Cutting straight to the chase, this is the best collection of short fiction I have read this year. No mean feat in a year that saw the release of books chock full of short stories from both Paul Tremblay and Joe Hill. Alan Baxter has put such a fantastic variety on display here, highlighting monsters of all types, shapes, and sizes as well as finding a myriad of different ways to examine humanity. If that sounds like a vague description of the stories contained within, that’s because it is. I assure you there’s nary a skip in the bunch, but please permit me to shine a spotlight on some of my favorites.
- Exquisite – Not for the faint of heart, this one. I can’t even say I loved it per se, but it will unquestionably stick with me. Brutal depiction of just what people are capable of, and not just from one point of view either.
- Crossroads and Carousels – This story I did love. This is a really excellent variation on the ageless devil-looking-to-buy-a-soul tale. The musician in me may have caused some bias here. This is one of the prime examples in the collection that shows this author can do a bit of tugging at the heartstrings as well as just making bad things happen.
- How Father Bryant Saw the Light – I enjoyed the hell out of every aspect of this story, but it’s most notable for the Gangle Man. Baxter created a monster/antagonist for this story that is ab-so-lute-ly horrifying. “Except he wants my eyes.”
- The Goodbye Message – I was able to figure out pretty early on what was happening in this story. That’s not one of my strengths. I generally find myself immersed and not necessarily trying to guess what the ending will be. The point? Despite knowing where this was heading, the execution was perfection, and got me emotionally invested in seeing it through to the end.
- Crying Demon – The atmosphere and general vibe that Baxter establishes in Crying Demon is so genuinely creepy. In a way, this story is the Ring but with video games. Holy hell, is it ever good.
- In Vaulted Halls Entombed – The first 2/3rd’s or so follow a military unit under attack by something supernatural and malicious. The way the scope of what’s happening expands toward the end is something to behold. We get a glimpse of a completely different world, but only a glimpse. The utilization here of the fear of the unknown just plain works.
- Waters Strangely Clear – I’m not a huge fan of Lovecraft. As much as I love fiction that establishes lore and mythology, I just can’t get into it. Here, Baxter crafts a very Lovecraftian yarn that I loved to death. Like the previous story, we get to see a very small portion of a much larger world, and the implications are what turns the gears of the story.
Served Cold truly reads like a curated collection. Almost as though Alan Baxter sifted through hundreds of his own stories to find the 16 best examples of what he was capable. Perhaps he did, although it sounds exhausting. Or maybe this guy is just that damned good at writing a short story. I guess I’ll have to grab Crow Shine and find out.
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