Book Review: “Fear Itself” by James K. Moran
The Heinz 57 of Horror
If Stephen King once described himself as the Big Mac and fries of American literature, then I think it would be safe to say that you could maybe call Canadian horror author James K. Moran the Tim Hortons’ everything bagel and Quebecois poutine of horror fiction (even if he’s not particularly French). This is especially after reading his new short story collection Fear Itself. You truly do get a little bit of everything, from the serious and the sublime right down to the silly and schlocky. Whether or not that’s something you should enjoy is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, especially since Moran can combine all these elements in the same short story. There’s a reason why Moran can be a little all over the map in the same written piece and there is a very good one. If I can give full disclosure, I can say that Moran is a good friend of mine, though that friendship has been slipping into the acquaintance category during these pandemic times. (I do need to try calling him one of these days, but I can safely say that I send him and his lovely wife, Anita Dolman, who is a talented writer in her own right, a Christmas card every year. In any event, I feel that I should flag any personal bias — after all, I’m going to try not to say anything that would offend any of my friends.) But because I’m on good terms with Moran, I can also share a personal anecdote about him unknown to most others reading this collection — put out by a small American press — that perhaps explains why Fear Itself is the way it is.
About two decades ago, I used to hang out with Moran and an assorted number of his friends. We would frequently get together and watch horror movies at another friend’s apartment just across the street from where I’m now living. While I think I got turfed from the group because I was a bit of an immature jerk with how I treated some of these people, particularly one woman, I did get a chance to see Moran in his element. James loves all kinds of horror movies. It doesn’t matter if it’s a top-shelf classic like the original Halloween from 1978, or some forgotten bottom-of-the-barrel rushed-directly-to video flick that is cheesy and so bad that it’s terrible. Everything is in the mix for him. He is such a horror film connoisseur that he can successfully argue with you why the original 1980 version of the first Friday the 13th movie has dated and isn’t the standard bearer for slasher flicks that it is generally considered to be. It’s this passion for interacting with horror as a genre that shines through in Fear Itself, so you do encounter a book that is a Heinz 57 of all of the things that go into horror’s makeup and DNA.
Fear Itself does mark a newfound maturity in Moran’s writing — even though some of these stories date back 15, 20, or 25 years now. Without sounding churlish or uncharitable, I found that Moran’s debut novel, Town & Train, featured strong characters who inhabited the queer community rainbow but fell apart towards the end. (It showed the hallmarks, in many ways, of a first novel — which are incredibly difficult things to write and act in many ways as learning experiences over anything else.) I think, looking back, the reason why that novel did falter a bit was that Moran was trying too hard to emulate one of his literary heroes, Ray Bradbury, rather than be himself. Well, the very best stories of Fear Itself show Moran taking strides to be James K. Moran as opposed to anyone else, and the change is startling. And so we get a delightful story about a young couple dealing with a baby monitor that is possessed, another story about a Canadian woman living in London who is haunted by a ghost from her past, and a great story about a young man attending an unusual job interview that, I understand, was nominated for a prestigious Canadian writing award (what is colloquially known as the Journey Prize). There just might be a little for something here for everyone, even if you have your own preference as to what a good horror story should do.
Does that mean Fear Itself is perfect? No. There are still signs of growing pains as Moran doesn’t quite pull off mixing Grade Z schlock with serious horror. For one thing, and I don’t want to tick anyone off here, the odd sentence is a clanger, which means — and I realize I’m getting prescriptive as well, which is kind of a book reviewing no-no usually — Moran could avail himself of having stronger editors who are unafraid to kick him in the butt a little more. (I noticed the following redundant sentence in one story: “The parka-wearing man in the parka stood at the end of the driveway.”) I don’t say that to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially since even many of the weaker tales all show a hint of potential. I do think Moran has been working towards being a stronger wordsmith as I know that he has been polishing a draft of a second novel that seems to be taking forever; perhaps that novel will be the thing that showcases Moran as a writer of superlative horror featuring remarkable queer characters that are unequal to anyone else.
Still, for now, Fear Itself is not bad (even when it is borrowing liberally from the campy side of horror books and films). Horror is such a maligned genre because it is so hard to do well — aside from various Stephen King novels, the only book or story that has scared my pants off that I can recall is Richard Matheson’s “Prey.” So, there’s not a lot of truly scary stuff out there, especially on the printed page. This all means we should consider Moran to be a truly fearless writer who is reaching beyond his talents and who also does the laudable thing by using Canadian settings (particularly around his hometown of Cornwall and Eastern Ontario in general). Fear Itself is an acquired taste, but if you love horror as much as Moran does, you’re in for a real (trick or) treat: a smorgasbord of true made-in-Canada talent. Don’t be afraid to dig into this delightful literary concoction. You might be surprised by how much you like certain individual pieces depending on your mileage. And, if you love horror as Moran does, you’re bound to enjoy any and all of the 10 stories presented here.
James K. Moran’s Fear Itself was published by Lethe Press on December 11, 2022.
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