He hadn’t seen a barber in years, and it showed, but he never made the effort to keep his locks from landing in his meals…
I made the mistake of eating a sandwich while reading Mike Thorn’s debut collection of short stories, Darkest Hours. Indeed, there is a dark moment that looms over my feelings on spaghetti and meatballs from my childhood. There is a (famous to me) episode of Goosebumps where this kid is about to eat spaghetti and looks at his forkful of pasta to see earthworms mingling with his noodles. Even two decades later, I still can’t look at spaghetti without gagging, and holding a bit of suspicion that there is more than noodles and sauce on my plate.
Needless to say, one short story into this collection had me pause eating my lunch—a delectable tuna sandwich made with too much mayonnaise—because the story in question, “Hair,” eloquently described the pleasure of eating hair. Yes, the details are so rich in the stories that Thorn tell, that I could not control the involuntary imagining of hair in my mouth and the possible excitement this experience might offer.
A new dark moment, I am sure, looms over my future encounters with tuna.
The horror that Thorn taps into isn’t your everyday spectacle of gore, guts, and globules of blood. Instead, he explores the almost mundane anxieties of our everyday lives that lend to truly horrific encounters. That is not to say that Darkest Hours shies away from old fashioned spectacles of horror. Thorn has quite the imagination for bodily details, and fleshing his imagery out with exquisite word choice.
So what makes Darkest Hours stick as a memorable short story collection is the witty combination of the mundane and the truly spectral horror that we are accustomed to seeing in cinema. As the biography of Thorn reveals in the flap of the book, Thorn draws quite a bit of inspiration from John Carpenter movies and other fantastical horror productions. This is evident, of course, with his myriad of touching and gruesome cameos of his horror predecessors. But he doesn’t lose his own voice or vision. Every story takes a wicked turn that can’t be foreseen.
The cabin was much later than Gage had expected. Truthfully, he didn’t know what exactly he’d expected—maybe some tiny, handcrafted structure nestled in the idyllic heart of the wild? Something worthy of Thoreau or Whitman?…
As a graduate student, some stories in Darkest Hours hit a little to close to home. The story “Sabbatical,” for example, offers a wonderful look into the agony and anxiety that accompanies the thesis writing process. This particular story shows the brilliant craftmanship behind this collection.
There is a shocking and slightly humorous reveal in the story’s final paragraphs. However, the build up to this reveal filled me up with real dread, considering I am finishing my own graduate thesis.
Two graduate students enjoy a sabbatical in the perfect horror destination: a cabin in the woods. One character is confident in the progress of his dissertation and is absolutely convinced that his disorganized friend won’t complete his work. Of course, it’s his friend who ominously types out an entire dissertation in just a few days while he barely produces anything himself.
The magic, the horror—the beauty—of Thorn’s work lies in the multiple registers of horror he is working through. The mystery of his friend’s ability to produce excellent work. The swelling of inferiority and imposter syndrome. And maybe facing one’s own potential inadequacy if not inability to succeed. That’s true horror that almost anybody—student or professional—can engage with.