Martyrs and Monsters
Dark Hart Press
Review by Nickolas Cook
Robert Dunbar is best known for that neo-classic of the late 80s, The Pines (Leisure), so when he announced its sequel The Shore (Leisure) his fans were justifiably excited. With it, he once again proved he is the master of the quiet horror novel.
Now he returns to the horror fold with a superior collection of short stories in Martyrs And Monsters, proving he also knows how to craft short stories that are as effective as his longer narratives.
There is an old world sense to his writing that few modern horror writers can match – a carefully cadenced phrasing makes the difference in how the story unfolds. It’s imbued with a trademark Southern Gothic sensibility that most genre authors are unable to capture. His editing is clean, razored down, for maximum pacing and stylistic impact and plays a large part in how well his storytelling works. Martyrs And Monsters is filled with hauntingly sensual imagery that touches a primordial fear center not unlike King.
And this is not the first time (and one can guess, not the last time) Dunbar has been compared favorably to King, even to Koontz. And this collection clinches it. He deserves not only the critical comparisons, but also the success his two more well known peers have enjoyed. Every story hooks the reader, pulling him along some rather unsavory paths and realities, spiced with a creeping sense of the dark come home to roost.
One of the best qualities about Dunbar’s work (and one that most critics and readers pick up on right away) is that he does not hold with the modern day penchant for torture porn aesthetic and gore described in clinical detail. His violence is implied – forcefully – and tends to disturb on an emotional level that is far more effective than the transient visceral ‘gross out’ scenes we see too much of in what is termed ‘modern’ horror. It haunts more than disgusts, and sticks like cold blood to your soul.
Dunbar’s cast of characters come from the disenfranchised populace – minorities and criminals (sometimes both) – struggling to survive in a cold world that has cast them aside because they do not fit. And that is what horror does best: speak for the lost souls of the world. But through his misfit cast he does not strive to denounce the injustice of the universe. Instead, as he does so well in “High Rise,” he attempts to find a heroic sense of acceptance of that injustice and its vagaries, the universe’s unfeeling machine like quality that digest all equally. Just because the hero doesn’t always live, doesn’t make him a loser in this game.
Each story is memorably, but a few that will stick with this reviewer for a long time to come (as do the old masters’ stories) are:
“Mal de Mer” is disturbing, as if Edith Wharton’s supernatural fiction met Lovecraft, creating an unnerving erotic pleasure, maybe one of the best of its kind, and certainly one that deserves nomination for a Stoker.
With “The Folly” Dunbar once again provokes Faulkner’s ghost to tell the clever tale of a debauched Southern family (all named for Greek mythical personalities) who discover their own Jersey Devil creature living in their swamp. One gets the sense that the author is poking fun at the industry wide perpetuation (a mistaken one, by the way) of his one hit success with The Pines and he does so with tongue in cheek.
“Explanations” is one for the horror fanboys gone wrong, with a sharp punch line. If you’ve ever been to a fanboy convention, then you’ve no doubt seen hundreds of Jimmys and Wagners plodding from table to table to gush at aging actors whom they cannot differentiate from their characters. And if you’ve ever wondered what these socially challenged folks live like in the real world it ain’t pretty … and it smells funky, too!
“Killing Billie’s Boys” is a deceptively intense story of urban black magic and betrayal that plays a razor edge of eroticism against our expectations and leaves the reader feeling dirty and excited.
With “Gray Soil” and “Red Soil” he tackles the ever popular zombie sub-genre and makes it his own.
It’s safe to say that Robert Dunbar can write anything to which he sets his mind. We are lucky to have such a wordsmith in our midst. Collections like Martyrs And Monsters don’t come along often (buy it now, while you still can, before it becomes an outrageously expensive collector’s item). And writers like Robert Dunbar don’t materialize in the writing community everyday- certainly not in the horror community. Let us give thanks for his continued attempts to bring professionalism and craft back to an ailing genre, and hope he is more widely published in the future.