Reviewed by Erin Britton
A collection of peculiar, mind-bending, and sometimes outright troubling tales spanning time, space, and genre
Derrick R. Lafayette’s Kaleidoscope: Dark Tales is a genre-busting collection of five short stories and a novella that all explore the shadowy corners of the human experience.
Whether set in the contemporary world in the time of COVID-19, in a post-apocalyptic future ravaged by the devastation of nuclear war, or in another time and place altogether, the included tales tackle very human problems in extraordinary settings. There’s certainly darkness and danger aplenty throughout the collection, but there’s also hope and the possibility of salvation for the unfortunate protagonists who find themselves living in interesting times.
The opening story in the collection, “The Oddity of Jo Bobby and the Seven Doors,” is a heat-soaked, dust-parched Western set during the hottest day of August 1830 in Wormwood, Tennessee.
Two bounty hunters—the balding, leathered Charlie and the teenaged Sonny—intend to make a quick buck by bringing in wanted fugitive Bobby-Jo. The bounty allows for him to be taken dead or alive, but things don’t go to plan when the pair confront a man they have tracked by the name of Jo Bobby. Sonny ends up firing a “gunshot blast so loud that the nearby sheriff, prune-skinned with a handlebar white moustache, woke up in his bed with a start, adjacent to a snoring whale of a woman who wasn’t his wife.”
Having seemingly dispatched the unfortunate Jo Bobby but no longer convinced that he was the Bobby-Jo they were after, Charlie and Sonny make their way into the man’s house and look for things to steal. From here on in, the classic Western transmogrifies into a disorientating fairy tale, as Charlie and Sonny climb to the first floor of the house and find themselves confronted by seven doors. “Some say the seven doors are portals to the gates of hell. Others say they force those who open them to witness their past crimes.” One thing’s for certain, opening the doors will change the bounty hunters’ lives forever.
Next up is “The Problem,” in which a father and daughter near the end of a perilous quest to find a candidate capable of containing the soul of the Godhood and so free a mother from eternal sleep “within the living bark of the Melancholy Tree.” Along the way, they have to navigate a strange city, avoid dangerous monsters, and earn the trust of an unforgiving religious order, all while ensuring their rune magic keeps the malevolent force of the Darkness at bay. It’s a medieval fantasy story where swords and sorcery give way to peculiar creatures, deadly spirits, and the unwavering desire to save a loved one.
The third story is “The Witness,” which chronicles the deterioration and potential salvation of an unnamed man as he navigates the increasingly harsh environment of the city while undergoing some sort of breakdown after seeing a perfect being. In a lonely and progressively more disorientated state, he trudges through mundane activities and encounters, never sure if what he perceives is real, as his physical appearance diminishes alongside his mental clarity. “When I turned around, nothing, no one, was there. When I looked forward, nothing, no one, was there. When I looked down, nothing, no one, was there. I was alone.”
The man relates his experiences in an unflinching monologue that brings to the fore the real and imagined dangers that he faces. His paranoia is clear from the outset, but so is the possibility that he really saw something wonderful, something with the power to do great good. Of course, as with all quests that depend on blind faith, there is also the possibility for great evil, and the man’s story is certainly tinged with darkness. It’s difficult to fully grasp what is going on, but his experiences are undeniably impactful.
The tone of the collection shifts again, this time from gritty realism to a fantastical science fiction nightmare, in the fourth story, “The Sixty-Five Percent.” In the midst of a terrible war, two scientists, Abbot and Leeto, experiment on a captured enemy when their lab is attacked by a battalion of other artificial beings. The detailed worldbuilding and the creation of novel creatures and technologies render the futuristic landscape frightening and plausible, and there are plenty of twists and turns as the story of the war unfolds.
The invaders have “ectomorph-shaped bodies with hardened skin—a combination of cobalt and melded tungsten. Visors replaced eyes. They had no necks below their pentagon-shaped helmeted heads. Exaggerated muscle mass was carved on their chest, legs, and arms for aesthetics.”
The collection draws to a close with a novella, “Heather, Ludwig, and Nathaniel,” which explores the interpersonal lives of three members of a family in the run up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fourteen-year-old Ludwig is obsessed with video games, friends, girls, and his grand plans for the future; his father, Nathaniel, writes sci-fi fan fiction and struggles with his place in the family; and his mother, Heather, is a psychic who feels “strangled by routine, murdered by monotony.” As all three go about their daily lives, each consumed by their own thoughts and feelings, the creeping menace of the coronavirus increasingly impinges on them.
Given its subject matter, the novella hits close to home and accurately portrays the myriad ways in which ordinary life was changed by the pandemic, including during the lengthy period when it seemed like a far-fetched and unlikely circumstance. At the same time, there are far more mysterious things afoot in all the characters’ lives than COVID-19, leaving them with mysteries to solve and puzzles to unravel as the world slowly goes mad around them. There’s more than a hint of magical realism involved in the various subplots, which highlights the sometimes extraordinary aspects of day-to-day life.
In Kaleidoscope, Lafayette encourages readers to see the world anew as if looking through bits of colored glass—that is, through a kaleidoscope. These tales are all multilayered and complex, requiring deep consideration and leading to more than a few surprises. Given the breadth of genres and subjects covered, there is something for practically everyone in the collection, and it is likely that repeated reading will reveal new elements of each one.
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