A Crash Course in Broken Hearts

Collision – Stories by J.S. Breukelaar

A Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene

While I couldn’t by any means be called a newcomer to the works of speculative fiction author J.S. Breukelaar, she is a relatively new discovery for me. With the exception of a few short and breathtaking stories, two of which are now collected here, I hadn’t read anything prior to her novel Aletheia, a book that any lover of dark fiction should certainly read. That book woke me up quick to the truth of her talents and the depth of her well of imagination. I knew right off that she was a force to be reckoned with in the horror genre and one that should be watched closely. Just in case even more brilliance happened. Now, with Collision, I’ve come to learn that it’s been happening all along. Her stories are fueled with gorgeous darkness, often thematically heartbreaking–I’ll explain that in a little bit here–and always nothing short of amazing.

There are five things that need to happen to make a story work for me. They are: a voice that I can “hear,” originality to hold my interest, intelligence to stimulate my brain, emotion that speaks to my heart, and overall storytelling ability. Without hesitation I would say to you that Collision easily checks every one of those boxes. In spades. Let me tell you how.

So, about that voice. With Breukelaar I can hear it loud and clear right from the first sentence of the very first entry. With “Union Falls” I knew I was in for something extraordinary and I was right. This first work of loss and redemption will mesmerize you and lull you into a false sense of calm that will very soon shatter in your hands. It’s a perfect opener, just as the last one–which I’ll get to here shortly–is a perfect anchor. And this is where her editor and layout designer deserve some pretty huge kudos. Every single tale in the book seems perfectly placed to segue into the one that follows, just as it was a perfect downstream entry for the one before it. So yes, bravo to them, but mostly bravo to J.S. Breukelaar for her gorgeous, darkly engaging narratives, and to author/illustrator Keith Rosson for his amazing artwork throughout the book. Those two things serve to tie everything I’ve mentioned together into a cohesive whole that makes it a fucking near perfect collection. The first story captured me and the author’s voice kept me fully immersed in the prose that follows.

Let’s move on to the next two things that make this a book you should be reading right now. In “Raining Street,” the follow-up to “Union Falls” the author turns up the heat astronomically and fully and finally destroys that sense of calm she created in the first tale. It’s penultimately a very strange and terrifying narrative that easily marks originality off the list. I promise, you’ve never read anything like this one. It’s here that you begin to sense the themes that are prevalent throughout, ones of love and death, of loss, of redemption gained or denied. Every story makes you think, sometimes briefly and others deeply. Several of them have stuck with me for days now and will for a while, I believe. One such is “The Box,” another recounting of loss and potential redemption, that really speaks to the heart and the intellect, one that showed me just how smart this author truly is.

I always feel robbed when I review books like this because I like to talk in-depth about a thing and feel a little twinge of guilt when I can’t cover every entry. But in the case of this book, if I wrote about all of them the way I would like to, you’d be holding another book in your hand. One that isn’t near enjoyable as Collision. And speaking of such, it may be obvious by now that this whole book speaks to my heart, my emotions, but none so much as these three tales I want to tell you about. The titular “Collision” is a truly terrifying and emotional yarn that felt like it was trying to rip my lungs from my chest. When a horrific juxtaposition occurs, a woman must make a terrible choice to save the ones she loves. This one probably scared me more than any other in this volume. And talking about strange, gut-punching stories, I would be remiss in not mentioning “Fairy Tale,” the awe-inspiring piece about a disabled veteran struggling to come to terms with his past, or the futuristic “Rogues Bay 3013.” Fuck. That one owned my ass and made me wish I could have a whole volume of the author’s dark science fiction to devour. And devour it I would. Voraciously so. Breukelaar can take on any genre she wants and make it her own.

Now, referring back to those five things I mentioned earlier, the only box I haven’t truly checked is storytelling ability. And that’s an easy check, as you already know from the rest of the things I’ve said about this book. Like Josh Malerman and Caroline Kepnes, this author writes the tales that only she can tell and does it as well as any of her peers and better than many of them.

Breukelaar deconstructs all too familiar stereotypes with surgical precision and serial killer ruthlessness, and her linguistic ability borders on miraculous in my eyes. Her prose is so gorgeous and engaging, I found myself lost in it a few times, completely enraptured. I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading for review and needed to pay some attention to this wonderful thing. All that said, this short quote from the story, “War Wounds” will show you better than I can what sort of vocal chops Breukelaar has:

“You’ve seen how it works in these small towns, the way war puts a bony finger to the lips of the hard men who return, hammers something untouchable into them, something undiscoverable like no matter what they told you, it would never be all there was.”

And again here in the closing story, where the author demonstrates again that eloquence is involuntary as breathing to her:

Celia’s manager walked past and peered through the glass wall at Celia standing over the Host, and then he quickly looked away, in pity or fear, it was hard to tell. Pity at fate’s leprous power—fear that bad luck was as contagious as it was incurable.” 

I want to talk about that last story a bit, so bear with me for a few more minutes, kids. “Like Ripples on a Blank Shore” shocked the hell out of me given all the amazing I had already found here. It was hands down my number one favorite in the book. This is the one that is long enough that you can truly observe J.S. Breukelaar’s exemplary alacrity with character development. And that isn’t to say her characters in the other stories aren’t rock solid, just that here they really shine. Like her novel, Aletheia, I was fully invested in this protagonist and her fate, as she struggled with a need for identity, both hers and that of … someone else. It’s a work of art that I feel will stick with me for a long, long time, hard to shake as a pitbull with a locked jaw. And yet, in the end I keep finding myself looking back to the beginning of the book, that first captivating story, and I keep thinking about Deel and Ame and hoping those amazing characters fare well wherever they may find themselves. Yes, it’s true, folks. I’m already thinking about reading this one again, it’s that  good. If you haven’t read the works of this author, you need to unfuck that ASAP and Collision is the book you need to do it with. Do it now.


NOTE: All Illustrations were created by author/illustrator Keith Rosson and provided by Meerkat Press (a publisher you damn sure need to pay attention to).

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