"American Nocturne" Book Review
Written by Colton Gabelmann
Published by Cohesion Press
Written by Hank Schwaeble
2016, 297 pages, Fiction
Released on January 31st, 2016
Among the multitude of literary pursuits, short stories are the most difficult to master. Writing a novel, the author has an entire book to capture their audience; hundreds of pages to endear the reader to their protagonist, to engage them in the twisted nuances of the plot, and to build tension and suspense. Short story authors, however, must condense this roller coaster to twenty pages or so – no easy feat. In his short story collection, American Nocturne, Hank Schwaeble makes a laudable effort that, unfortunately, falls just shy of the mark.
American Nocturne is a collection of Schwaeble's best work from a career spanning ten years, and reading through it was an enjoyable experience. Schwaeble has a knack for creating realistic, believable main characters for each of his pieces. Several times during my journey into this collection I found myself imitating gestures that Schwaeble wrote into his work – descriptions of the way a man moves his arms or the way a young girl tosses her hair are so well crafted that it is impossible not to give them a try. Schwaeble gives characters life in a way that few other authors could even dream of, let alone emulate.
Being a collection of horror stories, one must also pay tribute to Schwaeble's mastery of the dramatic twist. Taking the reader completely by surprise in one or two tales would be enough for some authors, but Schwaeble somehow manages to throw the reader for a loop in each and every one of his stories. Most notable in terms of plot twists is "Cold Service", which starts with a plucky young woman hunting down a serial killer and ends with jaw-dropping insanity. I don't want to spoil anything for a potential consumer, but I had to go back and re-read it one more time to make sure I understood exactly what went down.
However, Schwaeble's work suffers from one fatal flaw: it ends far too quickly. An author of short horror fiction should be able to capture the reader, navigate them through the shivers and shakes of their tale, and leave them on the other side, horrified but satisfied. Schwaeble captures the reader right off the bat, creates sympathy (or ambivalence in some cases) for his protagonist, but by the time he gets to the thick of it, he writes like he's trying to conclude the piece. Gomorrah, for example, is a story of a group of queer-bashing hate mongers seeking out a new mark to brutalize. At the three-quarter mark, [SPOILERS] their intended victim turns out to be the archangel Samael, setting into motion an ancient prophecy. This prophecy, however, is never elaborated upon – it seems crafted only to drive the plot twist, and the story ends flatly and without a satisfying conclusion.[END SPOILERS]
Indeed, lack of a conclusion seems to be Schwaeble's Achilles Heel. Each tale of terror ends with the reader wanting more – a quality that would be well-received if Schwaeble were concluding a novel with intention of writing a sequel, but doesn't pan out for short fiction. Time and time again, I would finish a story feeling cheated; what happened to Levi at the end of "Bone Daddy"? Does Pierce ever relieve himself of the unholy burden he has taken upon himself in "Phantom Hill"? Schwaeble's work left me wanting a novel's worth of content, but granted me only a bad taste in my mouth.
Bear in mind, though, that taking these comments as a criticism of Schwaeble's skill would be doing the man a disservice. Schwaeble is a brilliant writer, traipsing through genres and time periods with the greatest of ease. He possesses an incredible amount of skill...it's just that this skill would be better put to use as a novelist than a short story author. Fortunately, Schwaeble has written a novel – Damnable is perhaps the work he is best known for, and it is next on my queue of horror fiction. American Nocturne proves that Schwaeble has the chops to write a thrilling narrative, and Damnable just might be his proving ground.
All in all, American Nocturne is definitely worth a read; though the stories themselves may not wow you, Hank Schwaeble's artful prose and larger-than-life characters will grab you by the heartstrings...or by the throat.