Those who’ve read author Chris Holm’s accomplished work in the short story format are well-aware of how talented a writer the man is. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and his short story collections, 8 Pounds and Dead Letters: Stories of Murder and Mayhem, were met with universal praise from readers. Yet, despite all that, I was still completely blown away by the tour de force that is The Collector Series, in which Holm takes a pinch of fantasy, a little supernatural, a dash of hardboiled crime fiction, and blends them into a pitch-perfect adventure in a way that is nothing short of authorial alchemy.
Things haven’t shaken out Sam Thornton’s way for quite some time. Driven by desperation and good intentions, Sam made a very bad decision many decades ago. And you know what they say about good intentions…yeah, the road to Hell. Thing is, Sam didn’t make it all the way down that road, but got detoured into Purgatory and shanghaied into eternal employment as a soul collector—if your time has come and the powers that be have marked you for damnation, it’s Sam’s job to remove your soul and send it on its way to hell.
In Dead Harvest, the first book in the series, Sam is assigned to collect Kate MacNeil’s soul. At first blush it seems like a no-brainer since the young woman was caught red-handed, literally, having just butchered her family. However, upon attempting to collect Kate’s soul Sam is met with an outpouring of purity so overwhelming he’s convinced she didn’t commit the crime, that she’s been improperly marked for damnation. However, one does not simply refuse to collect the assigned soul. It’s never happened in the history of, well, ever. Failure to collect Kate’s soul is sure to seriously piss off the denizens of Hell who’ve claimed it. On the other hand, improperly sending a pure soul to Hell for damnation could touch off a war with Heaven.
Unwilling to concede there’s nothing that can be done about the situation, Sam takes Kate on the run until he can figure out a way to appease the demons without enraging the angels. Of course, Sam and Kate also have to stay one step ahead of the police, who are convinced Sam helped a cold-blooded murderess escape from the psychiatric until of the hospital where she was under police guard. Oh, and there’s also the little matter of a replacement collector—a sort of spiritual relief pitcher—who’s sent to get done what Sam has refused to do. To avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the series, I won’t say how things play out, just that it’s a rollicking ride Sam does come out the other side of, if slightly worse for wear.
Of course, having seriously overstepped his bounds as one of the “devil’s mailmen” with his actions, the start of The Wrong Goodbye, the second book in the series, finds Sam on a sort of supernatural double secret probation with both Heaven and Hell. One more screw up or act of insubordination and Sam will be shelved: his soul deposited into “a useless body decades from expiring,” alive and aware but unable to escape. Madness usually arrives before death. So you can understand Sam’s panic when the latest soul he’s been sent to collect goes missing before he can collect it.
Sam’s pretty sure he knows who took it, a fellow Collector with whom Sam had a falling out decades ago, and he sets out to reclaim the soul before the powers that be notice he’s screwed up. What Sam doesn’t initially know is that there’s a lot more riding on him getting that soul back than just his personal well-being, and by the time he realizes it Sam’s once again in the unenviable position of being the linchpin in the quasi-truce between Heaven and Hell…and the denizens of the In-Between.
Weaving together elements of Lovecraftian horror, the classic road trip, buddy action films and the supernatural, the action in The Wrong Goodbye unfolds at breakneck pace through a series of set pieces that are thrilling, hilarious, repulsive, intriguing, and thought-provoking—all carefully stitched together via Sam’s world-weary narrative. Holm’s ability to switch gears on a dime from tongue-in-cheek humor to skin crawling creepiness to theological musings is a reflection of his supreme command of his craft, and his descriptions and tone setting are nothing short of sublime. One wouldn’t have thought the stakes could get higher than they were in Sam’s first outing, but by the time The Wrong Goodbye comes to a close it’s apparent that, unfortunately, Sam ain’t seen nothing yet.
Which brings us, and Sam, to the (purported) final entry in the series, The Big Reap, in which Sam finds himself faced with a particularly odious task: collect the souls of the nine Brethren, a group of former Collectors who performed a supernatural ritual to break free of their eternal shackles, causing the Great Flood (you know, Noah and the ark) in the process. The power of their ritual granted the Brethren virtual immortality, but did bind them each forever to a single corporeal body, unlike Sam, who is able to leap in and out of people (both living and recently deceased) at will to command their bodies for his use.
Well, Sam does a lot of leaping around in The Big Reap—usually with a trip to Guam as the way station, much to Sam’s continuing bemusement—as the Brethren are an especially nasty group that pushes Sam to the limits of his abilities. The Brethren are also an immensely fascinating and fun group to read about, as Holm drew inspiration for them from classic monsters—variations on werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, a creature/leviathan from the lagoon, and even a chupacabra (though this one actually called to mind the original Alien for me, complete with claustrophobic dark tunnel hunt) all make extremely entertaining, and challenging for Sam, appearances.
And having been around for hundreds upon hundreds of years, the Brethren have all made interesting marks on the history of man, as did Sam himself, as Holm reveals with a very skillfully weaved in backstory of Sam’s first soul collection, one that occurred at the end of World War II and decidedly set the tone for Sam’s subsequent approach to the job.
Which, ultimately, is what the series is really about: Sam’s evolving approach to the task of collecting souls and the moral and spiritual journey he is on in the process. At the outset of the series, Sam is fighting desperately to hold on to whatever remains of his humanity, despite having been hard at work collecting souls for nearly 70 years. While undoubtedly burned-out, jaded, and world-weary—not to mention damned—Sam also somehow manages to still recognize and appreciate the goodness left in humanity, and doesn’t want to lose touch with that. The events of the series build up and weight on him as things progress, however, causing Sam to constantly struggle with, doubt and reevaluate the choices he makes along the way.
That Holm is able to explore via Sam such big ticket items as faith and forgiveness, falls from grace and redemption, while still engaging readers in stories that rocket along at summer blockbuster pace is a tribute to his skill as an author. An even bigger tribute to Holm is that he doesn’t suggest pat answers to any of the questions he raises, but rather leaves them out there for readers to contemplate to the extent they desire. Quite simply, The Collector Series is one of those rare beasts that both entertains and enlightens and, as such, is a true joy to behold. If you’re not reading Chris Holm’s work yet, well…get on it!
— The Wrong Goodbye was one of my Top 10 Reads of 2012 —
— The Big Reap was one of my Top 10 Reads of 2013 —