Spontaneous Human Combustion, Richard Thomas (Keylight Books 978-1-68442-755-0, $29.99, 250pp, hc) February 2022.
Richard Thomas is a seasoned professional and one of the best short story writers out there. Spontaneous Human Combustion might be his best yet. As dark as a pool of black ink at midnight on a moonless night, the fourteen stories that make up this collection bring together noir and horror in ways that explore humanity and show Thomas is focused on the inner world of his characters more than on anything that might be happening outside.
Discussing all the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion would be excessive, but there are several that merit attention. The first one is “Repent”, a story about a crooked cop who ends up giving everything he has for his son. Dark, violent, and atmospheric, this one sets the tone for everything that follows. The second story is also worthy of the spotlight. “Clown Face” is one of the shortest narratives in the book, but also one of the creepiest, most violent ones, and that’s saying a lot. Strangely enough, there is a second story further down in the book that delivers on the brutal promises “Clown Face” makes with its hunger and tiny hand bones. “Battle Not With Monsters” brings together some of the cohesive elements of the collection – a somewhat unreliable narrator, a creeping sense of something being awfully wrong, and descriptions of a place you would never want to visit – and mixes them with writing that shows Thomas is not afraid to fully engage with the most extreme side of horror and bring his readers into a place where there are spiders in every corner and there’s a pot on the stove full of entrails, “like strings of pork sausage, swollen eyeballs dotting the surface like pale meatballs, the water slowly reducing until it starts to burn, the foul smell turning to smoke.” Lastly, “Hiraeth” is a story that takes place in a dilapidated world riddled with poverty and features a main character with an impossible hole in his torso. At once heartbreaking and full of hope, this one delves deep into suffering before showing that a different life is always possible.
“For Richard, horror is something that clings to human connection and feeds on it as it dies,” states master storyteller Brian Evenson in his brilliant introduction. This summarizes only one of the many things Thomas does with the genre. For Thomas, horror is a feeling instead of a series of tropes, despite the fact that he is aware of those tropes and, as he does with the two clown stories, isn’t afraid of playing around with them. In Spontaneous Human Combustion horror is a bad decision, a dead possibility, the seemingly endless pain that comes from grief, and a bizarre, undeniable hunger that drives some people – in some cases things that aren’t entirely human – to do despicable things.
Spontaneous Human Combustion is an outstanding collection because, regardless of the individual strength of each of the stories, what we find in its pages is the kind of dark, weird fiction that has the power to pick readers up and plant them in an entirely different reality. Thomas knows this, and he rewards his readers by paying attention to the inner world of his characters, showing us that there is something we should at least try to understand inside every monster, every killer, every broken person we come across… and that we can also find that within ourselves.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the March 2022 issue of Locus.
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