Consisting of three short stories from three separate authors, Cut Corners Volume 3 is like a season of Black Mirror that isn’t afraid to go for the throat. I make the connection to that show in particular simply because two of the stories deal with social media and the third deals with the power of celebrity, all things that are regular staples for that series. But in Cut Corners Volume 3, you’ll find things you’re very likely never going to see on that show.
With apocalyptic paranoia, child death, human sacrifice, Cut Corners Volume 3 is very much its own entity. This is a strong collection, even if it only features three stories. They balance each other well. When something only consists of three segments, it’s natural to almost look at it like an anthology film and compare those three to one another. For the most part, it’s fairly well balanced.
The first two stories both deal with social media in their own ways, so naturally the third sticks out for not doing the same. But at the same time, that story is about celebrity and the need to stay current and the things you do to maintain public affection. In the social media age, everyone feels like a celebrity, so in some ways it fits in with the other two just fine.
Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Andromeda,” the first story in the collection, is Lovecraftian cosmic horror for the age of smartphones. It’s about a teenage girl who keeps getting mysterious texts that only get weirder and weirder, hinting at very dark, bizarre things to come. Luckily, it veers away from Lovecraft in that it actually delivers on that promise and shows the things that it promises to. Things get unexpectedly bonkers by the end and I love that about it.
“The Barrel” by Bryan Smith gets off to the slowest start, but it picks up fast and what at first seems like a simple premise turns out to be full of delightful twists and turns. It’s about a man who uncovers a mysterious barrel with writing on the side. He doesn’t know what it is or what it is for, but he feels drawn to it. He’s then constantly texted instructions on what to do with it, which get expectedly dark as the story draws toward its end. This one, unlike the other two, has a sly sense of jet-black humor. It’s very dark, but Smith appears to be having fun with it and I like that kind of demented glee in an author.
My only issue with “The Barrel” is that it starts off with a great sense of mystery, but the language turns fairly blunt by the end. There’s not much lead-in to the revelation of what’s happening. Instead, it basically states “and this is what is happening” and it takes the reader out of the action for a moment. The storytelling and concept are still very good.
Ray Garton’s “The Afterparty” is by far the darkest, most appallingly brutal, nihilistic story in the bunch. That doesn’t mean it’s not great, it might actually be the best out of the three, but man it is just a punch to the gut to end the book with. This one has a very simple premise and the theme is not exactly new. It’s about fame and the things that you do to keep it. But the thing that sets it apart from other stories is that everyone around the protagonist, Jarrett, seems to care about his fame more than he does. They’re always telling him how important he is to the bigger picture and how important it is that he keeps up this success. And all of that will be determined by how well he does at this party hosted by his mysterious benefactors.
There have been a lot of stories that have dealt with the idea of a satanic cult—or many satanic cults—behind the scenes in Hollywood, pulling the strings. But the success of a story always lies in the way that it’s told and that’s where “The Afterparty” succeeds. Our protagonist has done enough unforgivable things to make him hard to root for, but with the way that it unfolds, it’s tough to really determine if he’s made any of those decisions for himself or if they were things he was encouraged to do by larger forces.
The ending of “Afterparty” basically results in one slap in the face of stark, emotional horror after another. It builds to an appropriately bleak ending and at that point, anything less would have been a disservice to the story.
Cut Corners Volume 3 is a short but very impressive anthology. It’s not perhaps as well balanced as it could be in terms of themes and tone, but that’s a small gripe. It ends on a dour—even depraved—note, but all three stories are solid and the book as a whole is a refreshing, quick jolt of adrenaline that can be read in a single sitting. Sometimes that’s exactly what you might be looking for, and I don’t think this volume will disappoint.