Book: The Book of a Thousand Sins
Author: Wrath James White
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, extreme horror
Why I Consider This Book Odd: This book is not odd in the way many of the quirky, weird, off-beat and off-kilter books I review here often are. This book is only odd in that it is of an extreme, and that extreme is horror. This ain’t a book for the squeamish and the extremity of the content is what I think makes it fodder for my odd mill.
Availability: Published by Two Backed Books in 2005, it appears not to be in print any more since the imprint itself is no longer in business. You can, however, still score a copy on Amazon if you don’t mind paying at least twice cover price:
Comments: Wrath James White interests me on a personal level. Admittedly, all I know of him is what he puts online about himself and what he reveals about himself in interviews. He is someone I can see sharing a beer with, and talking religion and philosophy into the wee morning hours. He’s an interesting man with an unusual life arc and based on what I had seen of him and what others writers say about him, I bought blind three of his books. Not unusual for me. Before Richard Laymon died, I knew nothing about him but bought five of his paperbacks I stumbled across in a used bookstore based solely on the covers. I am a bibliophile and the -phile part makes me take chances on the unknown.
So, I had three White books, and one was his collaboration with one of my favorite horror writers, Edward Lee. The book, Teratologist, was possibly the most disappointing book I read in 2008, and I paid an arm and a leg online to get a signed, hardcover copy. I had not read a single review of it when I bought it and likely would have bought it even had I read a few but even so, I did not enjoy it. The book couldn’t even keep the names of the characters straight, sometimes getting the names wrong, as well as misspelling them (“Michael” frequently became “Micheal,” sometimes in the same page). I am a picky reader – every book on the planet has a couple of errors, and I am that snotty reader who generally notices them – but the grammar, spelling and punctuation in Teratologist were egregious to the point of distraction. Problematically, the topic was also a miss for me, a contrived and unlikely attempt to force a confrontation with God via the creation of human monsters using a vile drug that mutates the human sex drive. The grandiose and philosophically questionable nature compelling the book’s plot put me off. I bought my White books in 2008 and after reading Teratologist, I put the others away. I recently discovered them in the back of my nightstand cupboard, pulled them out and decided to give it a go. The Book of a Thousand Sins was strike two.
I always feel odd giving bad reviews on fiction, even when I emphatically think a book is not good. It is one thing for me to pull apart non-fiction books on conspiracy theory and new-age nonsense that asserts the soul of Einstein is on the planet Marduk. It is another to find fault in fiction because all fiction comes from a place of inner experience and not to like fiction is, in a sense, finding fault with the author him or herself, even if that is probably not the best way to look at things.
There were three overarching problems I had with The Book of a Thousand Sins, and they are:
1) The stories all had a common theme, not unexpected to be sure, but themes that became a bit repetitive and seemed unoriginal once you had a couple of stories under your belt. The themes are that there is no God and life is suffering and pain, or that there is a God and/or Hell, both are out to get you and life is suffering and pain. In one story, White’s riff on these themes was amazing, and I will get to that in a moment, but overall, the approach at times seemed heavy-handed and repetitive.
2) There is a passivity in reading White that is alienating. Too much of the plot in some of the stories comes from dialogue, or in some cases, monologue. I am not one to tell anyone to show and not tell, because it is a cheap criticism, all too often used when people just don’t like a book and need something to base that dislike on. This was not the case with White’s stories, when much of the plot came from dialogue. This was especially difficult because when White writes in a realm of action, his prose is quite good.
3) When you combine White’s tendency to tell the story via dialogue with White’s themes, you can also end up feeling preached at, an uncomfortable feeling when reading. I often found myself mentally blipping over large chunks of the dialogue when this preachy sense crept up on me. There is a didactic nature to some of the speeches that makes White’s exciting concepts boring.
I won’t discuss all the stories, but in my typical manner of review, I will begin with the bad and end with the good.
The story I had the most problems with, flat out, was “A Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man.” The problems were varied, but the three main problems I had with this collection plagued this piece. That there is no real life after death and that life is suffering is the theme, as is revenge, but I don’t want to spoil the story by discussing that in length. Much of the story is told via the priest expounding about his philosophical views on life and death. About half the story is simply the priest going on at length. The preachiness was heavy in this story.
But this story was plagued by other issues. For any reader with basic knowledge of Islam, White telegraphed the ending in the first paragraph. I knew roughly how it was going to end two lines in. In horror, as in all writing, there is nothing new under the sun but this story did seem very transparent to me. I also wondered about some of the details. A priest is having a coherent conversation with a man who had been recently trached. Okay, unlikely a person with a trach tube could talk that easily but it could happen, as the vocal chords still work. But combine that trach tube with terminal third degree burns and an oxygen tent, the patient would have been too doped up to be able to speak or in such agonizing pain that a coherent back and forth would have been impossible. Additionally, the MPs guarding the dying man would never have let a man, even a military priest, carry a parcel of bloody meat into a patient’s room. My own military man in residence confirmed this very unrealistic plot point. So the story was factually a bit off, preachy, long-winded at times and consisted mostly of dialogue that revealed the plot. I admit it is hard to have much action in a hospital room, but there are ways of structuring plot to avoid issues like this. This story just was overwhelmed by too many parts that did not work well.
“Awake” was a tale told almost entirely through dialogue, and this one, while taking place in a prison cell, could easily have unfolded without the story being told via one character delivering a monologue of the action. Again, it questioned the nature of Godhead, and it seemed bizarre to me that when a man realizes that he has achieved a personal level of deification, the response to this is to violently run amok. This is horror, and extreme horror at that. Running amok is perfectly acceptable here. Hell, even encouraged. But the cause and effect seemed off to me.
The story from which the title of the book is derived, “The Book of a Thousand Sins” wore thin for me. Again, we see the theme of Hell and man’s interaction with the physical and metaphysical world being nothing but pain, but this time, those who are in pain enjoy it. I think this story I just chalked up to me not getting, or simply not liking, but even when one does not like a story, I don’t think it is fair to sniff, “Well, it just wasn’t for me!” I disliked this story because for me the characters made no sense. A master-servant relationship becomes marred when the man, called Lord, cannot be the bottom to the woman, Anja, in a switch relationship. Anja stumbles across a legendary rare book that explains how one can sin one’s way into leadership in Hell, and I suspect that it harked back too much to Teratologist for me to wholly like it. But I never understood how the sexual failure between the pair sparked such hatred on Anja’s part. Her loathing for Lord and desire to punish him made no sense to me, but I suspect I was expecting more sanity than the characters possessed. Anja was unhinged, it just never was clear to me why.
Some of White’s prose is slightly baroque, but this story veered into near-purple on several occasions. Lord, a very tall, very well-built black man is so handsome all sexes fawn over him, want to have sex with him and serve him, and find his cruelty so exquisite they are willing to die at his hands. That the physical appearance of Lord and White seems so similar left me with an uneasy feeling, though nothing that White reveals online comes close to resembling the megalomaniac Lord. Still, it was not unlike if I wrote a story about a short, pudgy woman with too many cats and how she achieved global domination via her cookie-making charms.
Still, I think it was the excessive prose that really hammered me on this one. Take this passage:
Lord shouldered his way through the crowd, ignoring the leering stares and not-too-subtle come-ons from the made-up masochists that were drawn to the furious heat of his passion, which blazed like a sun in this dark pit where everyone else seemed only slightly more passionate than the average married couple. They drooled over his powerful musculature, imagining the intense agony and fathomless pleasure such a body would be capable of meting out. Other doms looked upon him with envy and some dared to imagine what it would be like to top such a man. Lord looked upon them all with a disdainful sneer, meeting their eyes until each one bowed their heads and looked away, subs and doms alike. To call Lord a dominant was like calling a tsunami a wave. He was so much more than that.
There are elements of the above paragraph that would be more at home in a Black Lace novel. There are elements that would be a perfect description of every distant but haughty male in romance novels. The prose was just too… too much, I guess.
“Couch Potato” was a story that had too much dialogue propelling the action as well, but this one was hit and miss. The mental degeneration that the protagonist suffers at the end due to excessive television consumption was both horrific and hilarious, a difficult combination that White managed quite well. It was just hampered by half the story being conversation, some of it stiff. Again, the narrative could have been far better propelled by just telling the protagonist’s story, not engaging in so much dialogue.
“Don’t Scream” had the element of Hell being out to get you, but this tale fared far better than some of the others with similar themes. My only quarrel is that White’s plots sometimes have twists, elements that derail the power of the narrative. This one was active, visceral, disgusting and horrifying, and that the protagonist is in Hell is understood without the TWIST ending spelling it out. It made me wonder what the hell Hell really is in the context to where a man is in literal Hell but still goes to the emergency room and gets canned from work. Still, overall, this story’s whole beat out the flawed parts.
“A Friend in Need” needed to stop about three paragraphs sooner than it did. A nasty, fun piece about a werewolf on the run in the ‘hood, getting help from an old friend, was one of the stronger pieces until the very end, when, in my opinion, the friend, who was degenerate and debauched in a manner all his own, does something that does not seem in keeping with his character. He was suspicious of his werewolf friend and appalled by the whole scenario. That he ultimately does what he does seemed odd to me. He was a criminal badass all his own and did not need to take the steps he did. I just didn’t get it. At times, I wondered if my failure to connect with White’s characters was to blame for my lack of enthusiasm, but then I would connect with some and sensed that perhaps the problem did not lie entirely with my perception.
“Fly” was another story that the ending, for most readers of horror, was sort of clear from halfway through, but ultimately, this story was fun, a demented, serial killer tit for tat. The narrative was active and the ending, while predictable, was predictable in a way that in no way distracted from the whole of the piece.
Now for the stories I don’t have criticism for or damn with faint praise.
“Resurrection Day,” was a multi-layered tale of the dead come back to life, but this is no run-of-the-mill zombie tale. Told in a style where the action unfolds organically and not through conversation, it was a gripping story. And because White kept in check his tendency to let characters expound at length on his clear areas of interest, the moral impact of the piece is a fist in the gut, an exploration of what it means to be human, and what it means for life to have meaning because it must end at some point. I did not see the end coming but it made perfect sense and reading this story was a pleasure.
“My Very Own” also unfolds organically, a lonely, sad man revealing what he is willing to do to never be alone again. Part Dahmer-esque serial killer, part lost child seeking love, this story creates sympathy for the devil. I halfway hoped the protagonist would succeed in his ghastly quest.
The best tale in the collection was “Munchausen by Proxy.” In this piece, all of White’s bailiwicks are at work – God exists and is out to get us and life is suffering and pain, but it is done so cleverly, with so much thought, that the realization of what is happening does not occur to the reader until White reveals his hand. The active prose, telling the story of a woman who is much more than a woman who toys with her sick, dying children, giving some life, making some horribly ill, arbitrarily making decisions that will cause grave suffering, was profound. It was dark, horrible and fascinating.
White, when he controls his dialogue, reveals plot through action, and balances his themes, can write a mean, nasty, disgusting, gripping story. He can make you think and gross you out at the same time, but even when that doesn’t happen, when he is restrained, it keeps you turning the page because even when a story is not wholly new in concept, if it is well-written, it’s hard to find it derivative. And when I mean restrained, I mean keeping certain tendencies under control. He in no way needs to restrain any of the elements that make him an extreme horror writer. His foulness is on point. No quarrel with his tendencies to push that particular envelope because he knows when to do it and how to do it well.
I have a copy of Succulent Prey remaining to be read, I think, and despite my less than satisfactory experiences with two Wrath James White books, I will eventually read it. I’ve read his short stories, I’ve read his collaboration with another writer, and both left me flat. But like food critics visit a restaurant more than once to get the real gist of what the place is like, I feel like I need to read White’s solo, long-form fiction in order to see if I just caught him in two formats that did not suit him as well.