I devoured Robert Dunbar’s excellent Martyrs & Monsters almost entirely at one sitting. A collection of short works, the stories in this book are so various in tone and style that it almost felt as if I were reading an anthology of tales by many different authors. Okay, that’s not entirely true, as some of the stories are intended to expand upon or follow others, but the scope is truly impressive. Ranging from simply melancholy to outright tragic, from splatterpunk to whimsy, the primary commonalities are a graceful economy of language and an uncanny insight into the deepest and strangest parts of the human animal.
The absolute standout of Martyrs & Monsters would have to be the creepily lyrical “Mal de Mer,” which reminded me, weirdly, of both Ramsay Campbell’s incredibly disturbing “The Voice of the Beach” and the heartbreaking The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Strange bedfellows, indeed, but this story of repression and release, desire, disappointment, fear and compulsion, contains perhaps my favorite lines in the book, ones which immediately reveal the soul of the protagonist: “In her younger years . . . her essential lack of warmth had discouraged colleagues from bonding with her. It had that effect on most people. Yet she believed herself not to be entirely lacking in empathy, only in its myriad pitying applications and ubiquitous expressions, which she considered both squalid and pointless.” (Maybe this just reminds me a little bit of me.)
On the other hand, the punchy gross-out of “Saturday Night Fights” is all rock & roll, splatterpunk and 50s B-movie, rolled together in one juicy and satisfying package. You’ve got to love a story that begins “By the time the two of them woke up, their friends had already met with disgusting deaths. But then they both slept pretty late that day.” And the monster? Personal phobias notwithstanding, just ew.
“Gray Soil” and “Red Soil,” two of the linking stories, are told in simple, almost mythic language. Together, they uncover the blood-soaked history of a desolate place – the first a story of a mother’s brutal sacrifice, the second a tale of unchecked appetites, human and otherwise, and again of hard choices made for the sake of loved ones.
Other favorites include “The Folly,” a southern gothic almost-spoof which involves an eccentric family, Bigfoot, and a house shaped like an alligator; “High Rise,” the story of a nymphomaniac ghost and her victim(s); and “Killing Billie’s Boys,” an oddball tale of warring witches and their rent-boy catspaws.
And, despite my going on, that’s fewer than half of the stories in Martyrs & Monsters, each one unique and haunting. Half a star off for my only complaint (and it’s not that dire), the sometimes distracting typos, of which there were many. Possibly this is just a side-effect of the e-book format, and almost certainly out of the author’s hands, but it’s the kind of thing that can break the spell of an otherwise compelling narrative. At any rate, I look forward to reading more from Robert Dunbar, a truly literary fabulist.