Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: Never Bet The Devil & Other Warnings by Orrin Grey

The first thing apparent while reading any story from this book is how much fun Orrin had writing them. His interests are apparent, without even having to read the About Author page. His love of old horror film, the occult, comic books, Lovecraft, and Mike Mignola's works is readily apparent.

Some of his stories have a comic-book or B-movie feel to them, making for easy, fun reads. And fun is the key word here, because although these stories are horror, and deal with horror elements, they lean toward the fun end of the spectrum as opposed to the terrifying (see: Hellboy, Beetlejuice).

Another wonderful thing about this book that warrants mention is the inclusion of author notes. At the end of each story are notes from the author which explain the inspirations and ideas behind the stories. I've always loved when short story collections or anthologies included something of this sort. Sometimes it offers clarification on some story concepts, but often I just find it interesting to see what the authors thought process was when creating a certain story.

Never Bet The Devil & Other Warnings is Orrin Grey's first collection, and contains ten stories. The shortest one is one page, while the longest one is novella length.

The title story, Never Bet The Devil, is a short description of a twist on a common carnival contraption. It was written for a contest to get into an anthology of fictional bizarre items, and serves as a nice way to set the stage for the collection. If anything it makes me wish to see the item in a story!

Count Brass, the second story of the collection, toys with the trope of the musician selling his soul to the devil. A woman keeps encountering the name Count Brass in reference to her musician grandfather, and starts to figure out that maybe he didn't come across his musical success in a legitimate manner. My favorite part of this story was Count Brass himself, as Orrin took a common figure and really made him physically unique.

One of the best stories of the collection, and one I encountered previously in The Book of Cthulhu II, is Black Hill. Black Hill tells the story of an oil field atop something that is much more complex than simple oil.  Orrin took the idea of oil being made up of organic matter, and really ran with it, adding a liberal dose of cosmic horror into the mix.

The Devil In The Box is another entertaining story. A man obsessed with a cult painter acquires most of his art collection, his old house, and a mysterious box said to be the artist's inspiration. The story is told from the point of view of his partner watching their relationship disintegrate.

Another stand-out story for me was Nature vs. Nurture. The story takes place in a world where ghouls are a reality, and they are hunted as animals. When a young one is found, the narrator shows mercy and takes it in, attempting to raise and train the creature. It's a great story.

The Barghest was my least favorite story of the collection. I think the narrative style used in the story weakened it, although the plot and story ideas were pretty solid. I always struggle with a story narrated by someone talking to someone else and explaining things that the listener already knows, while constantly pointing that fact out ("But you already knew that, didn't you"). I thought the concept of being able to be "infected" with lycanthropy from the skeleton of such a monster was really cool, and I wonder why it hasn't been explored more often.

One of my other favorites of the collection is The Seventh Picture. As a film love myself, I always love a story that mixes horror/the weird with film, and Orrin does it so well here. The story itself is told in the found-footage format, and follows a documentary film crew as they explore the abandoned mansion of an old horror film director in search of knowledge on his incomplete, missing final film. Orrin's film buffness is on display here, and where I found the narrative style in the previous story lacking, I found it to be completely on point with this one. Also this story was the closest one to pure horror in the collection. The story should be of special note to fans of Chambers' King in Yellow stories.

On the heels of the creepy The Seventh Picture follows the light-hearted The Reading Room, another great story. The age old concept of using a book to summon something from beyond is turned on it's head here, as the protagonist must keep reading books in order to keep the same something imprisoned. As clever as this twist is, the love story that is the backbone of this story makes for a nice counterpart to the dark Seventh Picture. Would be a great story to kick off an anthology of weird romantic comedy.

Nearly Human is another top-notch story built around another clever idea. The story serves as a nod to old haunted house stories, and comes together quite satisfactory in the end.

As good as all the other stories are, it's the powerhouse novella at the end that stands above all the rest. The Mysterious Flame is an impressive homage to Mignola, and an immensely entertaining read. The story itself is rather pulpy, and would seem completely in place in a comic book (for the record, I'd love to see a comic version done, so someone please call Mignola in to illustrate it). Orrin weaves a tale of a golem searching for more and the obsessed lich who's out to capture him. The story is the most complex in the book, shifting viewpoints between Barnabus the golem and Joy, a young girl who somehow got stuck as the lich's human "servant". The story features plenty of action, humor, and some genuinely creepy moments. Definitely the highlight of this fine anthology.

Orrin Grey should be very proud of his first collection. The stories cover a nice variety of weird territory, and do so in a very light, pulpy, and fun manner. This reviewer plans to keep an eye on this author, because if this collection is anything indicative of things to come, then we readers are in store for some spectacular things.

As a side note, Orrin Grey has not only begun to establish himself as a writer, but also as an editor. He co-edited Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which I dubbed "my choice for original anthology of the year".

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