where the writers are
Terrence Rafferty
The New York Times

It’s a greatest-hits album spanning a few decades of astonishingly consistent and rigorously horrifying work. In his foreword, Shirley insists that he doesn’t write genre fiction, and although he’s genuinely tough to categorize, all his stories — both the nonsupernatural ones that make up the first half of “Living Shadows” and the more fantastic tales in the second half — give off the chill of top-grade horror. It’s a moral chill, because Shirley’s great subject is the terrible ease with which we modern Americans have learned to look away from pain and suffering. The opening line of his novel “Demons” states the theme succinctly: “It’s amazing what you can get used to.” In “The Sewing Room,” one of the new stories in the present collection, an ordinary woman discovers, to her horror, that her husband is a serial murderer, and we discover, to ours, that she can live with it.

Shirley’s dramatis personae tend to be fairly unpleasant folks: killers, petty criminals, drug dealers, end-of-the-line substance abusers, Hollywood sleazeballs. (He writes screenplays as well as fiction.) And while the matter of his stories is often shocking, his manner is calm, restrained. The prose is attitude-free and precise, its characteristic sound a minor chord of sorrow and banked anger. He writes about sensation unsensationally, with a particular tenderness toward those who manage, against the odds and by whatever means, to feel something.

Maybe the best story in this superb collection is a rapt little piece called “Skeeter Junkie,” in which a young heroin addict first begins to enjoy the feeling of the mosquito feeding on his arm, then starts to identify with it and then, as the drugs ooze through his veins, somehow becomes it and finally uses the “exquisite” flying bloodsucker to transport him to the apartment of his comely but standoffish downstairs neighbor. It’s a horror story, I guess, but it’s also funny, weirdly erotic and, in a way that horror almost never is, tragic.

Living Shadows: Stories, New and Pre-owned