Quarry Press, 1998, 263 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55082-214-4
In his introduction to Death Drives a Semi, Robert J. Sawyer writes that Edo van Belkom is “the ideal of what used to be called, back when the term wasn’t disparaging, a pulp writer—he writes stories quickly, often to a given editor’s specification, always producing a quality, salable product on time.” Disparaging or not, “pulp writer” neatly encapsulate both what’s good and what’s not about this collection.
Horror is a very curious literature that has become even stranger in the last decade. The nineties have seen the popularization of the genre through movies, television series and, more ominously, “young adult” novels. Much like post-STAR WARS Science-Fiction, Pop-Horror finds itself reduced to the lowest common denominator. The result, more obvious on the silver screen, is more successful at inducing laughter (GHOST IN THE MACHINE) when it’s simply not successful at all (I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER).
Horror is losing potency, slowly being defanged by its increasing accessibility to everyone—including teens and pre-teens. We’re slowly ending up with a genre synonymous with tame, formulaic, lifeless (ho-ho) stories where everyone dies at the end, but readers couldn’t care less.
This reviewer might already be too jaded despite only a passing familiarity with the genre, but the biggest problem with Death Drives a Semi is that for the most part, it’s nothing special. Many stories can be resumed as “Person discovers supernatural thing, supernatural thing kills person, another person comes in.” Most of the stories end up of the sort easily shown on prime-time television: few chills and even fewer scares. There is no feeling of dread, of disturbing visions. Horror without bite. Morality tales of dark irony, not horror.
This being said, a few stories are successful in a Twilight-Zone type of way, mostly those who escape the “and then he dies”-type of pat ending. “Roadkill”, “Death Drives a Semi”, “Rat Food”, “And Injustice for Some”, “S.P.S.”, “Baseball Memory” are all superb.
Furthermore -this is where the good side of being a “pulp writer” comes in-, even van Belkom’s most ordinary stories are a lot of fun to read. The man writes clearly and tells a story. A perusal through a recent “Best New Horror” anthology revealed that the “best” of the genre has evolved in a rarefied realm of smothering over-characterization and emphasis of atmosphere over point or story.
Thankfully, none of that here. There are no “bad” stories in Death Drives a Semi. (Though “The Ice Bridge” is problematic, with its resolution having nothing to do with the main conflict of the story.) Van Belkom’s character are almost invariably well-defined, with just enough background to make them believable. Technically, this is a very instructive collection.
But there is a difference between being technically perfect and being actually terrifying. That’s what’s missing from Death Drives A Semi: a willingness to go further than just the usual. “Blood Count”, for instance, stops just when it was getting interesting, just when we were in for some major supernatural disturbance. It would also be interesting to see van Belkom write some more about his “Zombie” world, here represented in “But Somebody’s Got To Do It” and “Roadkill”.
Hopefully, Death Drives a Semi is the first collection of a writer who will go on to better and more horrific things. It’s only a matter of taking that last step that separates very good from great. In the meantime, Death Drives A Semi is worth your attention; borrow it at the local library or do your part for Canadian-published horror and buy the book.