As I mentioned in an earlier column, after I had criticized the state of new publisher Evileye Books’ website, they responded by sending me a box of their titles. I figured I owed them a review for that, so I picked out — pretty much at random — Orrin Grey’s collection Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings. I was familiar with Grey’s name, but had never read anything by him. What followed was one of the most pleasant unexpected surprises that I’ve had in a while.
Never Bet the Devil contains nine stories (two of which are debuting here) and a novella. The tales are consistently fast-paced, frequently feature plots and milieus refreshingly far from the norm, and display evidence of Grey’s obvious, genuine enthusiasm for his subject matter. For example, in “Nearly Human,” the biographer of the scandalous, purported devil-worshipper Dr. Edward Tate is invited by Tate’s surviving family to investigate what seems to be a poltergeist haunting his former house. What the biographer discovers is decidedly unexpected (as is fortunately the case with most of the stories here); call this one a nicely-updated pulp thriller. A novel approach can also be found in “The Barghest,” wherein some highly unusual bones under examination by an archeologist and his assistant yield startling results. It’s ultimately a riff on a popular trope, but that fact is kept well-cloaked until the end. The true essence of oil– i.e., the stuff of which it’s made — is explored in “Black Hill,” as an oil company owner comes face-to-face with an evil that dwells below the wells.
“The Seventh Picture” is sort of a fiction equivalent of the found-footage films that have proven so enduringly popular in the wake of The Blair Witch Project. A film crew making a documentary about deceased producer/director Arnold Zenda and his mysterious, lost final film The King in Yellow stumbles upon much more than they bargained for while shooting in Zenda’s abandoned, fire-damaged mansion. I’m a sucker for stories about lost films (e.g., Joel Lane’s The Witnesses Are Gone and Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images) and this taut piece of terror was the highlight of the collection for me. “Count Brass” features an engaging 2nd-person narrative style, with the protagonist revealing that his jazz-musician grandfather made a deal with the devil (the eponymous “Count Brass”), an arrangement that has repercussions far beyond what the elder anticipated.
Novella “The Mysterious Flame, which closes out the collection, is by far the longest story here, and Grey struggles at times working with the larger canvas. In the end, though, this tale of a golem who clings to the shadows and the strange, seemingly revived-from-the-dead figure who pursues him inexorably pulls in the reader.
I love it when collections include author’s notes for each story, and Never Bet the Devil does so, affording Grey the chance to add some insight into the stories’ genesis and publishing history.
All in all, this debut collection turned out to be one of those all-too-rare serendipitous discoveries of a fresh new talent. There’s nary a dud to be found in these pages, and I heartily recommend that you take a chance on Never Bet the Devil.