Among other laudatory remarks, the cover copy for J.R. Hamantaschen’s collection You Shall Never Know Security states, “These are stories that, in the finest tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Dennis Etchison, and T.E.D. Klein, articulate what you’ve always suspected: that life is a losing proposition.” As any reader of this blog should know, the authors cited are some of horror’s most accomplished short-fiction practitioners, making for a quite a lofty comparison to a writer whose biggest publishing credit to date is probably The Harrow online magazine. So, is Hamantaschen equal to the association? Well, there are undeniable signs of significant talent to be found in these stories, but more often than not they’re hamstrung by some unfortunate failings, which I will elaborate on below.
Issued by new publisher West Pigeon Press, You Shall Never Know Security contains 13 stories, including five originals. The lead story, “A Lower Power,” provides good examples of both the positives and negatives to be found in Hamantaschen’s work. The plot is engaging — focusing on the narrator’s significant other, who has a rather dark secret that he unintentionally reveals during a middle-of-the-night transformation — there is some genuine frisson generated, and there are some memorable phrasings, such as: “First thing you’d notice about him: his hair is like a choreographed fight scene.” On the other hand, there are a few self-indulgent passages that fairly shout “Look Ma, don’t I write pretty?” and this is just the first of many stories to show how the author struggles to craft solid endings.
In “Come in, Distraction,” the mundane tale of a blasé pick-up artists and his latest conquest reveals a far more interesting story through casual comments and background details — namely, an unexplained wave of mass madness and murder that swept through England before the country was essentially vaporized to prevent the contagion from potentially spreading. In addition to the rage and insanity, the infected were also marked by a bizarre lengthening of their arms, as the protagonist reflects:
“He extended his arm, wondered what it would be like if it extended another thirty-feet, coiled up and folding upon itself like fancy drapes, claws dancing over her face.”
“Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” utilizes an interesting narrative technique, relating the story of a murder by way of a district court’s written response to a legal motion, although the approach falters when attempts are made to inject some drama into the drabness of the legalese. Hamantaschen frequently employs a theme of strangeness and horror just beneath the surface, and that features strongly in “There is a Family of Gnomes Behind My Walls, And I Swear I Won’t Disappoint Them Any Longer,” wherein the protagonist’s new roommate reveals that a book of arcane wisdom has led him to determine that behind the wall of their loft apartment lies a trigger of sorts, a means to elicit a reaction from forces beyond our world. The story’s painfully verbose title brings to mind the fact that, in many cases, the titles seem to be odd choices at best.
The closing novella “There Must Be Lights Burning Brighter, Somewhere” truly captures both the highs and lows of Hamantaschen. Related in a sophisticated style with interwoven flashbacks, it features an engaging premise, with main character Alex haunted by memories of an incident three years earlier, when a sudden invasion of a bar by otherworldly creatures forced him and two others to cower in a backroom closet in hopes of surviving the onslaught. Alex and Gabriel indeed survived the incident, but their closet companion Victoria did not, and it’s the details of her demise the plague Alex still. The story is unfortunately too drawn-out in places — like many tales here, it would have benefited from some judicious editing — and there’s some strangely laid-back dialog between the characters trapped in the closet that serves to sever the suspension of disbelief.
All in all, there’s too much of a sense of self-indulgence and seeming pretentiousness running throughout this collection for me to feel comfortable recommending it. Perhaps I’m being too mindful of the cover-copy author comparisons I mentioned earlier, and perhaps I’m being too hard on Hamantaschen, but I can’t shake the feeling that he won’t begin to approach his substantial potential as an author without a strong editor and some badly-needed maturity.