Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harmlessly Insane by The Light Brothers

Full disclosure: I kinda-sorta know the Light brothers. We've never met face-to-face, but we've had numerous online interactions. I'd go so far as to say that I consider them to be two good Internet pals of mine. I don't believe the feeling is mutual, really. But that's beside the point.

What I'm trying to get at is that if any of the above causes you to dismiss this review as biased, so be it. Don't read onward. I'm OK with that.

All right, here's the setup: I've been kicking the idea around for a while now to write a 'bro v. bro' review of the Light brothers' short stories. Who doesn't like a good fight between siblings held in a public space? So, when I saw that the Light brothers put out Harmlessly Insane, a collection of all their stories in one massive volume, I wrote to Evans and told him about my 'bro v. bro' idea and asked him when the eBook version would be released. (I prefer to read eBooks now. Shut up. I've got my reasons.) He told me that they had no immediate plans for releasing this collection in eBook format but that he'd be happy to send me a trade paperback edition for free.

I accepted this offer, even though I was reluctant to provide the author of "Don't Need No Water" with my mailing address. Don't worry. I have shown my wife, kids, and neighbors his photograph, just in case.

Again, readers, if you'd like to dismiss this review as biased because I received a rather handsome (signed) trade paperback edition of the book in the mail for free, so be it. Don't read any further.

Everyone else, get some coffee (or your beverage of choice) and settle in.

My original intent for this review was to have each story serve as a metaphorical blow in a knock-down, drag-out fight between the Light brothers. "Crawlspace" would be an ineffectual bitch-slap that Adam easily shrugs off. "Taken" would be a brass-knuckled punch that would leave Evans with one less tooth in his mouth. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, when I received Harmlessly Insane in the mail, I quickly noticed that my dream of depicting a fair (but satisfyingly gruesome) fight between the Light brothers was not to be. You see, Evans has nearly twice as many stories in this anthology as Adam. Evans's material takes up approximately 2/3 of the page count!

If I went with my original concept, half the fight would just be Adam lying prone while Evans kicks the shit out of him, bludgeoning him with random household objects, torturing him relentlessly until he finally gets bored and delivers the fatal curb stomp that ends it all. And no one wants to see that. At least, I don't think they do. OK, Evans might.

So, what I'm left with is a rather run-of-the-mill rundown of the stories in this volume with my brief thoughts on each, along with star ratings. I usually don't bother with star ratings when reviewing an anthology, but since this review was originally conceived as a bloody fight, I wanted to see who comes out on top.

"Crawlspace" (Stars: 2.5) - I read this one a while back and here's what I had to say about it then: "This story needed another round of edits. Some sentences were horribly broken, some metaphors were way overblown. Did the door to the crawlspace open inward or outward? There seemed to be some confusion in the text about this somewhat important detail. The story itself wasn't bad. Just needed some polish." (Note: Based on the reviews I've read of this one, most people really dig this story. And of the ones who didn't like it, they generally cited the ending as the reason why. However, I really liked the ending. Go figure.)

"Whatever Possessed You?" (Stars: 3.5) - This was some good, solid Tales from the Crypt-style fun.

"Gertrude" (Stars: 3.75) - There is a collection of lines in this story that are repeated throughout. I really liked this particular aspect of the story, and this lifted this rather short piece up into my list of favorites from this collection. However, I did find some particular police procedural aspects of the story a bit less than believable.

"Aboreatum" (Stars: 4.75) - This is the best Evans Light story in this collection and the best story overall. I'm probably alone in this, but I really enjoyed the extended creek mud ingestion section in the beginning of the tale. This story had some great imagery, humor, and a huge dose of wickedness. The only thing keeping this from rating 5 stars is that a character goes missing at one point. You can piece together what happens to this character on your own, but leaving this character's fate up to the reader to decide makes the lead character seem like kind of an asshole. And I don't believe this was the author's intent.

"Nose Hears" (Stars: 3.75) - I rather enjoyed this one. It's not really a horror piece. It fits more into the Bizarro category. (Keep that in mind when you pick this collection up. There are some off-the-wall Bizarro-style stories mixed in with the horror.) The very last line of this one is a groaner. You've been warned.

"The Mole People Beneath the City" (Stars: 3.5) - This is another fun piece. I think most folks will see where this one is going, but that really doesn't detract much at all from the enjoyment.

"Cry Baby" (Stars: 3.5) - A creepy tale concerning night terrors. Again, the ending's a bit predictable, but I think parents will find this tale particularly discomforting.

"Pay Back" (Stars: 4.25) - This is another story I'd place in the Bizarro category. This is one of my favorites. Evans does a fine job of painting a portrait of a despicable character. This one is crude, gross, over-top-top, ridiculous, and ultimately very satisfying. Some would call this satire. I call it farce. (Note: Based on reviews I've read, I'm sharing the minority opinion on this one. But I think this is largely due to reader expectations.)

"Curtains for Love" (Stars: 4.25) - This is a fine ghost story. Evans provides an alternate ending to this one in his end notes. I'm torn on which one I liked better. They're both quite good.

"Don't Need No Water" (Stars: 4.5) - This story is lean, mean-spirited, gruesome, fast-paced, and quite tense. This would have rated a solid 5 stars were it not for the too convenient placement of a particular object that I believe served mostly to get the author out of a tight spot. Another solution could have been found that would have seemed more believable to me.

"Candie Apple" (Stars: 3.5) - Yeah, yeah, I knew where this was going, but I'm still glad it went there. This would have rated much higher had the tragic event central to the story been moved to a more believable location.

"The Package" (Stars: 3.5) - Another winning Bizarro tale. I had a lot of fun seeing how the author weaved Joe R. Lansdale novel and story titles throughout the narrative. He did a fine job of making these allusions not seem forced.

"Black Door" (Stars: 3.75) - This piece was suitable for its intended, younger audience, and sufficiently creepy. The ending borders on the cliched, but I did really like what lies behind the black door quite a lot.

I've done the math, and it appears that the Evans Light section of Harmlessly Insane comes in at 3.8 stars. However, based on the fact that he provides story notes after almost every story, something I'm quite fond of, that rating gets bumped up to a very solid 4 stars.

"Taken" (Stars: 3.75) - With "Taken," Adam kicks off his section of Harmlessly Insane with a solid starter. I liked the hapless villain, the victim who refuses to be victimized, and I really liked Dianne. Mmm, mmm, Dianne.

"Tommy Rotten" (Stars: 2.5) - This Halloween tale seemed a bit rushed to me and cluttered up with too many secondary characters.

"Way Out of Here" (Stars: 4) - This was my favorite of the Adam Light stories. This isn't horror, it's Bizarro. It's some good trippy, goofy fun.

"Gone" (Stars: 2.5) - This one was entertaining enough, but the cliched ending keeps it from being truly satisfying.

"Serving Spirits" (Stars: 3.25) - This story had great potential to be Adam's flagship piece for this collection. It had an almost Hitchcockian setup. It felt like an homage to horror stories of days gone by with the well-to-do, drunk couple whose marriage is on the rocks. I liked the supernatural element. It has goodly amounts of sex and violence, which I always find pleasant. However, the overall impact of this story was greatly compromised by some uneven writing and editing issues that I just couldn't ignore. I think if this story underwent some surgery, it could wind up being the equal of Evans's "Aboreatum."

"Vengence by the Foot" (Stars: 3) - All I can say is that this was some good, dopey fun. I would love to see this one as a short film. It has some great slapstick moments.

"The Continuance Agency" (Stars: 3.75) - Adam ends his section of Harmlessly Insane on a high note with "The Continuance Agency." This is solid post-apocalyptic SF with plenty of nastiness to satisfy the horror fans. The ending left me a little cold, but I understand this is part of a series, so I don't think I can be too down on it. However, I would like to see where this is going. So, you know, hurry up with part two, Adam.

The Adam Light section comes in at a solid 3.25 stars. And he gets no bonus points because none of his stories were followed by story notes. I say 'BOO' to that. Maybe I'll get some in volume two? I hope so.

Based on my reading, I'd say the outcome of this brother versus brother war of words would be very much like the ending of Freddy v. Jason (where Evans is Jason and Adam is Freddy), and we'd see Evans emerging from Crystal Lake holding Adam's severed head in his hand.

As a whole, I had great fun reading this book. It was like gorging myself on alternating Tales from the Crypt, Monsters, Tales from the
Darkside, Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits episodes.

Overall star rating: 3.6 rounded up to 4.0.

On a related note: I understand that the Light brothers are currently collaborating on a novel. After reading this collection, I'm eagerly looking forward to reading this. Their styles are similar enough that I'd imagine that the finished product will be nearly seamless. If they manage to imbue it with the same sense of macabre fun evident in this story collection, it should be quite the treat.

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