Quick Take: Stuck in the middle with Matthew Warner’s No Outlet

I’ve been a fan of most of the titles published by Thunderstorm Books, and the latest title of theirs to land on my desk (well, figuratively speaking, since it was an ebook) is Matthew Warner’s novella No Outlet.  The tag line for the book is “every man’s worst nightmare,” and that’s an apt descriptor for a story that’s set entirely within the confines of a mega-shopping mall.

Steve and Tanya Clarke are a bickering, debt-ridden couple visiting their local mall for what’s supposed to be a quick trip to buy a single Christmas gift.  But soon Tanya is reverting to her usual shopaholic ways, leading to more arguing, and a decision to leave.  But they can’t find the exit…and then they see stores in different locations than normal, not to mention strange stores they’ve never noticed before, and every path they take leads them in circles.  When they try to ask for help, they’re ignored, insulted or ultimately assaulted.

As their frustration and fear mount, the bickering couple’s old wounds re-open:

He glanced at Tanya. Her nose was wrinkled in disgust. Ugly and imperious. He knew that look: the baby who didn’t get her way, the one who got angry to hide how scared she was… the only reason she got so mad was because she was used to Colonel Warbucks giving her everything. Well, welcome to the real world, sweetie. Not everyone had their way paid through college and their career jumpstarted by the good old boy network. Not everyone had a maid growing up who would lint-roll the dog hair off her coat and make sure the animal stayed out of her bedroom so she wouldn’t have to deal with its slobber and piss…

When they finally encounter another couple who are cognizant of the bizarre situation, and willing to talk about it, Steve and Tanya seem to at least have found allies…but even that small island of sanity soon submerges in unexpected fashion.

There was a point in this tale, relatively early on, where I thought to myself, “this is a great little idea, but it’s best suited for short-story length…how is he going to be able to successfully stretch it to novella length?”   Fortunately, via subplot and unexpected developments, Warner does manage to extend the plot without padding it.  That said, there are a couple aspects that prevent No Outlet from being completely successful.  Most notably, the see-saw nature of Steve and Tanya’s feelings for each other starts to grate a bit after several swings between rekindled love and restored contempt.

Set on Black Friday, No Outlet perhaps appropriately has a sense of black comedy to it at times, interspersed with moments of true horror and Twilight Zone-style strangeness.

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