Will Ludwigsen has married the heart with horror, and the results are quiet simply some of the finest short stories around. After I stumbled upon one of his stories in Asimov's, I've been huntings like mad to track the other ones down. Most of his stories are short--some of them only a couple pages long. There's a kind of miniaturization in his stories. Rest assured, interesting characters and stirring emotions---horror, humor, love---are all there, he just manages all of it with very few words.
His only collection, “Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! And Other Cosmic Insolence” was published in 2006.
Consisting of a nice mix of his early stories, not just horror, this slim book comes in at about 150 pages and contains 16 tales of varying length. I wasn't disappointed, at least most of the time.
Before the stories begin, there is a great amount of spouting on about horror and humor (and even a warning in the Introduction; this-might-rub-you-the-wrong-way-some-of-the-time. He was right.)
But this over indulgence in humor only occurred once or twice to the point of distraction. In most the stories, the humor is tempered, and melds well with the other emotions, and the story at hand
Which brings us to the most important part. The stories! There were lots of children as protagonist and antagonists, and all of them were written great. In “Soured” a boy is at a roadside dinner. Outside, there is a milk truck. As he goes out and walks passed the truck, something delightfully horrific occurs:
A splash echoed inside.
Brandon stopped. Could that have come from the truck? No. Someone spilled some gas or turned on a hose to spray insects off the windshield.
He stepped closer and pressed his hand against the tanker. A vibration wriggled through his arm to his spine.
Something bumped against his hand.
Brandon yanked it away.
In another story, “Billy,” a little girl lives on a farm that raises genetically engineered creatures called "beefboxes". For being such disgusting animals, you start feeling bad for the poor things when the little girl bonds with her beefbox named Billy. But soon she learns what beefboxes are REALLY for, and interesting things follow:
"...they don't feel anything at all!"
"Our beefboxes are animals! Billy is an animal!"
"No, Janine, none of them are. Remember when you were real little and you used to sleep with that old sock? You called him teddy and went to bed with him every night. But then one day you realized he wasn't an animal but just an old sock. I'm sorry to say, love, the beefboxes are the same way."
"Then why don't any of them ever go away to be steak?"
"They do all the time. We use the forklift to load the boxes onto trucks while you're at school. You never knew because they all look the same."
I jumped off the fence and clenched my hands into tiny fists. "They do not! Billy is different!"
Mystery is a big part of this collection. No just the genre, but the feeling. Will knows how to tell a good mystery. “Bingo” is about retired police dog that doesn't know the job really ended. Actually, the roommate is a pothead, and he is hoping Bingo will help him track down free goods. “And Justice for Doll” is pares mystery and humor with success, as the court room is made up of a grandpa, brother and sisters, and a bunch of creepy dolls.
Here is an example of how quickly these stories come alive, of the miniaturization I was discussing before. This is the opening of one of my favorite stories, "Nessmas":
Ian awakened from a deep slumber with a jab from his wife's elbow to his side.
“Listen!” Marian rasped in the darkness. “Do you hear it?”
Dazed and blinking, Ian strained to listen. Outside the window about the bed, the dark water of the lock slapped against the new dock. A car wooshed by too fast for these narrow roads. A gentile breeze washed through the trees and rustled the leaves beneath them. An owl hooted somewhere far away.
The scene is instantly alive. Outside the windows, something washed up from the lake, and both characters, later in the story, bond together as they try and figure out what to do with what washed up.
Of course, not all the stories worked, but nothing failed outright. I enjoy Lovecraft as much as the next man, and I felt a touch of guilt for not laughing while reading the title story. I guess that makes me a loser. Also, the ending story, "Exit Laughing", was a little weak, and it's never a good feeling ending a collection with a not-so-great story.
Will Ludwigsen has some craziness in him. This collection is proof, and his more recent published stories are proof in action. Would I recommend this collection for a new reader? Probably not. Instead, I would tell them to sample of his current work. No doubt that would be all it would take to send readers out, hunting down his book.
Me? I'm excited for what comes next.