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If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today and desired to “re-imagine” his 1948 classic “Rope,” he’d want Robert Dunbar to write the screenplay. Guaranteed.
Dunbar starts his impressive collection off with “Getting Wet,” a moody, tension-filled piece that does indeed measure up to my all–time favorite Hitch film, with Dunbar’s Con and Tim evoking the controlling Brandon and the nervous, needy Phillip. But this isn’t some re-tread of familiar material as, really, the two stories share little in common other than two fascinating lead characters and the realistic and dangerous relationship between them. Quite frankly, if anything, this is “Rope” with crackheads, and is completely and utterly engrossing.
When I finished this first story I knew I was in for a great ride with this collection and I wasn’t disappointed. Throughout the book, Dunbar maintains the tension, and creates some really wonderful characters that you want to visit with again. And that’s good, because in some cases the characters do come back to haunt you in other stories. Personally, I was happy to see Con and Tim reappear in “Are We Dead Yet?” which gives us even more insight into their characters and relationship. It serves as a prequel of sorts, but stands beautifully on its own.
Dunbar masterfully creates emotional reality just as well as he creates atmosphere, and each character in each story is brimming with emotion. Whether it’s a young man who deeply needs to protect his abusive brother in “High Rise,” or a mother who will do anything to protect her children in “Gray Soil,” these are very real human beings (even when they’re not) in extraordinary circumstances. In fact, if I could narrow it down to one theme that seems to run through this entire collection it is the overwhelming sense of need that appears to drive each character. There is something that they don’t just simply want or desire. There is an insistent need that drills into their bones and it is so palpable that it becomes almost an additional character in each of the stories. This is especially true with the boys in “Like a Story,” characters that indelibly etched in my mind. For me, the collection works the best when Dunbar sticks closest to the realistic emotional core of the characters. Lucky for us, he does that consistently.
Dunbar also gives us some nice moments of dark humor with “The Folly,” an out and out laugh from me in “Saturday Night Fights,” and anyone who has ever attended a comic book/sci-fi/horror convention will surely see some familiar faces (perhaps even their own?) in “Explanations,” which had me smiling all the way through despite the very dark center of it.
What I also appreciate about Dunbar’s work is that it is challenging. Dunbar doesn’t talk down to his readers, nor is he going to hold their hands through the stories. There may be times when the reader goes, “wait, what the hell is going on?” but that has a wonderful effect of keeping the reader slightly off-kilter as all the pieces come together in a satisfying conclusion.
The collection ends with “The Moon (Upside Down),” a wonderfully quiet piece of work that evokes Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” had those Barbary Lane characters been infused with a little darkness, a smidge of tarot, and an almost fatalistic outlook on life.
In the end, this collection will challenge you, move you, and make you hold your breath. It’s dark fiction, it’s horror, it’s character study, it’s literary fiction. And it’s damn good.
MARTYRS & MONSTERS
By Robert Dunbar
Paperback, $17.99, 276 p.