Hollywood Reporter correspondent and columnist, Richard Newby’s first collection of short stories, We Make Monsters Here, is full of verve and heart. The monsters in Here are not always the antagonists, Newby inverts traditional horror tropes and surprises throughout the collection which is paced like a Saturday matinee thanks to crackling prose. Like Stephen King, and other great horror and sci-fi writers, Newby allows his stories to take on real-world problems, to a point, of course, this is a collection of horror tales after all, but what better way to explore humanity’s follies than through tales that are meant to scare, shock, and entertain?
The opening story, “Monster Truck” is Netflix ready for its own series concerning monsters and their professional woes. A satire, Newby aims his pen at the heart of American troubles, human monstrosities, human folly, and human evil, a thread Newby follows throughout the collection. Perhaps best exemplified in “The Weed” and “Soundstage Earth” where Newby addresses our interconnected world and the toxic distractions that come from living in it. In “The Weed” a drug dealer, “the man in the yellow raincoat”, sells designer weed that not only gets the user high but also turns the user into a grotesque weed plant that “the man in the yellow raincoat” harvests and sells; the previous victim’s lifeforce intermingling with the drug making it all the more potent. “The Weed” captures all the terror of active addiction while sacrificing none of the matinee horrors. “Soundstage Earth” showcases a world where all our direction comes from screens, however instead of being directed by corporations and our own tech addictions, humans are driven by alien life that has taken over the planet and made it their personal entertainment studio. Agency over one’s actions and bodies are yanked away from the protagonists stuck inside a loop.
The monsters and human characters of We Make Monsters Here are not always what they seem. One of the more interesting creatures is the world spider of “Madge, the World Spider, and One Last Drink” who gives sloppy drunk Rodney a new lease on life, albeit through a surreal ritual involving cards and mysterious tech wherein a future copy of Rodney appears, and Rodney must choose “who breaks.” In the anti-war story “Doughboy”, the character, Doughboy, a play on the World War I slang and a nod to the Pillsbury Doughboy, offers none of the comforts the Pillsbury doughboy can bring, despite Doughboy’s resemblance to the Pillsbury character, for the Doughboy absorbs and assumes life, his purpose for living manufactured in a character’s laboratory. Newby’s voice captures the existential horror of being alive in a country that does not value life, though Newby doesn’t preach so much as he weaves narrative and commentary together. In Here, monsters show as much, if not more, compassion and humanity than the most human characters.
While most of the stories of Here are short, Newby’s not afraid of the longer tale. “Black Bone Pit” closes out the collection. In it, Traci Finiston battles Ben Mekkler, in the pit, which serves as a kind of fight club for the locals. The pit has a nasty history, one Traci plumbs as she stands up for herself and her father in the shitty small town she calls home. Newby accomplishes the scope of a novella in the tale, one which weaves together past and present trauma that spans centuries. “Black Bone Pit” is a perfect companion tale to the current crop of horror anthology shows such as Lovecraft Country, and Them, reminding readers that humanity is its own scourge, and the past is ever-present.
In his short story collection debut, Richard Newby delights and thrills. Fans of weird fiction, horror, suspense, and science fiction will find much to admire. Throughout We Make Monsters Here, Newby upends expectations and offers readers a fresh surreal landscape, an entertaining summer read.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the co-editor of The Broadkill Review. A teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer, Whitaker’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, Great River Review, Oxford Poetry, The Best of Helios Quarterly & The Southern Poetry Review Series: Virginia. Mulch, a novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press.