First published back in June of 2014, Canadian author Duncan Ralston’s collection ‘Gristle & Bone’ offered up the author’s debut release – the novella ‘Scavengers’ (2013) alongside four novelettes and two short stories.

Baby Teeth – 12 Pages
As time went on Candace and Joel McMurray allowed their growing lack of intimacy to slowly come between them.  When they first realised that Candace was incapable of bearing a child, the news had hit them hard.  Joel suggested adoption but Candace didn’t want to bring up a child unless it was truly hers.  They’d stopped having sex soon after.  Now they lived like disconnected beings merely residing in the same home.  And so, on the night that Candace woke feeling a biting sensation upon her breast, she had no reason to suspect her husband as the culprit.  However, whilst taking a shower the next morning Candace spots bruising around her nipple.  Something real had done that to her.  Something had been in the bed with them.  Something with teeth…

Get in there!  What an opening tale.  Duncan Ralston can write.  Oh yes he can write so damn well that you’re instantly pulled right in there.  And he’s got some truly nightmarish visions to share with you.  There are definitely echoes of early Clive Barker in there, intermingled with some Shane McKenzie and perhaps a touch of Mark Morris.  It’s all rather gruesome – hailing back to those glorious Splatterpunk days.  And to be honest, if I was thinking about purchasing the book, I’d be sold on this story alone.

Fat Of The Land – 56 Pages
June Dreese and David Addison had driven down from San Francisco all the way to Monte Verde to attend the wedding of their gay friends - Max and Darren.  Darren’s boss, Mr Morales, was the Chairman and CEO of Trimaricorp, making him one of the richest men in America.  And to the young lovers’ fortune, Morales had agreed to host their wedding at his luxurious home.  However, before the big day, June and David had a few days to kill in Monte Verde.  And so they decided that they might as well make the most of their time there.  Accordingly, one of the first things they decided to do was find themselves a good restaurant.  The lady at the hotel desk was more than happy to recommend one particular restaurant to them.  Named ‘Ambrosia’ – the restaurant was nothing if not a quirky establishment.  There June and David would enjoy one of the finest meals of their lives.  They truly gorged themselves.  But at the end of their extravagant meal David gets ill.  Perhaps it was something they ate?…

Far more of a slow burner than the first offering, Ralston’s second tale gradually lays down the story’s setting before very carefully inserting the first tendrils of unease.  Our two protagonists are both believable.  Perfectly fleshed-out and suitably flawed to feel utterly plausible.  But it’s when the first signs of things being not quite right begin to emerge that the story comes into its own.  Okay, so you undoubtedly know where the story’s ultimately going by this stage.  It’s reasonably obvious from the outset.  But it’s how Ralston doesn’t just leave it at that.  He pushes the horror onwards.  His grim revelation is followed by adrenaline-pumping action, tension and blood drenched splatter.  God this horror feast is good.

Beware Of Dog – 53 Pages
After his dismissal with disgrace from the Armed Forces, Dean Vogel begrudgingly returned to his hometown of Dark Pines where he was placed under the care of his aging parents.  Having purposefully shot a corporal in the kneecap, Vogel was ordered to see the local country shrink, a close friend of the family, Dr Timothy Baswell.  And through Baswell Vogel would be forced to come to terms with what he did, and finally confront the problems that lay lurking in his past.  After fifteen years of being away from Dark Pines, now that he Dean had returned he knew it was time that he talked with Pat Clearly and finally ask him for his forgiveness.  Even though Pat was the vicious bully who had attacked him in the first place, it was Vogel who had ruined Pat’s face with a cinderblock.  Standing face to face with Pat Clearly after all these years wasn’t going to be easy.  But it was something that Dean Vogel had to do…

Duncan Ralston tries on his Stephen King hat with a short story of love, regret and vengeance, along with a final touch of the bizarre.  The short begins with a bookended structure – starting off with Vogel’s return to Dark Pines and his understandable emotional turmoil with everything going on.  Once Vogel sits down with his shrink, the plot-critical backstory squirms its way to the surface.  So far so Stephen King.  And indeed, almost every inch of the short tale is pure King material.  The backdrop, the flashbacks to a traumatic childhood event, the returning to a typical small American town, the love substory, even the way the characters hold themselves – it’s all textbook King.  But hats off to Ralston because he’s absolutely nailed it.  Okay, so not exactly the most horrific of ‘horrors’, the short reads more like a King thriller.  However, it’s got a pretty darn brutal finale.  And it ultimately ends with a twist I guarantee you weren’t expecting.  Superb stuff.

End User – 29 Pages
Mason Adler was the proud owner of the conspiracy theory blog ‘Society Of Skeptics’.  It was the usual overly paranoid rantings that were often bred upon the vast World Wide Web.  In fact, Mason’s sole purpose seemed to be to incite dread in others through his blog.  To make others as frightened as he was.  However, when he started receiving puzzling emails sent from his own email account, each one containing little secrets about his sad life, Mason suddenly became even more paranoid.  But now he had a good reason to be.  With each email that came in, the situation became more and more tense.  And just when Mason thought he was coming close to snapping, his computer started talking to him.  Things had suddenly gotten a whole lot weirder…

I have to admit I really enjoyed this one.  From the very outset it’s as easy to read and unpretentious as a Kit Power story.  Literally within the space of just one page you’re swallowed up in Mason Adler’s sad little life.  Ralston’s characterisation on Mason alone is enough to make the story a damn entertaining read.  But throw in the weirdness of this barrage of emails he’s suddenly started receiving, let alone the increasingly worrying content within them, and you’ve got one hell of a story to hook you in with.  Again, there’s absolutely no way you could predict where this one will go.  This is a current day ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) suitably grubbied-up for an internet-obsessed generation.  God damn is Ralston a fine writer!

Viral – 38 Pages
In the space of just a few days the video of fourteen-year-old Daria Walker had gone viral.  The view count was escalating by the hour, and the comments were ranging from prophetic to claims of a fake.  But no one could deny that what they saw on the short video clip of this distraught young teenager wasn’t mesmerising.  And if it was special effects that were used, then the video’s creator was superbly talented.  The only problem was that Daria Walker had not only disappeared in front of the camera, but apparently she had vanished from the face of the earth as well.  No one had seen her since.  It was a story that music columnist, Tara Maxwell, wanted to report in the Toronto Herald.  A sad story of a painfully distressed young girl that she knew so well.  It was a story that she had to tell.  And to do so, she had to get to the bottom of what had really happened to Daria Walker…

Geez Louise this is a depressing little short.  There’s nothing quite so soul-crushing as an angst-fuelled teenager feeling like they’re at the end of the line.  With so much life ahead of them, but yet so full of woe that they want to end it all, the whole bleak premise instantly puts knots in your stomach.  And fair dos to Ralston, he’s encapsulated the misery of it perfectly.  Where the previous shorts have all bruised and broken your face with the sheer brutality and grim-horror within them, with ‘Viral’ the story burrows under your skin instead.  It spreads its grim infection from inside of you.  You can’t help but will feel rotten to the core.  It’s intentionally quiet, it’s purposefully subtle, and it’s executed to a masterful perfection.  Once again Ralston demonstrates with seeming ease how versatile he can be with writing.

Artifact (#37) – 25 Pages
They all had their jobs to do.  Ugly Karl did the driving, Mad Bastard did the videotaping, and Meat did the girl.  Mad Bastard’s younger brother, Ian, would pick up the girl after they dumped her off.  He’d pay her five times the initial agreed fee and get her to sign a release for them to use the footage.  Together they made up the ‘Filthy Lessons’ crew.  And with their realistic angle on internet porn, they’d found a very profitable niche.  And they were exploiting it for all its worth – just like they were with the girls they picked up and filmed Meat with.  But, as they celebrated filming their two-hundredth girl, the whole experience still felt marred because of #37.  Amber Dillon had not only been stunning, but she’d also been smart and no doubt someone who was going to get far in life.  That is, she would have, if she hadn’t agreed to get into the van with the Filthy Lessons crew.  It was a decision that had ultimately destroyed her life.  That one decision had led to her raped, mutilated and lifeless body being dumped under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.  And even as they continued filming their porn, the Fifthly Lessons crew had the shadow of Amber Dillon hanging over them…

Damn these shorts are getting grim.  Next up we have a story where seedy internet porn filmers find themselves responsible for potentially instigating a horrendous rape and murder.  We’re talking flooding guilt.  We’re talking three seedy meatheads who are making some dirty money through their exploitative films, but the repercussions of #37’s demise still hangs over them.  Of course it doesn’t just end there.  There’s still plenty to come.  Okay, so some aspects are as predictable as they come, but you’ve also got plenty more that you wouldn’t have expected or seen coming in your grimmest dreams.  Duncan Ralston doesn’t like to leave things spiralling downwards in a pit of horror.  That’s simply not his style.  Ralston likes to see these things through to the bitter end.  He likes to chop, slice, garrotte and kill his way to the absolute ending, with you dear reader, at his side throughout.

Scavengers – 94 Pages
Living next door to Jim and Leanne Taymor, over the years their neighbours had come to be good friends with the couple.  After all, they were good, honest residents of Knee High.  They owned the only restaurant in the small village – a quaint Italian establishment named La Costina that had been doing very well since it first opened for business a number of years ago now.  And so, when the news got out of what they had done, it was more than a shock to the resident of Knee High – it changed lives.  The press has dubbed it ‘The Taymor Murders’.  The madness of it all was crazier than anyone could comprehend.  But what was the most chilling was the story that Jim and Leanne had to tell.  Their reasoning for it all.  Their confession.  It had all started off with the disappearance of their beloved pet, their rat terrier Rosco.  That was why Jim was out in the alleyway the night he saw Cordelia Moone clamber down the wall by the dumpsters and devour a defenceless cat.  To Jim’s eyes the woman had been more animal than human.  A lurking creature of the night.  A vicious scavenger…

What a story to end the collection on.  Forget short stories, Ralston is undoubtedly at his best when he has the time to really develop his characters, to weave his story and to explore the realms of fear within the human psyche.  With ‘Scavengers’ you get the first glimpses of how well Ralston can write when afforded a few more pages to do so.  This really is one chilling tale.  The concept of a pack of Lovecraftian scavengers (dubbed the Frugaltarian movement), lurking in the shadows of our modern world, is somehow terrifying.  The way Ralston portrays these scavengers is what really makes the novella work so damn well.  The mystery behind them.  The horrifying plausibility of it all.  Tying in the likes of Albert Fish and Jeffrey Dahmer only adds a further layer to the realism of the tale.  It works its way under your skin and gradually worms its way through your nervous system until the idea of these lurkers is constantly lingering at the back of your mind.  After reading the story I feel soiled.  There’s an invisible dirt under my nails that no amount of washing will remove.  I can see this shit staying with me for a long time.  Because of Ralston I think I’ve changed a little.  I feel a little nugget of paranoia lodged in the pit of my gut that I’m sure wasn’t there before.  This is grim.

The collection runs for a total of 308 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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