I was extremely excited to learn about the publication of Stories from the Plague Years, a fiction collection from fantasy author Michael Marano. His first novel, Dawn Song, a hypnotic and dark tale of ancient evil in Boston, was released to high praise and awards. Deservedly so—as it was a stunning debut. Personally, I love short story collections. Novels are great, but it takes a special kind of skill to create a mood, a theme, or a contract of emotional investment for readers in only a few thousand words. Not every author likes to write short fiction. Not every novelist can.
Michael Marano can.
Seven short stories and two never-before-published novellas are arranged into sections hinting at some of the overarching themes. This works to strong effect and kept me from skipping around stories at random. Arranged with this purpose, Stories from the Plague Years is not unlike a symphony, one author’s reflections on time, memory, and some very unpleasant emotions. Many of the stories read as snapshots of a very specific place and time: the late 80s and early 90s —the plague years of the first AIDS cases and a time tinged with punk rock. Real punk rock, full of nihilism and self-destruction and found families of outcasts, freaks, and lost souls.
Nowadays, there’s a pill you can take to keep AIDS away, but during the epidemic’s first reported cases, fear and distrust spread even quicker than the virus. Marano captures that fear and that crushing sense of lost permeating a disease-stricken community to (literal) haunting effect in “Burden,” the collection’s strongest piece. Melancholy apparitions also feature in “The Siege” as unwanted ghosts try to find solace in the afterlife.
Many of the stories are heavy and creepy, but my favorites are the tales dripping with anger. The opening story, “Displacement,” centers around a serial killer whose growing rage threatens to consume him. David is a narrator not too different from Ellis’s Patrick Bateman. He is wholly unlikeable, but his voice kept me interested even when the story dragged on a few pages too long. Marano best expresses this hard-edged fury when keeping his prose clean, less weighted down with metaphors. “Little Round Head” is a perfect example of this. A brief and deceptively simple prose style has excellent rhythm that carries along what is mostly a character piece about a human child raised in the sewers by…something not human. The vagueness is fun. It worked for me.
The final two stories are especially interesting to read—one being the author’s first short story sale, and the last being one of his new novellas. I enjoyed “Winter Requiem” when I read Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn anthology, so it was cool to see the longer version of the story here. “Shibboleth” is a quiet tale of longing in the post-apocalypse, more compelling than the collection’s first novella.
Stories from the Plague Years is ideal for fans of the kind of horror that gets under your skin and picks away at your brain, for anyone who seeks words of wisdom from an old (and I use that term affectionately) punk who’s seen an awful lot of shit go down in his day and lived to tell about it. Marano has a captivating prose style; I enjoyed the opportunity to see his style evolve and wonder where it will go next.
Stories from the Plague Years is available now from Cemetery Dance Publications. (With a note that 60% of the print run has been ordered already.)
Theresa DeLucci is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Worshop. her short fiction has appeared in Chizine, Morbid Outlook, and Tear magazine.