I’ve read enough Sean Eads to know, upon starting his collection, that I was in for a mix of dark and disturbing tales. With Seventeen Stitches, however, Eads often dialed up both beyond my expectations.
I feel like I should preface that I rarely read horror, and when I do read horror, I shy completely away from zombies as something I know I will never enjoy. Given that many of the stories in Seventeen Stitches are ones I could describe as horror, and more than a few of those are also zombie stories, this collection left me more than a little off-balance.
But let me start in my comfort zones: a few of the stories that fall into speculative fiction more weird than horrific.
“My Father’s Friend” was a standout, where a young man who has long seethed with a hatred for his titular friend of his father—who denies his son anything remotely close to affection—learns that the friend in question is in fact a temporally displaced version of himself, and has to make the choice of whether or not to continue the cycle, given that this is one way he can earn respect and love from his father. The story bubbles with a grim tension and walks the edge of something almost nihilistic.
Of a similar tone is “Living in the Worlds Without You,” where another familial breakdown leaves the reader wondering—in the best way—whether or not grief or something off kilter in the multiverse is at play.
Bending weird further, “The Two Front Ones,” takes Capone-era gangsters, mashes them up with secret organizations, hidden secret plans, and the teeth of the son of an influential man as the McGuffin in question. Ditto “The Alamo Incident,” where a hunter of the beasts of the interior of the newly expanding United States comes face to face with one of the more peculiar “monsterifictions” I’ve ever read.
The weirder and darker the tales go, the more Eads seems to delight in pushing boundaries. I’m not sure I know another author who would make the fairy tale of the Gingerbread Man and cross it with a zombie apocalypse (which, of course, broke out from infected strains of bread dough).
Stepping more into the horrific, Eads presented me with one of the most chilling vampire horror shorts I’ve yet to have read (Previously a title held by Stephen King’s “Popsy”), as well as a succubus story with a dark psychological thrill, a cleverly retold mash-up for a werewolf tale, and even a bridge troll. Blood and guts are definitely on display in many of these tales, even before we get to the zombies. Beyond the gingerbread man story, the other zombie tales include an Oscar Wilde story—“The Revenge of Oscar Wilde”—which I think will test the limits of even the hardest lovers of the zombie genre (it ends the collection on what I can honestly say is the most unique note of all the tales, and not something I imagine most readers have encountered before). Also, there’s the darkly amusing notion of the best hope against zombies being an acting troupe in “To ‘Bie or Not To ‘Bie,” a story where zombies are paralyzed by a good theatre performance, and thus youths are trained as actors to entrance the zombies before beheading them.
For all that horror is not at all my cup of tea (and especially gore and zombies), I know I’m certainly in the minority. Eads has a penchant and talent for twisting the imagination toward the dark, and even those stories that build on familiar ground tend to tilt sideways mid-way. Though not something I’d suggest for readers of lighter speculative fiction fare, if you’re at all a fan of gazing into the darkness and considering what might gaze back, I think you’re a reader who’d be well served by Seventeen Stitches.
Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine