Pre- Approved for Haunting and Other Stories by Patrick Barb
A Horror Book Review by Justin Allec
Horror writers come in all shapes and sizes, thankfully, and their tastes are as varied as jack o’ lanterns on All Hallows Eve. There are the old standards derived from the world’s religions. The devils and demons, followed by the Universal Monsters, a pack of creatures derived from folk legends and cautionary tales—the vampire, the werewolf, the mummy—who inhabit the gothically twisted castle-scapes and misty graveyards. There’s the new school alongside these classics that incorporated 20th-century fears of new suburbs and stranger neighbors: the now-familiar psycho killer (nurtured or natured, hmm???, cannibal inbred, sophisticated deviant, wise-cracking dreamer), the zombie, the monster chained up in the basement next door, the mob of conformity. Then the scenarios: apocalypse, haunted house, graveyard, and any domestic site of trauma. Moods? Again, gothic, which is a whole THING, but also vengeful, suspense, slapstick, chilling, cold, mean, voyeuristic, detached, analytic, purpley-flower prose, thanks to a wide acceptance of styles and history. And that’s before any applications of irony or camp, and especially the metatextual.
Along with those scenarios, add in all the new motivations: grief, trauma, anguish, loss, the erroneously-termed ‘elevated’ emotions of horror. Throw the dart at whatever target you wish to, o aspiring horror writer, and you’ll hit something worthy of practice.
Pre-Approved for Haunting gathers up eighteen stories from Patrick Barb, the majority of which were previously published in the last few years. Ranging from flash pieces to longer tales, these stories prove their worth by covering a lot of the above-mentioned territory in some interesting and unique ways. While there is straightforward violence and horror aplenty, Barb is almost always doing something fun with the story to move it along, be it in terms of structure, perspective, tone, or imagery. In many cases, he structures his stories as portmanteaus where one familiar horror trope twists and writhes inside of another to birth something truly horrific. To use the example of “The Giallo Kid in the Cataclysm’s Campground”, a summer camp slasher set-up between a Cropsy-esque brother and Final Girl sister become marionettes of the apocalypse. With gory kills aplenty, the Homer Simpson-masked killer more than fulfills the slasher quotient of the story, but it’s the oft-repeating, madness-inducing dreadfulness that keeps wounding anew:
“When I reached the water’s edge, they all waited for me. Sheena, Jared, Levon, Marty, Carolyn, and every other head counselor from the Camp Diamondback Lake staff. Everyone awaited my arrival, everyone with the back luck not to be me, to not be the Final Girl who made it to the end.”
There’s recognition but also wonder. The familiar becomes the bizarre and we’re ever separated from what we thought our reactions would be to a story that sounded like one we had heard before. Is it an echo? An earworm? Night music floating on some current of Bradbury whimsy or a sullied green freeze-frame of pain from a Saw marathon? It’s all that and between but most importantly the emotions underneath, Barb seems to say, but please, keep reading.
Which isn’t to say that Barb’s main appeal is some sort of winky literary cleverness – no, it’s the horror on display. Some of the more straightforward stories – the neighbors with Bentley Little in “Have You Seen My Missing Pet?”, for example, or the ol’ ‘never go home again’ arbarotory nightmare of “Putting Down Roots” – show Barb’s control of narrative and characters, slowly moving people into scary situations made all the worse by the reveal of their backgrounds and motivations. They’re good, but almost feel like respite for the rest of the collection.
While not going to graphic extremes, Barb pushes his stories into some weird areas. There are fun and almost campy examples that he no doubt wrote with a chuckle, like the serial killer meet-cute of “Casual” (I’m sure this was a Tales from the Crypt script at some point, or at least deserved to be), or the Manborgian silliness of “The Other Half of the Battle”, but most of these tales are dark and disquieting. Again and again: the title story, “Return to Voodoo Village”, “There is no Bunk #7”, and “The Decimation of Corn-Silk Sally” bring the reader back to the meta-awareness of the horror history I’ve sketched above, where Bard is actively interrogating and working both within and against conventions and confinement. Something like “I Will Not Read Your Haunted Script” takes those already shaky perspectives (I and you and me) and subjects them to a meta-textual breakdown that chills the core. It makes for dark reading, where the resolution of the story sometimes means the end of the world, but rarely an end to suffering. In particular, the short pieces “The Crack in the Ceiling” and “Melvin and the Murder Crayon” go the horrified distance. You think things are over, but oh hell there’s another page, which is just another four paragraphs for Barb to twist the knife and show why he’s one of the best writers out there right now. That ‘now’ – with the full force of an aware, reflective, and celebrated history of horror – thankfully won’t stay still, and it’ll give writers like Barb even more of a push as they keep honing their craft.
Pre-Approved for Haunting: And Other Stories
by Patrick Barb
A collection of weird, dark stories and millennial anxieties.
In this new collection, Patrick Barb explores themes of family found and lost, media consumption and the dangers of runaway nostalgia, the supernatural in our lives, and the impact of violence in both the long- and short-term.
- A young couple’s reunited with their lost son whose favorite fuzzy bear suit connects him to the ghost of a vengeful mama bear while he’s alone in the forest.
- A jaded screenwriter can’t escape the haunted screenplay that’s ruined his career.
- A man returns to his small hometown, where the people are gone and the trees have taken over.
- A Slasher and Final Girl brother-sister duo match wits and blades against a sentient, dimension-hopping apocalypse at a never-ending summer camp.
From rural backwoods to Park Slope brownstones, Barb’s characters face impossible, awful situations, testing their inner strength and understanding of reality. Covering quiet horror, weird fiction, supernatural horror, slasher horror, topical dark fiction, and more, these stories spotlight supposedly familiar terrors and fears in new and unexpected ways.