The Gaki & Other Hungry Spirits
Stephen Mark Rainey

Dark Regions Press
Trade Paper, 172 pages, $17.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

Strange characters abide in the short stories of Stephen Mark Rainey. The collection The Gaki & Other Hungry Spirits is laden with deranged and troubled beings. Some are plagued by guilt, others are tormented by external entities; often, it is a combination of both which tortures Rainey’s protagonists. The author’s strong prose and startling images adroitly turn the mundane into the monstrous.

In “A Tale of the Terrible Dead,” for example, an adolescent male suddenly faces some uncomfortable family truths. He recognizes his mother’s hold on him, while at her brother’s wake. When she exits the room, the boy has these sentiments: “Conditioned as I was to her ever-dominating presence, I felt her absence keenly, and the dim stillness struck me as the air of a crypt, the living here as soul-dead as the departed in the next room.” The maternal ties that bind here are more about bondage than bonding. And mom’s relationship with the dear deceased puts the “kin” in “kinky.” A barely stifled hysteria bubbles beneath the surface of civilized behavior: The vigil ritual is a catalyst for an appalling confrontation.

Disturbing familial interaction also is present in “Demon Jar.” This tale focuses on a widower, who becomes haunted six years after his wife’s passing. A horrific visage surfaces in a soap jar that belonged to the late spouse. The bars of soap inside have liquefied and coalesced with time, rendering a mushy whole. When a witch-like face appears in the pulpy mass, the former husband is understandably shaken and intrigued: “When his wits recovered, he leaned forward to study the strange image, taking in its perfectly awful contours; its deep eye sockets; its vile, gaping mouth. The damned thing was fascinating. Completely random, yet so deliberate, its features infused with a distinctive, dreadful personality.” The fascination turns to terror, however, as sins of the past come home to roost.

Self loathing, latent and active, is a thread in many of the narratives in this compilation. A businessman in “Festival of the Jackal” has this to say of himself and those in the profession: “He’ll be reading the Wall Street Journal, or sitting at a table with his fellows, his manicured, gold-ringed hands gesticulating with calculated complacency, his demeanor so self-assured it would make a Siamese cat puke.” The “calculated complacency” gets rattled to the core during an excursion through some unsavory streets of New York City. Transformations occur that are, indeed, life changing.

The tales assembled in The Gaki & Other Hungry Spirits consist of 11 reprints and 6 never before published works. Stephen Mark Rainey has an unusual author’s voice; it infiltrates the psyche like a literary leech. The words and images aren’t easily brushed away.

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