Book Review: Big Chills, by John McDonnell

I recently downloaded Big Chills, one of 8 books currently available from John McDonnell, from as part of a free promotion. Big Chillsis a collection of 9 pieces of horror flash fiction from this (according to the Amazon blurb) master of psychological horror.With a claim like that, I was very eager to dig into the book and see what was being serve up on the altar er, platter.

Flash fiction, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an ultra-short form of fiction writing that can be as small as under a hundred words (although that often falls into the subcategory of “drabble”), and up to no more than a thousand words. Obviously, therefore, that made this series of stories a quick read by form of length alone.

It was also a quick read for content. The first story, All The Time In The World, begins in the 1500s on a sugar plantation, in media res of a conflict between a Spanish plantation owner presented with an african slave prophet who is causing an uproar among the slaveworkers of his Canary Islands plantation. Urged by his priest, his solution is swift and brutal – but the retaliation that follows is equally as brutal, and with long-reaching consequences for such a short tale.

One thing that struck me as I read was the consistently recurring theme, from a fantasy kingdom with a giant to a parson’s clairvoyant wife in possession of a Thor’s Hammer necklace to a particularly snide babysitter, of revenge. In most of the stories, someone is done wrong, and in one way or another are made to pay a price for their crimes. Some tales, particularly the story of an aging former model with Beautiful Hands, accomplish this in such a way that you can perfectly imagine it as a tale being told while sitting around a s’mores-toasting campfire, while others such as The New Boy attain their resolution in a way that even an experience reader of horror and thrillers would not expect.

The New Boy as well as New Year are both tales that leave the reader almost with more questions than when the story began, and New Year in particular is one that I personally would love to see expanded into a longer work. The premise presented is incredibly engaging, and I desperately wanted more of it.

Quite likely my favorites in this volume are So Few Giants and The Bad Babysitter. So Few Giants is the only outright fantasy-set piece in the collection, and manages in quite a short time to accomplish several twists of who is the good guy, and who is the bad. The closing line, echoing the title, gives it a wonderfully cyclical feel, and leaves one to consider what constitutes a giant and conversely the smallness of mind and intent that plagues all too many people. The Bad Babysitter delighted me in dealing directly and unabashedly with children and monsters, and with a wonderful deconstruction in brief of what Satan is in terms of evil:

Melissa sat down on the couch. “It’s a primitive defense mechanism, actually. I’ve studied it. It makes people feel safer if they have this cartoon figure to give them an alibi when they do something wrong.”“Cartoon figure?”

“Yes. The long nose. The pointy beard. The horns. Like a Disney character, actually. It has nothing to do with real evil. We have more real evil in our basement than you’ll even find worshipping Satan. I still say you couldn’t go down our basement in the dark and stay there for a minute.”

It’s precisely this sort of wry, impudently cheeky sense of humor that really makes the collection, in my mind; set against the recurrent theme of revenge, it really underlines the horrors that happen to the victims and antagonists, and leaves the reader with a wonderfully smug sense of “I told you so.”

Ultimately, I quite enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more of Mr. McDonnell’s work.


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