I almost gave this collection a four-star review, but I decided to award it five. You know why?
It disturbed me.
Etchison doesn't write tales with tidy twist endings. That's not how he rolls. A short story can be all sorts of things, and though I love stories with knockout, shocking climaxes and chilling denouements (see Ray Bradbury's "The Small Assassin" for a fine example of what I'm talking about), I also appreciate tales that get under my skin and refuse to leave me alone. And while all the tales in THE DEATH ARTIST are interesting and well done, my favorites were the following:
"The Last Reel": I don't know why, but this one still haunts me. I think it's because of the nonchalance with which most of the characters treat the slow dehumanization that occurs in the pornography industry. Remember, every one of those "actresses" is someone's daughter.
"The Dead Cop": Those of you who know me know being a father means the world to me. This story features a character I could totally imagine a dad becoming were something to happen to one of his children.
"Inside the Cackle Factory": Man, this story had heart. Especially its protagonist. It was gut-wrenching to inhabit her body while a heartless process unfolded around her. I especially appreciated the ending of this one, which (like most of the tales in this collection) left room for interpretation, but for me was sweetly hopeful.
I wouldn't read this collection if you only like your short stories like Roald Dahl's or Richard Matheson's (which, for the most part, have clear-cut endings…which I usually like). But if you don't mind some ambiguity, and if you aren't bothered by tales that make you feel uneasy for reasons you can't quite discern, THE DEATH ARTIST is one you'll want to read.
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