John F.D. Taff has been one of my favorite writers ever since I first discovered him years ago through his historical horror novel The Bell Witch. Since then, I’ve been eagerly awaiting every new release from him and he has continually blown me away with each one. He is known as “The King of Pain” due to the emotional elements that add a lasting impact to his brand of horror stories. It may have started as a short-lived moniker, but eventually it stuck and for good reason. Every time you read one of his stories, it will stick with you. I love all of Taff’s works – whether it be novels, novellas, or short stories – but there is no denying he is a master of the short story form. That talent is certainly on display with Little Black Spots, his most recent collection through Grey Matter Press.
There are 15 stories collected here of varying styles. I won’t touch on all of them, but I thought I would highlight some of my favorites. Taff kicks off Little Black Spots with an incredibly powerful story called “The Immolation Scene”, which showcases all of his talents and the reason he got the moniker “The King of Pain”. The story starts with a man named Corey standing outside of a warehouse consumed by flames. While he watches the building burn, he knows the mysterious group The Immolation Scene was there and that he is one step closer to finding his former lover, Amy. The rest of the story is a flashback showing the blossoming relationship between the two over their shared secret and questions how far they are willing to go for love. The characterization of both Corey and Amy is outstanding and Taff is able to generate real chemistry between them that gets readers invested in their fates. I also enjoyed the imagery he conjures up when Amy takes Corey to a meeting of The Immolation Scene. This is an incredibly unique and captivating story that feels like a literary sibling of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring. This story – along with the others I’m about to mention – are so good, they rank pretty high on my all-time favorites list.
“Gethsemane, In Rain” is a beautifully written character piece that takes place over the course of a few interconnecting sections. The town of Gethsemane is a character in it’s own right and is one of the many examples of Taff’s ability to perfectly capture the essence and character of small towns. This particular story takes place during a rain storm, which has a habit of bringing out the hidden beauty of the Gethsemane. There are numerous lines that show off Taff’s evocative prose. “And in this rain, Gethsemane is as lovely as a town gets. Like an aging actress filmed through gauze, the city’s harder edges are fuzzed, blurred, not so much softened, though, as made more vague.” As he takes readers through the town of Gethsemane and introduces a handful of its residents, buried secrets and lurking menace bubble to the surface. This is one of the many stories that takes some of the best elements of genre fiction and mixes it with a more literary style for an effective and captivating story.
Another story that blends those two styles and uses them with devastating effectiveness is “The Coriolis Effect (or, Chiromancy for Beginners)”. It opens with a narrator stressing talking about how palm reading tells a persons story. By tracing the lines, one can see the road-map of a person’s life – every decision and setback laid out in those patterns. What follows is the story of two brothers who are brought back together following the death of their mother. The younger brother, Steven, purchased their childhood home from their mother but refused to live in it because there were “too many memories in that old house”. Stephen seems to be obsessed with trying to relive the night where a naked man showed up at their bedroom window and attempted to drag his brother out the window. As they travel back to their childhood home, the narrator reflects on their childhood and Taff drops hints that there is darkness hanging over the brothers. This was a brilliantly executed story that explores the family dynamic between two brothers and how they ended up following the same life path even though they led different lives after childhood. Without venturing into spoiler territory, I found it interesting that Stephen mentions that everything that happened to them was inevitable. I love how this story alternates between flashbacks to their youth and scenes of the present. Not only does it provide great characterization of the brother, it makes the story’s twist that much more effective.
One story that gave me chills was “Purple Soda Hand”. Not necessarily because it was the scariest story of Little Black Spots, but mainly because of the creepiness and gross-out factor of the plot. Tony was riding his bike on a hot summer afternoon when he discovers a mysterious bottle containing purple liquid on the side of the road. Tony inspects the bottle and found that the seal on the cap hasn’t been broken and that there is no discernible information like a label or UPC code anywhere on the bottle. As he inspects the bottle, he can’t help but contemplate drinking it. The heat has been getting to him and he is thirsty. So, he takes a few gulps and thinks he was lucky enough to find a grape soda that is better than any he has ever tasted. After those gulps, he finds something in the bottle that makes him want to vomit. Floating in the bottle Tony finds….a small, severed hand. After Tony shares his find with his friend Mike, things only continue to get weirder. I loved this story for the sheer imagination of it and also the host of questions it raises. What is the origin of this mystery bottle? What is it’s ultimate purpose? After reading the end, I think I figured out part of the mystery, but it only made me think of more questions.
One of the things I loved about this collection was the variety of stories and that Taff seems to explore some areas that he’s not typically known for in certain stories. There are pieces that explore different formats, from flash fiction ( “Their Hands“) and a story made from interconnecting scenes that create a cohesive, layered narrative. Then there is subject matter that ranges from supernatural forces (the Lovecraftian “A Winter’s Tale“, “The Dark Level”) to the horrors that lurk in our every day lives (“The Bitches of Madison County”) and some that blur the lines between the two (“The Night Moves”). There are stories that are more subdued and a few that venture into more extreme territory (The erotic horror story “Just a Phone Call Away”). The one thing that remains constant is Taff’s powerful and unique voice. All of these stories bear his signature style, but it finds him exploring that style and applying it in new and exciting ways. He also puts his own stamp on serial killers (“The Bunny Suit”) and crafts one of the best vampire stories I have read in years (“A Kiss from the Sun for Pardon”).
While I found something to enjoy in every story in this collection, my favorite stories are ones that focus on small towns. There is something lyrical in Taff’s descriptions and he transports readers into these places with ease. Even though there is darkness lurking beneath the nostalgic and beautiful veneer, you can’t help but wish that these towns exist somewhere. And considering the power of his prose, they might as well. I would hate for him to focus exclusively on these types of stories, but I hope that Taff has some novels in the works that take place in these locales because I can’t get enough!
The other thing I love about reading Taff’s work is his prose. As a horror fan, I appreciate all different styles that show up in the genre. The straightforward genre pieces that deliver maximum scares and styles that are sort of an amalgamation of genre and literary. Taff strikes the perfect balance between genre fiction and literary and it makes for a haunting and intoxicating combination. I don’t want to spoil the notes he includes at the end of his collection, but he does mention that he tried to do a story in a straight literary style. Taff has the skill, but I think his ability to combine his talent for straight-up literary fiction with the blunt effectiveness of genre fiction is what makes his writing so special. There are other writers that possess this talent, but the subject matter Taff tackles and his ability to evoke emotion from his readers are what make him such a unique talent.
Readers have their own personal tastes in what makes any book great – be it a novel, novella or any other form of fiction. What makes Little Black Spots a stand out for me is the way it grips readers. Often times with collections, I read them in spurts and take breaks in between. That wasn’t the case with Little Black Spots. This collection grabbed me right away and I found myself unable to put it down for long. With each story I was mesmerized not just with the contents of each story, but uncovering the elements of craft that went into them.
There’s no denying that Taff is one of the genres greatest and most captivating writers. I can only speak for myself, but the level of detail and skill on display in Little Black Spots is nothing short of incredible. If you’re a horror fan and not reading his work, you are doing yourself a severe disservice. Taff has a slew of projects in the works including the massive 600 page opus The Fearing (due out in the Spring), He Left, a novella collection and a follow up to I Can Taste The Blood called I Can Hear the Shadows. I don’t know much about the other projects, but from what I have heard about The Fearing, I have a feeling that is going to be a truly special novel that will have a huge impact on the horror genre. I hate to heap that sort of pressure on Taff, but knowing how immensely talented he is, I think this could be one of those horror novels. You know the ones, the ones that resonate with horror fans for decades to come. But enough of my rambling, grab a copy of Little Black Spots and treat yourself to one of the year’s best horror collections.