Friday, May 6, 2016

You're Gonna Carry That Weight: A Review of Tribulations

Some people are calling this book a collection of horror stories, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Okay, sure, Tribulations certainly serves up a healthy portion of horror fiction. And most all of the stories are horrifying on some level. But there’s just so much going on here that is well beyond the horror genre.

So much.

Like neo-noir, dystopian, post-apocalypse, magic realism, psychological thriller, cyberpunk, and literary fiction.

Let’s be clear about something: Genre-wise, Tribulations by Richard Thomas is one of the most diverse short story collections around. And the stories, well—they’re all really fucking good.

My first exposure to Richard Thomas’s writing was his collection of shorts titled Staring Into the Abyss. I loved it. Naturally, I bought Thomas’s other collection, Herniated Roots. Loved that one too. And now, having now read all of Richard Thomas’s published short fiction, I can say that the man delivers a consistent and unparalleled gift for classic short storytelling decked out in dark, glimmering contemporary themes and aesthetics. And Tribulations is now the reigning champion of that fine tradition.

But what do I mean by classic? I’m referring to the way Richard Thomas’s stories always present a heavy moral or message—and I don’t mean political. I mean universal. I mean human. His stories will have you contemplating missed romantic connections, loves lost, relationships with family and friends. Thomas will have you second-guessing your marriage and then reaffirming your commitment to it within the span of a few pages. He’ll have you questioning your entire life’s trajectory.

Short stories used to do that, I think.

They used to challenge readers and force them to reflect on their lives, on the world and their place in it. Well, now they do again—at least when it comes to Richard Thomas, and especially so among the pages of Tribulations.

Think O. Henry with monsters and wasteland settings. Think Shirley Jackson with strippers and ghosts. Think tasteful twists and several megatons of incendiary emotional payload. Sadness, angst, anxiety, fear, lust, love, sentimentality—Thomas covers all bases with raw authenticity and daring creativity.

Here are some synopses of my favorites from Tribulations:

“Vision Quest” – A man’s desire to reunite with his family revolves around deliberate high-speed freeway wrecks. Yeah. Fans of J.G. Ballard’s Crash will love this one.

 “The Wastelands”
– Life on the fringes of a dystopian police-state sucks, especially if you had to kill your wife and kids to spare them a fate worse than death. So why not team up with a mutant-humanoid giant in a desperate attempt to revive them?

– A man falls in love with a woman he thinks might be a stripper. Hilarity does not ensue.

“The Handyman”
– Hey, it’s a cruel, cyberpunk world and a man with a multi-purpose cybernetic arm has gotta do what he’s gotta do to get by, amirite?

– A hardscrabble, Tarot card-reading construction worker falls headlong into a sordid romance.

– A mythological creature stalks the children of a small town.

“Asking for Forgiveness”
– A humanoid dog-child contemplates the controversial decisions of its human parents.

“The Offering on the Hill”
– A tale of a man’s mystical, desert-wasteland, post-apocalypse, desperate-horror-dread-quest to be reunited with his family.

Richard Thomas’s Tribulations is slick neon city streets and deep primeval wilderness. It’s a loved one’s caress and burning blood in your eyes. It’s blossoming hopes and deteriorating relationships. It is the soft dance of fireflies and the snapping maw of a rabid feral dog.

Yes, time to re-up on the Xanax, friends, because the twenty-five stories of Tribulations all deliver on the titular promise. Big time. You’re gonna feel the weight of the world as you read, and you're gonna love every second of it.

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