Book review of Death Sentences by Matthew Warner
published in Hellnotes newsletter, November 2005
Written by William D. Gagliani
Reprinted by permission of William D. Gagliani.
Sometimes a certain story creates a first impression that you never forget. That’s how it was when I first read Matthew Warner’s “Middle Passage” in the Lone Wolf anthology EXTREMES 3: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS. A harrowing account of life on a slave ship from the slaves’ point of view, vaguely reminiscent of the Charles Johnson novel of the same title, it catalogued a long list of atrocities committed in the name of that inhuman business. The sadness, the desperation, the physical and mental pain suffered by Poro and his young daughter and their fellow (though not always friendly) slaves, all chained in the subhuman conditions of the cramped, filthy quarters belowships, came to life altogether too vividly, leaving behind the sour taste of guilt at sharing any genetic similarity with the monsters who would perpetrate such deeds with little or no conscience.
It’s a powerful story still, and might well have served as anchor to end the collection. Instead, it launches Warner’s DEATH SENTENCES collection with the appropriate amount of gravity. If “Middle Passage” is almost operatic, a big screen tour de force performance, then the other four tales in this thin but rewarding collection will bring the darkness on home, where vengeance belongs.
“Angel’s Wings” may be a period piece, but it seems grounded in the present. Set in the slave-owning antebellum South, it’s an intriguing meditation on religious influence, and where the line might be drawn between a holy man and a man who has elevated himself to a holy pedestal in order to perpetrate crimes on those to whom he is a moral leader. It’s a Southern gothic with a religio-supernatural streak, as young Alice and her mother both believe their powers have been stolen from an angel — but perhaps their curse is really a salvation. Occasionally an anachronism sneaks in (would they have referred to “sex” or more likely something like “carnal relations” when discussing the act?), but generally the tone holds convincingly and the story ends on a provocative note.
“The Cave” and “Second Chance” share some admitted autobiographical references and deal with divorce and its effects on a family. The first shares a common element with David Morrell’s recent thriller, CREEPERS, but takes a different tack in following father and son on an urban exploration into the heart of the surreal, while the second stays well-grounded in the everyday but ends on a shocker. “The Forgiving Type” takes its basic framework from a notorious recent case in which a crematorium operator did not, uh, perform his duties. Warner’s protagonist here, a remorseful cop who accidentally killed his wife, is sympathetic and the tone is both creepy and tragic. While it provides the downbeat ending Warner must have wanted, it’s tempting to suggest that first and last story might have been swapped.
Graced by a superb cover painting by the author’s wife, the artist Deena Warner, and introduced by the always interesting Gary A. Braunbeck, DEATH SENTENCES succeeds greatly on the author’s understated style and refusal to wallow in gore for its sake. The author of THE ORGAN DONOR (an excellent experience in its own right) has crafted DEATH SENTENCES as the perfect sampler for those who have not yet made his acquaintance.
[William D. Gagliani’s reviews have appeared in Cemetery Dance magazine and at Chiaroscuro. His novel, WOLF’S TRAP — which was nominated for a Bram Stoker in 2003 — will be published by Leisure Books in 2006.]