Michael A. Arnzen, |
100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories
(Raw Dog Screaming, 2004)
Flash fiction -- stories under a thousand words -- is extremely hard to write effectively. So is horror. Done well, both genres wiggle under the reader's skin. Michael A. Arnzen's attempt to unite the two in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories deserves note for his ambition and his recognition of the compatibility of the forms. Both are based on an intimate connection with the reader, a connection between written story and receiving mind that will make the carefully chosen gaps that much more telling.
When Arnzen makes that connection, when the balance between light and shadow is found, the effect is amazing. "The Blood Ran Out" is the most frightening vampire story I've ever read, exploring an often ignored facet of the mythos in a breathtaking two pages. His brief peeks into parenting leave disturbing crazed reflections on the mind, from the peaceful night scene of "Punishment" to the merry gift of a "Stress Toy." And when Arnzen is willing to go for the bizarre instead of the directly horrific, he almost never misses. "The Cut of My Jib" is a Monty Python sketch in prose, "Domestic Fowl" a plausible absurdity to live alongside Kafka's "Rhinoceros." "The Eight Ball in Big Mouth's Pocket" is a great pulp crime tale, kept slick and effective by Arnzen's chosen form.
Not all the 100 Jolts are as powerful. There's a hefty dose of psycho-killer stories, and for the most part they don't succeed in drawing out more than an "ick." Despite the brevity of these stories, Arnzen manages to give too much information. Most of these stories are as self-contained as a newspaper article and, unfortunately, about as affecting. With an emphasis on gore over feeling or plot, none of these are exactly bad tales, but they don't crawl under the skin or lurk behind the curtains as horror should. While it may be a sad commentary on modern society, there's nothing too shocking in the idea of a serial killer or a brutal murder anymore. What lifts such stories away from the dry land of journalism is a sense of identification, a feeling that the killer could be with you -- or more rare and horrible, could be you. Only a handful of these tales succeed; but with such little time spent on each of them, the failure to deliver a grand seizure of fright with each one is easily excusable.
100 Jolts isn't an unqualified success. But with 100 stories to choose from, it doesn't have to be. When Michael Arnzen is good, he's amazing, a writer deserving a place on any "best fiction" list; even when he's at his worst, he's not dull, and always, at least, brief.