When writing horror fiction, Stephen King admits in his 1981 paean to the horror genre, Danse Macabre, "if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out." What to make, then, of David A. Sutton's collection of 10 horror stories, Clinically Dead and Other Tales of the Supernatural, which fails to affect the reader on all three levels?
Sutton clearly knows horror fiction. He has edited multiple small-press horror publications since the 1970s, including Fantasy Tales magazine, and co-edited six volumes of the Dark Terrors anthology series. In the affectionate essays that bookend Clinically Dead, Stephen Jones and Joel Lane credit Sutton with igniting their careers—their generous praise of Sutton's personal character and writing talent almost makes me feel guilty for not responding positively to Sutton's stories.
Aside from publishing other writers, Sutton has toiled away quietly since the late 1960s on his own body of fiction, which makes Clinically Dead, if nothing else, a well-deserved and overdue first collection. Considering Sutton's longevity in the field, it's hardly surprising that his stories display a stubborn affection for the horror genre.
Drawn from the period between 1990 and 2006, Clinically Dead's ten supernatural tales cover familiar genre ground. In the shape-changing story "Changing Track" (1994), a young woman uses Scottish witchcraft to break away from her oppressive boyfriend. In "How the Buckie was Saved" (1996), set on a WWII warship, the ghost of a murdered simpleton enacts revenge on a bully. And in the title story (1993), a lonely son finds that his hospitalized mother is part of an experiment to turn patients into zombies. These stories, while not exemplary, are written with a straightforward simplicity and could serve as genre templates to aspiring horror writers.
But when reading these stories consecutively, Sutton's old-fashioned approach to horror storytelling—no gore, wit, or literary flourish—becomes tiresome. In the thematically linked short stories "The Holidaymakers" (new to this collection), "Those of Rhenea" (1990), and "Tomb of the Janissaries" (2003), disconsolate modern-day vacationers encounter ancient rituals and supernatural entities. These terminally earnest stories, dulled by a redundancy of plot and simplicity of imagination, lack the appropriate literary gravitas to be truly effective. Repeatedly, Sutton's generic and overwrought descriptions overshadow any potential atmosphere of mystery. At the conclusion of "Tomb of the Janissaries," for instance, Sutton renders a vision of evil more suitable to a B-movie or comic book than to serious-minded horror fiction. Can the following description possibly evoke fear?
Bill and Emily each had two escorts, grey and slender, strings of mummified muscle wrapped around bones. Bulbous heads nodded atop pipe-thin necks, nodding to the rhythm of the monk's chanted prayer. Damon would always remember with a shudder the featureless backs of those grey skulls. (p. 132)
Yet horror doesn't need to contain the literary delights of a Kelly Link or the visceral punch of a Conrad Williams to succeed. It can achieve rarefied heights through sheer storytelling craftsmanship—think early Stephen King, Joseph Payne Brennan, or other writers of traditional weird tales. In the Twilight Zone-like "Monkey Business" (new to this collection), where descriptions of "bulbous heads" and "pipe-thin necks" would be most appropriate, an impoverished Brazilian man pilfers a cursed Indian headpiece. But here, Sutton betrays pulpy fun in the name of social commentary—the cursed headpiece causes a cycle of supernatural violence, which serves as a ham-fisted metaphor for the cycle of poverty. Moreover, "Monkey Business" is hindered by Sutton's occasional descent into purple prose:
The crashing, hammer-drill of blows like iron-hard fists was somehow extracted from his skull and the bands of iron that tightened around his forehead changed into doves which flew silently away. (p. 253)
The centerpiece of Clinically Dead is the enigmatic short novel "In the Land of the Rainbow Snake" (new to this collection), about a philandering widower whose guilt, grief, and dream-life coalesce in the surreal Australian outback. By far, this is the most unorthodox and compelling piece of the collection, fueled by suggestions of Aborigine magic that make it truly unsettling. But, ultimately, the story suffers from flat characterizations and unrealistic dialogue ("I think you should know. I'm a dyke").
What strikes me most about Sutton's stories is their workmanlike competency. From their employment of familiar horror-fiction iconography, linear plots, and stranger-in-a-strange-land story set-ups—they read like checklists of how to write basic horror stories. But all too often that translates into thinly drawn characters, an oppressively earnest tone, and an over-reliance on payoff endings. While Sutton's horror stories should be commended for approaching the genre in a serious manner, a horror story without teeth—one that doesn't "horrify" or "terrify"—is ultimately quite forgettable. Because of that, I cannot recommend this collection to any discerning fan of horror fiction.
Kelly Shaw has lived in Milwaukee, WI, for his entire life, so he reads a lot of books and watches a lot of movies. Sometimes he tries to write.
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