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Spotlight on: Havoc Swims Jaded by David J. Schow

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Havoc Swims Jaded by David J. Schow David J. Schow, Havoc Swims Jaded

Even just that title could be open to many interpretations, arranging three five-letter words that do not normally appear together into something visually symmetrical and sententially sound (even if its meaning is unclear). Somehow, these words belong with each other; why has it taken anyone this long to assemble them?

You'll not find this answer between the covers of Havoc Swims Jaded, but perhaps it's because it took someone like David J. Schow to do it. His titles are invariably terrific; they inspire you to do a double-take and pick the book up wondering what it could possibly be about with that combination of words on the cover -- even if you don't actually buy it.

Luckily, the word order on the inside (James Joyce said that was the most important part of writing) is just as engaging, allowing Schow to overcome the "splatterpunk" label affixed to him and many of his peers (and which he reportedly coined) in the 1980s to become one of the premier short story writers. (His longer work has been sporadic in both creation and quality.) Havoc Swims Jaded is his seventh collection.

In the afterword, Schow tells of the main reason it took him so long to assemble his usual thirteen stories this time around -- he wrote his first novel in thirteen years (I'm sure a numerologist could have a field day with that), and after he discovered a new trick to keep writer's block away, he didn't want to stop. He also uses this space as a platform to recommend some of his favorite authors (Larry Brown and Tristan Egolf, to name two), and lays out the origins of the included tales. But you'll be a good reader, and save that for last, right?

Havoc Swims Jaded begins with an editorial ("Front Matter") by Bernard Nightenhelser (editor-in-chief of Necropolitan magazine) that, I'll admit it, I totally fell for. In among Nightenhelser's editorial ramblings about the uselessness of editorial ramblings and the difference between an anthology and a collection, is a tone that is at first undetectable. It's only after you finish it that you realize what it's really about.

"Plot Twist" is a Pirandelloesque experimental piece featuring three characters lost in the desert who, in the beginning, try to come up with theories for the reasons behind their predicament, and "Size Nothing" (available to read at Subterranean Press's Havoc Swims Jaded page) examines a futuristic version of plastic surgery and its inevitable consequences. Also, "The Thing Too Hideous to Describe" makes a friend.

Schow manages to reapproach old horror tropes in Havoc Swims Jaded and still come up with something effective. "The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe'en Horror Nights" brings back the "real monsters in the haunted house" idea, while "Expanding Your Capabilities Using Frame/Shift&tm; Mode," updates the haunted remote control to the modern age with a portrait of DVD-remote hacking that would be perfect for an episode of Masters of Horror. "The Five Sisters: A Fable" seems out of place in this collection -- it even has a happy ending! -- but if Schow's intention was to replicate myth with an original story (like his inspiration, Jane Yolen's The Girl Who Loved the Wind), I think he's gone a long way toward succeeding.

The centerpiece of Havoc Swims Jaded is a novella. I don't usually like Nazi-related fiction -- I simply think the idea of genocide is too horrific to fictionalize -- but "Dismantling Fortress Architecture 56281347" (written with fellow splatter-punk Craig Spector) has some effective scenes. Especially intriguing is the thread involving a six-year-old Jewish boy who saves his own skin by running up to nearby soldiers and heiling.

The most purely enjoyable piece in Havoc Swims Jaded has to be the return of Mikey, nicknamed Scoop, in "Scoop vs. Leadman," a direct sequel to "Scoop Makes a Swirly" in Schow's earlier collection, Black Leather Required (also the name of the author's website). In it, Mikey hires a detective by the name of Franklyn Fuck to find a girl he met at the dentist (when they were both woozy under anesthesia) and ends up in the middle of copious amounts of trouble. Schow seems to have really let loose here; his mixture of quirky characters and unapologetic mayhem -- peppered throughout with every pun he can possibly make involving the detective's surname -- is terrific, rude fun.

"The Pyre and Others" continues the long literary tradition of chronicling nonexistent works, especially when said works claim to have a strange effect on the reader. The title work is the only short-story collection from mysterious author J. Arthur Aldridge. The legend surrounding it is that, when placed under a pillow, it transports the sleeper to one of its 30 dream worlds -- and they don't always wake up. I love this kind of story and Schow displays a real gift for the telling, resulting in a highly realistic setup and execution. The only trouble is that the setup, by definition as a story, must also have a conclusion, and the one chosen weakens the impact. Better if this idea were used as a smaller portion of a longer work, perhaps as the catalyst for the action in a novel. It needs someplace it can truly shine.

"What Happened with Margaret" is a moving portrait of mediocrity taken to a willful extreme that feels arbitrary. "Obsequy" is the story of a high school teacher who feels trapped in the backward town of Triple Pines. His students aren't learning, so he takes a secret job moving graves to make room for a new development, whereupon he notices his dead girlfriend's plot is on the list. Schow moves from an affecting personal tale boldly into the supernatural with ease, and without the usual bump that is expected with such a transition, amping up the emotion in the process. The open ending is the only downside. But Schow saves the best for last as "What Scares You" profiles the most frightening concept in the human experience, the fear that causes millions of people to make horrendous decisions daily just to avoid.

What shines most clearly throughout this collection is that David J. Schow is a writer very comfortable in his voice who is afraid of getting too comfortable in his voice, so he continually challenges himself with little "experiments." I have to admire that and, even if not all the experiments are successful, Schow's honed talent and skill at least make them entertaining. What this means for the reader is simply that since Schow doesn't want to write the same kind of story over and over, you don't have to read the same kind of story over and over. That kind of ambition and its resulting variety is rare and is quite enough reason to pick up a copy of Havoc Swims Jaded ... whatever that title means.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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