Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Book: Walk in Shadows by Nicholas Kaufmann (horror short stories)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

Author Nicholas Kaufmann was one of a select handful of writers chosen to pen the inaugural novels of the Gabriel Hunt adventure series from Charles Ardai (founder of Hard Case Crime). Kaufmann's book, Hunt at World's End is the third in the series, and though he was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for his novella General Slocum's Gold, many readers may not previously have heard of him. A good place to get an idea of his range (and especially his skill at fast-paced narratives) is his first book, a collection of short stories called Walk in Shadows.

Despite what some reviewers would have you think, it's really not very often that a debut fiction collection comes along that trumpets an exciting new talent (at least new to me). I've probably only read three so far in my life. The first was Soft and Others by F. Paul Wilson, then more recently there was Douglas Clegg's The Nightmare Chronicles.

Now, add Nicholas Kaufmann to that list. With Walk in Shadows, he shows a sure hand at horror, from the psychological profile ("Not That Kind of Story") to the kinetic escape (aptly titled "Go!").

There are several highlights in Kaufmann's debut collection (culled from several magazines and anthologies of which mainstream readers have likely never heard), beginning with "The Jew of Prague." This story starts out as a simple jewel heist and turns into something else. The atmosphere is the strongest point of this story and Kaufmann layers it on with gusto. Similarly, "VIP Room" is the most disturbingly sexy story I've read since Dan Simmons' "Dying in Bangkok" (from Lovedeath), and that is mostly due to Kaufmann's skill at setting the scene properly.

Unlike many authors who seem to tread similar ground over and over, Kaufmann doesn't write the same kind of story (although many of them take place in his fictional Quick City); each has a different tone — and, surprisingly often, a different voice — from the preceding one. This allows him to excel as the first-person narrator, since his "author's voice" is completely absorbed into the character's (one prime example is with "Better Off with the Blues").

The only story in Walk in Shadows that shows its obvious origins in a themed anthology (a tribute to Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers), "With Its Sleeves Rolled," is a weaker entry, although it does manage to achieve the unthinkable: making Senator Joseph McCarthy a sympathetic character and causing the reader to think of Communism in a new way.

Kaufmann's characters aren't always the nicest people (like the assassin in "The Dead Stay Dead"), but he manages to make them easy to identify with. Even the gang members in "Street Cred" — which takes hazing to a new low, adding zombies to the equation with complete believability — are somehow familiar enough to elicit empathy.

"Voir Dire" is original to this collection and is another highlight. I read it prior to my own jury duty, and it gets the details right, but it's really about fear: the universal fear of being found out, because everyone has a secret they wouldn't like discovered, however small. I've also ridden in a taxi in New York, but luckily it was nothing like "Hail" (a double entendre dealing with taxis and the weather). I must admit I didn't care for the ending, but I was willingly carried along up until then.

Only "La Bete est Morte" was what I would call mediocre, and that only because the "surprise" was entirely predictable (in fact, I hadn't realized it was a surprise until it was "revealed"), and without that, there was little remaining. This is a small complaint because the story reads so well that it almost doesn't matter.

But all of the stories in Walk in Shadows are great reading. The only piece I actually regret reading is not even Kaufmann's doing; that honor goes to the rambling introduction of Brian A. Hopkins, in which he talks about himself for several pages, saving only a few paragraphs for praise of Kaufmann.

Aficionados of new voices would do well to pick up a copy of Walk in Shadows. It is filled with imagination and natural storytelling ability, as well as a talent for action that should serve well in a pulp-style narrative.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This looks terrific. Thanks, Craig. I need to read more horror to take my mind off the real horror.

Craig Clarke said...

Yeah, horror definitely makes your own situation not seem so bad. Of course, if it's modern life you want to escape from, a Western can't be beat.

To escape from both, just pick up Robert E. Howard. :)

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