I picked up Don’t Read This Book because it featured a few dark fantasists I like and several more I was curious about. Foremost among the latter was editor Chuck Wending, whose @ChuckWendig twitter account and http://terribleminds.com/ramble/blog/, which jointly offer irreverent entertainment and lean, mean writing advice, have zoomed him to the top of my read-something-by-toute-de-suite list.
I was hoping that Wendig was the sort of writer who’d include his own story in the anthology, or at least some chatty intros. He’s not. He’s merely — ha! — assembled a collection of stories that’s strikingly cohesive without feeling repetitive. I didn’t realize until I started this collection that the stories were inspired by a role playing game, Don’t Rest Your Head, in which chronically sleep-deprived characters find themselves in the nightmarish “Mad City” and gain mysterious powers at the cost of their sanity. (It sounds like a game I might actually like.) Fortunately the stories don’t really require any familiarity with the mechanics or specifics of the game.
Most of the stories are told in terse noir voices, often in present tense, many starting with a bang of what-the-hell’s-going-on, like Josh Roby’s “Don’t Sptll Your Tea”:
I fling out a desperate hand, none too coordinated, and feel it make contact with something hard. Things clatter, fall to the ground. The lights jiggle around me, and I squeeze my eyes shut to make it stop.
The plots of these stories tend to hinge on well-telegraphed reversals, but I didn’t mind that nearly as much as I might have expected. For one thing, it’s consistent with nightmare logic — the bogeyman always knows where you’re hiding. But also, despite its urban grit, Mad City has a lot in common with un-Disnified Faerie: denizens disinterested in humanity if not outright inimical to it, and governed by obscure rules that are never stacked in the visitors’ favor. For these stories to follow familiar arcs felt appropriate.
My two favorites are probably Greg Stolze’s “Don’t Harsh Your Buzz,” set in a normal coffee shop and its similar alternate, and Robin D. Laws’ “Don’t Lose Your Shit,” which looks at both indie rock journalism and energy drink culture. (The latter won me over despite e-book formatting that rendered it all but unreadable.) But it’s a very consistent collection overall.