The Dark at the End of the Tunnel
Cemetery Dance Publications (digital edition)
Crystal Lake Publishing (print edition)
Review disclaimer: I received an electronic review copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review
I first became aware of Taylor Grant’s writing through a short story he published in Horror for Good, an anthology I gave a rave review to when it first came out. Since then, he has continued to produce a steady stream of quality tales, many of which have been put together in this masterful collection released near the end of last year.
The first story of the collection is an accurate and sad commentary on the fraying of relationships between spouses, people’s incessant desire to climb higher and higher on the corporate ladder, and this constant competition to be #1 all the time that permeates throughout most of Western society (and drives me nuts).
I formed an idea in my mind of what was going on with the main character, who started to show more aggressive impulses and increased recklessness to other people as the story went on, but it never offered an explanation, and to be honest, that made the story stronger.
This story was a great choice to kick off the collection. I found it to be a timely reminder that in this age of “highlight reel” culture on social media, we all want other people to believe we’re happy all the time and doing better than they are, but the reality is that people are not half as happy as they claim to be.
The next story, “The Silent Ones,” is the tale I originally read in Horror for Good. I thought it was excellent then, and I maintain that now. It’s about a guy who’s going a bit mad because he’s convinced that he is becoming invisible. When he throws a tantrum in the office one day, he gets negative attention, but this makes him lose his mind even more. He’s not dead and he doesn’t think he’s a ghost, yet he can’t seem to figure out what’s going on with him.
On the whole, one of Grant’s strengths as a storyteller is that he doesn’t hit the reader over the head with conclusions they’re “supposed to” come to and he often doesn’t explain the cause of what is affecting his characters. He illustrated this technique very well in “The Silent Ones,” which left the true cause of the main character’s malady a mystery and I felt this made the story more interesting.
“The Vood” is about a shadow entity that kills people and it seems to torment one guy in particular. He does his best to run from this creature, but it always catches up to him and as time goes by, it becomes more aggressive. This story worked for me on a deeper level as it suggested a commentary about mental health issues. Those of us who struggle with this daily have a tendency to run away and to rely on avoidance. For some people this looks like bingeing on alcohol or recreational drugs while others drown themselves in a Netflix addiction or use food as their solace. Anything is preferable than confronting the root of why we are the way we are.
“Dead Pull Show” is a story that, in a clumsier writer’s hands, could easily have come off as a cartoonish Disney production–a comical interlude not unlike the violence of Tom & Jerry–but Grant delivers a masterful tale of revenge using a devious and terrible protagonist who has done horrifying things. It’s not easy to use the point of view of someone as despicable as this protagonist, because in order for a story to work, a reader must be invested in the main character, find them sympathetic, or at the most basic level be interested in what that person is doing. In this case, my desire as a reader was to see this horrid person get some kind of comeuppance, something that only intensified as the story went on, and I think Grant did an excellent job using this as his anchor with which to generate suspense and tension throughout the piece.
Another standout was “Show and Tell” about a kid who is in the principal’s office explaining a bizarre story. It relies on using dialogue to recount the main character’s gruesome family secret and then mounting suspense as we can’t help but wonder what will happen to the school principal.
Grant understands the nuances of good storytelling, period. He understands suspense, doesn’t over-explain, and succeeds at leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination without confusing the reader at the same time which is very difficult to pull off.
He also has a fine understanding of how to convey emotions in such a way that they don’t come across as hackneyed or trying too hard.
In “The Infected,” which is the centerpiece of the collection, the main character is dealing with the fallout of his father’s death. Similar to the structure of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Grant paints a grim and tragic portrait of three generations of men who each swallowed their personal struggles in their own way, two of whom having gone to their graves with the saddest kind of brokenness in their hearts.
The protagonist, a writer, is also dealing with the pending arrival of his baby daughter, his own issues with writer’s block, and a job hunt for yet another soul-crushing temp job. Although there are other stories that feature writers as protagonists in this collection, “The Infected” resonated with me most as a writer and I suspect other scribes will feel the same.
In particular, I found the protagonist’s experience with being unable to write after some initial success rang true for me in the way that Grant depicted it. He didn’t drag out an explanation of the economic downturn and he didn’t have to. “The Infected” also made wonderful use of the story-within-a-story structure as the protagonist discovered his grandfather was also a writer who started a manuscript called “The Infected,” something the main character’s father contributed to but never finished.
I found this piece to be an insightful commentary on how creative people, especially writers, take jobs that cause us to die on the inside in the name of financial security. Of course, the reality is that we have to provide for ourselves and our families. Most of us will never make enough income from our writing alone, which, although that’s certainly nothing new or earth-shattering, makes for a powerful piece that every writer will be able to relate to.
Jonathan was just an ordinary man, fighting something far more insidious; an internal antagonist…an infection that killed hope and destroyed dreams.
The scary part of this story speaks to a more philosophical and existential dilemma and in some ways it’s more distressing than any physical monster. The infection Grant talks about in this story is something that our society at large suffers from.
…the allure of security is like a velvet-covered cage.
Countless people swallow their dreams every day because they’re too afraid to go for them. They have their reasons and life is a complex series of ebbs and flows. In addition to obesity and cancer, I’d argue that the infection presented in this story also kills people. Maybe not as quickly as other diseases, but it’s all too real.
Overall, Grant is a solid writer and makes good use of the minimalist style. As with all collections, some stories are more engaging than others and this depends on the reader’s taste, but if you’re on the lookout for a truly well put together collection of horror short stories by one of the best this genre has to offer, look no further than Dark at the End of the Tunnel.