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  TOYBOX
By AL SARRANTONIO (Leisure; 1999/2003)

This was the first short story collection by Al Sarrantonio. Be advised that the book isn’t as strong as the overly ejaculatory blurbs by Joe Lansdale and others--“Incomparable horror fiction,” “Each and every one a gem”--might have you believe, but it is a strong collection overall, memorably showcasing its author’s talent for visceral, stripped-down prose.

     What this book doesn’t showcase is much of a range, as most of the stories follow the same narrative template. That template is set in the wraparound story, about a bored girl lured into a hallucinogenic toyshop by a malevolent clown. Similar children-lured-into-horrific-territory concepts abound in TOYBOX, whose tales, in another Sarrantonio trademark, are often set on Halloween.

     That’s the situation in the opening story “Pumpkin Head,” about a creepy little girl harboring a nasty secret, and “The Man with Legs,” about a brother and sister visiting a man they believe to be their long lost father, and uncovering a dark secret. See also “The Spook Man,” about four children who unwisely pay a visit to the titular individual, the Christmas-set “Wish,” in which a kid’s wish that it be Christmas forever comes horrifyingly true, “The Big House,” referring to a haunted abode breached by two overly curious boys, “The Electric Fat Boy,” a personage meant to comfort bullied kids that of course does just the opposite, and “Snow,” about kids caught in a neverending snowfall.

     I don’t mean to say that any of these stories are bad, mind you. All are imminently readable and, despite the overly similar subject matter, quite unpredictable. That’s certainly true of “The Dust,” about a mentally impaired man afflicted by supernaturally endowed dust, and “Father Dear,” concerning a guy looking to kill his hated father with results neither he nor we could have possibly foreseen.

     Then there are the stories that actually approach greatness. The profoundly unnerving “Children of Cain,” is one such story, about a boy forced by a morbid friend to explore his own latent psychosis through animal killings that inevitably escalate into more heinous crimes--hence the story’s opening line: “Tonight I killed my mother in her bed.” The science fiction tinged “Red Eve” is another standout, concerning a future world where school kids learn about the lifespan of the world’s last vampire, and also “Richard’s Head,” a fascinating and deeply odd portrayal of an eccentric genius whose head has some unique properties outside its abnormal intelligence.

     So this book is worthwhile without question. I still believe, however, that Sarrantonio’s talents aren’t entirely done justice by TOYBOX, which despite its virtues never quite reaches its full potential. 

     

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