Review: What Lies in Wait

Stories by James H. Duncan
Review by David S. Atkinson
Issue No. 8 – June 2015

Anyone familiar with James H. Duncan would not be surprised to find the exploration of the unknown figuring into his writing. It’s present in his short story collection The Cards We Keep and reflected in his status as the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, a literary magazine centered around the traveling word. That obsession with exploration is also present in his new short story collection, What Lies In Wait.

Considering the title on its own, someone unfamiliar with Duncan might expect this to be a collection of horror stories. Yet Duncan’s work resists genre, as his words pass through the conventions of apocalypse, noir, whimsy, zombie alternate history, and the uncanny. What Lies In Wait shows that though Duncan can maintain a focus, he doesn’t stay in one place for very long.

Let’s consider the character Claire in the story “Game of Life.” Claire has had a tough life, but as she leaves college things have become too easy. She needs a new challenge and decides to spend a summer in isolation manning a fire watchtower. (Yes, Kerouac’s experience on Desolation Peak is mentioned.) This becomes a little unsettling when her radio, her only contact with the outside world, suffers a mishap:

Her morning check-in was even more hacked and static-filled than the night before, and that evening Claire didn’t leave it on after her evening check-in. The worry she felt over her handicapped communication with the outside world surprised her. It wasn’t the end of the world, but every time she thought about the radio she felt like a large open pit formed in her stomach, even with the knowledge of Bundy’s arrival on Friday with new supplies and hopefully a new radio.

Of course, this story begins at a point in the near future where Claire is at her home collecting firearms and supplies before heading out of town, the only person apparently left there. The reader knows what Claire does not: that she’s actually cut off by a lot more than a broken radio.

Later in the collection, we move from Claire’s solitude to a different kind of isolation with “Hello Down There.” In this story, a character named Mike regularly escapes his grind of a job to hide in an isolated, relatively unused office bathroom. This bathroom has a window that obsesses Mike, but not because it leads outside. Instead, the window leads into a darkened airshaft. Peering in one Friday afternoon, he sees a wallet on a ledge in the shaft and goes for it:

Mike then reached down and scraped the tip of his middle finger against the skin of the wallet, pulling away a layer of black grime. Pretty damn close. With another heave, Mike pushed himself out and wavered downward, the blood rushing to his head as he reached beneath him and held the wall below with his free—and now blackened—left hand. With his right he snatched the wallet—just as the window frame slipped down with a wobbling THOOHOOHOOD and slammed against his hips.

Mike is trapped. His coworkers cannot hear him as they pack up for the weekend. Mike faces the possibility that he might die of dehydration before being found. Then, a voice begins to speak to him from the bottom of the shaft, providing a powerful setup to a strange and inscrutable story.

However, as I’ve noted, not all of the stories in What Lies In Wait are dark. In “Circus,” a lonely young boy named Manuel strives to get away:

Denied each time he asked, he could only sit on his bed and picture all the clowns and animals boarding their train, waving and smiling and heading to the next city to play their hypnotic music and perform their tricks. He refused to let that opportunity pass him by. He wanted to learn to walk the tightrope, to breathe fire, to make lions bow and leap into the air, and the games, and the food, and more, so much more.

Happier though it may be, “Circus” still explores the theme of what lies in wait. In this case, Manuel realizes that his circus dreams mean he would have to turn his back on the beloved sister who needs him to return home.

The stories in this collection demonstrate Duncan’s wandering spirit in the impressive variety of ways that he explores the meaning behind his title. Whether zombies, lost children, or the police, Duncan implements his mysteries with rich description and a marvelous knack for keeping the reader focused on both the moment and the foreboding possibilities of what comes next.

What Lies in Wait
James H. Duncan

Hobo Camp Press
312 pages, $12.99

David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt (a 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist) and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review and others. His writing website is and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

Content © 2013-16 Buffalo Almanack.
Illustrations by John Gummere. Site powered by Wordpress and the Melville theme.
Please address all inquires and concerns to Maxine Vande Vaarst and Katie Morrison, editors.
Thank you for your patronage.