And the verdict... Soft is kinda really meh. Which kinda sucks. No way around it: despite some really inventive and unsettling scenarios, Wilson's pedestrian, humdrum prose and tin-eared dialogue dampened any enthusiasm I originally had. His writing isn't terrible, no, just bland, flavorless, middling. Some readers don't mind this and don't read horror to be challenged literarily, but I'm not a fan of letting my brain coast through fiction, and sometimes his "style" is so flatfootedly clunky it snapped me right out of a story. That's the last thing a writer should want. Arranged chronologically, this collection starts off with some ho-hum science fiction tales from the early '70s and finishes up with some trite and obvious '80s horror.
Sorry 'bout the shitty review on your birthday
The titles are stark and simple, which makes them sound menacing: "Traps," "Buckets," "Muscles," "Cuts." Problem is, he's stuck in that cliched EC Comics manner of telling simple, one-dimensional revenge stories, or nasty ones that simply dispatch the protagonist for no other reason than to have a "Twilight Zone" twist at the end, in final sentences which are too hacky to have any real impact. I didn't mind the SF tales "To Fill the Air and Sea," a charming sort of alien Old Man and the Sea, and "Green Winter," which vaguely mines Planet of the Apes territory, they're well-imagined, if derivative. The less we say about the two rock'n'roll pieces, "The Last 'Oldies Revival'" and "The Years the Music Died," the better. Cringeworthy.
Oh Lansing State Journal, my most trusted source of horror lit criticism!
Straight horror can be found in "Ménages à Trois" - which I read years ago in the first Hot Blood anthology - and "Cuts," again, a story I remember from Silver Scream. Straight horror, yes, if more than a little cheesy and predictable. "Traps" is pretty dumb and one-note although the final line strikes a sadly thoughtful moment of real fear and helpless despair. Kirkus may have loved "Dat-Tay-Vao" but I sure didn't; the main character is such a cowardly shitheel I never believed he was a real person. The titular tale works really well even if underwritten in places; it's graphic in just the right and disturbing way and has gained itself many fans in the intervening decades since its first publication in 1984's Masques. Honestly, I had no idea what it was about, and... I'm not inclined to spoil it for y'all! Even the ebook cover won't give it away:
You may have heard of "Buckets," as it achieved some minor notoriety in horror fiction circles for its, uh, indelicate subject matter (it was chosen by Karl Edward Wagner for inclusion in Year's Best Horror Stories 18 and published as a standalone chapbook in 1991 - bought a copy back then, never read it, now can't find it). Now "Buckets" sorta works as a standard horror tale of comeuppance, with a foolish and self-important "protagonist" receiving his just deserts. The problem is in the execution. The touchy topic should have been dealt with in a deft and sure and perhaps even ironic hand - which ain't the case here.
Pulphouse chapbook, 1989
A 50-ish gynecologist - presented as vain and self-regarding - faces the "ghosts" of the children he's "killed" performing abortions (guess what's in those buckets). All kindsa conundrums here render the story's reactionary point moot. It made me posit a ludicrous question: can there be ghosts of people who never existed? How can those who never were rage about never being? Is this some bizarre alternate reality tale? "Buckets" is as clever, as subtle, as insightful as a raving anti-abortionist's misspelled placard decorated with a bloody aborted fetus. About as brave, too. Fuck that.
Man, now I'm not looking forward to reading The Keep at all.