What's so remarkable about the stories contained within Staring Into the Abyss is not that they're often so short, but that they often work so well. Word count and issues of quantity aside, the shorter a piece is, the harder it often is to imbue it with any sort of quality. Fortunately, Richard Thomas knows precisely what he is trying to convey with each piece, and he does so without so much as a wasted word. I know it's a bit of a cliché, but what he's written here is really quite poetic.
The collection begins with a trio of tales that really serve to set both the stage, and our expectations. 'Maker of Flight' is a tale of dreams, freedom, and subtle acts of rebellion; 'Steel-Toed Boots' is about fears, secrets, and the need to understand; and 'Freedom' is a tale of sorrow, loss, and the cathartic release of artificial solace. In those three tale we see the darkest, the saddest, and the loneliest aspects of the human condition, with the emotions laid bare for us to taste.
Deeper into the collection, 'Splintered' is a fantastic sort of choose-your-own-adventure tale that forces us to assume responsibility for the protagonist's self-esteem; 'Fringe' is an ironic sort of tale that explores both sides of the coin that some call suspicion, and others call vigilance; 'Underground Wonder Bound' is an almost light-hearted tale of a withering relationship, complete with a twist ending; 'Interview' is an eerily banal tale of murderous plans couched in casually creepy conversation; 'Stephen King Ate My Brain' is a surprisingly straightforward tale of claiming your dreams, only to find they're too much for you to handle; and 'Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears' is a perfect tale of adolescent fear, shame, and bravery in the face of abuse.
Of the rest, some stories didn't quite work for me, with a few just too much tease, and not enough satisfaction. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't call out 'Victimized' as the standout entry in the collection. It's a dark and violent tale that explores the cycle of abuse, the hatred it breeds, and the difficulty involved in breaking that cycle . . . along with the responsibility that follows. It's almost post-apocalyptic in its idea of social justice the criminals among us, and could very well be considered a revenge fantasy, were it not for the consequences.
These are dark stories, full of dark themes, that feed of dark emotions. They're sad and they're painful, but they're also a part of the human condition. The magic here is that, no matter how short the story, Thomas manages to make us care for - and often sympathize with - the characters, even if only for a brief moment. There is a lot of suffering in these stories, the kind that drags people down, detaches them from reality, and leaves them with nothing to do but lie there, Staring Into the Abyss. There are no easy escapes in Thomas' tales but there are a few happy endings, claimed by those who are strong enough to stare beyond the abyss, to create their own light on the other side, and to march (or crawl) fearlessly towards it.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins