Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell
Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell (Smashwords, 2013) begins by posing an interesting question: whether a novelist can write good short stories. The problem is one of narrative design. If you formulate ideas which can only be explored at length, they end up crushed if pared down to less than 5,000 words. Conversely, someone who comes up with an idea for a short story is going to find it very difficult to sustain reader interest over 75,000 words — there has to be development and embellishment to the basic idea to help it grow. So here’s an author who cut his early teeth at length showing considerable skill when refocusing his art in the shorter form.
“The Cemetery Wyrm” is an elegant story about a boy who, when attending his grandfather’s funeral, discovers an overgrown and abandoned tomb at the edge of the woods next to the graveyard. The unmarked grave is topped by the magnificent carving of a dragon and, even though young, he’s instantly fascinated. Who could be buried there and why is the grave untended? The answers are a delightful surprise for the reader. Similarly, “The Purloined Ledger” is a neat variation on the Poe theme with a magical way of concealing a book of accounts. Of course, whether Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again is a different question. “The Shaman’s Tale” fits into a shared universe of orcs and fills in some of the backstory. As an outsider, I found this less interesting. “Railroad Spikes” gets us back on track with one of these “trap for the unwary” stories in which a train robber finds himself in a rather challenging situation. “The Rubies of Olun-Zeth” moves from a weird West to a Conan-like setting as our barbarian hero meets up with an old flame in search of treasure. The only problem, of course, when dealing with a very old language, is how accurately it can be translated. “Big Apple, Small Serpent” keeps it simple, short and sweet as the adventure of the missing cobra in New York is explained.
“Reaver” is one of these stories charting the irreversible momentum in human emotions where superstitious fear collides with rationality, and both lose. “Twenty-One-Oh” is a reflection on the old days of the West when the Pony Express riders upheld their motto, “The mail must go through.” This may be a cyberpunk story in spirit but only the technology has changed. “Tithe” suggests that no matter how clever you may think you are, there’s always someone else who can outthink you — at least in the short term. But if time’s not in the equation, the revenge may come through many years of diligent effort.
“Than to Serve in Heaven” has a slightly unusual prodigal return to his father’s side which is, in some respects, nothing more than an act of manipulation. One side want the other to change. After the return, perspectives change but there remains the unanswered question. Why did the son leave in the first place? “The Ogre’s Pride” poses another interesting question. In the heat of the moment, all kinds of misjudgments can be made so, when pride is at stake, just how far will you go to recover what has been lost? “In Deepest Silence” is a rather pleasing submarine encounter where the captain’s preference for valour in preference to discretion has unfortunate results. “One Solitary Scale” reminds us there are times when you should not strive for absolute perfection. Sometimes, a blemish is expedient. This leaves us with “Tropes of the Trade” as a short nonfiction essay on how to conceive the characters and events in a fantasy context. Like most short pieces on the craft of writing, it does little more than introduce ideas and give a few examples. But it is, at least, going in the right direction. Taken overall, the collection shows an author in complete command of the language of fantasy and horror. Even though some of the stories are conceptually light, the writing has a bravura quality which carries the reader through to the end. It’s good value for money.
For a review of another book by Ari Marmell, see In Thunder Forged.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.