By Chris Allinotte
(Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the author who also happens to be an old university buddy).
It seems to me that Chris Allinotte is writing in the wrong era.
Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Mr. Allinotte will be unsuccessful in our own age, but his stories, collected in anthology form, are reminiscent of the sort that populated the golden age of science fiction and horror magazines. One can picture a wide eyed little boy reading these tales under the covers of his bed with a flashlight circa 1948. In fact most, if not all of Allinotte's stories would look right at home in magazines such as Amazing Stories! or Weird Tales. While I'm certain that comparable magazine exist today in the form of e-zines (I'm positive in fact, since a lot of Allinotte's work has been published in such places)
In fact, it's not too difficult to trace the inspiration for Allinotte's anthology of 28 spooky, gory and, often hilarious tales back to the sort of campfire stories we used to tell each other around the campfire when we were kids. Many of the tales in this book reminded me so much of those found a little book I have loved and lost more time than I can count: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. So much so, that I kept turning the page, hoping to see one of Stephen Gammell's highly disturbing illustrations (I didn't, but it would have been cool).
From there I can only guess that, like me, Allinotte grew up on a solid diet of campy 70s and 80s horror and slasher films. Anything from Sleepaway Camp, Evil Dead II and Return of the Living Dead (or any other combination of low-budget horror goodness). While my tastes tended to gravitate toward the work of George Romero and Lucio Fulci, Allinotte seems to have taken a wider approach to horror. Inspiration ranging from Stephen King to Sam Raimi is evidenced in his work which has made for a more eclectic and diversified collection. Within this collection there are aliens, monsters, giant insects, ghosts, zombies, Satan, and any number of other demonic concoctions. It's a veritable cornucopia of horror traditions.
As with any collection of short horror stories (and like the horror magazines of the 1950s and 60s), Gathering Darkness is hit and miss. Given the length of some the stories, it doesn't much matter because if a mutant killer built by the military isn't your thing, the next story isn't far away. Some of the highlights for me included "Postage Due, Pandora", a story about a mysterious box that houses all sorts of madness and "The Cabin Sleeps", a traditional-style urban legend that would be perfect for a recitation around a campfire.
What I liked most about this collection is Allinotte's playful style. What a lot of horror writers of the Creepshow variety tend to forget is that horror in this style doesn't work well without comedy. Gathering Darkness exudes a playful cheekiness that dares the readers to simultaneously gasp in disgust and squeal in delight. The sort of of campiness that has been lost on the current generation of horror writers (though, admittedly, I don't read as much horror as I used to, so I might be entirely wrong with that assumption).
Throughout the collection the characters and setting remain of the two-dimensional variety that all horror junkies understand. There's no sense in broad characterization and setting. It's a waste of time. Why bother when it's a good bet that character will be eaten by a puss oozing blob of goo in three pages. Keep to the essentials and keep the pace lively. The readers can for the blood and Allinotte delivers quickly and efficiently.
I also liked the short interludes between stories. The collection has several centerpiece stories peppered with short shots that are often tongue-in-cheek shots at the horror genre as a whole. I thought these brief interludes added to the collection by breaking it up and jolting the reader away from traditional pacing.
While I enjoyed the collection as a whole I did have a few reservations. Some of the stories do fall off the rails a bit. One in particular, "Devil's Night", tries to throw every possible horror convention at the reader in the span of a few dozen pages and left me a little perplexed as to what had happened. But that, I suppose, is the plight of the horror writer. Throw your ideas at the wall and see what sticks.
Another thing that I felt was missing (and perhaps this is my own problem rather than the author's) was the absence of that one scare that keeps me awake at night. One story, "Kittens for Sale" came very close (and I will probably carry that particular story around for a while) and "Tempting Morsels" did remind me of the very real scare I suffered the first time I read Stephen King's short story "The Jaunt." But the scare never did occur, but I was ever hopeful throughout my reading.
Overall, however, Gathering Darkness is a strong collection of short horror and worthy of a look. If you are a fan of horror fiction, especially of the camp variety, keep an eye out for Chris Allinotte. His brand of horror may be reminiscent of a bygone era of magazines but horror is timeless and we all need a good, rollicking scare from time to time. I'm looking forward to reading his next work.