When I was eight or nine, Grandpa Bob gave me some books from his library. One was called “The Heroes of Our Faith” or something (I still have it somewhere, but don’t have much need of it nowadays), my first and only hagiography. Two more were anthologies of very early science fiction stories from the 1920s and 30s–one of them was called Before the Golden Age, and edited by Isaac Asimov.
I’m pretty sure the Before the Golden Age stories were the first place I ever read about evolution, space travel, time travel, and the dangers of “vivisection.” And they scared the shiznat out of me.
I never read ghost stories when I was little. I bucked the third grade R. L. Stine trend. And I didn’t swap scary stories around a campfire (since the only camp I ever went to was a science camp on Catalina Island where we swapped scary stories about the Hapsburgs and their problematic chins). But science fiction could always freak me out. Slogging through Amazon, I recently found a copy of the January 2003 Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine–the first and only one I ever read. “Junk DNA” and “Pick My Bones With Whispers” were just too much to handle.
Which is partly why I, though by now grown-up-ish, still got chills reading Joel Arnold’s Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse, a short story collection just creepy enough to be horror, just dystopian enough to be sci-fi, and just scarily well-written.
At seven or eight pages each, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for character development or world-building–but that doesn’t mean our protagonists and their environs aren’t believable. Plenty of novels falter because they’re too ambitious, or just plain sloppy. But Joel Arnold maintains tight, clean prose throughout; and by avoiding superfluous detail or grandiloquent phraseology, he keeps each piece focused.
But that steady hand doesn’t prevent twist endings from throwing the reader off balance and introduce that classic scary story factor of the unexpected. I can’t think of one in nine that didn’t leave me with an unsettled feeling–you know, the kind that leaves you staring at the computer screen, eyebrows raised, mouth half-open, mind thoroughly disturbed.
And all this doesn’t mean, either, that any of these singularly unnerving Bedtime Sories for the Apocalypse are derivative (although I do wonder if “Mr. Blue” and “Harvey’s Favorite Color” take place in the same sci-fi universe). Arnold keeps equally firm control of the plot and writing in widely different narrative styles– what a high school English teacher would categorize as first-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited omniscient, and telephone transcripts.
How can I sum this up coherently?
End-of-the-World scenarios and dark future governments are quintessential short science fiction fodder–but unexpected twists keep the kiss-of-death cliche far, far away.
Almost as enjoyable as the stories themselves is the author’s strong, clear, clean, controlled, engaging, and just possibly flawless writing style.
Finally, if someday I give my faithful Kindle 2 to a nerdy, socially awkward grandchild, she would definitely sleep a little less restfully that night. But more importantly–the dark visions of the future the reader sticks her toe into in this short story collection would make her think. And that’s what scary good sci-fi is all about.
Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse is available as an ebook on Amazon for $1.79.
Special Note for the In-Crowd: If “Ben Cleaver” is based off the author (I didn’t spot a “No character in this book is based off any person living or dead…” disclaimer), fear not! “Narcissus” has another link to himself on the ‘Net as of today. Mort, man–you rock.