen terrible things and prefer not to dwell on them.  They're survivors.  Frankly, they get a little monotonous, as neither their personalities nor their situations are always well-rounded enough to make them come alive.  The bare prose style of these stories likewise begins to wear on the nerves at times, particularly the short, stark paragraphs, which are presumably intended to achieve dramatic-weight but instead have an unintentionally self-parodic effect.  The grim imagery, usually effective, is always on a tightrope over the ridiculous, and sometimes falls off:
Kale smiled.  Though he stood in darkness, that same moonlight crept up his spines like a dozen furious scorpions in a hurry to plant stings at the base of his brain.  In his world, that wasn't unfamiliar feeling, and it dug down to his core like a grave robber's shovel, churning up secrets buried in the deepest, darkest corners of the shriveled black hunk he called his soul.
Mostly, though, this style, which is nominally cold-hearted but actually wears its heart on its sleeve (holy mixed metaphor, Batman!), succeeds at propelling the reader through the stories, which often feature inventive twists on classic scenarios.  The title story is a Lovecraftian affair, with ghouls and other eldritch beasties, but instead of reading about them and going gibbering mad, the narrator disposes of them neatly with guns.  This is thematically quite different from HPL, but, in its own way, equally satisfying.  Then there's "The House Inside," a post-apocalyptic story with a difference, in which the price of exposure to the light of the sun is ghastly to contemplate.  Or "The Iron Dead," an original novella where creatures that combine the worst aspects of the supernatural and the mechanical menace an isolated town.

Several stories have a psychological element.  In some cases, it doesn't work; prose that's good at describing characters who shun their traumas works less well at generating sympathy; its spareness is too obviously a front, and can feel as manipulative as sentimental fiction.  "The Big Man" in particular doesn't manage the subtlety it's trying to achieve with its story of an orphan, his cruel foster father, and the giant they're hunting.  In other cases, the stories do become emotionally as well as viscerally harrowing.  "And What Did You See in the World?" takes a married couple's sensitivity and protectiveness to disturbing extremes, while "The Fourth Stair Up from the Second Landing" is so subtle that it might not be a ghost story at all merely, merely a meditation on loneliness, regret, and the long shadows cast by the dead.  "Carrion" offers a vivid metaphor for the secrets we keep bottled up, and the ways in which different people can and can't survive them.  In an entertaining afterword with story notes, the author suggests he'll have more to say about the milieu of this story in the future, and I look forward to that continuation in whatever form it takes.

That same afterword notes the substantial range of Partridge's reading, from Ray Bradbury and Stephen King to The Twilight Zone to crime films,spaghetti westerns, and comic books.  The result of that range of influences is obvious in his fiction.  For all that the prose style becomes repetitive and some of the characterization is limited, Partridge offers quite a variety of situations and story types.  There's pulse-pounding monster-killing action, yes, but also quieter reflection on the darker corners of our lives.  It's not quite "something for everything," but Lesser Demons is definitely a worthwhile read for those who like the interaction of suspense and horror.

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