Reviewed by Gary McMahon

The one thing that always strikes me about Kevin L. Donihe's Bare Bone series is the level of craftsmanship apparent in the stories. Each contribution, whether it appeals to me or not, is never anything but well written

Like any collection of prose and poetry, not every contribution is going to hit the mark, but this issue contains many more hits than misses. Not being a poetry man (other than the work of Charles Bukowski), I don't feel qualified to comment on the poems in this book, so I'll concentrate on what I know best: the fiction, or at least what I consider the most memorable stories in the collection.

The opening story sets the pace well. Connor's Menagerie by Benjamin X. Wretlind is a strange, allegorical piece in which its male protagonist picks up a woman who seems to transform into a succession of animals. So far so good.

Things continue to go well; Into the Amniotic Sky by Tim Emswiler is a beautifully rendered, dreamy tale of familial alienation.

With Shame on Me, Gary Fry delivers a typically uncomfortable discourse on the nature of schizoid paranoia. When his protagonist wakes after a heavy night of drink and drugs with an overpowering feeling of guilt, we are drawn into his unravelling psyche. This is Fry at his best: I know this character; I see versions of him around me every day.

Dogfight by Andrew Humphrey is one of the best things here--a beautiful, rich and aching story about a father's relationship with his son, as well as those with his own father, and his grandfather. This wonderful piece of fiction also shows how the boundaries between fact and fiction can sometimes blur. I'm a sucker for father-son stories, and this one's a belter.

If the pace flags with Mark Howard Jones' Mistaken Memory, which is basically a great punchline in search of a story to hang from, then Paul Finch ups the ante once more with the brilliant Elderly Lady Lives Alone. This one is a uniquely disturbing mix of crime noir and creepy psychological horror, with a distinctly British attitude, and ably demonstrates why Finch is one of the best writers the UK small press scene has yet produced.

Muscle Car by Kurt Newton and L.L. Soames is another high quality offering, this one a surreal meditation on the nature of masculinity. The imagery is memorable, and if the ending isn't quite as strong as the build-up then it's a minor niggle.

The mysterious Albie serves up another small-scale classic with Three Hammers. This story constitutes either the ramblings of a tortured mind or a piece of certified genius. Possibly even both. I will say that it gave me a nightmare.

Chris Ringler's The Third Horseman brings down the mood with a bleak character study about a young boy travelling through an America whose populace has been ravaged by an unnamed plague. Thin on plot but rich in detail and with a bleak yet tender pathos, I consider this story another highlight of the issue.

Razor Jack by Tim Curran gives us a hallucinogenic rip through a hellish city that evokes memories of Scorcese's Taxi Driver heightened to a level of surrealism so dark that your fingers come away from the page stained black. Strong stuff, if you can stomach it.

Just to mention the poetry, if not in any great depth: a wide range of dark verse adds to the sense of value-for-money here. And the cover illustration, by Carlton Mellick III, is nicely vague and unsettling.

I'm hardly going out on a limb by saying that Bare Bone is a winner--its continuing appeal is evidence enough of that--but if you've not yet encountered the charm of this great little title, issue #9 is a damn good place to start.

Bare Bone, edited by Kevin L. Donihe and published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, Hyattsville, Maryland, USA. A5, 144pp, $9.95 (for UK price and purchase details please refer to website). Also available from Shocklines

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