Houses Burning and Other Ruins by William R. Soldan

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I first came to know of the name William R. Soldan when I picked up his collection ‘In Just The Right Light’ which was brilliant. So when the opportunity arose to read ‘Houses Burning and Other Ruins’ another collection, I jumped at the chance – and boy is it good.

‘Houses Burning and Other Ruins’ is a mosaic of broken life’s, each story is a character portrait that peers at the dark side of addiction and brokenness – it’s not a happy clappy book, it’s anchored in the gritty and the painful lives of so many lost voices, detailing the lives and consequences of people that aren’t spoken about in glossy magazine or appear on billboards.

Soldan’s prose and writing prowess brings to mind great writers such as Ron Rash, David Joy and Hubert Selby Jr. But his work is wholly Soldan – his prose is bleak and urgent and there is an honesty about it which breaks the readers heart time and time again.

Soldan is quickly becoming one of my favourite short story writers, there is what I like to call prose magic throughout each story that is so breathtaking and through provoking that I’d challenge anyone not to be moved in some way by his words.

The Long Drive Home – A man returning home decides to pick up a young down on his luck man with a dog, he’s a long ride ahead of him and he could do with the company, what unfolds is a story of coming full circle, of returning to the life you want, and tough decisions. The dialogue in this story is something special and the intricate details toward the stories conclusion are masterful; the unsaid cuts through the air like a hatchet.

Space Station Stereo – a story of addiction, transcendence and acquaintances. We follow our protagonist and his partner as they journey the long road of addiction, denying their own mortality and surviving by the only way they’ve known, with some crystal or dope – and a song here and there. When the opportunity arises to play a gig, our protagonist and his drug addled and delusional friend think this could be the turning point to all their troubles, or could it just be the start to the next chapter of spiralling addiction.

All Things Come Around – when an accident forces our protagonist Travis to take a detour with his screaming baby in the back seat he finds himself in a part of the town he’s spent his life running away from, and the memories assault him. He stops for some fast food and bumps I got someone from his past, someone that has a grudge for the way things were left. This was a fabulous little story that felt very claustrophobic and full of heart pounding brilliance.

Small Change – our protagonist is down on his luck, a gambler who’s now broke and homeless. The only road that’s left for him to travel is that long and unforgiving road which leads him back to his twin sisters door. After she takes him in the toxicity of his vice spreads further than he anticipated and he’s forced to face ghosts from his past and the things he’s been running from. There are some beautiful passages in this story and they showcase the immense talent that Soldan wields like a master.

Spaces – Here our protagonist is a returning veteran who is trying to find a way, a new way to live back in the real world. But as we soon discover he’d left a lot of things over there, on the battlefields of his missions, but he’s also brought something back with him that smears and destroys his days – the PTSD he has to survive with each waking day means that he’ll never truly be free of that war he fought so long ago.

Recompense – A junky looking to rob a store gets more than he bargains for, things turn south and he’s on the run with his meagre payload and a head full of ghosts. A powerful story of addiction.

The Ghost of Green Valley – a story that is reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘The Body’ in all the right ways, our protagonist and his friends discover something in the woods, something that means things will never be the same again. When eavesdropping on a conversation he realises that things run deeper than first thought and he doesn’t know who he can trust anymore.

Tally Ho – A taxi driver takes a late fare but there is something about this woman that infatuates him, she’s running from something and he doesn’t know what. A chance encounter with her at a diner leads to a sorry tale where he might just be the hero in this woman’s story. This story mirrors some elements from Taxi Driver but is told in a wholly unique way, it’s brutal and I bloody loved it!

Waiting For Tomorrow – We follow three junkies as they navigate their need for a fix and their dream that this one will be their last. It’s a brilliantly detailed story with a tonne of prose magic and within the opening few paragraphs Soldan has us under his spell as he superbly sets the tone for this stunning story about addiction and the possibility of kicking that habit – but the allure of the next balloon, the pull of next needle only serve to send them to their next sweet oblivion.

Houses Burning – A father has the visitation with his teenage son. Reflecting on his life he can’t help but see that his son is following in his footsteps, making the same mistakes he has, there is time to guide him towards change, to take another path, but will his son take it or become another statistic.

‘Houses Burning and Other Ruins’ is a tinderbox of brilliance and Soldan’s prose and imagination is the spark that set this aflame. Sheer brilliance on every page and beautiful devastation captured in each story!

Houses Burning and Other Ruins is available here.

William R. Soldan

William R. Soldan grew up in and around the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two children. A high school dropout and college graduate, he holds a BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University and an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His work appears in publications such as New World Writing, Kentucky Review, Gordon Square Review, Thuglit, (b)OINK, Mystery Tribune, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and many others. He’s at williamrsoldan.com if you want to connect.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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