Al Sarrantonio,
Hornets & Others
(Cemetery Dance, 2004)

Hornets are frightening creatures, alien little things that carry far more venom than their small bodies should allow. Hornets & Others collects some of Al Sarrantonio's most alien and frightening stories, and the venom they carry is powerful.

Sarrantonio is most famous as a horror writer, but many of his best stories aim to twist the brain instead of freezing the blood. "The Haunting of Y-12" begins as a haunting and turns into a family reunion with a quick unforced turn that keeps the sweetness of the tale from cloying. "The Glass Man," a tale of celebrity and the dark side of faith, is deeply haunting. But instead of suggesting the shape of things that go bump in the night, it shines an unromantic light on the things that lurk in the corners of human hearts.

Those corners supply most of Sarrantonio's material. "The Coat" and "Green Face" both play with the idea of the monstrous in serial killers, putting the stories' murderers under supernatural pressures that take away the blame for their actions but never remove them from their guilt. "In the Corn" is as much a warning about the power of doctors as the return of a nightmarish past. "White Lightning" offers no supernatural excuse for the violent rampage of its star character, but the human cruelty that propels him offers more justification to his actions than any possessed garment.

While Sarrantonio is clearly comfortable in the seamier alleys of the human mind, his stories are at their strongest when they reach into the unknowable. "The Beat" and "The Only" suggest the forces of natural rhythm that move human life, but expanded to such size that they become something unknowable. "Bags" explains the frightening human isolation of homelessness with another and fully inhuman mystery.

Not every story has such resonance. "Billy the Fetus" has little more charm than a bit of bathroom graffiti, and feels overplayed even with Sarrantonio's usual compact delivery. "Two," a story of computer-based haunting that starts as a dark echo of "The Haunting of Y-12," is hampered by a weak and sometimes unlikable heroine.

With 17 stories in just over 200 pages, Hornets never wastes space on such ephemerals as building suspense or extravagant descriptions. That unhesitating pace condenses stories to their essence. "Hornets," the title story and almost a novella, is luxuriously expansive after the often breathless speed of the previous tales. But even with room to spread his wings, Sarrantonio never sprawls. "Hornets" opens the door on an inhuman nightmare with an unmistakably human inspiration.

"Hornets" is in many ways the perfect representative story of the collection. The central tale, of a writer striving to keep his personal and professional life on track, offers a very human drama, complicated by the internal demons Sarrantonio shows so well and ended by the sort of untouchable horror that haunts his best work.

by Sarah Meador
20 May 2006

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