Sunday, April 5, 2009

Unhappy Endings, (Delirium Books), by Brian Keene

Short story collections are often a mixed bag, and quite truthfully, an acquired taste in some instances. Some readers adore the short form for its crisp, bullet-pace narrative, others are more attuned to longer works – novels, novellas – and a short story's brevity and sometime truncated resolution simply doesn't suit their palate. Collections by established authors can also be viewed askance. Is the collection simply a ploy to lure loyal readers into spending more money, or is it a fresh gathering of new stories from a never-ending wellspring of imagination?

Rest assured, Brian Keene's “Uhappy Endings” (Delirium Books) is the later. There are several winners and shockers here, and even the stories that don't leave as much of an impression aren't detractions from the collection itself. In many ways, that's the value of a collection; it's like a literary buffet. Readers can pick their favorites, and if one story doesn't grab them, they can move to the next.

“Unhappy Endings” opens with nothing less than Keene's staple scenario: the end of the world, and no one does it better than him. On a normal, average day, a supermarket turns into a bloodbath as everyone inexplicably goes insane and massacres each other. Only a handful are left sane. Keene's trademark visceral violence is here, also irony, considering the reason these few are spared madness.

“The Resurrection and the Life” is another grabber, pitting fan favorite – Lord of the Siqquism, Ob – against Christ Himself. Keene's ability to take Biblical lore and turn it into a zombie story is frightening, given his well-established Labyrinth mythos. Not a simple tag-on to his zombie stories, this tale gives more insight into Ob's relation to either deities and the structure of his overall universe.

Ob also makes a more humorous appearance later in the anthology in “The Siqquism Who Stole Christmas”, along with two characters from Keene's collaboration with J. F. Gonzales, “Clickers II”.

Perhaps the two most wrenching stories are “August Bunnies” and “Take the Long Way Home”, for entirely different reasons. In the former, Keene manipulates the story AND our emotions in a tale of loss and grief which slowly turns into something much more sinister. The story builds with a peculiar dread that Keene fans will find wonderfully familiar. “Take the Long Way Home” is Keene's rendition of a post-Christian Rapture Earth, and it succeeds where volumes of Rapture and End of the World stories fail, because it's not about theology or doctrine but a man who desperately wants to get home to his wife, fearing he may have lost his last chance to say: “I love you”.

“Unhappy Endings” may give the reader an impression of futility: that all these stories end badly. That's not true. All these stories end as they should, and it can be aptly argued that if fiction's purpose is to entertain while accurately portraying life, not all stories can end happily. Some of these stories do have “unhappy endings”, but others end with a melancholic resolution that brings closure. Also, in trademark Keene fashion, this collection is refreshingly personal. At the end of every story, notes are included regarding the story's genesis, where they fit into his universe, and of course, bits and pieces of Keene himself. For the devoted Keene fan or a dark fiction fan, experiencing this collection leads to the best ending of all: satisfaction.

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