Jason Parent,
Wrathbone & Other Stories
(First Comet Press, 2016)

In reading Wrathbone & Other Stories, there are three strengths to Jason Parent's writing that stand out: sympathy, setting and voice.

Most of these stories create a begrudging sympathy for even the most despicable, selfish characters. Even when some characters are getting their due, the reader is left rooting for that awful character to somehow avoid their fate.

For example, look at Bradley Walsh in "The Only Good Lawyer." It's no stretch of the imagination to have a lawyer come across as sleazy. Yet when tragedy starts to befall Walsh, the reader can't help but hope or anticipate a way out, despite that character's inner monologue admitting wrongdoing after wrongdoing.

Speaking of "The Only Good Lawyer," in the book's introduction, Kealan Patrick Burke claims the ending is rather predictable, but I disagree. I don't know if reading the critique in the introduction biased my opinion, but there seemed a lot of different directions that the story could have taken to be predictable. It starts off as an interesting enough courtroom case, with sleazy defense lawyer Bradley Walsh cross-examining a witness. Going from exhibit A to the final exhibit didn't follow a predictable path to this reader. Regardless, the story's ending is enjoyable. Well, not exactly "enjoyable," since it's kind of gruesome. (Okay, it might be enjoyable if you're a masochist.) How about entertaining? (Oy, I can't get out of this one easily, can I?)

"Dorian's Mirror," on the other hand, is as predictable as its title foreshadows. Maybe it's Oscar Wilde's fault, but any story featuring a Dorian is forever cursed to a storytelling niche (in this case, a bartender named Dorian Clarke). It's the metropolitan setting and Parent's vivid portrayal that saves this predictable plot from failing.

A similar case happens in "For the Birds." It's a quick stab of a story, featuring Nev; his scarlet macaw, Joji; and some unexpected houseguests. This really feels like a script submission to a horror anthology like Tales from the Crypt or Creep Show. There's not enough meat to the story, but the setting and context gives it just enough suspense to work.

The most obvious and strongest setting in the book is the titular story, a horror-fictional biography of the military officer present at Abraham Lincoln's assassination. It's worth the time to look up Henry Rathbone's actual story -- it's tragic enough without paranormal elements. Without delving too much into what happens (spoiler alert: Lincoln dies!), Parent presents a truly terrifying and possible way that events in Rathbone's life could have unfolded. It's not just Rathbone's inner struggle that is vividly portrayed but also the external world and time period that he lives in. At no point in the story does Parent take us out of that temporal reference point, which makes "Wrathbone" such a successful story.

The last story in the collection, "Revenge is a Dish," serves up suspense and surprise and offers a satisfying end (sorry, bad pun). There's a beautiful yacht on the open sea with arrogant chef Maurice, a trophy wife named Olivia and the hilariously-named Doc Asshole that's paying for the worldwide cruise. Telling anything else will spoil the story's twists and turns, but I can't decide if Parent would make for an excellent travel writer or a troubling food critic.

Parent's greatest strength that stands out in every story is finding a character's unique voice. Each character feels genuine (even if some are genuinely despicable), leaving even a fault-finding critic hard-pressed to find character traits and tells that carry over from one story to the next. It takes a strong, skillful talent to pull that off.

Hopefully, Parent will be offering more stories soon, as Wrathbone & Other Stories proves he is a burgeoning talent. Until then, at least this book has a high re-readability factor.

book review by
C. Nathan Coyle

4 February 2017

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