Many of these stories can be labeled Southern gothic; most have a gloomy ambiance even when there’s no murder. Characters are unsettling, as with the titular bullied kid who isn’t bullied for long in “Timmy.” But Stewart, with an ample 56 stories, takes the time to examine other genres and does so with competence: There’s romance in “The Bright Side of the Moon,” in which an already-engaged man falls for the girl of his dreams; comedy in “I Write the Song,” with a dispute over songwriting credit that concludes hilariously; and a touch of the sci-fi in “Pally and the Quack,” one of the book’s best stories, in which a doctor in 1936 has a new device for combating cancer, with horribly detrimental effects. Although there are some contemporary settings, the majority of the tales take place in the mid-20th century, and Stewart incorporates the rampant racism and racial segregation of the time. The Southern flair never fluctuates, and the stories, in states such as Texas, Florida and Louisiana, are uniform; the warmer climate in the South, for example, seems inescapable, as the heat and humidity “bake the earth” and aren’t helped much by air conditioning. Likewise, first-person perspectives give the impressions of Southern locals telling stories to friends, almost like an urban legend. There’s the occasional vengeful spirit or creature, but the standouts in the collection often deal with evil found only in humans, including “The Lost Key,” about a young husband worried that a strange custodian has found his lost keys and will go after his wife, and “Six Clues to Marilyn Schaeffer,” in which cryptic notes may lead to a girl who’s been missing for 20 years. Each story has merit, and there aren’t any throwaways, but Stewart might have improved the book by cutting a few from the voluminous collection, perhaps to save for a later book. At this rate, maybe he already has 56 more lined up.
Quite a collection of dark gems; readers looking for somber tales with Southern flair need look no further.