Clocking in at four stories long, Michael McMullen’s The Stonemason and Other Tales is short but sweet, an intriguing sampler of punchy horror yarns. It opens with the title story, an eerie gothic piece that put me in the mind of Poe himself. From there we have ‘Beneath the Falling Stars’, a twisted confessional by a man whose swirling paranoia has him actually anticipating the forthcoming apocalypse. ‘The Gift’ shows how unrequited love is not always as sweet as you might expect, while closer, ‘The Incident at Outpost 51’, proudly wears its main influence, John Carpenter’s The Thing, on its sleeve.
Each story was an intriguing morsel in its own right. McMullen’s is an engaging new voice. Measured and intelligent, he has truly grasped the art of writing suspense. However, I did find myself wishing for more: more depth, more stories, more surprises. I think the middle two worked best because they seemed to focus more on internal character development.
(Good horror – smart horror – requires strong, believable characters with dreams and desires. Neglect this inclusion and you’re merely putting hamsters through their paces.)
‘The Stonemason’ showed incredible promise from the offset, with a marked emphasis on atmosphere and a great premise (reporter drives to a remote location to interview a renowned local stonemason). However, for me, it didn’t go anywhere wholly original; that is to say, the outcome of the story did not live up to the opening’s potential. ‘Outpost 51’, again, conjured great atmosphere. The, err, monster in this story was creepy and original, and the setup kind of put me in the mind of that great Treehouse of Horrors episode where Bart, the boy who cried wolf, is terrorised by a gremlin riding along the outside of the school bus. There’s a strong, underlying tension. However, I just wasn’t invested in the character, or his journey, and so the somewhat conventional outcome left me underwhelmed. That’s not to say it was a bad story or anything; rather, it felt like enjoyable fodder that would’ve been better suited to pad out the middle of a longer, more substantial collection.
So, really, my major issue with this wasn’t to do with the stories, or the writing; it was my craving for more. I think if this were six–seven stories long it might’ve fared better. I also would’ve loved if McMullen could’ve allowed one to two of his stories to really stretch their wings over a dozen or more pages. Having four very brief flash-in-a-pan horror outings compiled like this left the whole feeling like less than the sum. It would’ve been nice to have this rounded out by, for example, a nicely paced longer short that really delved into the character’s psyche over a series of thrilling set pieces – so, perhaps a psychological thriller, or something (something like a longer take on ‘Beneath the Falling Stars’). Such an inclusion would’ve perfectly contrasted these shorter tales and left this collection feeling both more substantial and better-rounded.
Still, as a wonderfully priced introduction to McMullen’s writing, The Stonemason and Other Tales offers terrific value. I can think of no finer way to whittle away that hour train ride to work. It is a fitting love letter (albeit a brief one – a love post-it, perhaps?) to all things horror. I genuinely can’t wait to see what McMullen offers next.