Tool Tales: Kaaron Warren with Ellen Datlow
Reviewed By Lee Murray
Flash fiction (short fiction comprising less than 1500 words) has many names: sudden fiction, short-short stories, microfiction, or microstories. They’re also called drabbles (exactly 100 words) and ficlets (more or less 100 words) and dribbles (50 words). They’re the reduction you get after simmering a story for hours and hours, offering that same concentrated taste explosion. Diamonds of the prose form, flash fiction crushes all the essential story elements into a tiny wordcount. It’s a much-neglected form, yet there appears to be a groundswell of interest in horror and speculative fiction circles.
Editor Kevin J. Kennedy, of the bestselling 100 Word Horror series, agrees, claiming he’s “seen the market explode with drabble and flash fiction books” in recent years, adding “if you can write drabbles or flash fiction, you will be able to entertain a whole new audience”.
“As a form it’s great for exploring the strange and the uncanny because it doesn’t require a trawl through the how and the why,” writes New Zealand flash fiction specialist Jack Remiel Cottrell, author of the upcoming collection Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and Other Very Short Stories (releasing August 2021 from Canterbury University Press). “Flash means I can write about any idea that I think of in the shower without worrying that in 50,000 words time, it will turn out to be stupid.”
Cottrell’s humour is telling; flash fiction’s very brevity may be the reason the form isn’t always taken seriously. Yet, in horror, those smaller, well-crafted observations can be especially chilling.
Kennedy writes: “Microfiction can sometimes be overlooked, but it really is a special skill set to tell a story in so few words. I don’t believe it is for everyone as some people want a full picture painted for every single scene, but there are others that prefer short and sweet.
“When putting together the 100 Word Horror (drabble) anthologies, I don’t think I have ever had as many authors come to me and tell me they had so much fun writing their drabble. Sometimes, being a writer can become a slog or you go through a tough patch, but writing a story in 100 words is often a completely different type of problem. It gives the writer another way to look at things, and often people have said they have tightened up longer stories after they have done a few drabbles.”
It’s true that micro-fiction, while exacting, tends to have a certain playfulness to it that longer fiction sometimes lacks.
“I love words and ideas, and flash lets me play with both,” says Cottrell.
There’s an underlying playfulness in Kaaron Warren’s Tool Tales: Microfiction Inspired by Antique Tools, a collection of ten dark micro-fictions inspired by a series of photographs of unidentified tools by horror editor Ellen Datlow. Indeed, the chapbook’s back cover copy claims to collect and preserve their playful interaction for readers to enjoy. They’ve certainly captured that. It’s a delightful collection, both confronting and thought-provoking, the stories a mixture of whimsy and white-knuckled terror. Each tale is a sharp intake of breath, a truth laid bare, and further proof of Warren’s prowess at any form she chooses to turn her hand. Don’t be fooled; don’t think because the author has employed a shorter word count that it implies less work. Quite the contrary: crafting a compelling story with economy requires skill, as Cottrell explains:
“In a flash piece, things just are. But that means the words have to be perfect. So for every story that I write, I get to go through the few hundred words of story and examine every single one.”
Consider these perfectly crafted images from Warren’s Tool Tales, for example:
“a pair of pyjama pants that were stiff with dust”
“the god of dance was turned to iron’
“a long time ago, when Australia still had running water easy as that”
But a tiny wordcount doesn’t mean there can be no complex theme. In ‘Tool 9’, for example, in less than 100 words, Warren writes from the perspective of the marginalised, highlighting the indignity of suppressed voices in a chilling slice of life that quietly explodes on the page. In ‘Tool 8’, we’re reminded of familial obligations and the eternal burden of duty. Warren’s characterisation is sublime; complex flawed characters like Edgar are fully wrought in barely a handful of words. Indeed, this chapbook is populated with the haunted, the haunters, and the haunting. And Warren’s characters are eerily familiar; readers can’t help but recognise someone they know in these pages.
Tool Tales wouldn’t exist without the photographic subject matter. Datlow’s photos are simple and uncluttered with each tool placed centre-stage on a plain background, the lighting foreshadowing a certain intrigue. What is this tool? What sinister role might it serve? While we expect to see Datlow associated with high quality dark fiction, the gallery of images in Tool Tales offers surprising insight into her photographer’s curiosity for bizarre and unusual items. An appendix at the back of the book reveals the actual uses of the items photographed in an informal conversation between the author and her readers.
Tool Tales a little chapbook that deserves to be on every coffee table and in every waiting room. Kennedy agrees, “People love coffee table books that they can pick up and read a few stories in a few minutes or leave a copy in the bathroom to flick through.” Given the bite-sized formula of Tool Tales, at just 30 pages no one can claim not to have the time.
If you enjoy Tool Tales: Microfiction inspired by Antique Tools, consider checking out these other wonderful dark microfiction works:
Red New Day and Other Micro-fictions, by Angela Slatter, a varied, unnerving collection which gives a contemporary spin to ancient mythologies, released in 2020 from Brain Jar Press.
100 Word Horrors (Vols 1-4) edited by Kevin J. Kennedy, four perfect samplers of boiled down stories from well-known contemporary horror writers.
For slightly longer horror flash, Trickster’s Treats #3: Seven Deadly Sins (edited by Marie O’Regan and Lee Murray) is an anthology published by Things in the Well in support of charity; water, and comprises forty-nine 700-word horror stories from emerging and award-winning writers from across the globe.
Doungjai Gam’s glass slipper dreams, shattered is another excellent micro-fiction collection, part prose and part poetry, it is poignant and highly compelling.
Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and Other Very Short Stories by Jack Remiel Cottrell, the author’s debut collection, releases August 2021 from New Zealand’s Canterbury University Press.
And finally, expected to release late 2021 from award-winning dark fiction editor Eric J Guignard at Dark Moon Books, Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World is a zany haunted places anthology comprising mostly microfiction tales alongside some longer stories. Look for more uncanny fiction from Kaaron Warren in that volume.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a five-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud. Read more at leemurray.info