Heart of Stone (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 42)
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
As opening’s go, this is certainly one of the stranger one’s I’ve come across in all of the horror fiction I’ve been consuming these past couple of years. Someone wakes up, their stomach feeling like it’s on fire, and their hands are securely tied to a chair. They’re trapped in someone’s basement, and there’s a strong stench of bleach in the air. Even worse, the only thing they can see in the dim light is something red and slick on a table in the middle of the small room. A few minutes of trying to awkwardly shift the chair forward, they’re finally able to get a better view of the object on the table, only to wish that they hadn’t Because it’s actually a human heart. Their heart. Things really only go downhill from there.
That’s the scenario that M. Brandon Robbins presents us with at the start of Heart of Stone, his entry in the Short Sharp Shocks! series, and as shocking openings go it’s a hell of a memorable one. The core of this story is the sad, disturbing tale of an abusive relationship, and the notions of control, dominance and all of the horrific things that come out of such an unequal relationship. The abusive boyfriend literally carving the heart out of their partner is a literal, physical representation of what these abusive scum would do if they actually could, and the perfect metaphor for how these work out. Once the boyfriend has cut the heart out and replaced it with the titular Heart of Stone, he feels like he has ownership and control over the relationship, and it will therefore continue until he is tired of it at some unspecified point in the future. It’s a fucking grim statement, and one with a huge amount of power behind it that Robbins effectively utilises to propel the rest of the narrative to its even more horrifying conclusion.
The next steps that the protagonist takes, after attempting to process a horrific rush of emotions and the all too real memories of being ripped open and physically and mentally violated, are grim, disturbing and entirely understandable. And when they don’t work, their abusive partner’s reasoning makes a terrible sense – they are his until he has finished with them. The loss of self, of personhood, of one’s own ability to live or die, is devastatingly clear and all the more horrifying for it. Once the violation has taken place, rather like Patient K, one of the earliest Short Sharp Shocks! titles and one I reviewed at the beginning of #DemainDecember, numbness, hollowness and grief all fade away, to be replaced by a sole determination – to seek vengeance. But unlike Patient K, it takes a far more twisted and chilling form, and as the back-cover blurb for Heart of Stone highlights, there are no happy endings here – just a variety of monsters in different forms. Robbins doesn’t hesitate to make us uncomfortable as readers by posing difficult moral questions: is evil done out of desperation or necessity any better than an act of evil done out of viciousness and a desire to control?
Heart of Stone is one of the shorter entries in the Short Sharp Shocks! series, but it manages to pack in a huge amount of content in such a short word-count. The brevity of the story and its fast-paced nature, combined with Robbin’s crisp writing and sharp plotting, makes what actually happens all the more shocking and horrifying. Heart of Stone is a powerful piece of short horror fiction, raising some thought-provoking questions that refuse to go away easily even once you’ve finished reading it.