I recently reviewed Pete Mesling’s short story collection “Fool’s Fire.” There are 17 stories.
I have tried very hard not to give away the entire plot of any of the 17 stories that Pete Mesling has included in this collection. He has already warned us that he may be moving on to longer work(s), so this may be his last short story collection for a while. There is nothing more annoying than a reviewer who gives away the whole store (especially the ending) in a review. So that will not happen here.
I had never read anything by (or about) Pete Mesling before I was somewhat apprehensive about whether or not Pete’s command of English would be above that of the average horror writer. Not to worry. Pete has excellent command of his mother tongue and seems to have a great handle on spelling, punctuation and grammar. His descriptive passages are good, (although I always want to cut to the chase and get to the plot, so my bad on not wanting to read a great deal of description.)
Here are the pros and cons of Pete’s stories in this collection.
Title – When I wrote three collections of short stories I was told that a unifying device was necessary. After much thought, I ended up with Dante’s “Inferno” and stories that focused on the crimes and sins punishable at each Circle of Hell with the title(s) “Hellfire & Damnation I, II and III.” I have not completely figured out what the “unifying device” is for this collection, if, indeed, there is one. Certainly the settings range far and wide. For me, those set in the USA were superior to the ones that were set in foreign countries.
Dialogue – The one thing I have learned in my writing career (which now spans 65 years) is that dialogue goes a long way towards making the medicine go down smoothly. Pete gets high marks for knowing this. He uses a lot of dialogue in his best stories. I once wrote an entire short story that was 95% dialogue. It also contained a number of oxymorons. I still like it as well as anything I’ve written. Therefore, I liked the stories that were at least 15 pages long and also utilized a great deal of dialogue.
Originality – Some of the stories seemed too derivative, to me, as with the dragon descriptions in “The Wintrose Chronicles.” It is perhaps unfair to Mesling to say this, as I don’t know if his dragon descriptions predate “Game of Thrones.” The cell phone story (“A Dream Come True”) is definitely more unique and original.
Length – I have estimated the length of each story for you. For me, if a story is only a page long, it needs to be expanded. I do realize that flash fiction (which I have also written) often gives you a very good, if brief, story concept. I still think, for a collection, if it’s only one page long, perhaps expand the story. Many of the stories I would like to see drawn out and expanded, a statement that is true of about half of the short stories. The story about the woman donning the wolf skin was just getting started when it ended.
Overall, I liked Pete Meslingg’s writing style. If you are a horror story afficionado, you will, too. You will be able to buy this book on Amazon, and I hope that you do. I tried to leave a review there, and Amazon would not let me.
Pete Mesling’s 17 short stories, gathered under the title “Fool’s Fire” are briefly described below:
“Impostor Syndrome” – Tries for a “monster takes over human” twist that reminded me of Stephen King’s “Desperation”—(probably because I had just read that large novel.) This one is roughly 20 pages long, so it is more the length that you normally associate with a short story. Giving you any more details would potentially ruin the story.
“The Private Ambitions of Arthur Hemming” – Has a Dr. Frankenstein vibe; is set in Teufelsgarten. It ultimately seems to be more a story about obtaining the belongings of others through nefarious means than of the experiments depicted in “Bride of Frankenstein” or “Frankenstein.” The descriptions do remind of those old James Whale black-and-white movies. The story is approximately 20 pages long.
“A Dream Come True” – This 8-page story is one of my personal favorites. It is not set in a gloomy castle in Germany or a hilltop abbey, but is more modern. It deals with visions on one’s cell phone that seem to have created what is referenced as “a dream plague” for the cell phone’s owner. The method of ridding the cell phone’s owner of disturbing dreams may not seem fair or practical, but the story—set in present-day surroundings—is original.
“His Blade So Keen” – Pain implants, individuals with blades, and blood and gore, all in 8 pages.
“The Thing in the Road” – This story reminded me of a film out now called “The Forgiven” (Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain). It’s a very short 3-page story. It summons the idea of what one would do if, while driving, you hit something or someone in the road.
“The Dragon’s Tooth” – Examines the idea of a film featuring an actor who may (or may not) be dead, even though he is appearing as the lead in a movie. The actor is Emil Jannings appearing in a Fritz Lang film. I’ve been a movie buff forever, reviewing them since 1970, but this Austrian star of yesteryear is too far back, historically, for me to appreciate the references. The concept is good; maybe update it to someone who has been heard of in the last half century.
“The Chance of a Lifetime” – Very short. There’s a hanging victim and an examination of what happens when one shuffles off this mortal coil.
“Caught in a Trap” – Runs on for roughly 40 pages, examining the “special powers” of a girl named Susan Evans who goes for acupuncture but ends up being contacted by another individual with “special powers” who urges her to come meet him in Indianapolis. I liked this one. The ending is very open-ended, making one think that there will be other chapters in the story. Susan Evans is invited to meet a man named Jacob Kettering with powers similar to her own. For me, the more “modern” settings of stories worked better than those set in Austria or Germany or other exotic spots.
“Chandu’s Bargain with the Too-Tall Man” – At the top of the first page (of 9) it says, “The vicinity of Bagdi-Kalera, a Small Fishing Village Near the Southwest Coast of India.” This already spells trouble (for me). What if a plant (called Sweet Bright) could cause a town famous for twin births to, instead, start the women of the town on a trajectory of having (at first) triplets and, later, giving birth to veritable litters of children? Would this be a good thing for the town or a bad thing for the town? Read this story and find out. An original story concept. (It would be fun to see this analyzed in terms of the recent Roe v. Wade reversal in this country and how such a drug might influence U.S. society.)
“The Wintrose Chronicles” – This one also had an exotic setting, Wintrose Abbey. I found it slow going, although I was happy to see it had a lot of dialogue. The imagery of dragons, to me, suggested too much time spent viewing “Game of Thrones” or its prequel, “House of Dragons.” There are monks and an abbey and an attempt to corral the head dragon and imprison it, which, according to the story, will have the effect of driving all the other dragons away. The dragon is caught, but things do not go as planned. This story did not have as much dialogue as some of the others.
This story had much more description, both of the dragons and of the abbey. One of the good things the author has done, in many stories, is to employ a great deal of dialogue to carry the reader along. Having written 3 of these collections, myself, I can attest to the wisdom of that choice. But, unfortunately, in telling the story of the abbey and the dragons, there is not enough dialogue to carry the reader along smoothly. This is not necessarily a failing of the author’s, as I read a Joyce Carol Oates short story that had so much description of a bicycle leaning against a wall that I nearly passed out from boredom before it got to the really good stuff, i.e., the plot.This one ran 43 pages.
“Gypsum and Me” – This story literally ran a page and a half. A dog falls down a well. Its master falls down the well, too. Not much more going on here.
“The Singular Talent of Nisqually Joe”– Tracee, an aspiring artist, has an indefinable “je ne sais quoi” added to her paintings by an earthquake. Her agent wants her to duplicate the improvement that the earthquake has made in her work, so she seeks out a man who has the ability to make things shake (Joe Nisqually). It goes well for a while, but Tracee’s relationship with Joe leads to her downfall. The story runs about 15 pages.
“An Occurrence at Kendrick Outdoors” – This one runs 7 pages. It involves a shooting. Enough said.
“The Night of the Wolf” – If it is true that clothes make the man—or woman—a wolf skin thrown across the female protagonist’s shoulders renders her, in one and one-half pages, a survivor of a wolf attack about to take revenge. Genevieve Ripley has only to put on the stitched pelt and she will become invincible. The spirit of Hobbamock sang to Genevieve in a dream. In Wampanoag and Narragansett traditions, Hobomock was the Manito (spirit) of death– a destructive, often evil being usually in opposition to Kautantowit. That is for those of you who would, otherwise, have no idea of the significance of this “singing” to Genevieve. This story runs 2 pages; it is really only the start of a good story.
“A Mild Recognition of Impermanence” – Barney and Brenda are married. Brenda is a bit of a shrew. Barney is hired to tear down a whipping post that existed out East. When he touches the cursed object, he is transported to the days of old when the whipping post served as the location of beatings administered to Black slaves. By the end of the story, Barney has, apparently, decided he is going to leave Brenda because “life is filled with options.” It would appear that leaving Brenda is a definite option, although he is picking up the McDonald’s meal she requested as he thinks this.
In some ways this story reminded me of one of my own about a hen-pecked husband who, more-or-less Stepford Wives style, tried to make a robot to replace his bitchy wife. I would say that planning to “send her a letter in a few days” does not seem the classiest way to break up a marriage of long standing. It reminded me of Carrie on “Sex and the City” when Ron Livingston broke up with her using a post-it note. Not cool.
“A Pressing Concern” – This one is only a page and a half long, which makes me wonder if it was written for a flash fiction competition. As nearly as I can tell, the protagonist is crushing his own skull in a press, little by little.
“Guardians of the Lazyrinth” – A childless woman knits herself a son. There is also a real boy named Julian DeNeuve, who is bicycling to A Ta Facon on his Red Hornet bicycle to get his father cigarettes and to purchase gum for himself.