Bart Stewart,
Tales of Real & Dream Worlds
(Paper View, 2006)

"Bart Stewart is a compelling new voice on the literary scene." So says author Ace Bogges on the back cover of Tales of Real & Dream Worlds, Bart Stewart's 2006 collection of nine short stories. Straddling the line between horror and comic storytelling can be a difficult position to hold and, for the most part, Stewart keeps to the darker side of that border. Only "Brickworker" and "The Jingle" work the comedic component with anything approaching aggressiveness.

Tales of Real & Dream Worlds launches with a sideways glance at the night in 1938 when Orson Welles terrified a nation with his radio-play adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Told from the perspective of Farrel Rutherford and his family, who flee their home in an attempt to hide themselves from the nonexistent invaders from Mars, the story is an examination of family dynamics under intense stress. Farrel is hardly a perfect parent, domineering, a drinker, argumentative, but his desire to protect his family makes this story a strong opening statement.

The centerpiece of this collection is made up of three linked stories, "The Statuary Cats," "Silence of the Statuary Cats" and "Kittens of the Statuary Cats." While it was wise to begin this collection with something other than a "Cats" story, I think it was a significant mistake to run these three tales back to back to back. It makes Stewart appear limited by presenting only two core story concepts in the front half of this, his first collection. And given that significant time passes between each of the Cats stories, they would have benefited by having a tale or two fall between the chapters.

"The Statuary Cats" introduces readers to a pair of three-foot-tall, black-stone statues with eyes of cloudy quartz. Part of the Harnes family art collection, the cats have attracted the attention of one Mindy Linton, a young woman with a strange theory regarding the statues. Following the macabre murder of Lisette Harnes, Mindy Linton presents her hypothesis to Lisette's brother Ted. Linton believes the cats are alive, representatives of an undocumented species of predators she calls ossifiers. These creatures can control their molecular structure so as to appear stonelike, then deossify to hunt or breed.

Though far from completely original, Stewart's story idea is cleverly constructed and the characters are reasonably well conceived. There are some awkward, jumpy transitions between the opening story's scenes due, at least in part, to the layout of the text, which does not employ scene breaks. And the climactic chase between the deossified cats and the humans is not as intense as it might have been. (Why, oh why, do Mindy and Ted not even attempt to escape while the cats are mating?) But the main problem with this sequence of stories is that the middle tale, "Silence of the Statuary Cats," is decidedly bland. Again, I think this might have been less problematic with some separation between the stories.

Stewart is in better form for the third chapter in this series, "Kittens of the Statuary Cats." The chase scene between the cats and the babysitter is considerably more tense than those in the earlier stories, but the final scene is another disappointment as a group of armed police officers fails to get off even a single shot at the escaping felines.

For me, the strongest stories in Real & Dream Worlds are "Brickworker," which celebrates the absurdity of high-paying but mind-numbing work; "Condemned to Repeat It," which profiles an escapee from Jim Jones' Guyanese cult; "The Jingle," which posits the fall of civilization due to a too-catchy commercial; and the aforementioned "Theatre on the Air." Each of these fictions demonstrates that Stewart is an author with promise. Given a little more time, a little better ear for conversation and a little more attention to the minutiae of his stories, Stewart will undoubtedly be captivating readers with the kinds of stories that terrify and tickle, often at the same time.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

7 July 2007

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