Curiously Twisted Tales: A Smattering of P. S. Gifford
P. S. Gifford

Barking Rain Press
Hardcover, 192 pages, $19.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

Curiously Twisted Tales is indeed a curiosity. Short stories by P.S. Gifford are compiled as “chapters” in the book and, while some characters overlap into other narratives, each of the tales is self-contained. The works are basically character studies; reminiscent of macabre pieces by Roald Dahl and Stanley Ellin. Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House” is particularly an influence on Gifford’s yarns, since human flesh as a culinary delicacy occurs in a number of them; as well as serving as fertilizer or feed in others. Another item on the menu is the condiment of relish – as in relishing revenge. Several stories deal with horrific, albeit justified, comeuppances. And rounding out the collection are phobias: spiders, flies, and cracks in the pavement, among them. Because there are many repetitive themes in the tome, it would be easy to dismiss the compositions as facile or one-trick ponies. Considering, however, that the assembled writings cover a period from 2006-2011, perhaps some slack should be cut. Certainly, the author’s abilities could be more appreciated by reading an individual story in a periodical or online. Or by pacing the overall read; not partaking of the entire oeuvre in a single sitting. Similar motifs become all too obvious when congregated in a volume.

Of the cannibalistic contributions, “Raw Talent” has great appeal; especially for writers. In it, the protagonist finds the secret to literary success. Before achieving it, though, he spouts words of frustration that have resonance to those who aspire to the craft: “Deep within my consciousness, the thought of writing was like a tiny candle illuminating a vast mausoleum in the middle of a pitch-black winter’s night. From a close proximity, you could just discern its flicker, yet from a distance, no one knew it was there at all, for its light was simply absorbed by the darkness surrounding it, sucking away its energy and strength.”

Subsequently, there comes inspiration and with it, the inevitable rejection slips. As the first person narrator mulls what he is doing wrong, a notion dawns on him: If he ingests the brains, and hence the creative power of successful authors, then he will attain their lofty status. Lo and behold, the change in diet yields results. After consuming a well-known writer’s brain, there is a step towards fulfillment of the goal. And the gift just keeps on giving: “Since then, I have consumed seven more writer’s brains: three horror authors, one science-fiction writer, two romance novelists, and one political analyst. (I found the last one to be a little too dry for my taste, though.) And just as I suspected, my writing career has taken off! I have written three best-sellers, and I even have been featured on a famous daytime chat show.”

Artistic creativity also plays a part in “The Effigy,” which is an example of the prevalent retaliation leitmotif in the compilation. This riff on films Crucible of Terror and House of Wax is entertaining despite its predictability. The scorned sculptress is a hoot; seizing the materials at hand to mold her mania.

As evidenced by the two discussed works, P.S. Gifford obviously is fond of allusions. Some of his characters even have names such as “Bradbury,” “Mary Higgins,” and the aforementioned “Ellin.” The narratives collected in Curiously Twisted Tales show a knack for dispensing dark humor. And reflect a deep affection for horror fiction. Reading 33 tales that bear certain similarities is not the best way to experience or evaluate a writer’s worth. More flavors; diversity of themes, would better serve the author.

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