‘Death, Infection, the Devil… and Jed’ by Howard Carlyle (2018)

Orion Books | 2017 | paperback | 113 pages

Four different stories of horror, all with deadly outcomes.

How would you handle a bullying co-worker? Brian did it perfectly!

What if a deadly virus left you as the last man standing… What would you do?

Would you make a deal with the devil to get everything you wanted… Martin had the chance and took it with horrific consequences.

How far would you go for your favorite dish of homemade soup… Jed went that one step further than normal.

* ‘Enough’ (2017)
* ‘The Wildfire Virus’ (2017)
* ‘Mr. Louis Fable’ (2015)
* ‘Jed’s Homemade Soup’ (2018)

It’s reviews like this that make me feel like a proper heel. After all, here’s a writer who clearly loves what he does, and the genre in which he writes, and has put some care and effort into the production of his first mini-collection of his work and I’m sitting in front of my laptop saying that… well… it’s not very good.

Of the four stories on offer, none of them is particularly original, each treading a well-known horror path, as you can likely infer from the Goodreads blurb posted above.

The opener, ‘Enough’, is a straightforward bully-revenge fantasy. Carlyle goes to lengths to make the antagonist as unlikeable as possible, but oversteps the mark, resulting in cartoonish levels of behaviour from the character. Worse, for a tale of revenge, our hero doesn’t really do much considering the indignities he’s subjected to. The villain’s great undoing comes about accidentally, with little agency from the protagonist, leaving me ultimately unfulfilled.

‘The Wildfire Virus’ is the best of the stories on offer, being an apocalyptic survival tale, and mostly well told. It would have benefited from jumping straight to the here-and-now, rather than pages of preamble describing the development and spread of the virus itself, but that’s a minor quibble. A bigger problem is that Carlyle tries to produce a gritty and emotional outbreak tale, then equips his trio of would-be saviours with a chainsaw, a nailgun, and a crossbow with which they effortlessly dispatch the psychopaths that threaten them. Had the rest of the story been built-up as a pulpy action-adventure, I’d have no problem with this, but its impossible to reconcile the heartache of leaving one’s family unprotected with these sorts of B-movie shenanigans. Still, a fun tale, for what it is.

As well as suffering from a familiarity of theme, ‘Mr. Louis Fable’ also telegraphs all of its developments in the most obvious way. Truly there are no surprises in store in this particular story. That might have been okay, if our protagonist had been seen to fight the conditions of his deal with the devil, but the fulfilment of his contract all takes place off-screen, as it were, not even offering us the possibility of redemption.

The final story ‘Jed’s Homemade Soup’ is a two-dimensional tale at best. Extreme horror and splatterpunk is a difficult genre to work in, requiring subtlety and layering to lift it above the gore and grue. This story fails at that task. Although the story itself is not without merit, Carlyle seems content to trigger the gag reflex (which he does with some aplomb, in fairness) rather than aspiring to something with a greater punch.

In all, a disappointing collection, but not one without promise. Carlyle certainly needs more seasoning, both in his choice of narrative and the development of his characters, but there is potential here.

I hope he lives up to it.

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