Review: Martyrs & Monsters by Robert Dunbar

Monday, October 19, 2009

Martyrs & Monsters by Robert Dunbar (cover)

Martyrs & Monsters

by Robert Dunbar

DarkHart Press, 2009

Paperback, 276 pages

ISBN: 0980100437 (
9780980100433 (Book Depository)

$17.99 / £12.99

Martyrs & Monsters, by Robert Dunbar, is a motley collection of short stories that address almost all manner of the supernatural and fantastical, from vampires to sea serpents. And, of course, the Jersey Devil is figured in, being a staple figure of curiosity in Dunbar's other works.

I tend to prefer Dunbar in this format, as opposed to a full-blown novel. The stories are the right length, and you feel less like you were caught up in a movie and more as if you are watching an episode of 'The Twilight Zone'. The characters and plots he tackles are well-suited to short story form, and in many ways this collection reminds me of early Stephen King efforts, like Different Seasons.

Because this is a collection, there is a common theme among the stories, primarily one of love and loss, forcing us to re-examine our inborn notions that these creatures of horror are detached, loveless, or incapable of forming bonds among themselves or with humans. Dunbar also discusses some of these mythical creatures as having a common ancestry, specifically in how they are born. It's an interesting take on some familiar creatures we feel we have come to know intimately and repeatedly, and he demonstrates with skill that it’s an aspect worthy of investigation.

As a big fan of Flannery O'Connor and of Southern gothic writing style, I enjoyed 'The Folly' immensely. Yes, it's another telling of the Jersey Devil myth he visited twice before in The Pines (reviewed by GUD here) and The Shore (which I have not yet read). However, this has a new flavor. There's a tongue-in-cheek element that wiggles its tongue at you, in both humorous and haunting ways.

Dunbar writes fairly clean prose, but some editing and spelling errors were there when they shouldn’t be (just as in The Pines), which is a bit annoying from a reader’s standpoint. He seems to enjoy writing the horror genre, but resists the temptation to go too far. He's provocative, but not grotesque. His imagery is vivid and visceral without being off-putting, or noxious. Rather, he tends toward descriptions that involve most of the senses - taste, smell, sound and, lastly, sight, and these attempts are appreciated as they involve the reader in the deepest possible way.

Martyrs & Monsters has a wide variety of characters, from varied backgrounds - minorities, criminals, the alienated, and the misfits. I believe most fans of the horror genre will find a character that they recognize or can identify with. These characters give Dunbar's work some texture, and they tend to resist being 'cookie-cutter' or forgettable types. Their vulnerability and ‘humanity’ give another dimension to this collection.

With 'Gray Soil' and 'Red Soil', Dunbar explores zombies in all their savagery and chilling murderousness. A mother zombie who protects her undead child to twisted is that? It forces us to re-examine what we believe about the undead, and their relationships with each other and with us; we are supremely and alternately shocked and entertained, and strangely touched, but recognize in them elements of what it means to be human, or formerly human.

All in all, this is a very well-done collection. I would recommend Martyrs & Monsters as a good Halloween read, perhaps on a dark, stormy night while the kids are out trick-or-treating.

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posted by xysea

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