This debut collection offers a series of disconcerting tales in which characters experience horror that’s more metaphysical than palpable.
In many ways, this book is populated by prisoners, beginning with “Angel of Mercy,” in which quadriplegic Marcus Ambrose is at the mercy of his caretaker wife, Elena. But as the story reveals, he may have already been locked inside a seemingly cold relationship. Fate often directs the characters, leading them to unavoidable dark conclusions and making all the tales rather gloomy. In “The Butterfly,” for instance, Benedict and Star’s sexual congress is enhanced when she demands he bite her fresh wound. But once the cut heals, Star will inevitably crave much more. Similarly, the unnamed female narrator in “Satan’s Lure” tends to the hungry and helpless Vern, hiding in the cellar from her father. But it isn’t long before the two give in to their primal urges. There’s religious allegory running throughout the volume, but like the stories’ horrific elements, Pizzarello effectively downplays it. Two of the more notable examples are the successive “The Silence” and “Fugues.” With shades of Kafka’s The Trial, the former follows an unknown man who may be facing punishment but is unaware of any crime (or sin) he’s committed. In the latter, Arnold is so intent on appeasing his Roman Catholic parents that he’s hiding within himself, an entity that sticks close to the marrow and sees Arnold as an automaton, only occasionally taking over. A standout among a stellar series is “The Stranger,” in which Nugent becomes fixated on a stranger who has way too much clout for having just arrived in town. Nugent’s paranoia turns dangerous, as he starts seeing anyone with a smirk like the stranger’s as a “minion” and himself as the people’s savior. It’s astounding that Pizzarello manages to end every story with a punch. There’s definite resolution in each case but always with a lingering uneasiness: what if, say, there’s merit to Nugent’s obsession? The book’s other tales, “The Gift of Life” and “Tabula Rasa,” are tender but ultimately unnerving companion pieces, featuring, respectively, a man with terminal cancer and a guy asking his best friend to be a sperm donor.
Sublimely understated frights, both brooding and