| Book Reviews

Richard Thomas’ New Short Story Collection Is a Masterclass of Dark Fiction Persona and Experimentation

Timothy Johnson

I’ve been following Richard Thomas (but not in a weird way) for years. He is not only an exemplary writer, but a shining example of what it means to be a literary community member, an educator, and an ally to all who deserve and/or need it. Most of all, I’ve looked to his hard work as what it takes to make it as a writer in these times.

I respect the person as well as the author, is what I’m saying.

When I was presented the opportunity to read and review his new collection, Spontaneous Human Combustion (released this February from Keylight Books), I said “yes” without hesitation. Frankly, I’m glad I did, because, while I’ve read his work before and found much of it jaw-droppingly stunning, this collection not only offers some of Thomas’ best recent stories, but it also stands as a monument to the potential of contemporary horror literature. Furthermore, the collection demonstrates the range of possibilities when a writer turns their gaze toward the dark and wonders what is there.

Spontaneous Human Combustion begins with several persona tales, ones where Thomas gives the reader so little narrative distance that we can’t get away; we have no option but to look and watch and consider that which drives his focus character. In “Saudade,” he writes, “The wolf you feed, that is the wolf that wins,” and ostensibly, that is what these stories are about. These characters are at war with their darker tendencies, but they are not without conscience. They know the difference between right and wrong, and the impulses they choose to satisfy determine not only who they are but what will become of them.

I thought about combustion a lot while reading these stories. Combustion is the production of energy through the breakdown of matter—fission. What struck me is these aren’t just stories of characters breaking down but, in their breakdown, finding meaning; something, energy perhaps, is generated. There is suffering and there is sacrifice and there is prosperity, always with an eye toward balance and the cost of achieving that balance.

Movement in these stories also is intriguing. Thomas never lets you linger, and he certainly never lets you languish. Thomas uses a bit of a magic trick in which he makes you want more of the macabre and disturbing, and then you question why you want that. The effect is a mirror; you’re reading yourself on these pages as well as these characters. You are not merely afforded allusions to yourself; you are indicted in the telling of these stories. The tales don’t merely invite us in; they demand our participation. We are the characters’ attentive listener as they tell us…what? That they are tortured because of that which is in their nature? That they suffer due to urges toward what they know is inhuman? That there is a darkness within them that, one way or another, will get out, must get out, and maybe we, as the audience of these stories, are that outlet? Yes.

Thomas does not simply deliver us evil. He gives us a view and then asks us what we think. Most fiction authors write because they have a compulsion to serve as a conduit for invented people and realities. But when Thomas invites you to sit beside him as he stares into the abyss, he doesn’t tell you what he finds there; that he keeps to himself. Instead, he lets you discover what waits in the darkest depths of the human soul, and he grins as you realize you must admit what you find there is unmistakably human.

That is where Thomas’ horror lies: we discover for ourselves what we already know but are either afraid or unwilling to admit. We know it is there because we know it is inside of us, too.

While Thomas’ treatment of character may be reminiscent of horror royalty Stephen King and Dean Koontz, at times Clive Barker, his treatment of craft evokes Brian Evenson, Dan Chaon, and Jeff VanderMeer. There is an elusiveness to Thomas’ stories that I find compelling. Indeed, some of these tales beg additional readings, though study is by no means necessary for comprehension. There is an art to striking that balance, and Thomas’ collection is a masterclass demonstration in how to do that.

My favorite piece in the collection is one Thomas admits in his endnotes is unusual for him. “How Not to Come Undone” is a wonderful tale of twins set in the yin-yang mold. However, in this one, the good twin ascends to power, and the conclusion is so satisfying and inspiring that I felt breathless from the blow of it. “In His House” reads like an homage to Lovecraft and Clive Barker, the combination of which is utterly fascinating, and, oddly enough, it’s not the first story in the collection to involve an evil clown, the prospect of which usually makes me grimace. Somehow, it works under Thomas’ pen. “Nodus Tollens,” the story of a bargain struck by the desperate and ignorant, twists the trope in a way that I’d never seen done before, and on first read, the narrative subverted every instinct I had about conflict and tension. The final piece, “Ring of Fire,” is perhaps more conventional in narrative but fresh in form. The power of this piece lies in understanding the fate that awaits this character is not only inevitable but has already come, the horror of it ever present all along despite our unawareness.

And that, more than anything, is the way Thomas views horror: it’s a fact of life. It is here, now, with you even as you read my words, on the other side of that quarter inch of brittle glass you call a window, beneath your feet in the space between floors, within your own heart. You know this to be true. You know it, and Thomas won’t let you escape his latest collection until you’re willing to face that truth, too.

Spontaneous Human Combustion is available now from Keylight Books at your local indie bookstore, Bookshop.org, and everywhere books are sold.

Timothy Johnson

is editor-in-chief for phoebe and an MFA candidate at George Mason University’s creative writing program. His writing has been published by Gamut, Crystal Lake Publishing, Deracine Magazine, and Inked in Gray Press. He lives and writes from outside Washington, D.C. Tweet at him @tim_the_writer. He will be delighted.

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