Throughout A Garden Fed by Lightning, the third story collection from Marshall Moore, the quality of the writing is consistently sharp, continually impressive. Infused with an element of the fantastical, many of the stories, initially appearing straightforward and grounded in reality, veer off into unexpected, outlandish territory, and, more often than not, characters are not what they seem. As their narratives progress, you discover dark secrets, fake identities, and unpleasant talents. They hurt, they deceive, they steal, and, sometimes, they are directly responsible for taking a person’s life.
In “And Dream of Sheep,” a telepathic passenger on a train, able to “listen in on the living and the dying,” takes a peek into the head and lungs of the coughing man behind him and determines the cause is pneumonia. The central character has a “special gift”—the ability to take life, something he does regularly. He does it here and, once done, confesses to “looking forward to the screams” of “the horrible little girl” in the compartment when one of the passengers realizes that the man with the cough is now dead.
There are other characters in the collection with similar psychic abilities and the same wanton disregard for human life. In “Hell Is Other People,” Adrian Xemxi, an office worker recently returned to earth from hell, has partial access to people’s psyches. He is not just able to read their minds, but actually force his own thoughts “through the membrane separating himself and the Vessel.” During a dull office meeting Adrian overpowers a colleague’s mind, fracturing it in the process. The author’s aptitude for humor turns what might otherwise be a lame, hackneyed idea into an entertaining story. When the office colleague slumps forward in his seat, Moore writes:
As the Vessel’s consciousness dimmed, Adrian managed to make out one final comment. One of the man’s Western colleagues whispered to another, just loud enough to hear, “I think the poor bloke just died of boredom.”
There are numerous tales of the paranormal involving psychics, aliens, mystical creatures, and abnormal phenomena. Some are darker, slightly weightier than others, and all the better for it. Moore’s exploration of hereditary urges—in “Ashes to Ashes,” a family history of arson—is one of the standouts. As the main character, Lloyd, learns more about his deceased sister and father, and about the unnatural circumstances surrounding his mother’s death in a recent house fire that claimed the lives of thirty-seven of her friends and neighbors, the more mentally unbalanced and dangerous he becomes. Eventually, he is seized by an overwhelming desire to set fire to an abandoned house and then “stretch out on the floor and wait for the flames to consume him.” The author writes in a measured, articulate way, steadily pushing the bounds of plausibility.
Of course, there is nothing rational about Lloyd’s self-destructive behavior. In fact, almost all of the characters in this collection are prone to irrational behavior. The duplicitous con artist in the title story, an embezzler with forged passports and a tendency to hack into the bank accounts of his “new special friends,” wears so many masks it is difficult to determine fact from fiction. His erratic behavior makes him even more of a conundrum. Smitten with a female trickster, no sooner is he in a physical relationship with her than he is actively pursuing a man he meets in a gay bar, swiftly losing any ardor he had for the girl. Other characters’ lives are equally delusional or surreal: a wistful architect who discovers his new home has a hidden outdoor attic with views of “a flawless night sky, unobscured by Hong Kong’s omnipresent haze,” and an unemployed banker who believes that the virtual dog that regularly appears on his computer screen is responsible for foraging out a series of dream jobs for him.
Anomalous characters aside, the most enjoyable parts of A Garden Fed by Lightning are when Moore turns his hand to horror, embracing the genre wholeheartedly. “The Platinum Scalpel Society,” his tale of a miraculously self-healing man who is experimented on by doctors in perverse, inhumane ways for the sake of medical research is especially graphic and explicitly gory—“For one perilous moment, Mercy thought Dr. Bland would lose his grip on the chainsaw, cutting the steadiest possible path longitudinally up Patient S.’s torso”—but Moore justifies the excessive violence with blistering humor:
Dr. Bland looked green behind his layer of red, but kept going. Although [Mercy] couldn’t hear over the roar of the chainsaw motor and the god-awful mucky crunches coming from the body on the table, she had a feeling the doctor was whistling while he worked. He usually did, perhaps to keep from throwing up on the patient.
Full of gruesome passages, the remarkable story continues in this provocative manner until its grizzly, unanticipated climax. Fortunately, this is not the only instance where Moore applies his twisted humor to dark and disturbing situations. “Underground,” his tale of teenage students lured into underground stations by their college professors and then served up to Minotaurs as a periodic tribute, is wildly entertaining. The grotesque descriptions of these terrifying, snorting creatures feeding on (and then fornicating with) screaming victims are tempered by delightfully macabre humor. Explaining the predilection of these frightful beasts, Moore notes, “Minotaurs loved an audience when they fed yet they became almost prissy when the time came for sexual release.” While some showed a “willingness to mate with a boy whose face they’d just eaten,” others preferred sexual satisfaction first and eating later. Considering a Minotaur’s “bullish endowment,” being dined on before serving as an object of desire was probably “the more merciful option,” observes Moore.
The interesting blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror gives A Garden Fed by Lightning a distinctive quality, and Marshall Moore’s literary flair and ghoulish humor prevent the work from ever feeling like standard genre fiction. All in all, this is a uniquely imaginative, startlingly enjoyable collection of uncommonly well-written tales.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of a suspense novel, and editor of six literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. His book reviews for the Lancashire Evening Post are syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.