You are now entering… the Twilight Zone (review: Beneath the Surface of Things)

23 Apr

Has your immersion in the mundane prepared you for the possibility that everything you’ve learned…is wrong?

That’s what horror author Kevin Wallis asks in his short story collection Beneath the Surface of Things, anyway.  It’s insight into the title of his book:

There are other worlds within our, fantastic and horrifying realms where vampires hold dominion, Heaven and Hell war in the dner down the street, and that dog who sits nightly at your feet dreams of snacks that taste more human.  Open the door to these worlds, and a phantasm might show you the secret to salvation, a corpse lying in the snow may sing a song of redemption, and the monsters of your childhood dreams plot their escape from your imagination…and into your backyard.

Because under the veneer of convention lies the truth.  And the truth might just devour those who look beneath the surface things.

Now I’m not usually one for extended author introductions, or author commentaries on their own stories.  It tends to strike me as affected and slightly pretentious.  But in this case, I’ll give Kevin Wallis a pass: that brief except from the intro gives a better picture of his short story collection than I ever could.  And besides, it reminds me of that classic tv series of horror and science fiction–The Twilight Zone.

I took a class called “Twilight Zone Culture” in American Studies last spring.  The basic academic premise of the course was that Rod Serling could slip social commentary under the McCarthy-era censorship radar by writing screenplays in the sf/fantasy genre.  And how could anything serious be hidden in something so frivolous as science fiction?

Well I don’t know how much social commentary’s lurking in the pages of Beneath the Surface of Things, but the story collection does echo another prominent feature of the famous 1950s/60s classic: like Serling, Kevin Wallis takes a scene or scenario from everyday life and turns it into something thoroughly twisted.

Wallis takes something as prosaic as a men’s camping trip and transforms it into an encounter with some horrible Cloverfield monster ripping off heads and  using skulls as gruesome jewelry boxes.  And yet, all throughout, the characters maintain total realism.  What would you do if your camping buddies were being decapitated by some Lovecraftian behemoth from beyond (or beneath)?   For our narrator: “I had to fight, not out of some suicidal notion of nobility, but for no other reason than because it’s what men do.”

And what’s more mundane than American masculinity?

That’s just one example (from one of my favorite shorts in the collection).  But it illustrates exactly where Wallis excels as a horror author: believability.  His mastery of suspending this reader’s disbelief is as developed as any giant of the genre.  I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a full-length novel sometime in the near future… as well as checking under my bed before I go to sleep for the next couple weeks.

Final Verdict

Reading time: Short story collections are great for the simple reason that they don’t require long periods of downtime to enjoy.  Read one or two on your lunch break, between classes, or waiting for your name to be called at the Student Health Center.  That’s my experience, anyway.

Recommendation: I’m not much of a stickler for strict genre distinctions.  When I put Beneath the Surface of Things in horror and not some horror/sci-fi mix, I use the H.P. Lovecraft litmus test.  When Charles Stross writes about monsters from the cosmic abyss, they’re summoned by arcane mathematic equations and computer programs.  That’s sci-fi.  Kevin Wallis doesn’t give complex explanations for his monsters.  That’s not a criticism, just a distinction–and it means you can feel safe giving this book to new sf initiations.  SF for speculative fiction, not sci-fi.

Availability: $4.99 for an ebook’s a little steep, I’ll admit.  As usual, I’ll recommend getting a free sample first for a taste test.  Here’s the book on Amazon.

You might also like: The Passage, by Justin Cronin; The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft; The Atrocity Archive, by Charles Stross; The Stand, by Stephen King

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