Reading a short fiction collection can be like Russian roulette. Most chambers are empty (click), but some blast your skull open – for good and for bad when it comes to horror.
100 Doors to Madness features 100 pieces of flash-fiction horror, micro-tales meant to slide ice down your spine. That may be a great concept, but it’s pushed a bit too far here. Editor David Nell should have whittled it down to 25, which is about how many merit reading. The rest of them are cheap foreplay without orgasms, filling two to three pages each with mediocre genre tropes that satisfy like nuns.
Casual readers might not understand the challenge involved in trying to frighten a person with a thousand words only. Horror relies on atmosphere, tone and setting to lure readers into being scared. Stephen King himself uses vastly more than a thousand- vastly – to get you primed, yet here you have these folks trying to do it in the length of an elevator conversation. That’s an admirable goal to be sure, but the majority of stories miss the mark.
To be fair, though, a handful nail it. And boy, when they do…
I’m happy and relieved to say that “The Initiation,” a story by Pop Mythology’s own Matt Hlinak, is one of the ones that do nail it.
Hlinak employs an element of successful fiction too often ignored by writers: what editor Donald Maass calls “micro-tension.” Micro-tension “is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds” (The Fire in Fiction, 2009). Each of Hlinak’s sentences propel us to the next, damn near desperate to know what will come of a dark, brutal and mysterious ritual, all the way up to its cold-hearted conclusion.
Now, I hope it’s no insult to the editor or writers to call this collection great toilet reading. For this humble writer, few books hold such an honorable position. It’s great for the throne because of how short each story is (three pages on average); you finish them in one “sitting.” Perfect. While length might hinder most stories, it is also the book’s redeeming value: any bad one is over in just a minute or two, so it doesn’t feel like time was wasted.
On the other hand, when a story does pop, the effect of being chilled or frightened in such a short, elegant format produces an emotion not often felt in horror. It is the sharp pleasure of a short joke well told, or the eloquent beauty of a two-line poem…only dark and chilling. The good ones flushed my body cold. Besides Hlinak’s “The Initiation,” see “Dead by Dawn,” by John Haas; “Some Holiday Cheer,” by Timothy McGivney; and “They Cling to Darkness,” by Pete Aldin.
You have to go into this book with the right expectations: it’ll take some sifting to find the good ones. While I read it front-to-back, I now wish I’d gone about it in a random fashion. Such an approach would add a thrill of discovery, and the joy in finding the treasures makes this a worthwhile purchase.
Casual readers of horror probably won’t like it – it’s a bit too experimental. However, it is that same experimental nature that makes this worth picking up. It is ambitious, original and valid, if only a bit premature.