Review: Staring Into the Abyss / Author: Richard Thomas / Publisher: Kraken Press / Release Date: March 2013
Richard Thomas may well be the best author that you haven’t heard of yet. With work published alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub by Cemetery Dance, and alongside Craig Clevenger at Velvet Press, this ChiZine competition winner also moderates at The Cult (the writing workshop founded by Chuck Palahniuk) and has had short stories published in just about every showcase of dark writing that you can find. Staring Into the Abyss is his second short story collection, which he describes as “neo-noir leaning towards horror”, and it’s a merciless book that wastes no time in uncovering humanity’s sordid underbelly.
Populated by prostitutes and victims of abuse, Staring Into the Abyss makes an art out of suffering and relies heavily on razorblades and alcohol to make it through the night. The themes in this collection come through so powerfully and with such frequency that they become claustrophobically familiar: the disappointment of adulthood, the decay of beautiful relationships, the cancer that families can become. A lot of the darkness in Staring Into the Abyss is implied rather than made explicit, a serial killer’s shopping list juxtaposed with a babysitter’s initiation interview, and there were times when you wish that Thomas would see more of the stories through to their conclusions. Taken in isolation, however, these stories are satisfying yet incredibly harsh things, snapshots of tormented lives.
As a reader I generally find it harder to connect with short stories, but in this instance I found enjoyment in tales far shorter than I’d normally enjoy, a testament to Thomas’ skill as a storyteller. The longest story in the collection, however, is not only my favourite, it’s also one of the best short stories that I’ve ever read. Haunting, brutal and inevitable, Victimized easily matches the deft prose of Craig Clevenger or Will Christopher Baer, following the consequences of abuse to a chilling denouement that I’ll never forget. Victimized is believable, tragic, thrilling and sickening all at the same time, an achievement that completely overshadows the works of celebrated masters of the short story like Stephen King.
The most compelling monsters in this collection are always the humans, but be consoled that whenever the horror in Staring Into the Abyss becomes too real, focussing on strip clubs and broken hearts, Thomas brings in a caged behemoth creating clockwork birds or an invisible beast that reeks of carrion. This kind of transgressive fiction is absolutely my favourite style of writing, leaning close enough towards horror to satisfy all of my darker urges. It feels like I’ve been waiting most of my life for my favourite author, Will Christopher Baer, to release his next neo-noir novel, but in Richard Thomas I might have found a worthy successor.