Review: ‘Growing Dark’ by Kristopher Triana

growingdarkGrowing Dark by Kristopher Triana
Blue Juice Books (May 2015)
188 pages; $14.95 paperback; $9.99 e-book
Reviewed by Josh Black

Kristopher Triana isn’t a writer with a big back catalog. Nearly half of this debut collection is new material, the rest of it having been published within the past six years. Going by the strength of these stories, it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing his name a lot more in the years to come.

The first two stories are zombie ones, and Triana proves in both that there’s still life to be found in splattered brains and rotting flesh.

“From the Storms, A Daughter” is set in a small New England town flooded by black rain. Under the surface lurk things that are no longer quite human, to put it mildly. One man, grieving for a lost loved one, deludes himself into thinking otherwise. But at what cost?

Next is “Eaters,” a more typical zombie tale, but with a small twist that makes a big emotional impact. The story follows a group of people in post-apocalyptic Florida, whose duty it is to patrol small towns and seek out full-blown zombies or those on the threshold. The twist here is that the turning isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. With a bit of luck, and if your immune system is good enough, it’s possible to get the virus and then get better. The major downside is that while you’re on the threshold you just might end up eating a few people. The gore factor is there, but most of the story looks at the psychological ramifications of essentially waking up from being a cannibal.

“Growing Dark” brings a heartbreaking view into the emotional abuse of a child, as a frustrated farmer pushes his young son too hard to grow up and be a man. Things take a sinister, supernatural turn when a black mold spreads its sickness and death follows in its wake.

“Reunion” changes gears from horror to crime. A man pays a visit to an old flame on the anniversary of a drug deal that went sour and left their friend dead. It’s a shorter story than the previous two, a tightly focused tale that looks at the widely divergent paths a shared past can lead to.

“Before the Boogeymen Come” is a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the lives and livelihoods of a trio of childhood monsters. They’re doing their best to keep a young boy afraid of them as he gets older, despite the increasing proliferation of movie monsters and real world horrors. They’ve got a good gig, and damned if they’re going to be replaced or demoted. It’s a nice change of pace that’ll give you a chuckle before the next story comes along to chill your bones.

“The Bone Orchard” is a weird Western set shortly after the Civil War. A weary drifter walks into a saloon and bordello, looking to get out of the cold and into some liquor. He gets that and more as the snowstorm intensifies and the dark sky starts pressing in toward the people holed up inside. Memories are dredged up and secrets brought to light as the darkness changes form and reveals its true purpose. This one covers a lot of bases. There’s a quietly building dread, some good old hard-boiled violence, and an ending that goes straight for the heartstrings.

In “Soon There’ll Be Leaves” an ex-con returns to his hometown to be with his dying mother. He’s distracted by the sexual wiles of an old friend, and a wild night that was meant to be a brief escape from reality ends with madness and bloodshed. As it turns out, you can go home again, but you might be better off just moving on.

“Video Express” echoes that sentiment. When a diehard horror fan comes across an advertisement for a a store that still sells and rents a huge selection of videos, he hits the road to check it out. The store is decked out with posters and promotional pieces, the shelves are stacked with videos, there’s even a bargain bin filled with cult classics. It soon becomes apparent that the store hews a little too closely to the past, and what begins as a nostalgic jaunt into the twilight of the VHS era turns into something that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the horror movies on the shelves.

“Giving From the Bottom” involves a crime, but its focus on the characters’ inner struggles make it a slice-of-life piece more than anything. On Christmas Eve, despondent after his partner leaves him, a man returns to his criminal ways for a break-and-enter with his junkie cousin. Later on it becomes clear to him that some things will never change, and the best thing to do is let it go and watch his bridges burn.

“Legends” offers a glimpse into the afterlives of Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin as they’re called upon to vanquish a demon before its actions create an alternate history. They’ve returned as heroes because the world perceived them as such, and so they remain, riding on into the next great adventure. On this fitting note, the collection comes to an end.

If there’s any connecting thread between all the stories here, it’s that whatever style or mode Triana is writing in, the voice matches it unfailingly. Aside from some awkward similes early on that draw too much attention to themselves, the prose is strong, especially considering this is a debut. What really matters here are the stories themselves, which are all nuanced and highly entertaining. Growing Dark is well worth a read for short story fans.

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