The Red Penny Papers is a journal (electronic) of fantastic fiction publishing novellas in a serial style reminiscent of a bygone era. Merged in this fashion with a webfiction factor and you have an appealing disparity of new technologies with a penny dreadful twist – a welcome hybrid of the modern with the historic. By way of The Darkest Shade of Grey, Alan Baxter has concocted a tight and stylish supernatural thriller daubed in the ethereal tones of film-noir.
David Johanssen is a broken man. After a devastating encounter with an Ouija board many years previous he has slowly succumbed to a species of insanity, losing his entire family in the process. Now his days are regulated to imbibing huge quantities of alcohol and trying to keep his job as a small time reporter intact. It doesn’t help he has begun to see the auras of those that surround him – colors and ill-defined shapes reflecting a world burgeoning with chaos and mystery. When a hobo drifts into his life espousing the cryptic message of another realm, David is drawn into the dark underbelly of a different world entirely – a world where deities play among the masses and salvation is just a fairy-tale for mortals.
Right off the cusp we’re introduced to Alan’s breezy style, and it’s one most readers of speculative fiction will find easy to digest (if not overly eccentric at times). There’s an every-man quality to the paragraphs with subtle humor smirking from just around the corner. Our protagonist is flawed but ultimately good: a motif that works (especially within the confines of noir) because it taps into a reader’s receptivity. With novella length stories becoming more admired at every turn in the publishing industry, The Darkest Shade of Grey is just the right length to fit nice and snug into a serial arrangement or have a permanent home on an e-reader device.
The only quibble I had (and it’s minor) has to do with a predilection. When Gods and Demons stampede across the pages of dark fiction, I am often disillusioned when they inhabit human form. A perfect example of this would be the dovetailing plot-strands of a TV series like Supernatural. Angels shift into our realm, and when they do, the effect can become juvenile (or comedic) and frequently overshadows any emotional impact we might anticipate.
Predilections aside, this is a skillful little tale from a writer whose evolution has been interesting to watch. Also featured is a mini- author interview where Alan talks about the genesis of David Johanssen.