I've said it before and I'll say it again: variety can make the difference between a good short fiction collection and a great one. In the case of John F.D. Taff's Little Deaths, variety doesn't even begin to describe the dazzling array of themes, tones, and voices the author was able to cram into the compilation. From creepy horror and heartbreaking stories of loss to spooky narratives written in a Poe-esque prose and tales that can only be called Lovecraftian in nature, Little Deaths has something for everyone.
Little Deaths kicks off with Bolts, a story most collectors will be able to identify with. Ace lives with his girlfriend Rachel. He makes a living buying and selling collectibles online, but keeping too many of them around often causes the couple to have disagreements. While fighting with Rachel about a life-size Battlestar Galactica Cylon he plans to keep, Ace finds a treasure: the actual prop neck bolts Boris Karloff used in Frankenstein back in 1931. He makes the purchase and patches things up with Rachel. Soon after, disaster strikes. Scared, sad, and in denial, Ace will do whatever it takes to makes things right again, and the bolts will play a vital, and disastrous, role.
While Bolts is the first standout in the collection, it's far from being the only one. Here are some other stories that stuck with me:
* The personal account of one man written by a younger neighbor, The Water Bearer tells the story of Jim, a guy who worked maintaining a young doctor's house and grounds in 1923. Dr. Evander Wilson had recently lost his wife when Jim came to work for him. With time, the physician undergoes a change in mood, and Jim becomes curious as to what the doctor's trips into the woods might have to do with the transformation. What follows is a creepy and somewhat Lovecraftian narrative full of brackish water, the smell of decay, and dark secrets.
* Book and movies have taught us there are few things more sinister than an evil child. In Child of Dirt, Taff takes the theme even further by making the evil one a newborn...with teeth. This story mixes horror with emotional tension in a way that the reader will probably feel sorry for the man having to deal with the creature looking up at him from the cradle.
* I love stories that have body modification as an element in the narrative, and Orifice is a fine example of just how far something like a tattoo can be taken by capable hands. Mike is an open-minded guy, but he's not sure his girlfriend's idea of getting a tattoo is a good one. To make things worse, the man who ends up doing the tattoo on Jesse is her ex-boyfriend. The body art brings unexpected consequences, and Mike will learn the true meaning behind the words Jesse once told him: "When you make a hole in something-anything-something else will want to get in through to it...or out."
* Darkness Upon the Void is one of the most memorable psychological/physical horror stories I've read in a while. It begins with a man named Ed Martinez squeezing a tiny white worm out of his forearm and gets progressively nastier from there. There is a religious element to the story that makes it even more interesting as Ed's mental state is questioned and the creatures coming out of his body increase in size and gruesomeness. While the tale might be too much for those with weak stomachs, lovers of hardcore horror will definitely get a kick out of this one.
* Horror is not often simultaneously eerie and heartbreakingly sad. Here, the 16th story in the collection, brings those two very separate things together very well. The premise is simple: a man's dog is killed by a car and then comes back to look for his owner. It might sound undemanding, but the tension is kept sky-high throughout the story and the writing is very touching and emotionally gritty. Love, loss, loneliness, and ghosts all come together to make this one a standout.
* Last but not least, The Mellified Man is one of the absolute best stories in Little Deaths and one of the most unique short pieces you'll ever read. Bobby Jenkins is a man with only one vice: candy. His sweet tooth keeps him constantly on the lookout for new sugary delicacies. When he walks into The Alhambra, a new candy store that offers the best sweets from around the world, he becomes a habitual visitor. Despite tasting great things on a regular basis, Bobby wants more. Aziz, the store's owner, delivers the goods. Once the once-in-a-lifetime treat is devoured, Bobby starts to feel different and things go from incredibly sweet to nightmarishly sour.
Taff is a very talented writer, but his attention to detail is what sets his work apart. Each description is rich without being boring and each setting is as unique as the characters that inhabit them. Also, most stories engage the senses. For example, in The Water Bearer, The Scent, and The Mellified Man, smells play crucial roles.
Collections are never perfect and there are always one or two stories that readers will not be crazy about. However, this collection will surely satisfy many readers. Given its variety, it's almost impossible not to find something you like. If you're looking to liven up your horror reading, Little Deaths will do it in a big way.