Rarely has a title been so apt.
Brian Freeman’s short story collection Weak and Wounded plunges us into small worlds, in which people live desperate lives and struggle with impossible decisions. Loss permeates every page: these people survive the deaths of parents, children, spouses, and siblings, only to find that survival might be a fate worse than death. But the power in these pages comes not from what our protagonists suffer, but how they suffer it. How they continue to go on.
One of Weak and Wounded’s best stories, “Running Rain” kicks off this short collection on familiar ground. Recognizable horror settings – dark forests, raging rivers – present themselves early, but Freeman’s focus is on the devastated family at the center of the story. Only slowly do we learn the nature of their devastation, and just when we think we know what the story is about, Freeman pulls the rug out from under us. The true nature of their grief sends a thudding shock through all that had gone before, coloring “Running Rain” in an even more unsettling light.
“Running Rain” also serves as a perfect introduction to Freeman’s themes and obsessions. Names, and the absence of them, are vital to Freeman’s work. Both “Running Rain” and “Where Sunlight Sleeps” feature the nameless living ruminating on the dead. Also in both, Freeman explores the concept of dread repetition as therapy, returning to the same fetid ground over and over in a futile attempt to heal. We find the idea of catharsis as the enemy at the center of “The Last Beautiful Day,” by far the most unsettling story in Weak and Wounded. “Louis Stephenson’s work begins with a ringing phone in the middle of the night,” “The Last Beautiful Day” begins, “but he knows the bad news isn’t for him.” The extent to which this is a lie hammers home in the story’s final, wrenching sentences. The bad news is always for him.
Freeman rounds out Weak and Wounded with two very different end-of-the-world scenarios. “Marking the Passage of Time” finds our heroes at the beginning of the end of the world; “Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13” puts us smack in the middle of it. Both explore the futility of trying to find peace in the memory of normal things, but “Ghosts” pushes the concept further: we find ourselves in an amusement park slouching into numb uncertainty, giving us glimpses of the mundane nature of horror that never ends. Recalling Stephen King’s “The Things They Left Behind” (without any of that story’s sense of hope), the underlying theme here resonates throughout the entire collection: learning to live in the face of horror might be the worst-case scenario.
Glenn Chadbourne’s fantastic black and white art provides an eerie underscoring to the human horrors alive and well at the heart of each story. His illustration for “The Last Beautiful Day” in particular works as a silent punctuation to Freeman’s tale, a final, shocking jolt after those last sentences. Ron McLarty (author and audiobook reader for Stephen Kings ’Salem’s Lot and Blaze) provides an exclusive, glowing introduction. “You will lose yourself in these pages,” he says, and he’s not lying.
By tying these stories together by theme, feel, and intent, Freeman has created a work of collected fiction that stands as one piece. Each story beats with its own punctured heart, but taken as a whole, Weak and Wounded is even better than the sum of its broken and damaged parts.
Weak and Wounded is available for pre-order through Cemetery Dance in both limited and lettered editions. More information here.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and A Good Story and Good Words, and co-wrote the recently released Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming. Find his books at cemeterydance.com.