David J. Schow,
Havoc Swims Jaded
(Subterranean Press, 2006)

I've said this before but I'll say it again. Short-story collections are difficult propositions, both for the writer and the reader. Too often, they could have lost about 50 pages and five or six stories. It's almost a rule that not every story in a collection will be good. It's more a matter of the ratio of good stories to bad.

David J. Schow's Havoc Swims Jaded isn't much of an exception, though the ratio of good to bad stories is pretty decent. It has 10 really good stories out of 14, counting the afterward, which is about as good a ratio as in your average Harlan Ellison collection.

And mentioning Ellison, that is the writer to whom Schow bears the most resemblance. He has a similarly gung-ho attitude towards sex and violence, and, like Ellison, apparently feels no compunction about doing horrible things to his characters, then kicking them while they're down. And he covers similar ground, thematically -- old movie monsters given new tasks ("The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe'en Horror Nights"), the terrors of modern technology ("Expanding Your Capabilities Using Frame/Shift Mode") and, of course, death and loneliness (most of the last half of the book). Schow's tone is less hyperactive than Ellison's, however, resulting in the occasional feeling that the characters are a little hung over.

But what about the stories themselves? As I said, the entire collection is a little uneven, but some tales really stand out. "Dismantling Fortress Architecture" is interesting, though somewhat difficult to follow. "Wake-Up Call" and "Size Nothing" are short, hard-hitting science-fiction pieces dealing with suicide and bodily modification. "The Pyre & Others" tells the story of a near-mythological collection of short stories by a virtually unknown author. "Scoop Vs. Leadman" has an almost comic book-like quality (very similar, in fact, to Ellison's "New York Review of Bird"). "Obsequy," one of the longer pieces in the book, gives us a new twist on the zombie story -- a cross between Poltergeist and Night of the Living Dead.

It's when Schow tries to be funny that he fails -- "The Thing Too Hideous to Describe," while mildly amusing, seems rather gimmicky, and "What Happened with Margaret" is out-and-out mean. On finishing the collection, though, the less-than-great stories fade away, and the reader is left with the feeling of having read something really good. Which is something, at least.

So, overall, Havoc Swims Jaded isn't a bad collection. And who knows? Maybe Schow will be called the next Harlan Ellison.

review by
Theo deRoth

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