I originally came up with the idea for Bit by Bloody Bit when I took on Stephen King’s masterpiece IT. That book was too epic, too immense to cover in one sitting, so I broke it up and reviewed it in parts. I got to thinking this would be the perfect review format for not only the larger-than-life novels breaking the 1,000 page mark, but in particular anthologies.
Even if every story in a collection isn’t exceptional, it feels wrong to leave anyone out, so usually I don’t. That can be a bit daunting for readers who want to sit down to read a quick review, so I decided to apply the Bit by Bloody Bit technique to the superhero anthology Corrupts Absolutely? edited by Lincoln Crisler and out from Damnation Books.
We can find superheroes in movies and comic books, but it’s not often you come across superhero prose. This is a unique collection of short stories that editor Lincoln Crisler has good reason to gush over and horror fiction fans with a taste for superhero tales can geek out over too.
These aren’t your run of the mill superhero stories. With a variety of authors, including horror veterans alongside fresh faces, each contributor asks what would someone really do if they had superpowers in what Crisler has dubbed dark metahuman fiction. Crisler and his legion of author-heroes offer stories where the reader can enjoy a bit of escapism, but also explore the possibilities that come with infinite power. You might even learn a (bloody) bit about yourself too.
Without further adieu, this is part 1 of Bit by Bloody Bit, the first five stories from Corrupts Absolutely? Squeeze into that fitted body suit and pull on your matching pleather boots, it’s time to get Super!
The opener, “Retribution” by Tim Marquitz, is exactly the type of real world scenario I imagine when I think of average human beings, flawed and vulnerable, being bestowed with superpowers. In this case, our protagonist lost almost everything with the death of his wife and son in the tragedies of 9/11. “Once all the tears had dried and the empty words of comfort had soured on sorry tongues, there was still my fury.” This broken man signs up to fight against the bastards who stole his family from him asking for only “a gun and a one way ticket to the desert.” But they gave him more than ammunition; the ability to explode and regenerate. They made him a human bomb and therein lies the problem. His insatiable vengeance turns him into the same villain he hates, killing with impunity, guilty or innocent. This is the ideal story to open the anthology, generating thought-provoking inner dialogue for the reader as they consider their own potential reaction in this situation and also including the main element of superpower for the character. This story tows a more predictable line establishing the common thread that will run throughout Corrupts but the story is no less interesting because of it. Marquitz offers exquisite prose that shows a beautiful and poetic side to blowing yourself up.
The next story, “Hollywood Villainy” by Bram Stoker Award-winning author Weston Ochse, was my favorite in this block of stories and ultimately the entire collection. A fifteen year old Chinese boy born Valiant Fang (pretty cool, huh?) hasn’t aged a day since 1937 and now he tools around Hollywood on his old bicycle making a real mess of the world, destroying lives by utilizing his mind-reading powers. Valiant Fang, a.k.a. The Yellow Shadow, didn’t start out that way. In fact, when he discovered his mind-reading ability, he set out to be a hero like the ones all kids admire. Unfortunately, he “soon learned that no one liked a little Chinese kid superhero.” And that’s the hook to “Hollywood Villainy.” Despite being an evil lil’ bastard, you feel sorry for the kid and even root for him while he enacts his horrible, life crushing deeds, and laugh along to all his silly jokes. For a mind-reading boy who doesn’t age the world has endless possibilities and your worst nightmare is his playground. The Shadow explains that while there are three types of heroes, there is only one type of villain. “No matter the power, no matter the ability, no matter the technology, the single factor that decides if someone is a villain or not is their desire to do evil.” “Hollywood Villainy” is a suspenseful dark comedy with a disturbed but ultimately likable narrator. You kinda feel bad cheering him on, but it’s hard not to. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man? The Shadow knows.
On the surface, it seems William Todd Rose’s “Mental Man” strays a bit from the theme than the first two, but it turns out this is just a more unconventional way to explore the main premise of Corrupts. Instead of a protagonist with enough power to go to his head, our narrator Rob is struggling with post traumatic stress disorder and a taste for downers. He deals with all this while trying to make a name for himself in the detective game utilizing his unique skill; he can see into another person’s past. Ron, known appropriately as Mental Man by his associates, is working on the case of The Suburb Slayer, but struggling to identify the killer in his flashbacks. Instead of a feeling a defeat at not catching The Suburb Slayer, this killer becomes Mental Man’s arch enemy and purpose for living. Like the first two entries, this short is told from first person perspective giving the reader direct access into the mind of the desperate Rob. Rose skillfully builds the suspense in a short amount of time, letting it linger but careful not to reveal any important clues early on so the twist ending has the most impact. “Mental Man” is a murder mystery / detective story that reads like an old noir tale turned on its ear. Rob isn’t your typical gumshoe detective and the plot has a unique spin, but his dialogue has a classic noir flavor at times. “I want this fucker so bad I can taste it. He haunts my dreams, a faceless shadow dancing on graves that bulge as if they’re about to explode with the expanding gasses of the corpse below. His laughter echoes through the corridors of my mind, mocking me with haughty arrogance as I stumble about in the darkness like a blind man.” With an interesting premise that kept me guessing until the very end, this story fits easily into my top five.
Owen McKinney discovers the ability to heal in “The Real Church” by Jeremy Helper. After lobbing a fatal baseball at the neighbor’s dog in anger, Owen is immediately filled regret. He places his hands on the limp dog while praying to Jesus to bring him back to life and surprisingly it works. Like the other stories, “The Real Church” is also told from first person perspective following twelve year old Owen when he discovers his talent to the moment he and his mom, dissatisfied with what she called Greedy Commercial Churches, open the titular The Real Church and through to present day. While the first two stories feature characters that become corrupt by some outside force of evil or wrong-doing, Owen uses his power to attract more members to worship at The Real Church. Not every person bestowed with superpowers dons a cap and tights. “The Real Church” offers another bent to the darkside of exceptional skill if it was in the hands of a boy desperate to make his religious mother proud. The last three stories maintain the central theme of Corrupts — what would a person really do if they discovered they had a superpower — but are still wildly different. “The Real Church” also offers another fresh idea for this anthology that may not immediately spring to readers, but fits perfectly with the theme nonetheless.
Unlike “The Real Church,” “Ozymandia Revisited” by A.S. Fox features the kind of dilemma I would expect from a flawed human who acquires superpowers. The story reminded me in a way of the predicament celebrities and star athletes might find themselves in when they become larger than life. If you can have anything you want and do anything you want, how do you get your kicks? Can you resist the temptation to abuse your status? Doesn’t the sky’s-the-limit lifestyle get boring when there’s no door your restricted from opening? Our narrator, who calls himself Ozymandia a.k.a. Oz, discovers firsthand how his greed for ultimate power is actually a curse. “Ever wonder what Hell looks like? It looks like a suburban Thursday night, where you can score as much coke, meth, girls and danger as your body can endure and come away unscathed.” For Oz, this is a curse he brought on himself. Unlike The Yellow Shadow, Ron the Mental Man, or Owen the healer, Oz went looking for the ultimate power completely blind to the consequences. Oz has a bitter and biting humor, but a cocky disposition that isn’t likable. Oz and The Yellow Shadow of Ochse’s “Hollywood Villainy” are both inherently evil, laughing in the face of other’s pain, but Oz’ evil acts aren’t near as elaborately calculated as The Yellow Shadow from Ochse’s “Hollywood Villainy.” Oz is looking for instant gratification, trying to satiate a taste that in a world where anything goes will never be satisfied. This results in a The Twilight Zone type groundhog day effect that any horror fiction fan can appreciate.
The first five stories in Corrupts Absolutely? set the reader up for a variety of tales all with that one continuous thread; what corruption would be born from a person with superpower. There is tragic drama, black comedy, a suspenseful murder mystery, and more horrific entries signaling the start of a diverse anthology. The authors that open this collection have fresh ideas and sick imaginations giving their following contributors much to live up to.
Come back next week for Part 2 of Bit by Bloody Bit: Corrupts Absolutely? edition.