The Secrets of Insects by Richard Kadrey
Before he published the SANDMAN SLIM series, Richard Kadrey published short fiction in various markets. Several of those stories have been collected in his latest book, 2023’s The Secret of Insects. The earliest story in here, “Horse Latitudes,” appeared in Omni in 1992. The most recent story, “Candy Among the Jades,” is original to this collection. The Secrets of Insects is a retrospective of Kadrey’s short fiction.
I’ll provide the Table of Contents, and then devote the rest of the review to the stories I liked the best. I will say that I’m still always surprised by how much I like Kadrey’s work. The quality is never a surprise, but the subject matter is often savagely brutal (I’ll probably use “savagely” more than once here), gory, and cynical. These aren’t to my usual taste, but somehow his stories sweep me up.
- “Ambitious Boys Like You” (2015). Two home invaders enter a hoarder house, seeking treasure. They find terror instead.
- “The Secrets of Insects” (2016). In a Lovecraftian universe, two cops who are delivering a serial killer to prison take a wrong turn in every sense of that phrase.
- “Razor Pig” (2020). Kadrey takes on the time-honored Creepy Carnival tale with a dad searching for his lost daughter, except nobody is quite what they seem to be.
- “A Trip to Paris (2021). Inspired by the fiction of Shirley Jackson, this period piece follows a housewife who will go to extremes to experience a sense of freedom.
- “A Hinterlands Haunting” (2019). Nick, a ghost, enters a strange section of a half-dead city one day each year, seeking the ghost of his wife. Each year it seems to get harder.
- “Suspect Zero” (2016). Gabriel, who is seeking out the mythical serial killer “Suspect Zero,” accepts a ride with a long-haul trucker. The men soon find they have more in common than they first realized.
- “Black Neurology—A Love Story” (2020). The shortest work in this book explores whether love can transcend death.
- “Flayed Ed” (2020). What if Ed Gein were more than a serial killer? What if his victims were actually sacrifices?
- “A Sandman Slim Christmas Carol” (2021). James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, doesn’t like Christmas, so on Christmas Eve he rides away to a deserted mansion and estate, hoping for solitude. Of course, he doesn’t get it.
- “The Air is Chalk” (2019). In the midst of a terrifying apocalypse, Paul, a driver/bodyguard, learns the true nature of monsters.
- “The Tunguska Event” (2008). In Siberia, an American scientist learns an alternate version of the strange explosion in 1915 Tunguska.
- “Horse Latitudes” (1992). A rock star wanders a surreally changed San Francisco, in a world where a fast-growing rainforest is taking over.
- “Snuff in Six Scenes” (2020). Ward really wants to kill somebody. Jenny really wants to die. What could possibly go wrong?
- “What is Love but the Quiet Moments After Dinner?” (2022). The flip side of “Snuff,” this story looks at a dating couple whose interests don’t seem to align at all, at least at first.
- “Devil in the Dollhouse” (2012). A Sandman Slim tale from when Stark is still in Hell, reigning as Lucifer. Stark and a company of Hellions go on a quest to stop one of Lucifer’s oldest enemies in Hell, only nothing Stark was told about the quest is true.
- “Candy Among the Jades” (2023). Candy is called to a meeting of her sister Jades where she must prove her loyalty to them—even at the expense of Stark.
I was excited to get this ARC because I wanted to read “Candy Among the Jades,” and it satisfied me. Kadrey gives us the history of the Jades (or at least, as they see it). Candy has always been rebellious, but this time she is really forced to choose, and along the way she realizes the Jades, who fought for their freedom centuries earlier, have traded it away again. It was a treat to see Candy in her POV instead of through Stark’s eyes, and I liked the expansion of the world. It’s my default favorite.
“The Secrets of Insects” was probably my other favorite, because I’m a sucker for Lovecraftian stuff. The pacing and the slowly climbing tension of the story had me hooked from early on—very early, because there’s a sense of wrongness well before things really start going wrong. Kadrey delivers on the pacing, suspense and the weird.
“Ambitious Boys Like You”—remember how I used the word “savagely” before? If someone had told me about this story and said I’d like it, I would have laughed. It’s savage, it’s cruel, and it’s gross, but I was engaged by the less-bad of the two home invaders from the first few paragraphs. This story has a bit of the mood of rural-legends and film franchises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and maybe even Saw. I hate all of those films, but the hoarder house with its traps and dead-drops carries some of that atmosphere, and it worked for me.
“Razor Pig,” like “Boys,” is brutal, with a main character who is dark and unlikeable from early on, even though I approved of his quest. Using the element of the sinister carnival, Kadrey explores the nature of power, and, strangely, faith, in a landscape that goes from hyperrealist to oddly surreal. This is a story of monsters and acolytes. As our anti-hero David pursues the carnival he thinks has stolen his daughter, the truth about his religion is revealed, and comes back at the end of the story in a way that is shocking, bleak and strangely satisfying.
For a relative value of sweet, “A Sandman Slim Christmas Carol” is sweet. There isn’t really a plot, it’s mostly Kadrey having some fun with his character, but it worked for me.
Nick, the main character in “A Hinterlands Haunting,” is a ghost, or as he puts it, a half-ghost. Even though he’s dead, he can still experience physical limitations and pain for reasons that are plausibly explained at the end of the story. Every year on a certain day, Nick enters the older part of his city, a place mostly condemned, which he describes as a necropolis, in search of the spirit of his wife. Nick’s searches get harder every year and this year he confronts even more obstacles. Why did he go to the wrong location searching for her? And while humans can always see and interact with him, since he’s a ghost, why do the packs of feral dogs do the same? All is revealed with a satisfying twist ending. This story reminds us that relationships are never easy.
Like “Candy Among the Jades,” I liked “The Devil in the Dollhouse” because it showed us Stark; Stark pretty much having a routine day as the reluctant ruler of Hell.
“The Tunguska Event” and “Black Neurology—A Love Story” both pleased me with the use of language. “Black Neurology” is flash fiction, written in a perfectly maintained, nearly poetic style, while “the Tunguska Event” counts on the narrative voice of the storyteller. “Horse Latitudes” also reminds readers that Kadrey can bring us the phantasmagorical whenever he wants to.
If body horror makes you queasy, then “Ambitious Boys,” “Black Neurology,” “Flayed Ed,” and “What is Love But the Quiet Moments After Dinner?” may not float your boat. Anyone who’s read any of the Sandman Slim books knows what they’re getting into here, and anyone who has liked Kadrey’s books will find gems to enjoy in this collection.