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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Hook House and Other Stories by Sherry Decker

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Image"Hook House"
"Hicklebickle Rock"
"The Clan"
"Heat Waves"
"Chazzabryom"
"Shivering, We Dance"
"Gifts from the North Wind"
"Twisted Wishes, Twilight Dreams"
"A City in Italy"
"Jessica Fishbone"
"Tarissa"

Sherry Decker’s first collection, Hook House and Other Horrors, invites readers to experience a writer who has an impressive ability with description, a penchant for crafting quirky characters, and love for a horror more comfortable in subtle psychological details and themes of broken families than in blood-and-gore descriptions.

"Hook House" opens the collection with a tale about Sarah and her fiancé going to visit her mother in the haunted house that has been in their family for three generations. Immediately, I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of Sherry’s prose:

That night I dreamed of Sean clinging to the outermost edge of the bluff while far below the surf churned and roared. Waves crashed around the jagged boulders and white spray leaped against the face of the cliff as if reaching for him. I cried out, but the wind whipped my screams away.

The first-person narrative splits into two sections: the present section where Sarah is going to visit her mother with her new fiancé, and the flashback sections where a younger Sarah is going with her mother to visit Aunt Jessie in the haunted home. This structural juxtaposition works well in reflecting the themes of heritage and destiny running throughout the story. The author deviates from the traditional "haunted house" tale by not making this story about ghosts murdering people; the ghosts of Hook House are more like actors playing out a scene on a stage for the characters. It is a tale whose ending is the ultimate affirmation of love. By far the most interesting and poignant offering in the entire collection.

"Hicklebickle Rock" follows a troubled family living in a small town where an ancient and mysterious monolith of the same name broods over the bay in the shape of a sad Indian Princess. The beginning of the story focuses on Cassie and her mean older brother, Ben, who constantly snaps at her, ties to her to a tree, drinks too much beer, drives a motorcycle, and is rude to just about everyone in town. The author wisely depicts the brother as an unsympathetic jerk to create a powerful commentary about innocence, the loss of it, and that things aren’t always what they seem.

As the story progresses, we soon learn that a kidnapped girl was found dead by Hicklebickle Rock and the race begins to find the killer. The rock itself acts as a character in the story; we are told the rock might be an Indian princess transformed to stone by an evil priest or a shrine to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. However, an astute reader will make the connection that this monolith is symbolically all these things (a thing that is out-of-place and lost in this modern American town). The powerfully sad last lines of the story will linger in your mind for a while.

"The Clan" provides a tongue-in-cheek tale about an escalating feud between a witch and vampire neighbor. The comical story offers an intimate look into both the witch's and vampire’s worlds, dispelling commonly held myths and cliches about both races. One can easily find similar newbie copies of this basic idea flooding workshops by the thousands. However, the author manages to transcend the more droll offerings in this sub-genre by employing those extra little details that power all her other stories:

a bottle containing a mixture of black ink, garlic oil, powdered monkshood, a dove’s tear, and one secret ingredient—I never reveal my potions entirely, you understand.

And:

the smell almost took my breath away. The only worse smell in my memory was after a flood had ravaged a graveyard filled with recent plague victims, dispersing hundreds of bloated corpses over field and town and eventually into sewers.

It also helps that the author never takes the story too seriously. It's apparent from the opening paragraph that she wants you to laugh with her.

"Heat Wave" is a story about a psychic girl that hears strange, shadowy creatures called the heat wave people speaking to her while waiting outside a church with her parents. This story pays homage to Stephen King’s The Shining and Carrie. It captures a creepiness that would have the Horror Grandmaster nodding with approval. The depictions of the heat wave people by using terse snippets of dialogue (Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. Come dance. Come Dance. Come dance) and the fact that her dad also has psychic abilities but cannot hear them, creates some truly scary monsters. It always attests to a horror story’s strength when it actually manages to scare me. I would love to see this work transformed into a novel.

"Chazzabryom" follows the story of a woman interviewing a serial killer who she later realizes didn’t commit the murders. I believe this could have been Sherry Decker’s finest story in the collection, crafting together a variety of interesting elements that I both enjoyed and could relate to such as the irritable boss, the Hannibal Lecterish type serial-killer, and a truly frightening demon, but the ending on the very last page failed to win me over and jarred me out of the story. I suppose there is nothing technically wrong with the ending, but it didn’t connect with me.

"Shivering, We Dance" is a story about a niece who kills her aunt to inherit a fortune her aunt stole by killing her other relatives. This story was decent enough, propelled mostly by strong imagery (that characterizes most of Sherry’s stories). The main conflict is about the niece taking revenge and telling us about her life living with her aunt. No matter where she runs, the niece can’t escape (not even when she moves into her own apartment). Although heavy on the exposition flashback, the story is perhaps a little too linear for its own good. I was surprised it got reprinted in three different magazines. It is an okay story, but nothing special. Pretty much plot point A happens, there is some reflection what caused her to do A (the murder), and then we move onto plot point B. Sherry is capable of writing more interesting stories, proven by "Hook House" and "Hicklebickle Rock."

"Gifts From the North Wind" is a story about a strange girl who almost drowned who can now call the dead back to life. Subtle details, such as the fact that the girl refuses to take baths if the water is too high and no longer eats food, creates both an interesting portrait of a character resurrected from the dead and a deep conflict that divides her parents. The story hinted numerous times that the girl will no longer age and will remain a little girl forever. Although the focus of theme, style, sub-genre, and mood is different, something about this story reminded me of Harlan Ellison's classic "Jeffty is five." Sherry seems content to cover more interpersonal family themes which ultimately fails to achieve the same power and poignancy of the Science Fiction classic. However, the added speculative elements and different focus still makes this tale worth a read.

"Twisted Wishes, Twilight Dreams" is sort of a "Rose For Emily" meets wish-granting genie/vampire/incubus hybrid. As usual, Decker does a nice job at depicting an unconventional and obsessive mother/daughter relationship, not to mention a protagonist whose loyalty to her mother has caused her to sacrifice her desires in life. Much of the middle narrative reads like a boring day in the life of the character vignette. The speculative creature never gets enough context to obtain the full suspension-of-disbelief, especially when the character randomly gets a wish without protaging to earn it or without any real explanation why the incubus wants to grant her this wish. Random rape/sex scenes in the story are more an exercise in stream-of-conscious description than a fluid part of the narrative, despite Decker’s admirable attempts to use these scenes as a kind of Freudian symbolism for her character’s repressed urges. Overall, the writing techniques themselves are impressive, but they fail to coalesce into a fully integrated story.

"A City in Italy" at first seems like a typical multiple personality tale (girl visits doctor and talks about her twin sister), but Sherry adds a nice little twist at the end to give this overdone genre a fresh breath of life. The two personalities (pardon the cliché) are like night and day: one acts like an innocent virgin and the other a cheap whore. The use of wordplay, especially with the character's names, adds a lot of depth to the story and speaks wonders about the character’s personalities, further explored by how they interact with the two other characters in the story (the doctor and the boyfriend).

"Jessica Fishbone" is a tad too ponderous for its own good. Crazy chick kills a goose in her childhood, mother dreams that crazy chick will kill her twin sister, so mother decides it will be a good idea to try and poison crazy chick. The overabundance of exposition at the beginning and the unreliable narrator make deciphering the events of this story a chore rather than an enjoyable experience. Ultimately, though, it fails because I had trouble believing the mother’s motivations. Other than killing a goose and hints within the story for a proclivity to violence ("If they leave me alone I’ll leave them alone. That way no one gets hurt") we are never given a gruesome enough act to believe the negative comments being flung towards Jessica (one begins to wonder if it isn’t the mother who is truly the crazy one). There seems to be some kind of disconnect, which is perhaps what the author intended, but left me feeling indifferent.

"Tarissa" is a story about a witch who exacts revenge upon the town after they burn her sister at the stake. Although stories about witches have been done to death, I found this to be a fun little tale because Decker’s witch actually has powers, and whenever she casts a spell, you see the results right away. Mind you, she ripped a scene right out of Willow the movie towards the end, but it was still amusing. Unlike other tales of this nature, it is clear right from the beginning the townsfolk stand no chance against this witch, but it is that very fact and the choice the witch picks at the end that makes this an interesting commentary on revenge and persecution.

While only a couple of the stories stand out as exceptional ("Hook House," "Hicklebickle Rock," and "Heat Waves"), every other story for the most part is quite readable. And that, my friends, is a rare quality to find in any collection. 

Publisher: Silver Lake Publishing (Jan. 2006)
Price: $12.95
Trade Paperback: 172 pages
ISBN: 1933511095