Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror
by Joseph Pastula, Matthew M. Bartlett, Sean M. Thompson, and Jonathan Raab
Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the second installment of “What in Beelzebub’s unholy name have those Orford Parish Books boys gotten up to now?” You may remember the first time we looked at the exploits of Orford Parish Books, probably because it wasn’t too long ago as the blog flies. That post covered such diverse topics as murder houses, picture books, the American flag, and wrestling.
Now we zone in a bit on their most recent publication, a self-styled “split chapbook” entitled Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror. As the title suggests, it contains four weird horror narratives, all of which relate to the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview. Orford Parish Books has not yet failed to pick a bizarre topic for its publications.
We open with an introduction entitled “How to Hunt for a Job, and What to Do Once You’ve Killed It”. In the voice of an Orford Parish necromancy professor, Tom Breen gives us helpful tips for interviews, including:
Once the interview is concluded, be sure to send each member of the hiring panel a thank-you [sic] note, which should include a still-raw pig’s heart with black-painted nails driven through it, and an attached card reading, ‘This is you.’
These types of intros have showed up in three of the five Orford Parish Books publications so far, and they never fail to delight/unnerve. I’ve found myself looking forward to them – they (quite literally) make me laugh out loud, while still being tonally in-keeping with the darksome contents the reader is about to experience.
We start with Joseph Pastula’s “An Office Manager at Orford Mills” and it is perfect. The titular office manager is assigned a job interview position, and some increasingly unusual characters start showing up to apply. I don’t wish to spoil the novelty of the story, but it’s absolutely wonderful. Pastula writes carefully and precisely, artfully and gradually changing the protagonist’s tone from a bored and mildly annoyed to frightened and possibly deluded. Each visitor – my favorite is a shaky, wobbling man who turns out to be…well, no spoilers – is different and disturbing in their own way. The writing is more or less unremarkable, which serves to highlight the bizarre nature of the plot in sharper (and more unsettling). This story shows how the author has gotten better and better since his first prose appearance in Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing what he does next.
Then we have “The Storefront Theater” by our old friend Matthew M. Bartlett. This is easily the darkest story in the book. Another faceless misanthrope dwelling in a dismal suburb of devil-haunted Leeds receives a frightful midnight caller just when he needs it the most. Of all the excellent stories in this book, this one got under my skin the most. The opening scene is genuinely bone-chilling, and the narrator’s visit to the theater of the title goes into some really surreal and horrifying territory. The one word I would use to describe this, though, is subtle. This is something Bartlett is a master at: despite the fact that most of his stories contain almost upsettingly extreme grotesquerie, it always hints at something less definable and more pervasive. Case in point: the last line of this story, which is a thousand times creepier than a billion maggot-infested corpses.
Sean M. Thompson (who readers of this site will know from his recently concluded serial The Demon, his short story “LillyBridge“, and our review of his debut collection Too Late) is new to the Orford Parish ship, and yet he earns his keep with the same bloody relish as the others have. “Cat’s Claw, LLC” tells of a young woman’s late night interview at an eerie old mansion in the woods. The plot is fairly direct and entertaining, rooted firmly in classic horror genre tropes (the story can even be read as an in-joke, for those who were friends with Tom Breen on Facebook a few months ago). In the end, though, it’s the little touches that really bring it home: the darting deer-like shape in the forest, the animal hunts depicted in paintings on the walls of the mansions, the dark purple-walled office and a pen made of bone. The last line, like in Bartlett’s story, gave me shivers up and down my spine.
Jonathan Raab, too, is a newcomer. We’ve only reviewed him once before, although his incredible pulp horror witch war novella The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie made our Best of 2016 list. (I also loved his story “The Secret Goatman Spookshow”, which you can read online here.) His story – the longest in the book – is called “A Capable Man”, and it rounds out the grim excursion which this book encapsulates quite nicely. Following a rather incompetent unemployed man (I wouldn’t call him a scumbag, but he’s not far) interview at a new corporation in Orford Parish, this story overwhelms with its bleak mood and its heavy depiction of the slacker’s life. Raab’s prose firmly places you in the headspace of the main character, and the interview scene is off-kilter in a way only a skilled writer can accomplish. While it has Raab’s signature high strange undertones, and there are some very creepy moments, I would overall class this more with modern weird fiction then horror. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary, I thought it worked in the story’s favor. It was a perfect way to close the book.
Orford Parish Books is just really incredible. Everything they’ve put out has been great, but this seems like the most complete of their entries. The only drawback is the absence of a full-length Tom Breen story; his particular narrative voice is one that I missed while reading this chapbook, only enhanced by the taste we got in the introduction. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic read, and I eagerly look forward to their next release – whatever in Heaven or Earth that’ll be.
You can buy Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror here.