Today we’re taking a peek at two novellas from the Delirium/DarkFuse collective. First up is Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man (which, serendipitously enough, is actually dedicated to our other author, Michael McBride). Prentiss has previously published two well-received novellas through Cemetery Dance Publications, and seems comfortable working at this length.
This particular novella concerns two adult sons: Glen, who’s stayed home and spent his life caring for his mother, and Curtis who long ago moved far away to California, and rarely visited since… but has now returned to the nest to visit his dying mother. The brothers’ reunion is somewhat awkward, with old wounds easily reopened. In particular, Curtis’ penchant for making fun of Glen’s obesity during their teen years is still a sore point, even though Glen has dropped the weight and seems to have replaced his fixation on food with an obsession on exercise. Curtis’ history of strained relationships doesn’t end with his brother, although his long-uneasy association with his mother seems surprisingly improved, even if he doesn’t trust it will last. In the following passage he muses on past conversations with dear old mom, centering on his wife, Lauren:
She needed prompting. You deserve better, he could say for her. Someone prettier, more intelligent. How easy it would be for his mother to slip back into these earlier pronouncements—ones that pretended to flatter her son, puff him up with importance, when they really served only to wound Lauren. The frail, sweet version of his mother couldn’t last. If he stayed here and kept talking with her, the illusion would inevitably crumble. It would be best to end things now.
Against this backdrop (with an eccentric nurse-caregiver thrown in for good measure), Prentiss creates an at-times surreal tale of a house that’s haunted by memories, guilt, and perhaps more.
The eponymous character is a strange creature of gristle and bone who may be an embodiment of all the bad feelings present in the house or may just be a figment of imagination:
Behind her, the Fleshless Man stands tall and more horrible than Curtis could have imagined. The creature is a skeleton coated in dried muscle. Polyps hang all over him like gray drippings off a cheap hamburger patty. His yellowed fingernails curl in long impossible spirals, scraping against the walls as he tries to maintain balance. The creature’s legs skitter awkwardly, like legs pulled off a spider, each movement near death yet twitching with the full energy of life.
The Fleshless Man is somewhat leisurely paced but effectively atmospheric and likely to linger in your mind well after you’ve read the last word.
* * *
Moving on to F9… McBride’s latest revolves around a brain function test being conducted by neurologist Ellis Harding on convicted mass murderer Niall Davenport, aka Patient F0, who in 1968 killed nine people in a senseless outburst of violence. Harding has received hard-won permission to perform his tests — using medical imaging to track blood flow and electrical impulses in conjunction with conscious and unconscious thought — on the now-comatose Davenport in order to try and prove a theory of his.
Coined “Mile High Syndrome,” the theory seeks to explain the increased incidence of mass murder in Colorado, which is three times higher than any other state since that 1968 killing kicked off the trend, with all of those Colorado murders occurring in a relatively small area along the slope of the Rockies, known as the Front Range.
Harding’s interest in the topic stems from his own personal experience as a survivor of one of those mass murders — committed in Boulder in 1994 — and the stories of “patients” F1 through F8 are interspersed with updates on Harding’s experiment.
The following passage describes the attack Harding survived in 1994:
She slid up against the splintered railing. Her blood expanded around her, reflecting the overhead lights. She reached for one of the railings, as though to pull herself up or simply to drag herself over. I don’t know what thoughts went through her head before the second shot did.
Besides being a nice turn of phrase, there’s a blast of raw emotion in that final sentence, and that’s something that F9 could use some more of. Too much of the story is narrated in a manner that feels cold, clinical, and detached. I suspect that’s actually purposeful on McBride’s part, because it does fit the personality of Harding, but I’m not sure it was a wise decision overall. A little more emotion and a little less intellect would have benefitted the story and lent it more impact. It’s also worth noting that I saw the ending coming before it arrived, but hopefully it will catch you off-guard. 🙂
As is the case with The Fleshless Man, F9 is not the best work I’ve seen from the book’s author, but it’s nonetheless worthy of your time and money.