Perhaps "hot damn" ought to be the phrase to describe this company of great works? Or perhaps "holy shit, these are good!" might be more apt? Regardless, the three collections that I talk about at length contain stories that were almost uniformly very excellent and at worst just merely very damn good.
Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings
From my original review:
The opening story to Terrence Holt's debut story collection In the Valley of the Kings, " 'Ο Λογοσ", serves as a represenative piece. The opening paragraph quoted above sets the stage for an apocalyptic tale to follow, as one by one, "word" by "word," people are infected with a new plague that is carried not by microbes, but instead by the etching of "the word" on their flesh. Holt's matter-of-fact, clinical prose (he has alternated between being a writing instructor, medical doctor, and storywriter for the past 15 years) is all the more chilling here because the reader knows something dreadful is happening, but the prose purposely understates this in order to allow the reader's imagination to create more and more dreadful consequences for what is transpiring within the story. By the time the final paragraph is reached, the tension has built to the point that one begins to wonder if the narrator has gone mad...or if we will.
The second story, "My Father's Heart," is much shorter (5 pages compared to the 16 devoted for the first story), but it too contains an unsettling image:
I have raged at it of late: Leech, I cry: Blooksucker. It burps clear saline in mild protest; innocence sits on every valve. I am not taken in. It has not been so many years since I have seen it raging in its turn, swollen to the size of a dirigible, as full of gas and fire, stopping raffic across four lanes of Sixth Avenue. A cab driver had refused to carry it: "I don't haul meat." I spent the balance of that day in terror, cradling the jar in my lap (we took a bus), looking into it each time the saline sloshed. It refused to look up. (p. 29)
The imagery would have been at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story; the juxtaposition of the mudane (taking the bus) and the unreal (the heart being sentient and prone to outbursts) serving to underscore the strangeness of the situation. The resolution to this story is emotional, not as it was in the first, but in a way that reminded me of how family members, whether or not their hearts literally act for themselves, clash and bond over crises.
But the end of dreams and self-delusions is not necessarily bad. In many respects, the final paragraph to "Apocalyse" could serve as the epigraph for In the Valley of the Kings:
But before the end we will speak once more, of everything that matters: of the brightness of the moon; of the birds still flying dark against the sky; of the man who brought me here; of the hours that she waited; of what wwe would name the child; of the grace of everything that dies; of the love that moves the sun and other stars. (p. 223)
Through it all, In the Valley of the Kings is a true tour de force of exploring the human condition(s). At times, I was reminded of the best of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Holt's prose tantalizes. It hints, it promises, but at the end there are no true revelations within the text itself. It is up to the reader to fill in the spots purposely left blank. It is up to the reader to provide meaning, to establish hope, to ward off despair. Holt's collection simply is great, provocative storytelling at its best and it deserves serious consideration for any and all awards for which it may be eligible.