Loners by Mark SaFranko reviewed by Joseph Ridgwell

I’ve always been a voracious reader, always on the look out for exceptional books that encourage you to look at the world in a different light, get you thinking and wondering, maybe even change your life. But let’s face it these books are incredibly rare, hard to track down, and once you have, read in the blinking of an eye.

You see, I’m not talking about the bloated bestsellers that clog up the turgid book charts, or alleged masterpieces we are bombarded with by an increasingly rudderless publishing industry, or chick-lit, misery-lit, druggie-lit, celebrity-lit or whatever cheesy moniker the bean counters want to label books that are lightweight, ephemeral, and instantly forgettable. I’m talking about books that dare to be different, defy any such lame marketing drone categorisation, and reach for the immortal skies.

And it is here in this rarefied literary air, that discerning and adventurous readers will locate a brand new collection of mind-expanding short stories by American author Mark SaFranko. The book is entitled Loners, and is the third SaFranko volume to be published by independent British publisher Murder Slim Press, following hot on the heels of popular cult favourites, Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard.

But if fans were expecting more of the same from the brilliant New Yorker they will be in for a shock, for Loners is a huge departure from the first person narrative Max Zajack novels, and veers off into hitherto unknown territory for the majority of SaFranko readers.

However, do not let this put you off, for each and every tale contained within this slim volume is a minor classic, undeniable proof of the author’s mastery of the often neglected short story genre. The collection kicks off with an informative introduction by the renowned American crime writer Seymour Shubin, who hails Loners as “a collection of brilliant short stories that had me twisting inwardly as I read them…They are magnificent.”

And he’s not wrong. For from the very first story, ‘The Man in Unit 24,’ the author has the reader on tenterhooks, turning each page with their heart in their throat or mouth, but definitely not where it should normally be. And from here on in there is little respite, Alley Night, At the Hacienda, Alone, Life Change, and Acts of Revenge grab the reader’s attention from start to finish, leading them down chilling dead ends and false turnings, but ultimately to thrilling climaxes.

Unluckily for me I was reading Loners late at night in an isolated cottage on the East coast of England and by the time I reached the creepy seventh story, ‘Just Next Door, ‘ I was beginning to hear noises, see things, and feel decidedly spooked. Yes, these stories are bleak, dark, and downright scary, but ultimately the end result is an incredibly life-affirming and rewarding literary experience, a rarity in these troubled and culturally trashy times.

So there you have it, “Loners” by Mark SaFranko probably the best collection of short stories to be published this year. But don’t take my word for it, go out and purchase a copy and see for yourself. Just be warned, reading these stories alone at night is not for the faint-hearted or those of a nervous disposition, but nevertheless highly recommended.

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