Book Review: The Carvings Collection, Drake Vaughn (2013)

January 20th, 2014 12:18 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Mixed Bag of Horror Stories

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation. Also, trigger warning for rape and animal abuse.)

The Carvings Collection contains ten horror stories from the “crinkled mind” of Drake Vaughn. The stories range from conceivably true crime (fundamentalists do the darnedest things!) to the supernatural/fantastical (vampires, werewolves, and giant cockroaches, oh my!) and “psychological tales of imagination gone wrong.”

Dolls – A young girl’s menagerie of dolls begins to act out scenes of abuse on each other – and on Ella, their owner. In this story, it’s the adults who are the real monsters.

Driver’s Seat – A woman dealing with apparent PTSD in the wake of a carjacking/murder spree reconnects with her husband through violence. (Or regains control by embracing her darker impulses? I don’t know, I was both confused and somewhat disturbed by this point.)

Master Key – A quartet of teens find more than they bargained for when they cut class to light up and happen upon the nether regions of their high school, which was built on the ruins of a (supposedly!) abandoned paper mill.

In the Chair – When a man is tried and acquitted for allowing his cancer-stricken mother to die at home, one especially concerned citizen decides to enact some righteous Biblical revenge, Old Testament style.

Carvings – Ryder is plagued by strange dreams, which become stranger still when he awakes to find occult symbols freshly carved into his walls. Things go from bad to worse when people – people who resemble those who have hurt or otherwise wronged Ryder in life – start dropping dead, the victims of violent murders. Left behind at the scene are the same symbols Ryder feels compelled to carve in his sleep.

Sales – A especially skeezy guerrilla marketing-cum-mercenary salesman meets his match when he’s contracted to break into a celebrity’s penthouse, ostensibly to ransack the place. The question is, who’s the bigger bloodsucker of the two?

The Garden – In which two precocious preteens decide to vandalize some old guy’s vegetable garden, only to unwittingly stumble upon the boy he’s got caged up in his basement. Not everything is as it seems, however – though I’m still a little puzzled as to why he didn’t just let them have their fun and move on, rather than threaten them with a shotgun, attempt murder, and ultimately kidnap them. Were a few upturned turnip plants really worth it?

The Test – A homophobic prank gone wrong (well, not as though it could have gone “right”) leads to a friend’s suicide.

Trip to V-Town – In what sometimes feels like a heavy-handed reference to immigration and xenophobia, a group of friends venture into the vampires’ side of the tracks for a night on the town. Their version of a good time? Beating V-Town children senseless and raping and torturing sex workers.

Flatheads – In the most enjoyable story of the bunch, “Flatheads” imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which climate change has led to massive flooding as well as seasonal droughts. In contrast to humans, water-bound flathead worms have thrived in their new environs, growing to massive lengths and learning how to launch their eggs into the sky so that they can be carried to human hosts on even the smallest drop of water. Headed by reluctant leader Iago, the survivors in the Company (really just an old apartment building, the flooded bottom floors of which have been left to the flatheads) must deal with an infection and possible infestation. City living, ugh.

Of the ten, I especially enjoyed “In the Chair,” “The Test,” and “Flatheads.” Since two of my elderly relatives begged to die for months – even years – before they passed away (my grandmother, of a hunger strike while in hospice care), to no avail, I can relate to Owen Vogel’s anguished predicament in “In the Chair.” “The Test” veers in an unexpected direction, and “Flatheads” is a flat-out fun piece of dystopian horror/science fiction.

“Dolls” and “Driver’s Seat,” less so: both are rather disturbing, and not necessarily in a good way. The worldly, un-supernatural explanation for “Dolls” is that Ella is reenacting her physical and sexual abuse with her dolls, while “Driver’s Seat” ends with a not entirely (or obviously so) consensual sex scene in which the protagonist’s homicidal-suicidal husband threatens her with a gun…which she then all-too-happily fellates.

Likewise, “Trip to V-Town” includes some especially sadistic scenes of rape and torture. In a passage that’s eerily reminiscent of animal rapists who cut off the heads of chickens so that their dying bodies will convulse mid-rape, one of the young men describes burning a vampire with a light (“beaming”) as he’s raping her: “It’s one thing to bucking bronco a girl, but a piner is an entirely different experience. While doing her doggie style, you beam her in the face and hold on as she thrashes. The spasms create the most amazing sensation.” (page 173)

Since rape and sexual violence are ubiquitous in our culture – women, many of them rape survivors, are assaulted by rape jokes, rape scenes, comparisons to rape, rape apologism, etc. on the daily – authors need a really good reason to add to the pile of violent imagery. Rape isn’t a form of entertainment. The only story that evokes sexual violence only to condemn it is “Trip to V-Town” – and here, I don’t feel like the payoff is great enough (or nuanced enough) to justify the gamble.

Can we just have a moratorium on men writing rape scenes? Pretty pretty please?

(This brings to mind Kevin Smith’s much-circulated quote in This Film is Not Yet Rated: “If I were to create a rating system, I wouldn’t even put murder right at the top of the chief offenses. I would put rape right at the top, and assault against women. Because it’s so insanely overused and insulting how much it’s overused in movies as a plot device, a woman in peril. That, to me, is offensive, yet that shit skates.”)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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