The End by Kayleigh Dobbs – A Horror Book Review
I bought my own copy of this book, because I’d enjoyed Kayliegh’s previous collection, Corpsing, and I expected this one to be a good time. My standard rules apply: I start more than I finish, I finish more than I review, and I only review work I a) finish and b) enjoy.
I was very much not disappointed.
The collection starts with The Claim They Stake, and young Billy, being pursued down the stairs by the alien/lizard creature that had until recently been hiding in/under the skin of his older neighbour. It’s a cracking opening to the collection, within the first couple of pages delivering on so many of the strengths of Dobb’s writing; the action comes thick and fast, with a vivid eye for detail and pace, and the tension of the situation is threaded with humour that manages the rare trick of both ringing true to the situation and complementing rather than cutting against the tension.
That was a trait in Corpsing that I very much admired, and it runs throughout this tale and collection as a whole. After a blistering opening scene, most of the rest of the tale deals with themes of obsession and conspiracy theories. It’s a typically smart inversion of how such tales typically play out, in that whether or not the central threat or theory is real would normally form the mysterious heart of the tale. However, here, with the matter not in doubt thanks to the powerhouse opening, it instead becomes an uncomfortable meditation on feelings of helplessness, powerlessness; the inability to persuade loved ones of the truth.
I enjoyed how the story played out, but I especially enjoyed the middle section, with the building sense of frustration and desperation as our protagonist realised the steepness of the walls surrounding him. In the middle of an amusing and self-aware genre narrative, there was a slice of genuine pathos that elevated the story considerably.
Just Like Baking takes in a modern coven, ancient magic, and a decidedly Pratchett-tinged family/group dynamic that I found delightful. The prose here, and especially the dialogue, positively sparkles with good humour and a keen eye for all-too-human dynamics. One of the interesting things about the central theme of the collection is that there’s no real mystery, in each individual story, how things are going to, well, end, narratively speaking, but it’s also proof positive of the old adage that, sometimes, it really is more about the journey. Here, the journey is an absolute joy, and somehow, the idea that the beginning of the end might be triggered by incompetence and misplaced politeness feels just a little on the nose.
Catch Fire is also about family dynamics, this time concerned more with managing (or not) a person with narcissistic personality disorder , and the endlessly poisonous effect they can have on a family dynamic. There’s humour here, too, but the tone and dynamic are both nastier, as befits the subject matter. Dobbs does a great job portraying the awful moral dilemma of trying to navigate being closely related to such a personality; the way guilt and a sense of familial obligation can be weaponised, and manipulated. Kudos too for a very real portrayal of a loving, supportive, but deeply frustrated spouse. Dobbs really shows off her horror chops, here, expertly ratcheting up the tension to a brutal finale. Perfectly paced, too.
Dead takes in media res to a new level, starting the tale with our lead character, Grace, waking up dead. I really dug the boldness of the opening gambit, and Dobbs fully commits to the bit; again, there’s wry humour aplenty, including some lovely genre-aware asides (one of the things that comes through so clearly in this collection is Dobbs clear passion and love of the horror genre). And it manages to provide a fresh perspective on an undead infection outbreak, which after the last decade shouldn’t even be possible, so pretty impressive stuff.
Omega takes in what initially appears to be a Rapture-type event, with our POV character, Maddie (who I’ve just realised is the girlfriend of Billy in the first story, so that’s a really neat tie-in), observing Pastor Bob with a growing sense of unease as he delivers his final sermon. Like with the first story, one of the clever things going on here is a subversion of expectations; we’ve read a million stories about Jim Jones-style cult leaders, but Bob appears to be the real deal, working actual miracles, denying publicity and money, digging wells where water is needed… and again, because of the premise of the book, we know The End isn’t really in doubt. I thought this one was an exemplar of efficient storytelling, mercilessly escalating the sense of threat and dread.
It also has a brilliant coda in The End, which provides an explanation for the events of the prior story, as well as a bone-chilling vision of the afterlife. For the only time in the collection, humour is placed entirely aside, revealing a grinning skull with no pity, remorse, or sense of catharsis. It’s a hell of a way to end a short story collection, and I thoroughly approve.
In summary, I really enjoyed The End. The whole collection sings with Dobb’s sense of humour, keenly observed relationship dynamics, and love of genre, and manages to strike a surprisingly diverse story tone, despite the strength of her voice and the restrictions presented by the theme. Most of all, it’s just so much damn fun to read, with an infectious, page-turning quality I find admirable and enviable. Recommended.
The End by Kayleigh Dobbs
A series of micro-collections featuring a selection of peculiar tales from the best in horror and speculative fiction.
From Black Shuck Books and Kayleigh Dobbs comes The End, the thirty-fifth in the Black Shuck SHADOWS series.