Richard Thomas’s short story collection Spontaneous Human Combustion was published in February of 2022, but I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy from Turner Publishing several months prior to its release. Richard Thomas was another author I wasn’t all that familiar with, although since he’s had about 150 stories published in various horror anthologies, I’m certain I must have read some of his work at some point. He’s also written several novels and has edited some themed anthologies, most of them centering around transgressive fiction.
Thomas’s style is very amorphous and surreal, with some of the stories dipping into fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, science fiction, and neo-noir. If you’re a fan of Black Mirror, David Lynch, or Philip K. Dick, you’ll probably really enjoy this guy’s stuff as well. This is definitely not for those who like their horror very straightforward and spelled out, however, as a lot of the things that happen in the tales are implied rather than stated concretely, and thus need a careful reading.
Spontaneous Human Combustion collects fourteen short stories that are quite different from one another, but all share similar themes of people trapped in purgatorial loops or desolate landscapes, and people seeking some sort of redemption for past transgressions.
All of the stories are great, but a few in particular stood out as my favorites. The first of these, “Nodus Tollens,” is actually the most “traditional” story in the bunch, giving me pleasantly unsettling Twilight Zone vibes. The setup of the tale is a big, drunken poker game that the protagonist and his buddies hold every Halloween. This particular year, though, a man named Victor shows up to the game, but no one’s quite sure where he came from, because he tells each man in the group that one of the other men brought him.
At the end of the game, Victor and the protagonist are the last ones standing, and our hero loses a ridiculous amount of money and his car on the last bet. Victor, knowing that the guy can’t afford to lose that much, offers to make a bargain. Victor says, you don’t have to give me your car or the money, even though I won them fair and square. Matter of fact, I’ll even give you my car and the money I had on the bet, which was something like $60,000. All I want you to do is take this odd, gold coin and flip it ten times on the first of every month. If you ever get ten heads in a row, then I’m going to ask you to do a favor for me.
I won’t spoil what exactly the favor is, but it’s something pretty unpleasant. Our hero is hesitant to take the deal after he finds out what the favor entails, but he really can’t afford to lose his car or all that money, and he figures, how likely is it that ten heads will come up in a row? As it turns out, more likely than he thought.
Another one of my favorite tales was the last one, a novella called “Ring of Fire.” As I was reading it, I was reminded very strongly of the 2009 film Moon, and I guess that was deliberate, because in the author’s notes in the back of the book, Thomas confirmed that both Moon and the 2018 film Annihilation were inspirations for the story.
In the novella, there’s a man living in a concrete bunker out on the Arctic tundra somewhere. He works at extracting some kind of very valuable mineral, and every day his job entails going to the drill that’s digging up the minerals, collecting the stuff, then weighing it and storing it. The man has nice living quarters in the bunker, but he isn’t allowed to leave, and he hardly sees a single other person, other than a woman named Rebecca who shows up once a month to take his samples and check up on his progress.
As the story goes on, we learn that the man cannot remember how long he’s been on this contract, and aspects of strangeness arise, such as the fact that sometimes he has a pet rabbit and sometimes he doesn’t, and he has some memories that he aren’t sure are his, or if they were just implanted. He and Rebecca seem to strike up a friendship and then a romance (or do they?), but the man begins to feel as though someone is constantly watching him. This was a really creepy, compelling story, probably my second favorite in the book.
Another one that stood out was “From Within,” which seems to be set at some undetermined time in the future, where floating alien overlords appear to have taken over Earth and enslaved the human race to extract more of those precious minerals. The tale revolves around a father whose son comes to the attention of the aliens for some reason; a man arrives to measure the kid, for example, though he won’t say why. This story actually had something of a hopeful ending, but most of the other stories were fairly bleak all the way through.
If you’re a fan of speculative fiction told in sort of dreamlike prose that features elements of cosmic horror, scifi, and noir, then this should be right up your alley.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.