Effects Vary by Michael Harris Cohen, a Horror Book Review by Thomas Joyce
I am mature enough to admit to my mistakes, and not being familiar with Cohen’s work sooner is a mistake. His short stories have been published in The Dark, Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Waters, and in audio with Pseudopod and the NoSleep Podcast, to name only a few. With numerous award wins under his belt, and fans including Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, and A.C. Wise, I am at a loss for why I haven’t read anything of his before now. Sure, it has been a rich couple of years for horror fiction, and there seems to be more new writers worthy of our attention with each passing month, but I used to consider myself widely read. There are only so many hours in a day, but I clearly have more work to do. I am grateful that I was finally able to introduce myself to Cohen’s work through reviewing his latest collection for Ginger Nuts of Horror.
The collection consists of 22 short stories, varying in length and subject, but connected via a confident voice and a pitch black tone. There are stories set in the present, near future, past. Post-apocalyptic, science fiction grounded in reality, real-life horrors we visit upon each other and ourselves. Through each incredible setting and the living, breathing characters to whom he gives life, we experience tragic tales of pain and loss.
For example, take opening story “What Happens in the Dark Will Soon Happen in the Light”. What begins as a close look at the effect of combat on a returning soldier and his wife and daughter quickly becomes something much more sinister and horrific. While the mother tries to relate to the young child that soldiers often come home missing some of their humanity, it cannot prepare them for what the soldier has seen in the desert, what he has brought back. The speculative elements are subtle, but Cohen does an excellent job of building tension and making the reader uneasy. A great story to open with.
“Erasing Tony” is another story set in the real world that we may recognise, if we’re at all familiar with the cult of celebrity, the obsession with remaining relevant, and American sitcoms. Told from the point of view of a down-on-her-luck former sitcom actress, Cohen intersperses the action with her rose-tinted memories of working on the show, and especially her intense relationship with the actor who played her son, the eponymous Tony. It is a tale of lurid obsession and one woman’s descent into madness, and Cohen takes us along for the ride. He captures the voice of loneliness and desperation, and the format with the included audience responses from her days on-screen were a great touch.
“Better Than Healed” has an interesting point of view, as it is one side of a conversation as a manager at some kind of spa shows the widow of a man who recently died around the remote complex. It becomes apparent through reading that the widow had some doubts about the nature of the spa, and the circumstances of her husband’s death. It also becomes apparent that, despite the friendly nature and lilting voice of the manager, these suspicions may be legitimate. He utilises repeated phrases and a calm demeanour to lull the widow into a false sense of security, while Cohen weaves a tale of deception and coercion in the most subtle of ways. A great, quick read.
Adopting a more science-fiction setting, “Graduating” tells us the story of near identical clones Jones 1 to 7. Each of the seven have slightly different personalities and responses to their roles; they are each subjected to horrific deaths and asked to rate them on a scale of pain, before they are revived. Hopefully this isn’t too spoilery as the real story is about the relationship between them all as they work toward the ultimate goal; a normal life beyond the walls of their laboratory, one which eventually ends. A retirement of sorts. But not all Jones’s look forward to the day they are allowed to leave, and this causes friction amongst the group. It is a fantastical scenario, but one which Cohen uses to explore death and duty and our connections to them as humans.
“No Bones Were Human” takes place in an Earth that has endured some terrible, cataclysmic event known as the Great Fire. Jem is a survivor who cares for his nephews and niece and the story is told from the oldest, one of the boys. He is forced to look after the two younger children when Jem decides he has to go out and scavenge, and promises to bring back a tree; something the three kids have never seen. Rather than exploring the larger story of the Great Fire, Cohen opts to focus on the relationships between the characters and how they survive in the harsh environment. Through reading the oldest boy’s thoughts, we gain some back story to how they came to be here, and the strength it takes to hold onto hope when all is lost. A hopeful yet sad story.
Cohen adopts an interesting narrative style for “Done to Scale”, which explores a dysfunctional family and their tribulations through a girl playing with a dollhouse, replaying traumatic experiences from her own home with the dolls, trying to come to terms with the hurt and confusion she has experienced as a result. It is a tale of familial everyday horror, the kind of thing a child might experience in a so-called “unhappy home”, and Cohen demonstrates an exceptional ability to convey all of this through the eyes of a child using great language and complex ideas.
“The Book of Skies” tells the story of a hardworking farming family, the Towners. Father Laird instructs Cole in the nature of the family business, but he hides a dark secret, one that has been in his farming family for generations, passed from father to son. He believes that, in order to secure a good crop, sacrifices must be made, and the guide he follows to achieve this is his book of skies. The sky tells him what must be done to appease an angry god, and the only way he can ensure the survival of his family, possibly the world, is to follow the instructions to the very last detail. Even when the instructions insist he do something truly terrible. A fantastic exploration of inherited horror and the father-son dynamic, while also hinting at something cosmic in scale.
To close the collection, “The Price of Gold” follows an unnamed protagonist as they visit the grave of a beloved. It seems that the lost loved one died a while ago, and the protagonist’s visits have become less frequent. Then they discover a small gold ring left by the grave and inscribed with a message of undying love. The horror in this story lies in the implications of the ring, and what it meant to the deceased. And what this now means to the protagonist. It is the horror of betrayal, of years spent in mourning only to discover, on some distant day, that perhaps it meant nothing at all. A powerful end to the collection.
These are only a small number of the stories featured in Effects Vary, a tiny example of the range and ability of an excellent storyteller. No matter the setting of the story, the time period, each is crafted with care and precision. Not one word is wasted and often there is as much horror to be found in what Cohen doesn’t explicitly say, that to which he only implies. There is an art to such effective, efficient, economical writing. And, with Effects Vary, Cohen has demonstrated his exceptional ability. If, like me, this one somehow slipped beneath your radar, pick up a copy and find out for yourself.
Effects Vary by Michael Harris Cohen
Effects Vary features 22 stories of dark fiction and literary horror that explore the shadow side of love, loss, and family. From an aging TV star’s murderous plan to rekindle her glory days, to a father who returns from war forever changed, from human lab rats who die again and again, to a farmer who obeys the dreadful commands of the sky, these stories, four of them award winners, blur the thin line between reality and the darkest reaches of the imagination.
Praise for Effects Vary
“The stories in Michael Cohen’s Effects Vary are sharp and hard-hitting, small blades that make one see the world through a dark and eerie lens. While these stories are chilling, what will stop you cold is how deeply they explore what makes us human. A must-read literary horror collection.”
-Danielle Trussoni, New York Times bestselling author of The Ancestor and NYTBR Dark Matters columnist
“Cohen’s fictions are knife flashes, quick and deft and so sharp you don’t know you’ve been cut until the blood starts to flow. Whether he’s in the mines of South Africa, the court of Charles the IV in Spain, or in places that seem like odd doppelgängers of the ones we know, his work unsettles in the best possible ways.”
-Brian Evenson, Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Award-Winning author of Song for the Unraveling of the World
“A pleasure ride to hell. You will read Effects Vary with a scorched smile and a horrified heart. And then you will re-read it, as I did. An unforgettable collection.”
-Martín Felipe Castagnet, author of Bodies of Summer and one of Granta’s best of young Spanish-language novelists
My first story was published in July 2013, my second in June 2014, and my third in October 2015, all by editor Jeani Rector for The Horror Zine. I have been less than prolific but I feel that he I’m constantly improving through writing and reading. I now read more than just Stephen King (although “The King” is still a favourite), enjoying the work of Stephen Graham Jones, Damien Angelica Walters, John F.D. Taff, Jeremy Robert Johnson and many more (The TBR pile is growing at an alarming rate these days). I am hoping to improve further by attending some writing classes in the near future, which I hope will provide the direction I need.
Watch this space! And thank you for checking this out. I appreciate it.