Robert Dunbar’s horror novel The Pines was an excellent first novel. It was a thrilling tale dragging us through the Pine barrens in search of the jersey devil where we met all manner of interesting characters. It was clear even in that early work that Robert Dunbar has a way with characters, with Martyrs & Monsters he has perfected that skill and produced something of a modern dark fiction masterclass in characterisation.
The fourteen stories here manage to include most of the genre tropes you may expect but none in the traditional or expected manner. Instead Dunbar works these traditional stereotypes into new forms. As Greg F. Gifune states in the introduction he brings “fresh perspective to these time-honored traditions” and so he also breathes new life into a sometime stale genre.
Getting Wet – Conrad and Tim have an interesting and complex relationship based on abuse and protection in equal measure. A life of crime, drugs and violence, however takes them further apart until a tragic ending. This is the first lesson in characterisation, the characters are complex (and this is developed in only a few pages) and none particularly endearing but the tragic circumstances which have led them down this path means the reader still empathises and possible feels guilty on behalf of our society.
Like A Story – Max and Kurt have been shipped around various homes, Kurt in particular is always getting into trouble. A daring night time adventure to old Mr Sims’ shack in search of a missing cat, shows not only the strength of their bonds but also the immunisation from rational thought that society has given them.
High Rise – We meet brothers Brandon and Tyrone move into a new flat which appears to be haunted. As the ghost turns her attentions to Tyrone he becomes more and more troubled and descends into violence. Brandon must make the ultimate sacrifice to help his brother. Once again we see the remarkable strength of a relationship in the most difficult of circumstances.
Saturday Night Fights – Netta and Ray are members of the band Blunt Force Trauma. Seemingly going nowhere they are brought together by the presence of unwelcome guests in the house. At times b-movie action at others Oscar winning character study this is a marvellous little story.
Gray Soil – One of the highlights of the collection for me was this story. It’s the tale of a family forced to scavenge dead bodies from battlefields all the while pursued by vampire like creatures. Richly descriptive prose and strong emotions go together to create a fantastically gripping update on an old trope, in an entirely new way.
Mal de Mer – A carer seems trapped, a prisoner of her dependant patient. She seeks solace and freedom in the sea but soon finds more than she expected. Huge contrasting and conflicting emotions help make this a rich and powerful story.
Red Soil – Is the follow up to Gray Soil and features old Dracul himself but despite it being filled with visceral visions of battles and the undead it is also a search for redemption as our protagonists try to survive in very difficult circumstances.
The Folly – Who lives in a house like this?…Is the question that is answered as we travel through the keyhole into an alligator shaped mansion and meet the increasingly dysfunctional family within. It’s a bizarre and often funny look at family life.
Are We Dead Yet? – Takes us back once again to Tim and Conrad’s tragic relationship. Needless to say things are now even worse and about to get a whole lot darker.
Explanations – Jimmy and Wagner are ace geeks who live eat and sleep movies, comics and books. As they become more and more obsessed Wagner’s wife Lorraine decides to take matters into her own hands. This is at times sad and at others, very funny.
Killing Billie’s Boys – One of the more outlandish trips into the gangland culture of competing occultists. Our protagonist is drawn into a violent, erotic underworld and forced to pick sides.
Away – Written in the form of a journal we meet an incredibly paranoid man. Convinced his neighbours are aliens it’s not long before he starts suspecting everyone. It’s an excellent study of paranoia and madness with a neat twist.
Full – Manages to combine zombies. vampires, witches and werewolves in a moving story with many layers.
The Moon (Upside Down) – Finds a group of friends in a remote cottage by the beach. The relationships on show are already complex but are about to get even more difficult.
There is nothing here that could be regarded as traditional horror, sure there are vampires, witches etc but these are merely props. The true horror in these stories lie behind the scenes in the characters lives and the society that has driven them down the dark roads they find themselves on.
Robert Dunbar has produced an excellent collection. The writing is never less than brilliant and in stand out moments (for me Gray Soil, Red Soil and Like A Story) has created some new genre classics. His dark fiction has the power to raise conflicting emotions, often on the same page meaning that these stories will live with you for a very long time. Intelligent, literate and filled with emotion highly recommended.
You can find out more about Robert Dunbar here.
Rating 4.5 out of 5