Martyrs & Monsters
The book itself has the look of something self-published, but don't be fooled: Robert Dunbar is professional grade and top-notch all the way. His work has a peculiar flavor, but it grows on you quickly; his oddball sense of the gruesome, which is served up with lashings of smartly black humor, tickles and shocks in equal measure.
Martyrs and Monsters is a good place to meet Dunbar for those not already acquainted with him, or to catch up with him for those who have read his stuff before. These 14 stories offer swamp-dwelling cryptozoological specimens (and the monsters who eat them), as in the tale of a deep South clan living in a run-down manse built to resemble a giant alligator; named after mythological figures, the family find themselves in a contest for survival with a cunning, and hungry, critter.
Then there are the recurring characters Con and Tim, who feature in two (possibly three) stories. They're gay lovers, and the horror here is not the passion between them, or the Bonnie-and-Clyde style acting out they engage in, but rather the strain of threat that runs through their turbulent relationship. (The occasional vengeance-seeking undead corpse or vicious, seductive enchantress they encounter only add spice and variety to their co-dependent connection.)
Some stories are set in the contemporary world, some in ambiguous historical contexts, and some in a twilight in-between universe. Dracula himself fends off hordes of zombies in one tale; in another, a punk rock singer and her dull but valiant new boyfriend defend themselves (and a nest of kittens) from mutant roaches. The world outside may or may not be the same as ours, but in the confines of the tenement where the battle rages (complete with a collection of sword replicas from fantasy TV shows like "Hercules" and "Highlander") it's strictly post-apocalyptic terrain.
Similarly, the outside world seems light-years away in a hermetic horror yarn that finds two apartment dwellers fighting off an invading force of aliens. Or are the two of them the "interlopers," to borrow the parlance of the writer?
A searingly erotic ghost story set in a slum blurs all sorts of lines and generates discomfort in the best horror tradition by provoking the reader's own subconscious anxieties (some of them decidedly Freudian); in many of these selections, the clipped, sometimes unfinished nature of the dialogue and the prose's bounding, gleeful quality only unsettle you all the more. (How can horror possibly be so cheerful?)
Sexuality plays a large role in most of the stories, and gay sexuality is unapologetically present, but not in a snarky way. Horror often evokes sex as a means to sliding its knife between the cracks of the reader's psychological armor, but in this case it's part and parcel of the people (not all of them, strictly speaking, alive) who inhabit the pages.
Shambling horrors, creeping menaces, monsters from the dark (or from the id)... Duncan has them at his command, and he's all too happy to put them through their paces--or sic them on the reader. Brilliantly chilling, here's a book of a different hue of horror.
Publisher: DarkHart Press. Publication Date: March 30, 2009. Pages: 276. Price: $17.99. Format: Trade paperback original. ISBN-13: 978-0-980-100-433