My book review for Dancing With Tombstones first appeared in The Horror Zine. It is reposted here with permission.
Turns out evocation is a good word to describe Michael Aronovitz’s collection of short stories and one novella in Dancing with Tombstones. Sure, there are the de rigueur sudden or drawn-out deaths, but then there are power tools wielded and heavy machinery painfully bumped in to. In-between all that his girls, psychos, martyrs, sacrificial lambs, students and teachers, and unbeknownst victims dance closer to their graves’ edges before toppling in. It is especially in the academic milieu where he nails it, from actual experience, along with some hands-on knowledge of power tools and heavy construction, oddly enough.
His love for tools and tech stretches from Toll Booth—where heavy construction figures in—a story told in flashback where the ghost is alluded to while the tired-of-living main character does all the haunting of himself, and Soul Text—where cool tech turns hot—a convergence of instant access, social media, and a special neural implant, all colliding into quite a freak-out. Where Toll Booth executes a neat little trick that Aronovitz pulls off with a bit of heavy machinery, a mean hand at dialog and inner monologuing, and a bad bully-buddy relationship as the instigator for the downward spiral that begins with one bad act too many, Soul Text lulls us into a potentially real problem to play with our heads because of our childlike acceptance of tech. If you thought Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 wall-sized televisions were prescient of where we are heading as a society, you aint’ seen nothin’ yet until you read Soul Text.
The dénouements and dire situations evoked through his characters’ thoughts, words, and points of view will make you loosen your collar a little and have you listening more attentively for unusual sounds as you read. Do not fight it: you will succumb to their words and aching lives and unpleasant quietuses with a knowing nod of guilty satisfaction. His people know or should know, or do not want to know, and there lies the bare bodkin each in turn plunges and twists into themselves. Aronovitz has a knack for extending the twisting part and shortening the plunge, driving home the terrors faced in this collection with a nonchalant yet poetic turn. Perhaps a little too well as he stalls the terror until it creeps in towards the end, suddenly, to wreak its havoc.
Unless he is writing about serial killers, however.
With them he extends the terror throughout, as in The Exterminator and The Matriarch. Between evil clowns and “they all look like Mama” he cracks open the minds of his killers cleanly, in a judicious use of words and descriptions that capture the craziness with a matter-of-fact approach that is unsettling as they crack open their victims. Interesting tidbit: The Matriarch later turned into a pre-chapter for his novel Phantom Effect. In The Matriarch he delivers perhaps the best and most concise fictional witness statement put to print. It comes at the end and goes to the dark heart of experiencing real terror. It will leave an impression.
His plentiful terrors, both large and small, begin with a teacher, in How Bria Dies, who whips up a spooky tale for his unruly middle schoolers, but one so good it evokes something bad. His last terror ends with The Boy in the Box, a lose-win-lose hometown baseball story that gets the boy out of the gear box and onto the field, but that box lies waiting all summer long for a replacement. In the Girl Between the Slats, a surgically structured plot twists into an unexpected personal tragedy stretching three years of delusion and avoidance. In Puddles, an obsessive-compulsive paranoia leads to an improper use of an industrial shop-vac. Clearly, Aronovitz should never be left alone in a Home Depot.
Put to more proper and skillful use are his choice of words, which elevate his stories to a unique balance between the show and the tell, the basic challenge of fiction writing. His paragraphs give both internal thoughts and external actions and situations a depth that is vivid with emotions, that emanate from his characters but, in turn, are then invoked in his readers. An example can be found in How Bria Died, where the word “juking” is used as in “He was in the far corner of the room listening to his iPod, juking his head a bit…” Not many writers would use the word. It’s North American, informal, and means to do a sham move; or, it’s Northern English, Scottish, and means to turn or bend quickly to avoid something. Now think about it. The sentence imagery has the character listening to an iPod, presumably shaking his head to the beat of the music. Either definition you choose, you can see the character’s head bobbing a little up and down or doing a slight downward side tilt, back and forth, like a prize fighter shying away from a well-aimed glove. One simple word, yet he gets maximum impact for imagery in the mind’s eye of the reader.
Here's another interesting example from Toll Booth. “The woman and I shucked hard against each other.” Not many writers would use “shuck,” either, especially in the way Aronovitz does. It’s North American and has a slang meaning, but it usually means the outer covering of corn or shellfish. Its past tense means to remove the outer covering or husk. The way it is used in the sentence is curious. Especially when you realize the woman mentioned is dead. It almost has a sexual connotation given the sentence’s rhythm, but there appears to be a more direct relationship-driven implication here. Perhaps you will figure it out, but only after you read the story to learn more about that unfortunate relationship.
He broadens his approach with more careful choice of words like “Rayovac” (a brand of flashlight for you newbies), “Bazooka” (bubble gum that came with a Bazooka Joe mini-comic), “bent up Genesee Cream ale bottle cap” (soda bottled in Rochester, New York, from 1960), “Good and Plenty” (licorice candy that also had a cartoon character called Choo-Choo Charlie): not just words, but specific products that evoke a location, an age, an environment, and an identity for the narrator more so than simply saying “flashlight” or “bubble gum” or “bottle cap” or “licorice” could ever do. Possibly even evoking a sense of nostalgia in some readers that translates to an emotional tug, connecting them with the character. A sneaky way to endear yourself to your readers, but an effective one because it is so subtle.
One could summarily say that Dancing with Tombstones is filled with teachers making bad choices, kids making bad choices, kids with special needs not being given those choices, and crazies making bad choices for themselves and everybody near them. All those bad choices create bad outcomes, horrible outcomes in so many splendidly imaginative ways. And Aronovitz loves to make you suffer through it all through his honed knives of words and handy power tools of plotting structure. You will love it too.
Eventually. Once you get past the terror of it all.
Thanks, Sally! I'm sure you will enjoy it.
Posted by: jmc | June 23, 2022 at 11:44 AM
What a great review! I’ll be sure to pick up this book! This article showed up in my twitter feed.
Posted by: Sally | June 23, 2022 at 09:51 AM