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Death Drives a Semi, Edo van Belkom, Quarry, 1998, 263 pp.
The stories in Death Drives a Semi are impeccably written in a fluid, muscular style of prose. Van Belkom writes with verve and no small amount of ambition -- indeed, he has a great deal to be proud of in this collection. The comparisons to Stephen King are apt, except that van Belkom's writing is not quite so sloppy and he doesn't pile on the pop culture references to the point of excess. Shock follows shock with a kind of acerbic naturalness that brings us along, not quite so willy-nilly, into the realm of darkness and despair. About my only complaint would be the shortness of each piece -- setup, conflict, and denouement all take place in swift succession, often in the space of ten pages. With such a pared down structure, van Belkom generally does the wise thing and sticks to one single revelation or twist. Yes, they are one-note stories, but impeccably done.
The opening story in the collection, "The Rug," is a good example of a type of narrative that van Belkom favours. Edna Dowell lives on her own despite her advanced age, and she discovers that this throw rug she has found will, for lack of a better word, digest anything left under it. The more it digests, the more it wants. After devouring her pesky landlord and a pesky cop, it has gotten so frisky Edna doesn't want to go downstairs. The closing lines of the story: "She pondered her situation well into the evening and was finally struck by a thought, a way to satisfy both hungers -- hers and well as the rug's. She picked up the phone. And ordered a pizza" (32). A number of other stories in Death Drives a Semi have this same sort of ending -- like the edgy and fascinating "Lip-O-Suction" -- where the shock of the ending lies mainly in evil's survival or triumph.
However, the majority of the pieces in Death Drives a Semi reinforce the truism that horror is the most moralistic of genres. In story after story, the main theme is that you get what you deserve. "The Cold" is about a man who runs a fur store, never thinking about what it would be like to be skinned alive. "Roadkill" is the second zombie story in the collection (after "But Somebody's Got To Do It," which I'll discuss in a minute), and it might have the motto, those who live by their speeding cars will die by their speeding cars. "Baseball Memories" is about a man who ignores family and most other responsibilities in order to be the best at baseball trivia. But the human mind can only hold so much information, and what happens when the brain is full? One of the best stories in Death Drives a Semi is "Ice Bridge" which has no fantastical elements at all. Instead, it's a character study of a man named Rick Hartwick, and his attempt to make more money than the other log-truck drivers. Greed goes before the fall, and Rick should have known better than to think the laws of the universe would bend for him.
After such finely written psychological fare, it's also important to point out that van Belkom subscribes to Stephen King's adage about what to do if terror and horror (a descending order of worth in King's scheme) are not working: go for the complete gross-out. A good example would be the zombie story, "But Somebody's Got To Do It." The unnamed narrator does have a rotten job -- burning corpses in a crematorium -- but it's necessary in order to prevent the corpses' transformation into zombies. Written in first person, the story brings us along on an uncomfortable (then completely disgusting) journey as the narrator tells about being bitten by a zombie, then his eventual transformation into a zombie himself. And where would be the best place to find the human flesh that zombies crave? The crematorium, of course.
Another story in the same vein as "But Somebody's Got To Do It" is the famous "Rat Food," written with Dave Nickle, and winner of the Bram Stoker Award. For some of the effect of this story, just think of the typical scene in a horror movie (or an Indiana Jones movie for that matter) where the rats come pouring out of a crevice or sewer pipe. Then add an older lady who is trying to live out her last years in her own home, and is starting to hallucinate. Don't read this story before you eat a meal, while you are eating, or too soon after eating.
Last modified: January 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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