Once again, I find myself this week with the distinct pleasure of reviewing a book written by one of my fellow young authors–this time, an intriguing collection of short stories that might keep you awake at night. Let’s talk about The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever, the first published work by K.C. Hamby!
In this collection of three short stories, the author examines several of the primal fears that make up our human nature, tackling subjects from the pain and consequences of mental illness, the cruelty of people to others, understanding tragedy, and of course simple, deep, psychological terror. The unsettling but fascinating stories are told from three very different points of view: a young girl with a teddy bear unaware of where the real monsters in the world come from; an old-fashioned southern gentleman about to learn the true meaning of fear; and a suffering high school student battling her inner demons. But all examine the pure, unvarnished truth that disturbing things can and often do happen in life, and the many and varied ways in which we try to cope with them.
I’ll break down the stories one at a time here to make my thoughts flow a bit easier.
“The Button-Eyed Teddy Bear” was probably my favorite story of the lot. It was simple, direct, and to the point, confronting us with an obvious but still heartbreaking scenario of a young girl afraid of imaginary monsters, only to lose her parents to a real monster–a human being–who breaks in and kills them. The way the story was written I think perfectly encapsulates the point of view of a small child, with lots of exclamation points–I like to think children think only in exclamation points anyway–and a simple sentence structure. It also plays on that common childhood fear of darkness and monsters under the bed, something we can all completely relate to. And for those who have experienced similar tragedy, that too. I suppose the way it ended should have been obvious, but I wasn’t sure what kind of horror to expect here, so it still did take me a bit by surprise. And like I said, the naive question posed at the end just tears your heart out like it would in real life. Very effective emotional play.
I didn’t enjoy “Johnson Mansion” nearly as much–not just because the subject matter was a bit out of my grasp (plantation-era south), but also because I keep feeling like I missed something here that would make me understand the end result a bit more. I mean, I get that old people can be creepy sometimes, and the story definitely does convey that, but was witchcraft involved? Or was it just the narrator’s own inner turmoil coming out in some way? I wish there was a bit more evidence of either of these things to point us in some concrete direction, and in the end I’m left not sure what to think. I feel like this had the potential to be really good on par with something like Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, but it fizzled out a bit when I wasn’t sure what happened. I think I probably missed something really obvious and that other people might get more out of it than I did, but it was my least favorite of the three stories. Not that it was bad, certainly! It just didn’t work for me the way the others did. I wish it had been a little longer for sure to really build up the suspense and horror aspects.
Now “Eat, Drink, and Be Mary”–that was truly horrifying. I also think it’s the most timely and culturally relevant of the three stories given that it tackles mental illness. Having never suffered from severe mental distress, I can’t say I know what it feels like, but I can’t help but think the agony and anguish felt by the main character, Mary, is probably exactly right. Problems that serious can be completely overwhelming, not to mention the fact that high school isn’t exactly the most healthy social environment in the first place. The alienation, anger, and self-loathing Mary feels is something I think a lot of us can relate to. Maybe not the murderous personality change, but still. I think it’s somewhat of an allegory for the inner battle that mental illness often causes in people, and how difficult it can be to hang on and maintain one’s sanity when you feel no one cares or wants to help you. This was very reminiscent of a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”-type story, and was appropriately suspenseful that up until the end I wasn’t sure whether Mary’s dominant or inner psychotic personality would prevail. This kind of incident is a tragedy I think we see repeated so often in the world today, and makes some good points about how to approach someone with these issues and what kind of culture is healthy or unhealthy for people who may be more sensitive to it.
Okay, so I liked all the stories in varying degrees. But I think the real thing The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever has going for it is how well the author encapsulates the points of view of three vastly different characters/narrators and gives them each their own entirely believable surroundings, reality, and personality. Even something as far removed from my experience as an 1800s southern gentleman was written with such attention to detail that I couldn’t help but be drawn into the stories and feel for the characters in my own way. I think that kind of skill is a rare gift, especially when coming from such different short tales, and it’s definitely the primary strength of the book itself.
My Rating: 8/10
There’s no reason why, if you like good short fiction, you shouldn’t pick up The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever (and you can really easily on Amazon!). You can read it in one sitting, it’s highly engrossing, and covers a variety of times and places that ensure pretty much any reader can find a story that probably speaks to them. Its focus on mental illness, trauma, and horror is done both tastefully and entertainingly enough that I couldn’t put it down until I was finished, and the strength of characterization is really excellent here. I see great things in the future for this author, and look forward to reading more of her work!