Readers love to compare writers to each other; it’s one of the ways we have of explaining why we like a particular author’s work. We like so-and-so because he writes characters as good as Stephen King’s; we like such-and-such because she writes atmospheric stories reminiscent of Charles L. Grant and Ray Bradbury. Of course, no matter what aspects we’re comparing, it’s really an apples-to-oranges scenario, because every author has his or her own unique approach to conceiving stories and putting words on the page.
With Dueling Minds, however, editor Brian James Freeman has hit on a concept that gives readers a real opportunity to draw comparisons between different writers. For this collection, coming later this year as part of the Cemetery Dance Signature Series, Freeman has given six authors a piece of Alan M. Clark artwork (the same artwork which serves as the book’s cover) and asked them to write a story inspired by it. Under the unusual circumstances of having a group of writers get their ideas from the same inspiration, we’re able to get a glimpse of how unique they truly are.
The artwork in question features a hot air balloon with a ghostly death’s head visage, floating in darkened skies near the steeple of a small church. Some of the authors pack as many details as possible from the painting into their story, while for others it’s simply a suggestive image from which they rocket off in their own direction.
Brian Keene provides one of the more literal interpretations of the painting with “Purple Reign,” in which a huge balloon appears without explanation in the skies of a small town. When it crashes into the Lutheran Church’s steeple the balloon explodes, spreading an eerie purple haze over the town – a haze that has unexpected and deadly effects for the citizens unfortunate enough to be caught outside. The tale is vintage Keene, a propulsive and violent story with a B-movie plot and A-list execution.
In “Between the Dark and the Daylight,” Tom Piccirilli eschews supernatural explanations to tell the sad tale of an ex-con who gets out of jail, kidnaps his child and hijacks a hot air balloon in an effort to impress the young boy. The disastrous outcome pushes the man to the brink, and he seems determined to drag a helpful innocent bystander over the edge with him. Readers who have followed Piccirilli into his latest forays into crime fiction will recognize the hopeless circumstances and haunted characters that have become his trademark.
Tim Lebbon’s “Falling Off the World” is a meditative take on one girl’s last moments when, faced with a difficult decision, she finds that somehow she is not alone; while Jenny Orosel’s “That Which Binds” gives us a romantic hot air balloon ride with a ghostly twist. Gary Braunbeck and Gerard Houarner round out the collection with their own distinct storytelling skills in “Bargain” and “The Breath of Bygone Spirits,” respectively.
The final tally is one piece of artwork equals six stylish, compelling and original stories. It’s fascinating to watch the different takes on Alan M. Clark’s work unfold. While none of the authors stray very far from their typical skill sets with these stories, that’s kind of the point. We know the kinds of stories Keene and Lebbon and Piccirilli write, so it’s fun to look at the cover and see if we can guess where they’re going to go. (More often than not, of course, we can’t, because while these artists are distinct, not a single one of them is predictable.)
In the end, we see that comparing authors – even when they are working from the same starting point – is really a fool’s game. They might share some of the same imagery throughout Dueling Minds, but in the end each story is the sole vision of its author, as singular and unique as a snowflake or a grain of sand.
It should be noted that in putting this book together, Brian James Freeman has added another layer of interpretation by having Erin Wells provide interior art for the book based on the stories themselves. Perhaps the sequel will have stories inspired by that artwork, further pushing the creative spiral in on itself. I, for one, would be first in line to see the results.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.