Monday, September 28, 2015

In the Blink of a Wicked Eye (Timothy C. Hobbs)

The inherent difficulty with publishing a collection of 37 horror stories ranging from short to very short is that no one has that many ideas, and the author's bag of tricks is likely to be depleted all too fast. I regret to say that proves to be the case with Timothy C. Hobbs' handsome volume In the Blink of a Wicked Eye.

Let me put a couple of admissions out of the way. Although I am a great fan of good horror movies, I have never been much of a reader of horror fiction beyond some of the acknowledged classics such as Dracula. Although the aesthetic of horror interests me - Stephen King's non-fiction study Danse Macabre is a classic on that theme - the execution on the page often fails to excite me.

Also, when I picked up this book I was primed for surprising short stories - by the author himself, who referred to The Twilight Zone in his review request. Well, there he was hitting one of my buttons, because I yield to none in my admiration of what Rod Serling and his collaborators achieved in that groundbreaking series. Even the weaker episodes are pretty darn good in the larger scheme of things.

Although many of the best-remembered Twilight Zone episodes do depend on a final twist, it was by no means just a Surprise-of-the-Week show. Sheer mood counted for an enormous amount.

However, there is no denying that the series did surprises very well - and like the best movies that have employed a trick ending, in the process The Twilight Zone destroyed plenty of the potential ones, forevermore. There are only so many possible tricks, and fans and aficionados know better than ordinary viewers and readers what they are and how they are set up. Popular narratives, alas, do not offer endless possibilities, and even less so when the subjects of stories are already embedded in the popular consciousness.

All the best-known horror tropes and characters - vampires, zombies, serial killers, and so on - are badly overexposed. Good luck trying to surprise anyone in any of those sub-genres nowadays.


This is what Hobbs runs up against with his stories - that, and the fact that his particular style and manner of resolving situations becomes familiar to the reader quickly. The tales are not bad (although I could have lived without the couple of Nazisploitation items). But the reader all too rapidly discerns that:

  • The stories will end horribly.
  • If the protagonist can be consumed in some way, hey, it's going to happen.
  • Biology is ugly, man. 
  • Even if it's Halloween night, if it LOOKS like a vampire or a killer clown or whatever - it is, it definitely is!
  • If the house looks haunted, it is. If the old couple seems creepy, they are. If the container warns you not to open it, don't open it. And so on...
Notice that, once you have become used to the patterns, these denouements are not surprises, they are anti-surprises.

Stephen King divides horror into suggestive terror, visible horror, and the gross-out. Because the stories in Wicked Eye are so short, Hobbs winds up cutting to the icky chase fairly quickly in most instances. This is E.C. Comics territory much more than it is Twilight Zone territory, and I can feel Hobbs going more than once for the bravura theatricality and sick humor of The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Tales from the Crypt. I respect that ambition, but it is a hard target to hit, and there is a quality built into the horror comics genre that enables it to be hit more readily (also, the E.C. team was wicked talented).

If we take a look at this relatively tame Vault of Horror cover, we see that it memorably captures so many of Hobbs' favored themes - a holiday setting, an undermining of family relationships and cheerful surfaces - in a way that hits you right in the eye. Hobbs never really gets that close to that kind of impact.


I like Hobbs' work better when it mines the melancholy, as in the understated and affecting dystopian story "Dissolution." Even though dystopias are a dime a dozen these days, this story might stand expansion into a longer form. The futuristic hired killer story "Moondance" and the brief science fiction sketch "Emissaries" also push against the boundaries of their length and stand out simply because they veer off the template of the overall collection.

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