Friday, 20 May 2016

Review - American Nocturne by Hank Schwaeble

One of the greatest pleasures I have as a reader and reviewer is when I discover someone new. Someone whose work not only whittles its way into my head, but also lays eggs and starts to take over my brain. 

You don't often come across writers like that. But, after finishing American Nocturne, I can safely say this. Schwaeble is the real deal... and American Nocturne is one of the most impressive collections of dark fiction I've read in years. 

I have to admit that I was initially hesitant to read this collection. My hectic reading schedule aside, I had never come across Schwaeble's work before, and I wasn't sure if it was going to be for me. How very wrong I was. After five pages I was intrigued. After ten pages I was hooked. The opening story "American Nocturne" floored me with its dark and smokey tones, and left me yearning for more immediately. 

Yes... yearning. 

What followed was a hell of an adventure that took me to a myriad of dark and weird places that I never imagined could be tapped by a storyteller. But damn, Schwaeble taps them. From a high class call girl talked into a very unusual liaison ("Bone Daddy") through to an underworld figure utilising a very effective way of making his enemies disappear without a trace ("Mugwumps"), Schwaeble stunned and enthralled me with his unique exploration of dark ideas and tones in this collection. My mouth literally hit the floor when I got my head around some of the concepts and themes that Schwaeble was playing with in his stories. Within American Nocturne you will find reinterpretations of old legends ("Gomorrah"), a new take on a serial killer ("Midnight Bogey Blues"), academic rivalry over the nature versus nurture debate taken to extreme lengths ("Nurture"), and a blistering take down of the trope of pure hearted characters beating evil ("Phantom Hill"). 

However, what is even more impressive is what Schwaeble is actually able to achieve within the short story format. Each tale in this collection is written with an expert hand, and each unfolds wonderfully  well with all the thrills and spills you'd expect from someone who clearly delights at writing short form fiction. The depth that Schwaeble is also able to convey with each story is astounding. The characters are all layered, sympathetic, and fascinating in each and every tale, and the pacing and execution unencumbered no matter what the genre or time period. 

And fuck me... the twists! 

I could literally write an entire doctoral thesis on Schwaeble's ability to turn a story on its head with just one line. "Cold Service" epitomises this. Starting out with a young woman on the trail of a serial killer, Schwaeble flips the story towards the end and unleashes mind numbing insanity that still has me completely baffled (and also delighted). I re-read this particular story a few times... and it still fries my circuitry when I mull on just what Schwaeble did with it. 

Some readers may find the 'open' nature of Schwaeble's storytelling frustrating (most of the stories in this collection don't have definitive endings), but for me it wasn't an issue. In fact I think that's the point Schwaeble is trying to make. There are no anchor points to latch onto in the worlds of Schwaeble... no certainty in the darkness... just stories that terrify and stay with you for a long time afterwards. 

American Nocturne left me reeling like an overweight amateur boxer taking on Joe Frazier in his prime... and to this day I still find myself staring off into nothingness as my mind ponders the brilliance of Schwaeble's writing and dark storytelling. 

American Nocturne is one of the most impressive collections I have ever read. Exciting, thrilling, and completely enthralling... this collection will claw its way into your soul and refuse to budge.

Highly recommended. 

5 out of 5 stars. 

You can find out more (including purchase details) about American Nocturne here

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