Back in the early part of 2014 I first read Bunt Tongues (an anthology of transgressive fiction) and to be honest, I didn’t think much of it.
This year Burnt Tongues got a much needed facelift. The thing is the only difference was a new cover and an illustration for each of the stories held within. You see it’s strange when you re-read books, because this time, I bloody loved it – I guess my brain was ready to process what I was reading, and well, pretty much all of the stories hit home like a machete to the face.
I then went on a manhunt, trying to find stories from the writers I enjoyed reading in the anthology, and I couldn’t find any. I found the rare short story on a website, but there was nothing really substantial, no collection, no novella, not even a novel. So my hopes of discovering more from these writers was looking like a dead end, and I remember thinking how criminal that was, so much talent in those pages and yet nothing substantial to show for their brilliance.
I put a tweet out and was thrilled when Tyler Jones (he wrote F For Fake in Burnt Tongues) said that he had a little novella coming out that he’d send my way. I enjoyed the prose and writing style of Jones’ work in F For Fake, so was very excited to see what he could do with a longer form, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Criterium starts like a spark from a broken plug socket, a small insignificant flash of light, but that spark soon catches the chair next to it on fire, then the fire soon spreads to the curtains, and then before you know it the whole room is a fiery furnace, full of raging destruction and evil intent. The reader continues reading and opens the door to the novella and the backdraft just rages through us, destroying and laying waste to everything in its path.
Towards the novella’s end we are looking back at that same room as the smoke clears, we see what was a family home laid to waste, we see memories torn from their moorings, we see lives broken and shattered like the picture frames that succumbed to the devastating heat. We see grief and fear, mushed underfoot in the soggy carpet from the water used to stop this inferno.
But in the chaos, in the brokenness, in the blackened and devastated lives this fire has touched and consumed; there are a few rare things that remain unblemished, things that escaped the blaze – memories, dreams and hope for something better. Things will get better, things will be better, it might just take some time.
Jones’ prose in Criterium is like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. Once you turn that first page, you give over any control you once had, this book will steamroll you into the ride of your life (I finished it in less than a day). Criterium has such a frenetic and frenzied feel to the prose, you can almost feel the wind in your face and the heat on your flesh. But with it being fast and unforgiving Jones never loses control of the story, in fact I’d say that he writes this story to within an inch of it’s life… there are moments of frenzied paranoia and then subtle and melancholic moments of sadness, grief and aloneness. It’s intoxicating.
What I also fiercely enjoyed about Jones’ writing is the things that remain unsaid, the small nuggets that he drops into conversations. It’s truly brilliant writing, because without saying too much or spelling it out to the reader, we become fully aware of the familial issues that are plaguing the Ayers family. These issues build in the opening of the book and leave the reader gasping for breath as the familial fire rages and sucks all the oxygen from your lungs. I was both shocked and appalled, but couldn’t look away.
‘Fighting the same addiction that killed his father, a young man stumbles across a strange bike that takes him on a terrifying ride into darkness.’
As this is a novella I don’t want to talk too much about the story as I feel it would do a disservice in directing it too much attention to the plot – as I mentioned this book reads like a freight train, you keep flipping those pages and the story is gone in the blink of an eye. But what I will say is this, Criterium is a familial story wrapped in the tight embrace of grief and of repeating past mistakes. It’s a story that made my heart ache and my palms sweaty – and it perfectly details the lengths that people travel to escape the curse of hopelessness and the all consuming power of addiction.
Criterium is a small story but with a big blackened heart beating at its centre. There are not many players in this intense novella, but each one is beautifully brought to life. The themes of loss, addiction, grief, hope and despair are fabulously woven into the tight and addictive prose, with the calibre of writing showcasing what a talent Jones is, and why we need more from his pen and his macabre mind. Jones’ prose is a delight, easy on the eye whilst also being all consuming – I just couldn’t put this book down once I started and the world seemed to fade away whilst I was stuck within its pages.
Criterium had me reminiscing about a few books and stories, Christine by Stephen King, What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, Damned by Chuck Palahniuk, Junky by William S. Burroughs and a short story I had the honour of reading from James Frey which has yet to be published (for the life of me I can’t remember it – but it was a young boy given a tour of purgatory, pretty damn good!), also you can’t help but make the Ghost Rider (comic book not that appalling film) connection too – but with all these comparisons, Criterium still remains wholly original and unique, a book that announces Tyler Jones to the world – it has been a long time coming since the publication in Burnt Tongues in 2014 but now he’s here, and long may it continue!
Criterium is a blistering ride of a novella and one I highly recommend you check out!
Criterium is available here.
Tyler Jones is the author of CRITERIUM. His work has appeared in the anthologies BURNT TONGUES (edited by Chuck Palahniuk), ONE THING WAS CERTAIN, 101 PROOF HORROR, and in Dark Moon Digest, Coffin Bell, Cemetery Dance, LitReactor, and The NoSleep Podcast.
His stories have been optioned for film.
He lives in Portland, Oregon
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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