I am, apart from several other roles, a speculative fiction writer. And 'horror' is an equally important element of the super-category for me. I like to call my horror pieces 'dark fantasy' – as I like the subtle, and I don't necessarily want to go heavy on gore, nor do I like to dabble in standard motifs, like zombies and vampires. And yet I will dabble in the more extreme on occasion. The term 'dark fantasy' is not a clearly defined concept, but one that I'm more comfortable with than most. John Claude Smith's Dark is Light Enough For Me is an anthology of dark fantasy, interspersed with horror, but none of the stories consist of recurring popular motifs – internally or within the genre. Each story is original, and in most cases, very dark indeed – coal black.
Smith's anthology isn't for the sensitive or the faint-hearted. Many of the stories are edgy, working on concepts and thoughts that all us adults are familiar with, but rarely talk about. Smith isn't being quirky, or finding satisfaction in the gory, sexually perverse or the profane. No, he is writing this stuff because it unbalances the reader. Disturbs. Sometimes frightens – the essence of what quality horror/dark fantasy is all about. And he does it admirably, especially for a debut title.
You will find stories of high craftsmanship, but not all of his pieces are equal. I have found a few that could have been tighter, better polished, but never lacking in originality and perceptiveness. There are places in some stories that could have been better edited and proofed as well – but these are few and far between, and do not materially affect the overall quality of the piece. (I'm also an editor, and stuff like that rarely avoids my notice).
The remainder of this review is a blow-by-blow review of Smith's stories in the anthology.
** Black Wings
A very good story of guilt – and with a most interesting set of occurrences that lie at the root of the protagonist's guilt, as well as the way it manifested at the end of the piece.
The protagonist is, right from the beginning, a ruined man, and he is visited by crows, and in particular a big one. Smith skillfully reveals their meaning, as well as the protagonist's past. The flashback is finally revealed and it was surprising, and horrific.
The ending is appropriate and quite surreal.
** The Dark Is Light Enough For Me
This is a particularly good short story. We have the protagonist, James, with a disturbing life history (a pattern in many of Smith's stories), being drawn into a writer's group, discovering not only that the entire group have written the same complex work, but that there is a strange story associated with why he uniquely joined the group. This short is extremely well written – with a highly mature, insightful narrative, and without resorting to the more blatant tropes of horror, is in fact very horrifying. A dark piece worthy of wide readership.
** I Wish I Was A Pretty Little Girl
A powerful piece. It's hard to be original as a writer, writing from the POV of a serial killer. Smith succeeded. Again, the protagonist had a horrendous, nightmarish life leading to the current events. An explanation as to why this particular person became a monster – and convincingly. This story set me in uneasiness from the first few sentences. A child being led somewhere by a clearly disturbed adult – one of the hardest things to read about if Smith chose to follow the path of describing murder in gory detail. And yet he didn't. This story isn't about love of violence, rape, sex, or some bizarre blood letting. This is about the man who wants to be something else. The uneasiness generated from the start was a masterful stroke, allowing the reader to be unbalanced from the beginning, and then throughout the story. The ending was apt and horrifying, and almost makes one feel sorry for the killer.
Again, a powerful piece, delving deep into the psyche of an exploited woman, and how she was turned into, a gladiatrix of sorts. The descriptions and language are superb, but I do have a slight reservation – it almost seems that the long (and quality) descriptions of the woman and her background in the first half of the story, seem too disjointed from the narrative revelations later. They seem more disconnected than what I would have appreciated.
Nevertheless, well worth the read.
** I Want To Take You Higher
A very good pastiche of drug and sex underlife, mixed with obscene, edgy satanic-like religion. With all the hard core imagery and descriptions, Smith was able to find moments for flippancy and humor. This is a well constructed story, sending up many elements of our society. A nice twist is constructed at the end.
** Not Breathing
A very powerful story about the degredation of a man's soul, woven into a most interesting plot. The use of second person is very efective here. Don't want to reveal much, but this is one of my favorites.
** Make Pretty
This is different from the past stories thus far, because it is more like a traditional horror piece – and yet masterfully crafted. Without giving too much away, the story is about vanity, and how it can bite you back if you choose to dabble in the spurious. Smith proves he is as much a traditional horror writer, as an innovator.
** Strange Trees
Another piece that has a traditional structure, but with unique undercurrents. The concept that malevolent trees awaken by the onset of menstruation with one of the protagonists, is effective. I also found the language and the POV more tradional than any other of Smith's stories in the anthology, almost (in a modern sense) like H.P. Lovecraft – clinical language – longer sentences, with
** The Perceptive One
I like the premise of the story – the egotistical, shallow sociopath, teams up with an almost seer-like young girl, and their lives are inextricably crossed with an old tramp who has something dark, powerful, to impart. The egotist, Travis, becomes ruined, when in fact he was already broken, and the story ends with promise of a continuation of the cycle. Destiny is a strong theme in the story.
This is good – but, I think Smith works too hard at it, and there are scenes that seem to me too filled with repetitive descriptive sentences, and probably are 3 to 4 times longer than they should be. The intention, perhaps planning, is good, but the execution is slightly flawed. I feel this is a less mature work of Smith's, and I saw evidence of lack of polish here and there (not to mention editing/proofing). This is, despite some good points, one of Smith's weaker pieces.
A very good story that is superficially a classic scifi trope, but excellently meshes with the hunger of a man who hasn't attained his soul's desire. While the ending is in purest form something that a reader can guess at, the details aren't. This was also one of my favorites.
** The Sunglasses Girl
Another powerful, edgy, and raw piece, juxtaposing the seedier aspects of a man's depravity, with the stuff that matters more – the ability to make decisions on a higher plane. And in failing, suffers the consequences of what emerges from the lower plane (so to speak). This is another example of Smith's prime motif throughout the anthology.
** Things That Crawl in Hollywood
The final story is a wonderful comedic horror piece, sending up Hollywood, the 'plastic celebrity' phenomenon, and the shlock of zombie flix. A funny, and yet thoughtful piece – fast paced. Amazingly clever.
All in all I give Smith's work 4 stars – I would give 4 and a half, but most systems don't cope with fractions. 5 is on or near perfection, and this anthology isn't quite there – but I bow and acclaim a wonderful work nevertheless, and stand in awe at this debut piece. As a writer, I have learned much from Smith, in terms of the power of descriptive narrative.