On a Dark Lonely Highway
Take a familiar trip down desolation lane in this new short story collection from dark fiction writer, Scott J. Moses.
Review by Rob Carroll, Dark Matter Magazine Editor-in-Chief
October 31, 2020
The stories are immediately recognizable: a cursed bloodline; a Faustian bargain; a mysterious hitchhiker.
The characters, too, evoke familiarity: a grieving lawman; a haunted widower; a traveling exorcist.
And the settings are a reminder of dark fiction’s love of all things bleak and isolated: a remote highway at night; an empty hospital waiting room; the graveyard shift at a 24-hour roadside diner.
But none of this is to say that the familiarity is a bad thing. In fact, taking dependable story trappings and molding them into something new is what author Scott J. Moses does so well in his new short story collection, Hunger Pangs.
The book contains thirteen dark tales that rarely break from the classic horror motif, although a few stories do stray a bit from the commonality of the others—for example, the story of a father’s attempt to make sense of the random cruelty inherent in life actually reads more like an essay on grief and it’s gateway into existential crisis rather than an intentionally paced horror story with introduction, setup, and payoff. But even so, it doesn’t feel at odds with the others. It just serves as a slight change of pace.
The stories in Hunger Pangs span different decades, but they feel most at home when set in the American 50’s and 60’s, and I feel like this is where Moses feels most at home, too. He is obviously influenced to some degree by the southern gothic and noir movements, and what better way to pay tribute to those influences than by going back to the mid-twentieth century, before technology felled the walls between us and gave birth to a world bereft of the same sort of mystery that preceded it. Back to a time when the human experience was smaller, more immediate, and for purposes of good narrative function, much more claustrophobic and inescapable should the wrong set of cards be dealt.
Also making good on the southern gothic and noir influences is Moses’s writing style, which is stark, masculine, and economical. Don’t expect playful turns of phrase. The worlds created by Moses are flat and distant and fighting against warmth. Interiors are lit by cheap fluorescence or dying candlelight. Exteriors often have no light at all. Only the dim headlights of a car, or the glow of a solitary street lamp, or maybe the glint of the moon trapped in a dirty puddle. The seasons are bitter, the weather is either too wet or too humid or too cold, and vision is obfuscated by winds, rains, or snowfall. Nature creeps back into the land, but only as a solitary predator—a wolf, or maybe a coyote. The dangers are both real and contained wholly in the mind.
There is at least one story that veers from modern gothic and into the realm of Victorian horror, and it’s a welcome detour. Once again, nothing about the story completely breaks the mold, but that’s not the point. The rooms may look the same, but the ghosts that haunt them are new.