Ticonderoga Publications (2010)
Reviewed by Guy Salvidge
Kaaron Warren’s collection Dead Sea Fruit, which was released by Ticonderoga Publications last year, is quite simply one of the best single author collections I’ve read. In his introduction, Lucius Shepard (no slouch in the art of short story writing himself) claims that Warren is one of the few writers who is both a stylist and a storyteller, and he’s right. Some of these stories are not only technically masterful, but emotionally gruelling, horrific, and just plain awesome.
In the title story, “Dead Sea Fruit”, our protagonist is a dentist tasked with visiting the ward of the Pretty Girls, women so weak from anoxeria that “they don’t have the strength to defecate” (p21). The fabled Ash Mouth Man seems to be the source of the Pretty Girls’ worries, as once he kisses them (and nobody can resist) everything they eat tastes of ashes. Not even our protagonist is immune to the Ash Mouth Man’s charm, despite her expertise in oral hygiene.
“Down to the Silver Spirits” is similarly impressive in its treatment of childless, IVF-failure couples who will go to any length to fall pregnant, even if the child within isn’t entirely theirs, or even entirely human. Lured by the words of the trickster Maria Maroni and her strange son Hugo, the couples are coaxed below ground to Cairness, the city of the silver spirits. Here I was struck by Warren’s seemingly effortless control over the tropes of several genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror and realistic fiction.
“Cooling the Crows” is urban fantasy, I suppose, but the genre elements are handled far more subtly than they would be in the hands of a lesser writer. Here Geoff is tasked by Management with ‘cooling’ a certain nightspot that has attracted an unwelcome clientele. He’s had his difficulties with certain situations before, and this time it seems he’s bitten off more than he can chew, not least the vampiric Bailey.
“Guarding the Mound” is particularly effective in the way that it weaves fantastic and science fictional elements. Upon losing his family, the diminutive Din is forced to stand watch over the vaguely-Egyptian-seeming Chieftain for all eternity. During this time, Din is given access to the inner worlds of his descendants down the centuries, but the future seems neither transcendental nor enlightening, casting into doubt the usefulness of Din’s sacred pact with the dead Chieftain.
I actually had to stop reading “The Grinding House” at one point, not because I was bored, but because I couldn’t go on. Thomas Disch’s first novel The Genocides springs to mind as something similarly unrelenting in its depiction of the end of humanity through the most disgusting and pitiless of scourges. Worse, no one in this story seems especially to care about that or the dire state of the world they are inhabiting. This novella length work is the tale of Rab, Nick, Sasha, Bevan and the bone grinder himself, the odious Jeremiah, in their flight from the bone disease that threatens to consume them all. I’ve read some disturbing stories in the past, and it seems I’m pretty much impervious to actually becoming horrified by horror, but “The Grinding House” is one of the nastiest things I’ve had the (mis)fortune to read. Very few writers can match this kind of intensity.
“Sins of the Ancestors”, which is new to this collection, is set in a future time where the Department of Unsolved Crime has the authority to put to death the descendants of murderers who were never brought to justice. Yolanda is a woman with a nasty trade: she’s paid by rich men to scare them half to death, and subsequently suffers their scorn and abuse. In the course of her attempts to clear her ancestor’s name (and her own) of the murder she feels he never committed, Yolanda uncovers the identity of the true murderer, after which point the shoe is very much on the other foot.
And then there’s “Ghost Jail”, another emotionally onerous tale set in an unspecified time and place that might be our own unwelcome future. In it, the beggar woman Rashmilla sells peas at funerals, but her real strength is in subduing the vicious ghosts that seem to hover everywhere. Lisa is a journalist with a belief in free speech and the power of Selena, a DJ with the gumption to say all the things that Lisa is too afraid to write. Things turn sour when Lisa pushes the local Police Chief too far, after which she is consigned to the ghost-ridden Cewa Flats, where not even Rashmilla can save her.
Dead Sea Fruit came as a complete surprise to me. I expect every single author collection published in this country to be good, but not this good. You owe it to yourself to give Dead Sea Fruit your full attention if you haven’t already.