Bitternest Chronicles, The (Book)
Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Written by Alan Draven
Published by Pixie Dust Press
Short story collections are tricky things. Some authors, like Stephen King, spend their entire careers hopping from one collection to another with novels spread between them. Others are like Alan Draven. As he says in his introduction, he considers himself retired from short story writing, saying they're a necessary evil at the beginning of one's career to attain readership and get your work out there. The Bitternest Chronicles represents a swan song for him, one final collection of short stories and two novellas.
Draven also points out in that introduction that he is a big fan of themed short story collections. I agree with him on that one. Short story collections are indeed tricky because they often wind up being terribly uneven, jumping from style to style too quickly to fully engage a reader.
I'm here to tell you that Draven's farewell to the form is a strong one and an excellent herald of superior long-form fiction to come.
The stories in The Bitternest Chronicles are all themed around the town featured in his last novel, Bitternest (review here). While none of the stories in this collection is a direct sequel to that novel, some characters, locales, and themes do show up for those familiar with it. However, reading it is absolutely not necessary to enjoy the collection. In fact, I haven't read it, and I had no trouble keeping pace.
Draven notes in the introduction that he greatly prefers longer forms of fiction to short stories, and it shows. With one or two exceptions the shorter the story in this collection, the weaker it is. None of the stories is bad, but a few suffer from all the ills of short stories: lack of development, just not enough time and space to fully tell the story.
The collection kicks off with "Breaking and Entering", a short but tidy tale describing a criminal with a peculiar MO who is one-upped by one of his potential victims. This story is really the exception to the rule here of shorter stories being weaker. The tale is clever and fun.
It's followed by the weakest link in the book: "The Bypassed Mind". It borrows heavily thematically from the tale that inspired the Christopher Reeve film Somewhere in Time. Draven admits as much in his intro, in fact, however, unlike that tale, this one simply doesn't give us enough background on what's going on. There is time traveling in an old hotel, sure, but the mechanism is never explained properly; and when all is said and done, the reader is left wondering the point of the journey.
We're brought back to speed by "Cellar Door", one of the two novellas in the book. Featuring locations and characters from Bitternest, this novella shows how far Draven has come as a writer since some of these early forays into short stories. An engaging and original story of a ghost and her attempts to find justice, "Cellar Door" winds through the supernatural underground that permeates the city of Bitternest and takes us on a thrilling journey to a surprising conclusion.
"Hershell's Motel" is a pleasant diversion that reminds me of a Tales from the Darkside episode both in depth and quality. Fun, if a little short and obvious.
"The Errand" is another extremely short entry, and again, it suffers in quality compared to the longer pieces. While it does succeed in evoking some bittersweet emotion, the story of a short errand through the woods gone wrong is missing the key element of an explanation for just what's out there in those woods and why they'd want to disturb our hero on his way. Again, it's not a bad story, but it does suffer from Short Story-itis.
"The Chilling Hour" is the strongest short story in the book. Original, imaginative, and intense, it takes a new character and the reader on a thrill ride through the city, leading to an unexpected climax. Introducing a new creature with terrifying abilities, called the Dark Emissaries, it's a tale of powerful dark forces...and the equally powerful forces inhabiting Bitternest that stand against their goal of terror and conquest.
"The Chilling Hour" leads directly into the final novella and final story in the collection, "The Dark Emissaries". This is where Draven pulls it all together and shows what he can do in the longer story form. Featuring a number of characters from Bitternest and earlier tales in this book, he draws both this and the previous work together into a single key moment in time that leaves you wanting more.
Some time after the near apocalypse chronicled in Bitternest, Harmony Evans has returned to the city to mourn a fallen friend and find out what happened to him. Doing so brings her and another major player from the previous novel up against the creatures from "The Chilling Hour". Teaming up with other players from this book and the last, Harmony has to summon great power within herself as they discover that the emissaries live up to their name and are actually the heralds of a much more dangerous evil rising in the constant fog of Bitternest.
This final story really raises the rest of this collection up in quality and enjoyment. Even stories such as "A Bypassed Mind" are made more interesting, if only because several elements from it show up in "The Dark Emissaries". You start seeing how he's woven almost every tale from the collection into this, and when it's done, you see how he's created a launching pad for his future work. The story does have a finale, a solid ending, but it's also clearly a setup for future work.
And I, for one, look forward to that work. The Bitternest Chronicles is a fun read that tells me we have only good things coming in the future from Alan Draven.
3 1/2 out of 5
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