DarkFuse, an independent publisher of horror, suspense and thrillers, has a thriving novella series. For $85 per month, you can subscribe to the limited hardcover editions of the novellas, which are published at the rate of two each month. (The subscription also includes a hardcover novel every month.) Only 100 copies are printed, though the works are also available in electronic form. It’s a delight to see a publisher take an interest in publishing this shorter form, which is often exactly the right length for genre works (and for mainstream fiction, for that matter; consider William Faulkner and Henry James), but which is neglected by most publishers.
One of the June 2014 novella offerings is Kelli Owen’s Deceiver, a suspenseful work of dark fiction that opens at a post-funeral gathering. Matt’s wife Tania has been murdered while on a business trip, strangled with a necktie. The police have almost no clues to work with, but they know for sure that Matt didn’t do it; he was flying a commercial jet at the relevant time. Matt has pretty much zoned out, and even though the gathering is being held in his home, he is in no shape to play the gracious host. In fact, he is completely devastated by the loss of his wife. His refuge, for right now, at least, lies in heavy doses of alcohol; it’s the only thing that keeps the nightmares away, and not for very long, either.
The day after the funeral, Matt opens his wife’s suitcase to find a spiral-bound notebook. When he opens it, he doesn’t find the strange doodles he expected, but a journal. He’s not entirely certain he should be reading it, even now, but he can’t help himself. It reads as if she’s right there with him. And it reminds him, almost immediately, of the troubles they’d faced in their marriage when he was — very briefly — unfaithful to her, and how much stronger their marriage was when they came out the other side of anguish, apologies, anger and therapy.
But then the journal takes an ugly turn, and it looks like everything Matt thought he and Tania had built together had a foundation of shifting sand. For the writing in the journal suggests that the woman who wrote it wasn’t just sleeping with every man she could find on the road, but also — well, that would be telling too much.
Owen gives herself enough room in the novella to draw the suspense out in a leisurely fashion. Indeed, sometimes the writing is a bit flabby; we don’t need to know, for instance, about Matt’s visit to the insurance office to collect the life insurance proceeds or his sister-in-law’s attempts to cheer him up. Even with the non-essential details, though, the suspense she creates makes the book impossible to set down. I read it straight through in one sitting, and enjoyed every twist and turn and double-back the plot had to offer. As a long-time mystery reader, I did figure it out before Owen chose to reveal just what’s going on here, but that’s mostly because she sets out sufficient clues for the attentive reader to pick up and decipher.
I should note that this novella is not “horror” in the strictest sense, but more of a suspenseful thriller. Still, I found myself wondering about exactly where we draw that line. When human beings act like monsters, seemingly without motive engaging in the darkest and most final acts, is that not sufficient to hang a “horror” label on a story? Certainly this is a novella that any reader of dark fiction would enjoy.