(Editor’s note: SHORT SHOTS is a column where I review short stories from horror anthologies.)
“Complex” by Jason Parent appears in the 2020 anthology by Silver Shamrock Publishing titled Midnight in the Pentagram, edited by Kenneth W. Cain. Told from the point of view of a distraught wife, “Complex” starts with a paragraph packed with heartbreak and tragedy.
“Carrie knew she’d follow her husband, Liam, anywhere. She’d stuck by him for twenty-three years, through one-night stands, all the drinking and time spent unemployed, fad after obsessive fad, and — worst of all, though not his fault — the death of their only son. Now he was dragging both of them to early graves.”
I quickly learn Carrie and Liam are walking in wolf-infested woods, but the story stops me dead in my tracks when I read the word “messiah.” The couple is actually two of fifty-four chosen people blindly following a self-proclaimed messiah named Jericho into the woods. Carrie is skeptical but joined her husband for the religious retreat.
Parent glosses over the messiah’s background with a single paragraph: “Jericho, the one they called Messiah, didn’t project an aura of holiness. In a green vest over a flannel shirt, ball cap, and jeans, he looked just about as ordinary as everyone else. His short beard was dotted with gray. A spare tire circled his waist. As the story had it, he was a junkie, prostitute, and atheist until God visited him in a dream and showed Messiah his true self, the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and savior to the chosen few.”
Jericho tells his followers, “Salvation is within our reach.” However, he adds, “Our herd must be culled.” The wolves, or what he calls “the devil’s beasts,” are the ones tapped for the culling. “They cannot touch the pure among us,” Jericho says. “They can only take the undeserving.”
After falling asleep, Carrie awakens to a scream. It appears the wolves have attacked, leaving Carrie and a man named Martin to openly question the messiah’s motives. “Complex” finishes with a fiery confrontation and a twist that shatters Carrie’s cynicism.
I enjoyed “Complex.” I interpreted it as an allegorical take on marriage, especially a troubled one. I imagine the emotions Carrie felt on her religious journey into the woods mirrored the ones she felt in her marriage — disappointment and hardship tempered with a baseless faith in a better future.