Much has already been said about Fran Friel's debut collection, Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales, most of it revolving around the question of how such a nice woman could write such disturbing fiction.
While I have some issues of my own with that question (nice people write disturbing things all the time -- in fact, most of the horror writers I know are incredibly nice and, yes, even normal, people) the answer is actually pretty simple: Fran Friel is a writer, one who's not only in touch with her own vivid imagination, but has learned how to harness it, allow it to run free, and isn't afraid to go where it wants to take her. In a genre that too often relies on the tried-and-true, that's saying a lot, and it sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.
The book is composed of two novellas (including the title story), a group of short stories, flash and micro pieces; and a single poem. Friel's shorter works are both sensitive and powerful, and many of them are eye-openers in terms of proving just how much a limited number of words can accomplish. "Orange and Golden" -- a Katrina-inspired tale of a survivor and a dog -- is especially upsetting and well-done. (And upsetting has become, for me, the gold standard of dark fiction, since so little of it actually scares me any more.) "Close Shave" was another piece that, brief as it is at just 58 words, packs a visceral punch and central image that is still surfacing in my imagination several days later. "Beach of Dreams," with its glorious and hallucinatory opening of monsters washed up on the beach of a South Pacific island, was another favorite and made for a strong introduction to the collection. And "The Sea Orphan" is a well-researched tale that did what I wouldn't have thought possible after that series of disappointing Disney movies -- made me interested in pirates.
Of course, "Mama's Boy" is at the collection's heart, even though it appears at the end. The story was a 2006 Bram Stoker finalist, and I finished it awed by Friel's courage as a writer. The story's subject matter of mother/son incest is nothing less than explosive. Friel tackles the topic with a difficult mix of sensitivity and frankness, with keen observations and often fearless language. As I read it, I often found myself wondering about the questions she must have asked herself during its creation -- "Do I say this?" "Can I take it there?" "Is this possible?" Judging from the results, she answered each one with a resounding "Yes."
One section I especially enjoyed is at the back of the book, where Friel gives notes on each story. Sort of like a DVD's bonus features, she provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at how each piece was conceived, grew and developed, generously crediting the fellow writers and workshoppers who gave her inspiration and guidance along the way.
Friel's publisher, Jason Sizemore at Apex Book Company, also deserves some recognition for putting together a collection that's daring and out of the ordinary in many ways. They've ventured outside the safety zone in several respects with this book, and deserve credit for doing so.
Rumor has it Friel is working on a novel. Based on her work in Mama's Boy... it should be one to look forward to.