Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Winter & Moses (edd.), Split Scream #1

Carson Winter & Scott J. Moses, Split Scream, volume one. Dread Stone Press, 2022. ISBN 978-1-7379-7402-4. $12.99.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

Novelettes and novellas, the red-headed stepchildren of the book world. Too long to place in a magazine and uneconomical to publish on their own, they languish on hard drives, making an occasional appearance as the flagship piece in a single-author collection, but otherwise neglected. Which is a shame, because they’re my fictional first love. About the same length as a TV episode or a graphic novel, they’re a lean, focused form of storytelling, just the right length to fully explore a single arc without needing to detour into subplots. They’re a convenient airport-or-dentist size and they’re nice for those of us who have a bad track record of finishing full-length novels.

Dread Stone Press is giving this format a chance to shine in their new Split Scream series, which packages a pair of stories by different authors into one volume. Volume One brings us “The Guts of Myth” by Carson Winter and “The Mourner Across the Flames” by Scott J. Moses. Structurally, these stories have much in common—a tough outsider is sent on a mission, only to discover that the person who hired them has ulterior motives. But the two authors’ styles are wildly different. It’s a fascinating comparison.

“The Guts of Myth” has taut, thriller-style pacing and a cinematic feel. Byron, an awkward expat caught between his American and English identities, is hired to find a man (the delightfully-named Allosaurus D’Ambrosere) who has gone missing in an alternate dimension. There’s some fabulously juicy body horror (suffice it to say that the way into the alternate dimension is not a clean one), and the surreal feel of the abandoned city creates a weighty atmosphere. But the real horror is the pervasive feeling that this can’t be right, it makes no sense to hire a small-time delinquent for a mission like this, there must be something else going on. And, of course, there is.

While “The Guts of Myth” ably succeeds on the horror front, it’s the emotional underpinnings that really bring it home. Byron is not admirable, but he is understandable, and while he doesn’t earn our love, he does earn our empathy. The ending feels like an inevitability from Byron’s unmoored life.

In contrast, “The Mourner Across the Flames” has a dreamlike, delirious narration style that deftly drifts freely between reality, memory, and hallucination. Set in a post-apocalyptic salt flat ruled by a cult, it follows the exiled loner Bharath as he escorts an old man across the wasteland to bury his family. The imagery is the real star of the show here. Moses paints us a rich, gritty world where you can feel the heat and taste the poisonous atmosphere.

Bharath’s POV is masterfully executed. As his mind decays, we are carried along, trying to cling to an ever-shifting reality which may itself be a lie. The one misstep, to me, is the use of the long-term nuclear warning message; when it began appearing on home decor and internet memes, that pretty much marked the end of its serious dramatic use, for me at least. Then again, not everyone is as terminally online as I am.

Overall, Split Scream is off to a very strong start with this volume. Both stories are compelling and full of voice, and pairing them together was a clever editorial choice. If this series continues as well as it began, the future of novelettes looks bright.

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