But You Scared Me the Most and Other Stories by John Manderino
June 2016. 224p. Academy Chicago, paperback, $14.99 (9781613734759). First published May 15, 2016 (Booklist).
What would happen if you took all the familiar things that scared you as a child-- ghosts, mummies, vampires, Bigfoot!-- but looked at them with your adult eye? They would be darker and more bizarre than you could have ever imagined as a youth, much like Manderino’s 26 witty, and inventive tales that turn traditional horror tropes on their head. These short, surprising, and thought provoking stories that stay with you after you finish each, but also compel you to read the next one immediately. Like in “Wolfman and Janice” when a wife helps control her werewolf husband by talking to him about golf, or “Bob and Todd” in which a hitchhiker may or may not be in a car with a man who just killed his wife. And it’s not just horror tropes that Manderino probes with his macabre sensibility, familiar characters like Nancy Drew, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and even Barbie and Ken are prominently featured in their own dark and twisted tales. But it is in “Jamey’s Sister,” where Manderino shines, giving us a moving and heartbreaking story of the havoc real life monsters can play on a family as a young girl writes a letter to the monster who she blames for her soldier brother’s death-- The President. This is a solid collection of weird fiction and bizarre fables for fans of Kelly Link or Stephen Graham Jones.
Further Appeal Comments: These stories are short, and since they are not connected, you can pick this collection up and put it down easily. As I was reading the entire book, I marked the stories as to how successful I thought they were. The ones I highlight here are among the best and most interesting, but there are others which are just as good but for which I did not have room to write about. Out of 26, only 2 or 3 fell completely flat with me. That is an excellent ration.
But, I do want to stress that these are weird, creepy stories. They are not gross-out or jump- scare frightening at all. They are all macabre and unsettling without gore. It’s all atmosphere. And they are tightly plotted, compelling, and feature strong characters. This last point is important because with some of the stories coming in at only 3 or 4 pages, it is quite a feat for Manderino to so quickly create such well rounded characters.
The unease and tension rule these tales. You know right away that things are not what they seem and are probably not going to end well. They are not sad or tragic though. Just dark and thought provoking.
Three Words That Describe This Book: unease, macabre, strong characterization
Readalikes: The stories of Kelly Link and Stephen Graham Jones mentioned above are excellent readalikes. While I was reading Manderino’s collection, I also thought about the multiple author collection from 2014, The New Black edited by Richard Thomas. Click here for details.
More established and well known authors who I have blogged about a lot who would work as a readalike here are Stephen Millhauser and Keith Donohue. I particularly thought about Donohue’s Centuries of June.