First published back in July of 2017, British author Paul Kane’s short story collection ‘Death’ offered up ten short stories, two of which are original to this collection, as well as the script for a play adaptation.  Although I’ve stated the book contains ten short stories, it should be noted, one of these stories is ‘The Lazarus Condition’ which is probably better defined as a novelette, running for a total of 107 pages.

Death Awaits – Introduction – A.K. Benedict – 2 Pages
British author A.K. Benedict offers up a swift introduction to Kane and his collection of his short stories.  Benedict covers how within the collection we witness the many faces of Death and the different degrees of characterisation Kane has lent to the grim reaper.  From here she talks of how friendly Kane is as a person (even commenting upon his tea-making abilities), and finally his approach to “unveiling the horror” within each of his pieces.  It’s a well-written and very complimentary introduction, getting us good and ready for the stories ahead.

The Face Of Death – 17 Pages
Jonathan Prichard had an agreement with Colin, the morgue attendant.  He’d slip him a few notes, for which he would gain access to some fresh corpses for a short while.  The young doctor had assured the attendant that no harm would come to the cadavers.  He was merely extending his studies.  Which was why Prichard was at the morgue that Sunday evening.  A young family had been brought in.  Murdered by an unknown assailant.  Each of their throats slit.  For Prichard it was just what he needed.  Ever since his father had died, he’d been searching for answers.  Answers to what his father had witnessed.  Jonathan knew his father had seen what no other being alive had seen.  The face of Death itself.  The face Jonathan had dedicated his life to searching out himself…

For the opening story we have one hell of a sinister little offering that’s packed full of mystery and suspense.  Kane keeps his cards close to his chest through the main bulk of the tale, only gradually laying down the jigsaw pieces for what’s really going on and why.  The story feeds off an unsettling vibe that Kane has masterfully nurtured.  Only as the tale edges towards its terrifying twist ending does the true horror reveal itself in a magnificently executed finale.  A stunning example of truly unnerving horror.

The short story was first published within the online eZine ‘Beyond The Borderline: Issue 1’ (2001).

One For The Road… - 16 Pages
In all his years as a pub landlord, Abraham Bamford had never seen a man so filthy come into his pub before.  This man who’d sauntered into The Wanderer’s Rest, not only looked filthy beyond words, he smelt equally as bad.  He’d taken a seat on his own, informing the landlord he was waiting for his friends to arrive.  And sure enough, it wasn’t long before another man, this one nothing short of morbidly obese, trudged into the pub and sat down at the same table.  Shortly after, a further man dressed in military uniform joined them.  Finally, a well-dressed businessman took a seat at their table.  The four were finally together again.  They had much to discuss before the night came to an end.  Much to reminisce about.  For they were Pestilence, Famine, War and Death…

What would it be like if the four horsemen of the apocalypse met up in a small Derbyshire pub, to discuss the history of mankind, before humanity’s annihilation?  Kane’s pretty much nailed the execution of this magnificently conceived idea.  The prose is almost poetic in its delivery.  Pestilence is made out to be utterly vile, in fact you can’t help but feel a tad nauseous at the revolting depths of his lack of any hygiene.  And Famine – the gluttonous slob who relishes in the starvation of others – so ingeniously imagined.  The whole story is rich with such imagery.  The depiction of these four characters so vital to the story’s success.  And it’s monumentally successful.  You feel drawn into their conversation.  Compelled to see how this will end.  The ramifications and repercussions of this meeting.  It’s such a surreal idea, but so damn clever.  Absolutely brilliant.

The short story was first published within the ‘Darc Karnivale’ (2009) anthology.

Lifelike – 16 Pages
It had been six years since their beautiful daughter had been manufactured from Sam and Suzie’s plastic.  Now Sam was looking for the perfect gift to celebrate Sally’s molding day.  He’d gone to the toy shop, hoping the assistant would be able to inspire him for Sally’s present.  It had to be just right.  Sam didn’t want anything too lifelike.  Nothing like the Missy Daydreams that were all the rage these days.  Luckily the shopkeeper said he’d just the thing.  They were called “flesh dolls”.  Dolls which were grown rather than manufactured.  Dolls you had to look after, feed and water.  It was perfect.  Sam just knew Sally was going to adore it.  After all, it was such an unusual gift…

One of the great things about short stories is that their authors are often able to experiment with some wonderfully original and uniquely creative ideas.  Kane’s ‘Lifelike’ is one such tale.  Imagine if roles were reversed, and instead of us all being flesh and bone, we’re instead manufactured from plastic.  Organic flesh is the new unnatural.  Instead of being born, people are molded.  You get molding days instead of birthdays.  The abundance of mind-boggling ideas spawned from this, the creativity behind the story’s concept, is nothing short of outstanding.  But is it horror?  Trust me, as the tale progresses, it starts getting pretty damn disturbing, and ends on a truly harrowing note.  Imaginative, original and gut-wrenching.  Brilliantly unique.

The short story was first published within Kane’s ‘Peripheral Visions’ (2008) short story collection.

The Return Of Mortis-Man – 63 Pages
For a long time, Glaive City had been descending into a cesspit of crime.  From petty criminals to organised syndicates, the city was slowly but surely surrendering to the lawless underbelly.  Journalist Julia Morrison knew all too well of the dangers from living and working in Glaive.  Only recently she’d been subject to an attack.  But at the very last minute, when she thought it was all over for her, she’d been rescued.  Julia had only glimpsed her saviour.  A hooded figure cloaked from head to toe in black appearing from the alleyway shadows.  Her rescuer had more than seen off her attackers.  He’d delivered swift justice right then and there.  This hadn’t been the first, nor would it be the last time this cloaked phantom intervened in such matters.  Glaive’s criminals were receiving their comeuppance at the hands of this elusive superhero, whenever a serious crime was underway.  Chief Henry Adlard had his suspicions who was behind these vigilante actions.  He’d seen it before.  Knew only one man could pull off such incredible feats in the name of justice.  After all, there could be only one.  Mortis-Man had returned…

Lock and load motherfuckers.  Kane’s got one hell of a pulpy superhero story, bubbling over with adrenaline-pumping high-octane action that packs in more over-the-top fight sequences than gadgets in his lair.  Think Batman meets The Undertaker.  It’s every bit as good as it sounds.  There’s literally not a single page in this short story which isn’t jam-packed with plot-rich mayhem, designed to send the reader on one heck of a speeding rollercoaster of a ride.  Where some may see clichés, anyone who adores a well-crafted superhero story will instead see homages and tributes to the trope.  This is a story for all the Dark Knights out there.  It’s chiselled from the same stone as Batman but done so using Kane’s own hammer and chisel.  Done purely in his own way.  Never have I read such an energetic and packed story.  There’re no quiet moments to reflect, absolutely zero padding anywhere, just madness, mayhem and one man squaring off against it all.  Mortis-Man.  Fuck yeah!

The Suicide Room – 18 Page
Richard Gray was a loner.  Nobody cared what he had to say.  Who he was or what he did.  He was just an anonymous maintenance man floating about a string of offices.  He was tired of it all now.  Tired of life.  So, one day he just decided enough was enough.  Richard had made his choice – and that choice was oblivion.  It was just the method of ending his life he’d had trouble with.  That and the location.  So, he’d started doing some research.  Reading up on forums and websites.  Which is what brought him to the idea of doing it in a hotel room.  That seemed the perfect place.  Somewhere he wouldn’t be disturbed, but not one too disconnected from the world.  Perfect.  Although as he selected the hotel where he’d do it, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the room itself had chosen him too…

Who remembers that film ‘Suicide’ (2001), where we watched people topping themselves, one after the other, for the purpose of entertainment on a website?  It was a downbeat and bleak affair if ever there was one.  This tale has a similar vibe.  A rundown guy who’s just had enough with it all.  Much of the tale is delivered through his thoughts, ponderings and ideas on how to do the deed.  However, there’s more to this short than just one man plotting his own death.  Kane edges the narrative towards something akin to the opening story of Clive Barker’s ‘Books Of Blood: Volume I’ (1984).  The end result is an emotionally heavy and deeply unsettling read, with a real touch of humanity pumping through its razor-ready veins.  Incredibly well written and hauntingly executed.

The short story was first published within the ‘Voices’ (2008) anthology.

Funeral For A Friend – 12 Pages
It was time for Arnold Wendell to give his eulogy to his late friend and employer – Edward Forbes.  Up at the front of the church, Arnold looked out at the gloomy faces of the man’s friends, family and employees, all there for the funeral of a man who played such a role in their lives.  Over the fifteen years he’d known Edward, the millionaire businessman had become Arnold’s closest friend.  Ever since he started working at Forbes’, Arnold had admired Edward, worshipped him, imitated him even.  It was that which triggered Arnold’s obsession to get rid of him.  Jealousy of his life, his wife, his family.  It turned to hatred.  And here he was, mid-speech at his friend’s funeral, wracked with guilt.  Guilt for what he’d done…

The sombre stories continue like an unwavering funeral march.  Here we have a short tale built around our narrator and his relationship with his recently deceased friend and employer.  It’s a classic premise, one of rising jealousy that mutates into an obsessive hatred.  You kind of know where the story’s likely to be heading, however, that doesn’t detract at all from this incredibly well told tale.  The characters are the key.  Kane paints such an exquisitely real picture of the deceased man’s life, and the relationship our narrator shared with him.  However, the creeping twist Kane slowly tip toes into the story is one borne of masterfully crafted horror.  Thoroughly compelling and utterly convincing until the blood-chilling last word.

The short story was first published within Kane’s ‘Ghosts’ (2013) short story collection.

Masques – 24 Pages
Dr Stéphane Rollin was unequivocally the youngest medical genius of his generation.  As the Senior Consultant at St Auguste’s teaching hospital, Rollin’s skills had put him in high regard and wealth.  Although he had one major flaw.  A flaw he dared not share with others, not even his ex-model girlfriend, Camille.  The problem was, that he let work get to him: he cared to the point where he could see faces of the handful of people he’d not been able to help over the years.  But one case worried him the most.  It played on his mind, night and day.  Consuming his dreams, distracting him from everything else.  It involved a strange virus appearing to have originated from an isolated farm in the south of the country.  The family there died together in a truly horrific way.  Their lifeblood haemorrhaging out of their pores.  Rollin was desperate to find a cure for this Red Death.  Frantic to rid his mind of the featureless faces of its victims.  A mask of blood always obscuring their faces.  A crimson red masque…

Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ (1842) for Maria Grazia Cavicchioli’s tribute to Poe anthology ‘Return Of The Raven’ (2009), Kane’s story is one cloaked in oppressive unease and sweat-inducing suspense.  Told from the perspective of this medical doctor genius, the tale gradually, but very purposefully, gains momentum in the unveiling of this terrifyingly contagious horror.  Furthermore, having read the tale during the COVID-19 pandemic, the premise now feels far too close for comfort.  Indeed, it’s only the gruesome death attributed to Kane’s virus which takes a step away from the atmosphere of the current real-life situation.  Feeding the story, Kane keeps to many of the traits of Poe’s original, such as the multicoloured rooms featuring within our protagonist’s nightmarish visions.  It’s a marriage of tribute and ingenious creativity.  A masterclass in reawakening a horror to a new audience.

The short story was first published within the ‘Return Of The Raven’ (2009) anthology.

Mr. D – 22 Pages
Mr D was the name he’d picked up because of his line of work.  The name he’d finally come to accept.  He was the best at what he did.  To some he was the ultimate assassin, perhaps not even human…indestructible.  The job he was now on was to be his ultimate challenge.  His definitive target.  One last job he told himself.  One last hit.  If he pulled this off he would be a legend, someone who would go down in history.  But first he had to get through the guards.  His target was well fortified.  However, Mr D was confident in his abilities.  He was after all, the ultimate hitman.  The ultimate dealer of death…

Kane can turn his hand to so many different styles and produce outstandingly engaging stories with each.  Here’s another prime example.  An action-packed hitman story that makes a Schwarzenegger film look like an episode of ‘Country File’.  Literally within a page or two we’re flung into a non-stop assault on this heavily fortified residence, with bodyguards dropping like flies at the hands of this sole assassin.  A sort of souped-up ‘Léon’ (1994), with more gun fights and hand-to-hand combat than ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969) and ‘Blade’ (1998) played at double-speed.  Yes, there’s violence and muscle-flexing John Woo style fighting sequences aplenty, but there’s also a very Kane twist waiting for you at the crescendo to this lavish ballet of bloodshed.  It’s an adrenaline-fuelled maelstrom of bullet-riddled mayhem with so much to take in, it’s like an action-junkies tsunami.  An overload of your senses.  And so, so much fun.

The Lazarus Condition – 107 Pages
Seven years ago, Matthew Daley’s life came to a tragic end.  The perpetrator to his death had never been caught.  Then, from out of nowhere, seven years later Matthew’s knocking on his mother’s front door.  Irene Delay has no idea what’s going on.  This man claiming to be her dead son is standing before her.  But she saw him buried at his funeral.  How could this man, this spit of her deceased son, truly be him?  After the police come and take him away, their interviews with the man draw a blank.  And before they know what’s happening, the mysterious man claiming to be Matthew Daley escapes custody.  Detective Chief Inspector Steven Robbins and Dr Bethany Preston will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this impossible case.  Together the two of them will cast aside all sense of logic, to follow leads that would seem crazy to anyone else.  But somehow the unbelievable seems the only logical explanation.  If it’s true, if this man truly is Matthew Daley, then how could he be up and walking around?  And more importantly, why has he returned from the grave?...

Once in a blue moon you come across a story that’s so captivating, so compelling, that every moment of reading the story you feel you’re actually right there, within the tale.  This really is one of those.  It’s so well written, so masterfully told, the fiction persuades you its something more.  Much of this is down to the dialogue.  It’s so genuine, every word spoken, every doubt aired by these mystified characters, has an air of absolute realistic plausibility about it.  It really is a masterpiece of storytelling.  Impeccably told, with a narrative that carries you along in a whirlwind of unravelling mystery.

The story’s intrinsically character-driven, with a handful of key players in the overall plot.  Each have a role to play, but its ultimately DCI Robbins and Dr Beth Preston who head up the investigation.  But their refusal to accept the implausible truth doesn’t slow down the story one iota.  Instead Kane flickers between his relatively small cast of characters, to keep the full force of the momentum going.

The mystery behind it is of course the main driving factor.  And Kane doesn’t disappoint with his eventual reveal.  It’s less horror and more a story of mystery and suspense, wrapped up in multiple layers of magnificently well-developed human emotions.  Ultimately this is a story that will yank at your heartstrings as much as it will enthral you with the clandestine mystery.  The added elements of subtle biblical suggestions only thicken the fog further.  In a good way mind.  This truly is an impeccably written story with a beating heart of true human emotion behind it.

The story was first published as the standalone publication ‘The Lazarus Condition’ (2007).

The Shadow Of Death – 13 Pages
Nobody knows who he really is; how can they?  How can people possibly comprehend who, or what, he is?  He is the shadow that at some point passes over all of us, obliterating life as it goes.  The young, the old, the clever and the stupid.  Good or evil, he makes no distinction.  There is only him.  He is the constant, the unseen companion who walks with us all.  Waiting.  Forever ready to be called upon.  Ready to do the one thing that’s the only certainty in our lives.  However, it makes his existence lonely.  Feared and despised.  Dreaded by all.  Nevertheless, he’d once been in love.  A girl named Lily had stolen his heart, although she didn’t even know it. She had no idea of the effect she’d had, until he’d done what needed to be done.  That’s always how it went.  After all, he was the inevitable…

The last short story is the collection is a sombre, introverted affair, that reads more like a poetic confession than a traditional story.  It’s told through the voice of this all-powerful being – the one who waits for our time to come.  The taker of lives.  To be honest, the story reads like something akin to Barker’s ‘Mister B. Gone’ (2007), although missing the wonderful black comedy relief Barker injected.  Our narrator certainly isn’t as quick-witted as the demonic Mister B. Gone.  In fact, Kane’s character is far less developed.  More a rambling self-obsessed reaper of souls, than anything resembling a proper character for the reader to connect with.  Although some of this is quite purposeful, due to the twist Kane has in store for you.  It’s intriguing and delightfully well-written.  Although maybe missing some of the instantly engaging draw that the preceding short tales in this collection delivered.

The short story was first published within the ‘Expiration Date’ (2015) anthology.

Bonus Material:
One For The Road (Script for the Play) – 55 Pages
As a final bonus offering, we have the full play script for the adaptation of Kane’s short story ‘One For The Road’ (see above review).  The play centres on its four cast members – Famine, Pestilence, War and Death.  Aside from the barman (who doesn’t really have a part in the play) there’s really no other characters.  Indeed, the script is wholly focused upon the conversation between these four horsemen of the apocalypse, as they sit around their table in this pub out on the moors in the middle f nowhere (or rather, in the middle of everywhere).  Being a play, it’s far more dialogue-driven than the original short story.  The conversation between the four of them is packed with wit and surreal banter.  As such, their conversation explores many more avenues than the short did, such as the arrival of War in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968).  It’s all incredibly entertaining and makes for one witty yet quietly poignant read. Here’s hoping the play will be performed again sometime. 

The play was first performed at FantasyCon 2015 in Nottingham.

DLS Summary:
If you’ve read through each of the above reviews, you’ll have a fair idea how fucking awesome this collection is.  There’s not one filler in there.  Just quality story after quality story, each showcasing Kane’s incredible ability at adopting different styles and genres.  The creativity on show throughout the collection is exceptional.  Each story reflects a whole new idea, often incorporating many layers and intricate avenues for Kane and the reader to explore.  However, for me at least, the collection’s key strength is with the prose, dialogue and execution within each story.

‘The Lazarus Condition’ is nothing short of a masterclass in how to make an unbelievable story believable.  Honestly, Kane’s writing is that good.  We’ve also got tales full of imagination and unique flare, such as with ‘Lifelike’.  Then there’s the high-octane thrills and spills of ‘Mr. D’, along with Kane trying his hand at some over-the-top superhero antics in ‘The Return Of Mortis-Man’.  Trust me, the list goes on.

However, one thing’s for sure with this collection: you will not be bored.  The entertainment factor alone is through the veritable roof.  There are so many characters to get to know, so many devious plots, so many faces of the ultimate companion in life: Death.

Quite simply, this collection truly is an exceptional read.

The collection runs for a total of 385 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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