Exquisite Corpse: A Serial Box Original

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Exquisite Corpse, Season 1
By Cassandra Khaw, Paul Cornell, Brian Keene, Michelle Garza, Christopher Golden, Paul Tremblay, Richard Chizmar, Stephen Kozeniewski, Nick Mamatas, Alyssa Wong, Melissa Lason

Publisher: Serial Box | Release Date: Oct. 19, 2018 | Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prior to this past Halloween, Serial Box treated listeners and readers to a neat little trick called Exquisite Corpse. Following the template of the classic parlor game for which it’s named, ten authors were tasked with telling a single story over the course of a day, one chapter per hour, each author picking up where the preceding writer left off, all based on a prompt provided by Dread Central.

Per Dread Central, that prompt was as follows:

With only a few days left until the big gallery opening, you’re struggling to finish your final pieces. However, it’s not lack of inspiration but rather dwindling supplies that’s holding you back. The problem is that your art uses rather…unorthodox materials.

Kicking off Exquisite Corpse is the always excellent Cassandra Khaw, who masterfully sets the stage for the story to follow. She presents to us a dying artist, his body afflicted with cancer. He’s intent on making his death his grandest exhibit thus far. As the story progresses through the hands of other notable authors, such as Paul Cornell, Brian Keene, Michelle Garza and Melisa Lason, Paul Tremblay, Richard Chizmar, Christopher Golden, Stephen Kozeniewski, Nick Mamatas, and Alyssa Wong, the history of our central character is unraveled, as well as his state of mind and body.

Set in slightly futuristic setting (the exact time is indeterminate, but it’s far enough ahead that we’ve colonized the moon and Mars), the artist plugs himself into a neural network with the intention of broadcasting his demise on an interstellar scale. Assisting him in his final recording is a former associate, Annie, who has come to regret working and aiding him in his earlier creations.

Keene, in his third episode, works to spin the story into deeper realms. You may have noted that I’ve not named the artist - well, that’s because the artist remains largely anonymous. It’s an interesting twist on the thematic elements that Exquisite Corpse builds, and Keene injects issues of consent to the narrative, which grows into a powerful and engaging story of revenge. As the artist is plugged into his virtual reality display, Annie tells him, “You’ve taken from women your entire life. You use them to create your art.”

Far too often, female victims of abuse are lost as the media profiles shift their gaze to focus solely on the man. We typically know far more about the man’s exploits, his life and background and how such accusations could negatively impact his bright, shiny futures. The victims remain anonymous at best, even after publicly stepping forward, and glossed over and forgotten at worst. In Annie, we are given the name of but one woman victimized over the course of this artist’s career. He could be any man, any man who has used his position of power and influence to force himself upon women, believing he was justified simply because of his maleness and the entitlement that brings with it, or because, as the artist proclaims, they signed consent forms.

It’s never explicitly clear what kind of art was being made during this man’s career, but there’s enough intimations made that we can comfortably fill in the blanks. Whatever the shape and form those works ultimately took, it was enough to steal and entrap pieces of those victimized women, creating ghosts in the machine that Annie uses to torment the artist in his final moments.

Although the story has slight science fiction elements, Exquisite Corpse is very much a horror story, but one that becomes enhanced through its cross-genre elements. With the neural net, the authors are able to create surrealistic depictions of torture, in addition to some good old-fashioned carnage. Kozeniewski does it best, taking various elements arranged prior to his eighth episode to spin a brief chapter of body horror cum creature feature.

Given the nature of the parlor game, the lack of advance planning, the writer only able to see the story that came before theirs, and the demands for off-the-cuff storytelling, there are some inconsistencies generated over the course of Exquisite Corpse’s early episodes, threads that some authors continue and which later writers must wrestle with and correct, but even then such problems are creatively handled and are used to deepen the narrative. As a result, some episodes are of the headscratcher variety as contradictory issues arise, but at only roughly ten minutes per episode some of these complications are pretty quickly resolved, while others spin-off into a life of their own. Golden, in particular, does a fantastic job of grappling several threads and twisting them all together, setting the stage for the series final arc.

Exquisite Corpse is presented by Serial Box in both ebook and audio formats. I went with the audio, and if this is the level of quality I can expect from all Serial Box releases, I might have just found my new favorite audiobook publisher. Exquisite Corpse is absolutely a sonic delight to listen to! Xe Sands delivers a wonderful narration, enhanced even further by the audio production work from ARS Audio. Listening to this book during the course of my commute, I was delighted by how well the audio took advantage of my car’s speaker systems. The first time Sands’s voice shifted from the center speaker to my left, I couldn’t help but grin, even as I found myself surrounded by the noise of a pulse monitor keeping track of the anonymous artist’s heartbeats. There’s a constant background layer of sound that helps accentuate Sands’s reading, and the 3D audio is nicely immersive…and maybe not so nicely, as the horrific squelching noises and screams of pain come to life during the latter installments. Thanks for that, Kozeniewski…

Provided on the Serial Box website as a freebie, I have to say that, as far as promotional titles go, Exquisite Corpse definitely did its job. I’d been interested in the stories this publisher has to offer for a while, and this book was an excellent introduction on what to expect, most especially the audio production. NPR has already lauded Serial Box as “the HBO of reading,” and based on this sole offering I’m finding myself quick to agree. They’ve got a great roster of talent bringing awesome ideas to the table in the format of weekly serialization for each of their books. I’d heard from a few other readers I trust about how great Serial Box is, and now I’m a firm believer. They just got themselves a new fan thanks to this little experiment, and I’m expecting to have plenty more exquisite stories to listen to in the immediate future.