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Spotlight on: Four Dark Nights by Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Tom Piccirilli, Christopher Golden

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Four Dark Nights by Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, Tom Piccirilli Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, Tom Piccirilli, Four Dark Nights (Novellas)

I guess we have to thank (or blame, as your preference lies) Stephen King for the popularization of the horror novella, legitimizing it as a publishable format with the appearance of his 1982 collection, Different Seasons (and following later with Four Past Midnight). Novellas have yet to achieve mainstream success, per se, but at least people no longer offer up vacant expressions at the mention of the word.

Among the smaller presses, however, the novella has really taken off. Yes, they're still often used simply as the springboard to a longer, more commercially viable work, but in some houses, novellas are just as likely to be published as novels or short story collections or anthologies.

But this lead-in has little or nothing to do with Four Dark Nights, an anthology containing four novellas from authors better known for releasing full-length novels: Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, and Tom Piccirilli -- all popular in their own horror subgenres.

How they come across in their execution of this medium-sized format depends as much on your expectations as their skill. Little's entry, "The Circle," comes first and immediately decides to not play fair -- it is really just three separate short stories tacked together, only two of which are related. Not an auspicious beginning, but then I've often found Little short fiction lacking (see Last Pentacle of the Sun). His combined tales of a feral boy who defecates precious gems, and the strange backyard goings-on of a small town just like your own simply did not hold my interest, though Little's unassuming writing style certainly made it an otherwise easy read.

Luckily, Christopher Golden's "Pyre" is a vast improvement, or I may have just stopped there and not finished Four Dark Nights at all (as you'll discover later, that would have been a pity). A girl, stoically attending the funeral of her mostly absent father, flashes to another time when she and a group of her friends came across an island reportedly formed from the burned remains of dead bodies. This memory launches an idea that will hit her with an uncomfortable truth and change her life forever, if she can only survive the night ahead.

The main problem with "Pyre" is the pacing. Once the central action is presented, Golden and his characters take entirely too long to get where they're headed. I found myself skipping entire paragraphs of description during what were essentially travel scenes (Robert Silverberg shows how to manage this properly in The Book of Skulls). Otherwise, Golden paints a fully developed, especially in the beginning scenes, but mildly implausible portrait of a teenager dealing with confusion and lost opportunity. His history of writing for younger readers is apparent in the obvious respect he has for his characters and their needs.

"Jonah Arose" will please fans of Tom Piccirilli's Southern gothic novels A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, and it was the first written of that trilogy of sorts. Piccirilli enjoys focusing on odd characters -- freaks, if you will -- and here he goes right to the source with a look at a real freak show, carnival-style, as a former child preacher and carnival geek goes in search of his kidnapped son. Surrealism is the method here, and Piccirilli plays fast and loose with "reality." We are constantly finding out that things are not what we thought they were and the author never flinches from the most disgusting of images. I often find Piccirilli a difficult read, but always a rewarding one. I just hope I never end up in his world.

Ending the anthology with a bang, Douglas Clegg's "The Words" is a real stunner. In the space of just 85 pages, Clegg creates a mythology, ages it, and sets its destiny in motion via two teenage boys, Dash and Mark, and their perhaps poorly chosen selections of reading materials. Once Dash sets the awful events in motion, only Mark can stop them, but he can't for the life of him remember the words Dash begged him not to forget. Oh, he can remember the names that started it all, but those foreign-sounding words continue to escape him. Clegg creates real tension, even during the flashback scenes used to explain the history and lead up to the present. Using the novella form to its utmost, "The Words" could be told no other way.

Of the four novellas in Four Dark Nights, Little's is the only true dud, but his fans may enjoy his particular style of storytelling anyway. Golden's is surprising (my first work from this author), Piccirilli's is disturbing, and Clegg's is thrilling, the only true page-turner. Horror fans of all stripes will enjoy at least one of the stories told in this anthology, and fans of novellas should especially seek it out, given how rare it is for that form to make it into mass-market paperback. Leisure is just about the only one doing it, often tacking one on to a shorter novel as a bonus to fill out the page count and give the reader more for his money (see Jack Ketchum's Red -- Clegg fans can find novellas in both Nightmare House and The Attraction).

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