Is there any style or genre that M. Christian can’t (or won’t) write in? After reading this very fine short story collection from one of today’s most prolific professionals, I’m leaning heavily towards “no”. The ‘m’ in M. Christian seems to stand for “multi-faceted”, or possibly “mega-multi-tasker”. The guy certainly is versatile, as well as daring, imaginative, often funny, and seldom—if ever—unentertaining, one of those writers who seems to be everywhere at once, though if he has, in fact, cracked the saintly secret of bi-location, he’s not talking.
Readers get a broad sense of Christian’s incredible range in “Love Without Gun Control”, the author’s 2009 self-compiled and –published collection of short fiction, most of which originally appeared in genre anthologies, now-defunct niche-specific literary magazines and long-since cached or dead-linked websites. These fourteen stories run a dizzying—and impressive—gamut of mood and style, each with its own carefully measured ratio of light to shadow, buoyancy to seriousness, horror to humor, and hope to despair.
Christian has clearly learned from, and distilled the essence of the best examples of twentieth-century American fiction, everything from Ray Bradbury and Jack Kerouac to Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King. He does not shy away from his influences, but has wisely allowed them to sing through him as he delves the deep, sometimes silly recesses of the American psyche. The title story is a broad, campy social satire in addition to being a pitch-perfect sendup of old Western movies and TV shows, while “Wanderlust” and “Orphans” pay dark homage to the uniquely American mythos of “the road”—think Steinbeck’s musings on Route 66 in “The Grapes of Wrath”, or the arid, windswept, dread-haunted vistas of Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” and “The Stand”.
In “Needle Taste”, Christian shows that he is no less adept at horror of the decidedly psychological variety. Techno-thriller melds seamlessly with High Fantasy in “The Rich Man’s Ghost”; political satire meets The Zombie Apocalypse in “Buried with the Dead”, while knotty existential drama and the classic Post-Apocalyptic narrative come together in “1,000”, and “Nothing So Dangerous”, a story of love and betrayal in a time of revolution. Perhaps my favorite stories in this collection are the beautiful, elegiac, Bradbury-esque “Some Assembly Required,” a narrative at once clever and poignant, and the brilliantly breezy “Constantine in Love”:
“It was called The Love Shack, and it sold all kinds of obvious things: candy, flowers, poetry books, jewelry, balloons, perfume, lingerie, and many other sweet, frilly, and heart-shaped items. It stood alone, bracketed by two vacant lots. Its busiest days were just before Valentine’s and Christmas. It was described by many newspapers and tourist guides as “. . . the place to go when love is on your mind.”
The night was dark, the place was closed. The streets were quiet.
Then the Love Shack exploded—with a fantastic shower of fragmented chotchkes, and flaming brick-a-brack, it went from a shop dedicated to amore to a skyrocket of saccharine merchandise. Flaming unmentionables drifted down to land in smoking heaps in the middle of the street, lava flows of melted and burning chocolate crawled out for the front door, teddy bears burned like napalm victims, and cubic zirconia mixed with cheap window glass—both showering down the empty, smoldering hole that used to be the store . . .”
I do have a few complaints as well. In several of these stories, I found myself wishing for a stronger editorial hand. The text needs a good, personally-detached copyedit. Several otherwise excellent stories (“Hush, Hush”; “1,000”; “Friday”) are simply too long to effectively maintain the emotional impact for which the author aims. I found them overly repetitive and rather dull, with the narrative lines collapsing into nebulous incoherency. After all, the “short” in short fiction should be a clue to the essence of the form; all unnecessary baggage and ballast summarily jettisoned to achieve an economy of language, and, with it, maximum expression. Christian is an established and well-respected editor in his own right, but no matter how skillful or perceptive an author may be as an editor of other people’s work, when it comes to self-editing, even the best and brightest have their blind spots.
Still, there’s far more to like and admire in this collection than to kvetch about or pan. Readers will be well-rewarded for what is, in the end, a ridiculously modest price of admission.