The Barnes & Noble Review
You Don't Know Jack
This has been a banner year for F. Paul Wilson fans. First Wilson teamed up with Matthew J. Costello to give us the SF-action thriller Masque. Next on the agenda was the reappearance of classic noir figure Repairman Jack in Wilson's dynamite crime novel Legacies.
Now Wilson completes a hat trick with an extremely satisfying third offering, a new collection called The Barrens and Others, which compiles 12 hard-to-find and out-of-print tales, as well as a never-produced one-act play and a teleplay Wilson penned for the horror television show "Monsters." Fourteen different doses of Wilson, each one showing him in a different light. The author's previous collection, Soft and Others, demonstrated that Wilson could tell tales with ease in any number of genres, including hard-core horror, science fiction, fantasy, and suspense. The Barrens and Others once again shows Wilson's impressive versatility, presenting little self-contained mystery, crime, and horror gems.
The 12 tales cover Wilson's short story output over the course of three years, 1987 to 1989. The first three pieces cover Wilson's contributions to the brilliant (but now defunct) Night Visions series, which asked horror's biggest talents to create new works that broke the mold of dark fantasy fiction. Wilson's "Feelings," "Tenants," and "Faces" are all memorable nightmare-inducing pieces, with "Tenants" guaranteed to please lovers of good ol'-fashioned scary-monster fiction. In "Tenants" a twisted serial killer stumbles across the home of an old manwhoseems to live alone until the old man's very special houseguests decide to introduce themselves. Sick, spooky fun that will be of particular interest to fans of Wilson's novel Night World, which brought back the old man and his bizarre boarders.
The Barrens and Others offers only one piece from Wilson's 1988 writings but it's a doozy. "A Day in the Life" remains one of the best Repairman Jack short stories. For those not familiar with Jack, he's a fix-it guy (who doesn't come cheap) who can take care of any situation and we're not talking leaky faucets, here. He was the star of Wilson's supernatural masterpiece The Tomb, and had a new novel-length adventure this summer in the thrilling crime novel Legacies. But those looking to see a new side of Jack shouldn't miss "A Day in the Life," which also appeared in the standout anthology Stalkers. "A Day in the Life" finds Jack in the rare situation of being the hunted, not the hunter. Figuring out who's doing the hunting and how it's all going to play out is what makes the story fun, particularly in one scene that manages to find a new use for Halloween masks that, for the bad guys, at least, is definitely more trick than treat.
As he explains in his entertaining introductions to each story, Wilson found himself in 1989 kicking his writing career into overdrive, as evidenced by no fewer than eight stories and novellas provided in this collection from that year. Cthulu fans certainly won't want to miss the Lovecraftian "The Barrens." You can enjoy what may be the first horror story to champion animal rights in "Pelts." And you can find Wilson at his most twisted in the disturbing "Topsy."
All of the stories here have appeared somewhere before, although some, such as "Topsy," have appeared only in limited editions or long-out-of-print books. But there are two non-short story pieces printed here for the first time: a script for a proposed one-act stage version of "Pelts," which never managed to come to fruition; and a teleplay Wilson wrote for the short-lived syndicated horror television series "Monsters" called "Glim-Glim," which did make it to the airwaves.
Die-hard Wilson fans may be disappointed at the absence of any brand-new short stories here although the two previously unpublished teleplays certainly make for interesting reading. But even dedicated fans may never have been able to find Gary Raisor's great anthology Obsessions (where "Topsy originally appeared) or Joe R. Lansdale's western-horror Razored Saddles (which contained Wilson's "The Tenth Toe"). And for those of you who know Wilson only from his novels, dive into The Barrens and Others it's an excellent introduction to a powerhouse short story writer.
Matt Schwartz, barnesandnoble.com
Excerpts from the Wilson horror oeuvre of the past 20 years, chosen by the author (Deep as the Marrow, 1997, etc.) as his choicest stories, all previously published in genre magazines and in his hardcover collections. Printed for the first time are a very bloody, busy, one-act stage adaptation of his story "Pelts" (set for Off-Broadway as part of a Grand Guignol evening called Screamplay, which never happened), and a 21-minute television play, "Glim-Glim," for the show Monsters. These 13 short fictions and two plays range from the Lovecraftian ("The Barrens," Wilson's official tribute to HPL, which opens with the not very Lovecraftian sentence, "I shot my answering machine today") to the Western supernatural ("The Tenth Toe," a story dictated by Doc Holliday). Also here: the long "A Day in the Life," about high-spirited disguise artist Repairman Jack, who appeared first in The Tomb (1981) and this year in Legacies. Each story in the sheaf gets its own introduction by Wilson, who tells about his ups and downs in the horror field while practicing medicine full-time and trying to be a good husband and a father to two teenage daughters, all while designing a flow chart to keep his submissions and rejections straight. Though some fans prefer Wilson's believable medical suspense thrillers to his supernatural tales, the present collection shows him richly endowed in the short form-but not as strong as in such novels as The Keep (Nazi vampires) and his malignant-entity trilogy begun in 1990 with Reborn-about an incredibly intelligent baby who reads books and newspapers. Aside from the title story, the one true standout here is "Definitive Therapy," in which Wilson tries to outdoJack Nicholson's version of The Joker in Batman by having The Joker locked up in Arkham Asylum and given a thorough psychiatric evaluation that eventually turns against the shrink himself. No disappointments here.