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THE RIOT ACT
By STEPHEN ROMANO (Arcaderetro INK; 2006)

In recent years Stephen Romano, who beginning with 1997’s INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS authored a string of underground publications, has gone semi-mainstream, and even turned out a glossy hardcover thriller in the form of 2012’s RESURRECTION EXPRESS (misleadingly touted as Romano’s “debut”). Yet it’s THE RIOT ACT, published during his “underground” years, that for me stands as Stephen Romano’s crowning achievement (alongside SHOCK FESTIVAL, another of Romano’s pre-RESURRECTION EXPRESS efforts).

     THE RIOT ACT is, quite simply, one of the toughest, meanest and least forgiving short story collections you’ll ever read. There’s gore a’plenty on display here, as well as madness, freakishness and despair of the most profound sort. Of course, what really gives these stories--most of them related in the first person--their punch is the ring of direct experience that suffuses each. There’s a very real and very personal sense of anger and dissatisfaction, made clear by the minutely described white trash Texas locales nearly all the stories share (the author’s hometown is Austin, TX), as well as the uniformity of the calamities that befall so many of the protagonists (quite a few of whom are haunted by the untimely deaths of their mothers--as was Romano himself).

     Yes, these 21 stories are all quite similar in terms of theme, setting and worldview, more often than not eschewing the supernatural in favor of the real-life horrors of loneliness and rage. Indeed, quite a few of them can more accurately be classified as dark crime fiction rather than horror, particularly “Four Dead Guys in Ziker Park,” about the bleak existence of a remorseless Native American mob enforcer, “Cheap Stuffing,” in which a serial killer decides to carry out a political assassination with apocalyptic results, and “Shallow the Hard Way,” about the nasty fate met by a sociopathic criminal for hire.

     Thwarted love is another common theme. See “You’re only Pretty,” “Mayhem Rules the World,” “Secret File Hollywood” (in which we’re introduced to the deranged filmmaker Darby Silver, who’d go on to play a big part in SHOCK FESTIVAL), “Crazy Like Stacy,” “Accepted Here” and “Love Letter to Auntie Faye,” all of which prove that in the world of this book it’s a VERY bad idea to cheat on/string along/ignore one’s lover. Another, more eccentric concern is with inverted superheroes of the type we meet in “Hey Stupid” and “Wabbit Season,” which, as you might guess, are a far cry from the sanitized likes of Superman or Captain America. There’s even some B-movie fun to be had in the novella-length final entry “Ratboy and Dogbreath,” in which MAD MAX-like apocalyptic action and mutant parasites vie with the real world malaise infecting most of the rest of these tales.

     Why would anyone want to read such bleak and morose stuff? I’m guessing many of you won’t, but for those of us who like our fiction wild and untamed yet unsparingly truthful, THE RIOT ACT is ideal reading, a literary kick in balls you’ll never forget.

     

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