Lesser Demons delivers the American blend of horror quickly becoming synonymous with the name Norman Partridge.
My Rating: 4/5
Pros: Fantastic prose with a distinctive structure that reads smoothly; Stories that recall the pulp adventures of the past while delivering a second layer of commentary; Small town American characters that are recognizable and relatable.
Cons: While good, the majority of the stories share a similar voice and tone; Collection lacks a diverse set of characters; Surreal stories not as strong as the rest of them.
The Review: Norman Partridge is an American Horror writer. By that I don’t mean he was born below Canada and above Mexico; I mean he’s a writer, a damn good one, and when he writes horror, he writes American horror. Cowboys and criminals, lawmen and drifters, soldiers and strangers. Hard edged men forged from US steel who take whatever life gives them without complaint and chase it with shot of straight whiskey. Partridge’s latest collection from the always impressive Subterranean Press is no different, full of characters ripped from the pages of classic westerns and noir mysteries. These men are given hell and more in the 10 stories that comprise Lesser Demons and Other Stories and with the rich prose that appears to be Partridge’s trademark, it’s hard not to enjoy their misery.
His prose reads like a well cooked cut of steak - thick, juicy, and oh so delicious. It’s the kind of meal that you just close your eyes and savor, chewing slowly to enjoy every last bite. This analogy is an apt one as the stories in this collection are best enjoyed in the same way. You wouldn’t try to pack away ten sirloins in one sitting and if you did, you wouldn’t enjoy it as much as if you had taken your time. Many of these stories seem to be built around similar character archetypes and when taken in quick succession, they begin to blend together. The majority of Partridge’s characters are rough souls from rougher backgrounds, often coming to grips with the type of men they are at the same time providing subtle commentary on the genres they typically inhabit.
One particular similarity is the unexplained marginalization of female characters. When they are present, they are more often than not victims or relegated to forgettable background roles. To be fair, Partridge does work in very masculine settings and many of the pulpy stories he emulates here are guilty of the same crime. The stories in Lesser Demons are born from westerns and monster movies, full of violent men and violent acts. To change the characters from the source material they are derived from would be to give up part of their core essence, something that Partridge holds dear based on the standard style of his writing.
Here is an individual look at each of the stories in this collection and the characters within.
Second Chance – 3.5/5 - A dispute over ill-gotten gains turns out to be a bit more complicated than first glance would reveal in Second Chance. Partridge does a great job of drawing the reader in with the first story in Lesser Demons but ultimately leaves a little too much unsaid leaving the final twist somewhat unclear.
The Big Man – 4.5/5 – A local bigshot, a literal giant, and an orphaned boy are the three principal characters in this small town story that some may recognize as an homage to the 50-foot monster stories B-movies of the past.. But which is The Big Man indicated by the title? That question and the amount of emotion Partridge is able to evoke in only a few pages really gave this story an extra layer that I enjoyed.
Lesser Demons – 5/5 – One of the best stories in the collection of the same name, Lesser Demons engenders feelings of I Am Legend mixed with just a touch of Lovecraftian horror. The simple sheriff doesn’t care who or what caused the outbreak of horrible monstrosities plaguing his town, he just does what it takes to survive, one day at a time. Lesser Demons really illustrates Partridges defining qualities; rich, flavorful prose, relatable “small-town American” characters, and a dark predilection for unromanticized violence.
Carrion - 3/5 – A chance meeting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere ends the life of a former soldier and intertwines the destiny of three other unfortunate souls, driving them to a mysterious house in the desert, one whose windows don’t look out on the same world that you left when you entered it. I enjoyed the lawless Western feel of the plot but the surreal nature of the house and the encircling vultures left me a little cold.
The Fourth Stair up from the Second Landing - 3/5 – A bit more subdued that the average tale in this collection, The Fourth Stair is better categorized as psychological horror. The Fourth Stair up from the Second Landing marks a place where lives end and lives begin and it begins to haunt the minds of the mother and son who step over it on a daily basis. While there was nothing to complain about, I simply didn’t enjoy this story the way I did the majority of this collection.
And What Did You See in the World? – 3/5 – This is a strange story and honestly one I couldn’t really wrap my head around. I found the characters and their peculiarities both repulsive and intriguing especially the way Partridge keeps you guessing as to who the crazy one really is. This is one of those stories that are short enough to experiment with something different without wearing out its welcome in a longer format.
Road Dogs – 3.5/5 – If paranormal romance is turning werewolves into little more than lusty Chihuahuas, Partridge has something to say about it. His werewolves are mangy, violent beasts more likely to rip your heart out than to break it (as they should be). Drawing parallels between the savagery of spousal abuse and the irrational loyalty of family blood ties with the animal instincts of canines, Partridge sharpens the claws of a tired cliché. Although the characters are for the most part unlikeable, Road Dogs again demonstrates Partridge’s ability for crafting realistic, small-town-American characters. An American Werewolf in Paris? More like A Whitetrash Werewolf in Bumf***, Nowhere.
The House Inside – 1.5/5 – Reading like a horror version of Toy Story, The House Inside is the most surreal of all the stories in the collection and my least favorite. Surprisingly, I don’t enjoy surreal very much and this story didn’t change my opinion much. It might have been the fact that the main characters are plastic cowboys and Indians and little green army men that inexplicably spring to life under a strangely powerful sun or the fact that they continued to ask why when no answers would have made sense. The plastic violence just fell flat. I need an internal logic to my stories and when that isn’t there, I start to lose focus.
Durston - 5/5 – Haunted by his past and his reputation, the titular cowboy attempts to put his dark past behind him in this gritty tale of guns and guilt. Durston has blood money in his pocket: money he can’t scrub clean and he can’t gift away. The stark characterization of Durston and his quest for redemption is compelling and multifaceted. Again, Partridge takes a story typically linked with pulp fiction and gives it a third dimension focusing on acts of violence and death and the way humans deal with the resulting realities. Partridge’s razor sharp prose is brilliant in all of his stories but I think it really stands out especially well in Durston.
The Iron Dead – 5/5 - In what I felt this was the strongest story in the collection, Partridge gives us a badass pulp-tacular hero in the mysterious Chaney as well as an unrelenting evil to rally against. A minion of the devil himself has come to town in prohibition era America, one who slaughters without mercy and rebuilds the mutilated remains of his victims into perverse foot soldiers using whatever spare parts he can find, be they metal or man. Chaney is the last of a group of mortals sworn to end this demon’s terrible reign. This story represents Partridge at his best, gory and violent, making pulp plots read like fine literature. In A Few Words after, a brief essay about the stories in this collection, Partridge mentions that we may be seeing more of Chaney and his hell-forged hand in the future. Yes. Please.
Despite the similarities between several of the stories, there is no denying that Partridge has mastered a blend of classic pulp and literary metaphor using his gift for prose to craft tales that are enjoyable, evocative, and undeniably American. Razor sharp with a wit as dark as the hearts of his heroes, Partridge is simply one of the best prose stylists I’ve ever read. Provided you have the stomach for it, you won’t regret pulling the trigger on Lesser Demons.