Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Collection by Bentley Little

The Collection
By Bentley Little
Copyright 2002

The Collection is the first published collection of short fiction by horror writer Bentley Little. Little’s stories tend to have thinly veiled social commentary and subtext. His short horror is no different.

The Sanctuary
A boy comes home from school to find out his mother has done it again. She has killed someone and a member of the family must die to cleanse her soul. The boy goes to the sanctuary within the zealously religious family’s home to find his little sister has been crucified. Her cross stands beside the cross where her father once hung. A few days later, the boy finds himself overcome with the urge to kill. When he does, somebody in the family must pay for his sins. . .

Little says he often wonders what goes on inside the families of religious zealots. I’ve always suspected zealotry concealed something evil the person didn’t want you to know about themselves or their families. Apparently, Little feels the same way.

The Woods Be Dark
A young boy is forced to confront an evil undead creature living in a nearby mansion in the southern United States.

I know it’s a short summary, but Little uses a lot of pages to tell just a little story. It’s not bad with the boy’s voyage to meet the vampire like creature reminiscent of Young Goodman Brown. Little wrote this while in college and every aspiring horror writer has to imitate Young Goodman Brown at least once.

The Phone Book Man

A suburban housewife hears a morning knock at the door and answers it. It’s a young man delivering phone books. He politely provides the lady with a phone book and asks to use her bathroom. The woman allows him in and starts watching television. It occurs to her that the phone book man has been awhile in the bathroom. She hears him showering. She’s prepared to lay into him when a different man – a large bearded man – emerges from the bathroom and wants to know what’s for breakfast. The woman flees the house. Regaining her composure, she returns to find a note from the phone book man saying he’s gone to pick up her daughter from school.

This was a tight little tale just quarky enough to be entertaining. Sometimes when I read Bentley Little, it seems as if it’s just a penname for Robert McCammon. While the novels are completely different, they have a very similar short story prose.

A young man discovers that whatever words come out of his mouth become a reality. At first, he is intrigued by this power when he discovers it in college. He makes himself into an important adviser to the president. When his words cause a nuclear war, he alters his reality back to that of a college student. He tries to live his life in complete silence and manages for more than a decade. He finally decides he can’t take it anymore and sets out to end his power once and for all.

Estoppel is a legal term that means, “it is what it is.” Little takes the Midas Touch story in a different direction that is exceptionally engaging with a character well developed in just a few pages.

The Washingtonians
A man visits an antique dealer with a most unique item of exceptional historical existence. It is a letter from George Washington where the father of our country promises to eat children and to make utensils of their bones. The man takes it to a friend who is a history professor who tells him one of history’s greatest secrets: George Washington was a cannibal who delighted feasting on his fellow patriots. As he is talking to his friend, a group of historians breaks into the room. This group is dedicated to preserving Washington’s tradition of dining on people.

This story is so whacky and twisted it is one of the most marvelous pieces of short fiction I’ve ever enjoyed. Imagine, historians are great conspirators to conceal a club dedicated to eating human flesh! As an amateur historian, I love it! In horror fiction, historians are always at the periphery, supplying that key piece of information at a key moment. Never do they get to be front and center as the villain. Little says he was inspired by the tight control of information coming out of the first Gulf War.

To date, this is the only Bentley Little work to make it into a visual medium. The Washingtonians was made into an episode of the Showtime show, Masters of Horror.

Life with Father
An adolescent girl describes her household composed of her, her father, and younger sister. In this household, everything is recycled – and I mean EVERYTHING. Finally, after her father uses her to recycle “emotions,” the girl and her younger sister take action. When the deed is done, she decides how father can be recycled because, “Old habits die hard.”

This was a dark, disturbing story. Little says he wrote it for an anthology of eco-terror stories and it was rejected. I can see why. It is some of the darkest, most disturbing writing I’ve ever read. It left me with mixed emotions – horror and disgust. I lean toward disgust and can say I did not enjoy this short story.

Brandon is enjoying a quiet day at home when several women arrive at his door and enter his home. One woman speaks for the entire group who says they are there on behalf of their friend. They keep calling Brandon, “Bob.” Despite his constant correction, they still call him Bob. They need his help to extricate their friend from a brutal relationship and they won’t take no for an answer.

This one really lacked a focal point and the ending was too ambiguous. The character, Brandon, was never really horrified about what it was they were asking him to do. He was, in fact, quite patient and polite as it seemed they had the wrong guy and wouldn’t accept it. There was no conflict. There was no horror and the main character was not changed by the experience in any fundamental way.

A white private investigator is hired by a priest in a small Arizona town to find the coyote who has killed numerous illegal immigrants while smuggling them into the country. The investigator tracks him down, but the priest’s parishioners mete out their own form of justice in a remote Arizona ghost town.

This is a rare instance of a traditional horror story from Bentley Little. He says it was written for an anthology and that he hates being hemmed in by writing parameters. I’d say he did ok on this one. A well developed central character and a compelling plot are the ingredients necessary for a good short story and they are here.

Lethe Dreams
A man and a woman struggle to get adequate sleep as they take care of their newborn baby. He is having terrible headaches that make it difficult for him to function. They trade nights getting up with the baby. One night, as the man is holding his infant and feeding it formula, we learn its true nature.

I supposed the end was supposed to be some kind of twist. But for a twist to be effective, some clue must be given. Some red herring must be placed to misdirect the reader. Some element must be there to make the twist satisfying. This was just a straight forward narrative that led to an unexpected and wholly unsatisfying ending.

A couple traveling across the desert stop in a small town to buy gas. They notice that the town is nearly empty and the gas station attendant is frightened badly. The wind blows waste paper and other detritus around in swirling mounds. There is something sinister in those swirling mounds of paper.

Think Stephen King’s Trucks with garbage instead of machines. There’s just a touch of dark comedy in this story of a couple trapped in one of those strange small towns where inexplicable things happen.

The Idol
Two buddies venture to the Griffith Park Observatory, bent on finding the tire iron James Dean threw in the movie, Rebel Without a Cause. Having watched that particular scene in slow motion many times, they are sure they know where it is. When they arrive and search the brush beneath the observatory, they find someone has been there before them and has built a shrine to it with the tire iron itself embedded in stone a la Excalibur. Women from southern California come to worship at the altar in their own, peculiar way. It is a rite of passage for southern California women.

What a fantastic story! There is just enough character development to create sympathy in the reader. The tale itself is twisted and bizarre and perhaps a vague commentary on the women of southern California.

A family stops by a roadside attraction claiming to be the largest house in the world made entirely of skin. The husband and his children enter. The children are fascinated, but the husband is disturbed. He thinks the skin is not animal skin. He is further disturbed a recent patch in the “fabric.” They beat feet out of there. The family is changed by the experience – and not for the better.

Little says this story was inspired by the many roadside attractions that dotted the landscape of America in the 1960s.

The Man in the Passenger Seat
A man leaves his car unattended for just a few moments to visit an ATM. When he returns, he finds a corpulent, foul smelling man in the passenger seat armed with a gun. The man orders him to drive. They hit the freeway and events go downhill from there. Strangely, the man finds himself less a hostage and more a willing participant in the stranger’s pursuits.

Stockholm Syndrome is a frequent theme in thriller stories. But they usually have some context in which the hostage and the hostage take bond. There is no context here. While Little may have wanted this lack of context to create the mystery of the story, it fails to do so. There is also a distinct lack of tension in the story, making it a complete dud.

Comes the Bad Time
A farm couple agrees to allow a wandering 17 year old girl to spend the night on their farm. They invite her into their home to stay. That night, she has a violent seizure and at one point, levitates from the floor as she seizes. The seizure passes and the girl, who reveals little about herself or her background, stays with them for a period of time. One day, on a ride back from town, she starts seizing again. They get her out of the car, and she screams, “I’ll get you assholes!” and dies. From then on, her image starts appearing in fruits, vegetables, rug patterns and other manifestations. The couple is terrified. When a man shows up at the door who bears a striking resemblance to the girl, the farmer kills him. The haunting continues, ad infinitum.

This story had a great premise and what story there was, was exceptionally well told. But like so many Little stories, it left me wanting much, much more and Little didn’t provide it. A few more pages; a few more words and this story could have been much better.

Against the Pale Sand
A man’s car breaks down and he is forced to hike to a house in the middle of nowhere. There he finds a young woman and an old man living in seclusion. In their living room is a cocoon of sorts hanging over a box of sand. The man is trying to find out if he can use a phone when that cocoon opens and unleashes its horror.

Another of those stranded motorist stories that all horror writers engage in from time to time. This one had gratuitous pseudo erotica and not much of a story. Exceptionally thin characters and nearly incomprehensible plot made this one a clunker.

The Pond
An agent for a resort development company is searching through his attic when he comes across marketing materials and swag from a group called POP – “People Over Pollution.” He recalls that he’d belonged to this group in his hippie days back in the 1960s. He also finds a photo of a meadow with a pond he clipped from a magazine. He recalls that he thought that he and his future wife would settle down in a meadow just like that, living the primitive, pollution free life. Later, he is in an Arizona forest, scouting locations for a new resort when he finds that particular meadow and that particular pond. The setting is not as idealistic as he remembers it. It occurs to him that he’s not as idealistic as he thought he was.

Little says this story is all about people who sold out. He says the sellouts are not confined to the Baby Boom generation. I hate – absolutely hate – politics injected into my escapist reading and this story is no exception. It’s well written with a sympathetic character. The end, however, is ambiguous and not in a good way. It just ends without a clue as to the ultimate fate of the main character.

A man tosses out his piggish and slovenly apartment mate and sets out to find a new roommate to help pay the rent. As he screens applicants, each is worse than the last – to the point of absurdity.

This story was comical rather than horror oriented. Little says he never had to shack up with a stranger to make ends meet. But the prospect of having to do it filled him with horror. It’s mildly humorous and was fun to read.

A bookstore owner finds a dead llama in the alley behind his shop. He has always been obsessed with numbers and numerology. He measures the size of the llama’s head and begins to apply that measurement – and many other calculations – to his twisted and morbid life.

This story had a creepy main character, a spooky premise, and worked on every level. Just enough character development and just enough story to please.

Full Moon On Death Row
A native American man spots the men who gunned down his father many years before in a nearby town. Although decades have passed, they have not aged a day. He consults the tribal elders and finds his friend who lost his father to the same men, at the same place, in the same manner. They aim to get revenge, but find out who their real enemy is.

This was the longest story in the book and worth every page. The story’s construction was much more mainstream than Little’s normally offbeat approach to short fiction.

The Show
A young man is invited by a buddy to attend a “snuff show” where a woman is sexually abused, tortured, and eventually killed in front of a live audience. The man attends and is horribly disgusted. Several days later, his buddy calls to ask if he received an unsolicited mailing offering to help him commit suicide. Unfortunately, his horribly depressed mother received it first.

This is one of the most disconcerting, horrifying pieces of short fiction ever written! Lovecraft and Poe would have blanched. It’s light on gore, but heavy on emotion and disturbing imagery conjured by the reader’s own mind. Absolutely brilliant!

The Mailman
A new suburbanite is disturbed when he finds out his mailman is a dwarf. As a child, he was harassed by a dwarf at a carnival. Since then, that dwarf has shown up in the Vietnam POW camp where he was imprisoned and in other locales throughout his life. He’s determined to rid himself of the dwarf once and for all.

This was a well paced story with a strong central character. However, the story just isn’t that interesting. It is, however, a bit politically incorrect.

A man comes home from work early one day to find his wife gone somewhere. On his kitchen table is a single piece of paper with a single word written on it. He is so puzzled by this word and what it means he starts looking around the house for clues as to an affair, demon worship, and other bizarre notions. He finds his wife has some strange undertakings while he is off at work.

I was really into this story. It got stranger and stranger and Little’s narrative builds the tension nicely. But we get no resolution. I know sometimes the ambiguous ending is best left to the reader’s imagination. But this story screamed out for resolution that never came.

Pillow Talk
A man suddenly finds his bed dressings have become possessive, amorous beings bent on sexually ravaging him. He fights them the best he can.

It’s just as silly as my summary makes it sound. The worst clunker in the book. Does not work on any level.

Maya's Mother
A mobster has sex with the young daughter of a Guatemalan maid and the maid puts a curse on him. He hires a private investigator to track down the woman. The private investigator soon finds that this mobster is in for a short, painful life.

This was good. The hero is from an earlier story by Bentley Little entitled Bumblebee, so the main character is not developed in this story, having appeared before. The curse is cool and you don’t mind seeing the mobster get his in the end.

The newly elected president of the United States finds out that 230 years of history and all of our government is a sham. We really lost the American Revolution and have been a secret colony of the Empire of Great Britain ever since with presidents from Washington on taking orders from the throne. This president is determined to end it.

How delightfully corny! Bob Haldeman isn’t really dead! He’s just been hiding because his boss, Richard Nixon dared to resist and paid the price. Kennedy too! This story is offbeat and fun!

Confessions Of A Corporate Man

In the corporation of Little’s imagination, turf wars within a corporation are real wars fought with weapons fashioned from office products. Real casualties are incurred and departments within the corporation are taken as prizes. Little’s tale tells of one ongoing war within one corporation.

I know that when you read Little, you are going to get absurd premises to demonstrate real world absurdities. However, this absurdity was not well conceived. It was too absurd with no basis in reality. He tried for a parody of corporate culture that just did not work well on the printed page. However, something like this might make for a dark comedy on the big or small screen.

A man preparing macaroni and cheese sees a face in the swirling, boiling water and macaroni. That face asks for blood. The man first supplies dog blood. But the face, which reappears with the next batch of boxed treat says it wants human blood. So, the man goes out and kills a little boy for blood. He mixes it in and the face is sated. The man eats the dish. The next batch asks for more blood, so the man cuts his own wrist and supplies blood from his own veins. In doing so, he learns a horrible secret from his past.

Another offbeat premise from Little. This is the first story I’ve ever read of haunted macaroni and cheese. It fell flat because the story was rushed. There was no real building of tension. There was no motivation for the character to act (who does something because their macaroni and cheese tells them to?). One of the weaker entries in the collection.

And I Am Here, Fighting With Ghosts
A man, recently divorced from his wife, fights to maintain his sanity as he lapses from reality into dreams that appear real. He can never be sure if he's living his life or living a dream.

Little says this story was the fusion of four separate dreams he had. It is written in the disjointed manner in which dreams occur. While the story and writing are disjointed, it is effective and the story is intriguing.

The Baby
A group of four boys discover a dead baby in a warehouse. They build a shrine to it and soon, all the kids in the neighborhood come to worship before the corpse of the abandoned infant. One day, one boy begins to wonder if their new deity is lonely. . .

This story is creepy in the same way Children of the Corn was creepy. The story is implausible. But given the unpredictable manner in which adolescents react and behave, it’s easy to forget that implausibility.

Coming Home Again
A young man travels home to meet the “woman” with whom his widowed father plans to spend the rest of his life. He finds the outside of the home just as neat and tidy as he remembered it. Bu the inside is a disaster. When he meets the new love of his father’s life, he is horrified. He turns to the neighbors for help, but it seems the old neighborhood has gone to hell, literally.

Another lapse into the absurd by Little. This story is not without its charm. But something this outlandish warrants at least a little development and/or explanation – none of which are provided.

The Potato
A farmer discovers a huge, oddly colored and shaped potato growing in his field. Curiosity by neighbors eventually leads him to charge people to see it. He lets his farm go to hell while his obsession with the potato grows.

Again, another lapse into absurdity with no development of the main character’s motivation or the nature of the predicament. Little should learn that not every idea he has is a good one.

The Murmurous Haunt Of Flies

A man and his wife visit his grandfather who lives on a farm. During the visit, the grandfather tells them that they must never go near the old bath house near the barn. It is haunted. His wife died there and others in the area suspect that whatever evil lurks in the barn is responsible for the death of livestock in the area. But the man and his wife can’t resist the urge and head inside. There, they find millions of house flies – and those flies have a will and a purpose. . .

A brilliant story with which to conclude this collection. It was a traditional tale of haunting with all of the elements of a good horror story. The creepy bit of poetry set the mood and who isn’t repulsed by swarms of flies!

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