Reviewed by James La Salandra
DARK DOSES is, as the title suggests, a series of glimpses into the dark imaginings of author Todd Thorne’s mind. If the title and stories themselves aren’t sufficient indicators, the author makes a point of proudly espousing his love for dark and twisted tales. True to his word, in DARK DOSES Thorne delivers seven stories set in bleak futures, featuring sometimes torturous circumstances, characters with darkened hearts, and occasional twists of fate or consequence reminiscent of The Twilight Zone.
Much like the classic Serling production, each story is prefaced by hypothetical questions meant to be explored and answered by the story’s end. Though these notes from the author at times smack of self-promotion, rather than rhetorical premise, they do a fair job of preparing the reader for the story to come.
First on the list is “Chaperone”, a dystopian tale set in a world in which the masses are subjugated and controlled via apparatuses that link their minds to those of the elite. The story follows Jeremy, a young student begrudgingly living under parents as coldly domineering as their society dictates, training to become one of the elite, like his father. It’s during the reader’s first look at what passes for homework in Jeremy’s world that the first “dark dose” is delivered: frustrated with his lot in life, the boy sadistically takes his anger out on his assignment. While it’s clear that the author relishes the opportunity to shock the reader, the severity of Jeremy’s behavior and attitude is off-putting, if for no other reason than its inexplicable nature. There’s little cause to sympathize with the boy’s plight in light of how casually his humanity is cast off, and that for reasons which are never really made clear. The remainder of the story is even harder on the reader’s chances of sympathizing, as the ultimate lesson is delivered to Jeremy in a senselessly cruel way. Make no mistake, these stories are meant to be dark, but one wonders if another story might have been a more intriguing introduction to Thorne’s work. By the end of “Chaperone”, it seems as if the goal is simply darkness for darkness’ sake, which is a disservice to the most of the stories that follow.
“Game Over”, the second in the collection, though the first of Thorne’s to be published, represents the first step toward a better class of story. Here the reader finds Timmy, the son of two utterly self-absorbed parents, callously dragging him along through a vitriolic separation. Timmy is engaged in a literally nightmarish battle of wits with another boy, and the story follows him as he develops what he hopes to be a winning volley. This story, despite some stylistic inconsistency, features as its strong point what could be called a very realistic dream sequence, in that it certainly mimics the confusing and frantic nature of a typical nightmare. This sequence of events is presented in a tense that called to mind the text-based adventures popular during the dawn of the home computing age, which proves quite apt and lends an immersive quality to the story. Here, as with “Chaperone”, there is an element of sadism to the part of Timmy, though it seems much more focused, and more firmly based in the character’s circumstances.
The third story, “Shadows in the Mirror”, is easily the most ambitious in the collection. An excellent example of the cyberpunk genre, the story’s arc covers far more territory, and offers a much more substantial, thorough development of character than any other. The protagonist, Rachel, struggles to free herself from a past lived in virtual reality that has spilled, and continues to spill, dangerously into the realm of actual reality. Though this premise is somewhat fanciful, despite our best efforts to blend cyber- and meatspace, it presents the most believable backdrop for several heaping doses of Thorne’s patented darkness. Rife with a sense of powerlessness in the face of pursuit by a merciless tormentor, and peppered with sexual references that leave one feeling suitably sullied, “Shadows in the Mirror” is a thoroughly rich exploration of a believably grim future. Unfortunately, this story, more than the others, is mired in enough spelling and syntactical errors to threaten the prosaic flow. Even more jarring are the confusingly common references to name-brand items and companies, with appearances by Motorola, ExxonMobile, Starbucks, Bluetooth, Google, IMDb, The Maltese Falcon, even Yosemite Sam. During one harrowing scene, frequent reference is made to Rachel’s “key lime Honda Element”. Aside from its color, the reader is left without any further description of the car, forced to rely on their own familiarity with the make and model in question. Each of these references, though clearly made with purpose, serve only to draw the reader out of the dark cyberpunk fantasy world and into recollection of the last commercial they’ve seen.
“To Soar Free” contains the finest prose of all these DARK DOSES. Alise’s is a tale of the struggle for redemption at the very boundaries between life and death. The descriptions of the desert are remarkably apt, and impart a number of sentiments, now bittersweet, now warm and vibrant. The callous antagonist serves suitable counterbalance to the long-suffering Alise, who inspires more than any of the collection’s characters a deep sense of sympathy from the reader. As the story’s resolution nears, it seems the darkness may finally be lifted, if temporarily. However, in accordance with Thorne’s love of the dark and twisted, this reprieve is but a false hope, and the reader is once more subjected to what seems to be little more than darkness for darkness’s sake.
In “Perfect Soldier” the reader is treated to the tried-and-true archetype of sentient military technology loosed upon an unsuspecting nation. From the very beginning, the story stumbles with a reference to Wal-mart as “the former low-price leader”, which sits very awkwardly amidst a battle between the human protagonist and his seemingly unstoppable opponent as the latter lays waste to its surroundings. As this lopsided battle takes place, so too does a debate over the morality of the military-industrial complex, presenting a sound, if typical, argument against the motivations and circumstances which have led to the current state of affairs. Though not as richly developed as the world of “Shadows in the Mirror”, nor possessed of the fluid prose of “To Soar Free”, “Perfect Soldier” does satisfy, particularly at its climax.
“Playing with Fire”, perhaps the shortest of the stories here collected, is a simple chain of rhetorical question, hypothetical situation, and hypothetical result. It is also, though devoid of the callousness evident in each of the preceding stories, the most egregious example of darkness for darkness’s sake. The story is too brief to allow for any meaningful character development and as such lacks any chance of sinking more deeply than the surface, and as such, there seems little purpose to its inclusion.
Finally, “The Fisherman”, notable for being Thorne’s first story to be published in a major printed periodical, is a story set, as the others, in a bleak, dystopian future. Unlike the others, this story is not bereft of all hope. It is here that Thorne’s reverence for authors who have inspired him is fully realized, the dogged persistence of humanity struggling admirably against an all-too-grim setting. The premise of a dying world is quickly established, and nowhere is Thorne’s execution better. For a collection of passable, if flawed, stories, the greatest disappointment might well be that “The Fisherman” is so brief.
In the end, DARK DOSES is, as promised, an exploration of dark places, concepts, and themes, most of which run consistently throughout each story. However, contrasting these persistent themes, such as those of progeny or otherwise subjugated characters rebelling against harsh, authoritarian parentage or rule, is the author’s stylistic inconsistency, each story seeming as an experiment in voice that apparently never produced satisfactory results. There are certainly glimpses of style and voice which could, with the help of a little proofreading and editing, very well lead to success for this burgeoning author, and it will be interesting to see which of these, if any, will set the tone for his next completed story. Todd Thorne is certainly talented enough to rise from these humble beginnings; only time will tell whether or not he manages to do so.