May 13th, 2011

Toybox by Al Sarrantonio


 I'm always one to honor holidays and traditions even if I don't actually celebrate them, but tonight I'm really not in the mood to review anything related to this most unholy of Fridays. I guess I could tie in bad luck to my disappointment with my most recent purchase; Al Sarrantonio's anthology Toybox. Then again, I'm not really enraged-disappointed, just sorta underwhelmed. Major spoilers ahead if you wanna read these stories.

 I've passingly mentioned Al Sarrantonio quite a few times on here. Based upon my encounters with him in other anthology books that only featured one or two of his stories, I'd realized that I had consistently enjoyed almost all of them, although I found his much-hyped Orangefield novels underwhelming. But that did not deter me, as I have encountered many an author whose work only came alive when confined to a few pages, and that in novel format often felt stretched too thin or became too bloated and overindulgent (Clive Barker, I'm looking at you). Sometimes short and sweet is the best one can strive for. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered Toybox. My expectations were quite high, I must admit.

 Now maybe it's my own damn fault for reading this whole thing in one night, as well as my own mental overhype, but it left me feeling that Sarrantonio is the literary equivalent of table salt: A little goes a long way. What I had liked about the stories I'd read previously were how they simultaneously tapped into a childlike sense of wonder along with that old EC comics taste for irony and sick humor, often with a sense of Bradbury-esque surrealness which simultaneously scared you and made you pause going What the Fuck? Basically, they were stories about children's fears for an adult audience (Sarrantonio uses child protagonists more than any other horror author I know), they made you relive all the fears and hopes you thought you once outgrew. It takes a powerful author to do that well.

 But that's all Sarrantonio does, and writing from formula takes its toll sooner or later. How long can one write stories about children's fears, with all their illogic, self-centeredness and naivety without just coming off as illogical, self-centered and naive? Sarrantonio is one of those writers who, once he feels he's set up realistic events enough to make the supernatural stuff more effective, thows everything out the door when the time comes for the monster to rear it's head. That can be a powerful way to emphasize a threat and to make a monster truly frightening, but once Sarrantonio reaches that point, the entire story just goes bananas. The story loses all logical structure, characters do things that are above and beyond stupid, random elements just pop up out of nowhere with no explanation, and plot twists just seem to be pulled right out of Sarrantonio's ass.

  It's like Sarrantonio thinks "Once the scary stuff happens, it doesn't matter if anything else makes sense". Sometimes this works in a supernatural setting, other times, when the events are relatively realistic (in stories about say, ordinary murderers, or traditional "ironic revenge" stories) it doesn't. Good writing doesn't have to explain everything, and ambiguity can be a strong asset to some stories, but not when it's used all the damn time. A decent example of this is the second story, The Man with Legs, about two children who visit a legless madman who uses adjustable, prosthetic legs to disguise himself as different people. Pretty screwed up, but disturbing and at least somewhat plausible, but then the story just goes bonkers with the legless man displaying weird supernatural powers that are given no explanation at all. You'll never believe the kid's motivation for visiting him, either.

 And that's when Sarrantonio is good, or at least, trying. When he's bad, he resorts to plots so simplistic they could be summed up as "Be careful what you wished for" or "Obey everything you hear, no matter how ridiculous, or else it will happen to you to the fucking letter." There's a story in here simply titled Snow, which is about some kids who wish it would snow forever does. That's it. Even worse is that there's already another story in here called Wish that is the same goddamn story.

 Still, when he's good, he's good. The volume gets off to a strong start (after a weird introduction by Joe R. Landsdale where he compares Sarrantonio to....a land baron. Yeah...) with Pumpkinhead, which is Sarrantonio's most infamous story in some ways. This one is about a shy little girl named Raylee, who is new in town and unintentionally becomes popular among her initially taunting classmates ("She's a faggot!") on Halloween when she tells a story about a deformed boy who went on a killing spree after his bullying classmates went too far. This story is a bit predictable, and some attempts at symbolism by Sarrantonio are pretty silly (A Jack 'O Lantern and a painting of Poe  "watch over" the basement where the gruesome events eventually take place) but overall it's a fun piece, the ultimate revenge fantasy for any kid who was ever picked on. The somewhat nonsensical ending can even be explained away as being the work of some sort of halloween spirit.

 Up next after The Man with Legs and Wish comes The Spook Man, which I already covered briefly in my review of Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters 2. It's a great piece about a funhouse where children are given the chance to become real monsters. This is where Sarrantonio's Bradbury influence is strongest, as the story gives off a huge Something Wicked-vibe with the funhouse and Mr. Dark-like titular character. It'll hit home for any 'Monster Kid" of the 60's. Since it's set in a bizarre fantasy world, it's where Sarrantonio's surrealism works best. See also Richard Matheson's Blood Son for a story with a similar theme.

 Other strong efforts include Bogy, about a group of horror-obsessed children (noticing a pattern?) who feel that their October has been too dull as of late and decide to confront (the apparently fictional) Bogy, the spirit of fear who lives in the forest, in hope that he can bring the fun back to the season. I like how at first this story seems like it's going to be a very saccharine story like one of those "Holidays that almost wasn't" specials but instead veers into some very dark territory. Garden of Eden is also good, in which a bunch of juvenille delinquents attempt to run away from their heavily sheltered small town...but can they? This is also pretty predictable, but is probably Sarrantonio's most thematically-charged story, very reminiscent of other stories about enforced utopias like The Giver and We Have Always Lived in the Forest. What makes it work is that clearly all attempts to make the town a utopia have failed, in that all of the characters live in fear and the protagonists are all throughly unlikeable, even sociopathic.

 Probably the most entertaining and genuinely suspenseful story is The Corn Dolly, about a boy who wishes to take part in his town's annual harvest festival, and his abusive, religious fanatic mother who won't let him. Genuinely intriguing, peppered with some truly tantalizing ambiguity about whether or not the mother's fears are justified, this is easily the best story in the book up until the anti-climatic ending. Still, it succeeds at the scare factor while it lasts, although anyone who has seen The Wicker Man knows where this is headed. A similarly intriguing story with a disappointing payoff is Father Dear, about a man who is driven insane by his wealthy father's ridiculous rules. While Corn Dolly's ending was a bit poorly built up to, at least it went somewhere. This one is just...well, it made me want to punch the book. And the one little line Sarrantonio throws in to explain everything still makes no sense. It's nowhere near as bad as another story though called Richard's Head, which seems to have been conceived as a bad joke, and unlike the other stories, shows no promise in the first place.

 All in all, this anthology defines "mixed bag" when it comes to quality. Although I can at least say that I'm glad Sarrantonio doesn't alter the stories' narrative to fit in with the book's on-and-off again framing sequence.

 Also I must mention Sarrantonio's connection to children's horror literature; After reading this anthology, I was reminded of how I first learned of Sarrantonio through my short-lived career as a school librarian. I found his stories in the excellent children's oriented Bruce Coville's Book of anthologies, which, inspite of one or two stinkers or stories that talked down for their readers with booger jokes and "kill the teacher" stories, were remarkably good stuff, often featuring stories by established adult authors whose previously-published stories were included not because they were for kids, but because they weren't too inappropriate for kids. As a result, those anthologies could be enjoyed legitimately by adults, and featured better selections than most adult anthologies. Sarrantonio was a regular. I often lamented how those excellent books were ignored in favor of R.L. Stine's schlocky Goosebumps series, which even the fans have come to mock. "Oh, if only those poor children would read an author like Sarrantonio!" I thought.

 Now here's the irony, reading Sarrantonio at his best and worst, I think I may have found that R.L. Stine's biggest literary influence was Sarrantonio! Child protagonists, plots that said "fuck all" to logic, twists that came out of nowhere, forced attempts to look like they were down with kids, truly dumb genre mishmashes, similar use of "obey your elders" morality, and kids getting away with a ridiculous amount of stuff, it all fits. I'm not saying they are on equal footing as authors, indeed, even the worst Sarrantonio story trumps the best Stine story, but read, oh let's say; Stine's Calling all Creeps and Sarrantonio's The Electric Fat Boy. I think you'll notice a lot of stylistic similarities.

 Still, Toybox is definitely worth buying if you are curious. Also, do try and get this book in hardcover if you can, as the paperback has some of the tiniest font size I've ever seen. Crapload of typos as well.