Book Review: Taff’s Little Black Spots, fun but uneven

The cover of Little Black Spots is immediately striking. I’d never heard of author John F.D. Taff before, but when the hype train started to chug-a-chug and choo-choo, it didn’t matter a lick. The cover—which I wasn’t even sure if I liked—was still acid-etched into my brain. I guess that’s how marketing works, because when I got the opportunity to review Taff’s collection, I couldn’t help but let my curiosity take the wheel. An irresistible urge, as old as judging-books proverbs—I had to know what that art represented.

Taff, apparently, is only new to me, because upon opening Little Black Spots (from Grey Matter Press, who, from looking at their cadre of titles, might have a distinctively-styled house artist), we have complimentary quotes from a number of horror mid-names and big-names, including one of my personal favorites, the late and extremely talented Jack Ketchum. Going in, this was what I needed. A familiar talent that I could align with John F.D. Taff, only because going in—and this is where the cover art becomes a more ambiguous accolade—I had no idea what sort of horror Mr. Taff was sending to press. Was he erotic? Gothic? Splatterpunk? Literary? Cosmic? Or was he some sort of new and exciting amalgam of all of these? Was he the writer who would pop out of his whack-a-mole hole and become my most exciting authorial find since Matthew M. Bartlett?

The truth, as it happens to be, is always less exciting. Little Black Spots is a sometimes very good collection that loses consistency as it chug-a-chugs along. And unfortunately, the sureness of what will come ahead dissipates fairly quickly.

The opening story, “The Immolation Scene,” is lyrical, melancholy, and painfully human. Which is to say, that Taff’s “King of Pain” moniker is at least partly earned—even if I think the title itself is a little gauche. In it, spontaneously combustible people come together and try to make sense of their existence. They fight, fuck, cry, and try to find meaning in their lives, the two main characters learning together how far they can take their love before it literally consumes them, and also: if maybe that’s what they really wanted all along. It’s a fantastic story, and introduces Taff as a lyrical writer in the style of Ray Bradbury, whose prose always seemed to sing off the page in rhythmic cadences. Steve Rasnic Tem is another stylistic influence, where scenes played out as Raymond Carver dramas in the midst of Kafka’s weird.

But then, everything you’ve learned about John F.D. Taff is thrown away. The next story is a tonal sharp turn. Good, but not at all congruent with our first introductions to Taff’s style. This—at the second story of the collection—is where the tone of the collection starts to fall apart, where it seems clear that this is just a collection of stories, and not a cohesive vision from start to finish. “The Bunny Suit” is a sharp fall from the more high-brow opener, a rather simple (but yes, still fun) story about a couple wearing Halloween costumes, until one of them (gasp), won’t take it off. From there, the man’s wife becomes a walking, talking rabbit and through this change we discover more disturbing details about the man himself. It’s a good story with a tired core, that thrives because of where Taff takes it, and moreso: how far he is willing to go. Which is, not to bury the lead, bunny sex.

Unfortunately, “The Bunny Suit” is so far removed from “The Immolation Scene,” that it’s hard to think of them in the same collection. And that’s a continuing problem with Little Black Spots, as through most of its length it can’t decide whether it wants to be trashy and vicious, or lyrical and literary—and it fails and succeeds in both at equal measures. From the pedestrian serial killer flash “Their Hands,” to the bloated and uninteresting “Gethsemane, in the Rain,” it’s frustratingly clear that even with a consistent tone, the storytelling is woefully inconsistent.

Still, there are a number of highlights here. “Purple Soda Hand” is the sort of story that you could see showing up in a twisted Twilight Zone episode, and it appropriately captures the down-to-earth spooky ambience of Richard Matheson. It’s a silly story at its core (and fun fact: dedicated to Josh Malerman) about a weird bottle of grape soda with a tiny amputated hand floating in it, but it’s told effectively and becomes one of the highlights of Little Black Spots. “The Bitches of Madison County” is another strong contender in the late-middle of the collection, and here we get to see Taff writing a more specific character, a voyeur. It’s creepy, weird, and manages to pull off an ending that is disturbing while also feeling earned.

Even his final story, another stylistic outlier, is pretty good. In it, Taff imagines an alternate history, where President Lincoln does not win reelection and therefore does not get assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. It’s not high art by any means, but it’s an interesting story about how fate tends to sort itself out. There’s plenty of interesting historical details abound, and while I don’t think it transcends into the realm it wants to, I do think it succeeds as a fun Twilight Zone thought experiment.

Little Black Spots is the product of a good writer with a bad internal (or even external) editor. But, that’s hardly a unique case. If you read horror for its shocks and macabre conceits, you may find Little Black Spots as a worthy contender for a spot on your shelf (probably near Bentley Little, if I had to take a guess). At his best, Taff’s writing is lyrical, melancholy, and more often than not: just plain fun. But at its worst, perfunctory and completely un-captivating. But, if you’re already a fan of Taff, or think you could be if you tried, there’s enough to love here to sate long term devotees and maybe even recruit a few more.

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