The last story in Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, “Don’t Look Down,” is one I can easily see polarizing readers of Herren’s collection. It’s atmospheric, with an almost gothic feel to it: a gay reporter who was already heading to Italy as a getaway to try and recover from some of the grief of losing his partner is assigned a former flash-in-the-pan beefcake model/actor/musician the reporter had a massive crush on. It’s a cost-cutting measure, allows him to claim a few things, and… well. The guy was famous for being a hunk and dropping trou “by accident” and honestly, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining Marky Mark’s underwear years, given Herren’s descriptions, so that was good.
But once he’s in the town, the citizenry are only nice to him until they learn why he’s there. Others warn him. There are screams in the night attributed to a local institution. The interview is going well—except the townsfolk really don’t seem to like him—and he might very well be flirting with the reporter, which… Well. Unethical. A problem. Super-flattering. It’s all very conflicting for the reporter, a man who is already grasping for something to feel good about, and so his defences aren’t up. And the repeated warning to get out of the town, that the man will be his doom just add more and more to the rising tension of the story.
When I said this story could easily be polarizing, I mean very much the ending. I come down solidly on the side of enjoying it—it’s got the kind of ending I loved from some of the lesser supernatural episodes of the Twilight Zone, for example. It’s dark, certainly not hopeful, and hits a tangential twist rather than relying on the expected, but the story is so infused with such a sense of dreadful ‘fated to be’ that instead of knocking me out of the flow, I found myself shuddering along with the ride. Fans of suspenseful horror thrillers are in for a treat with this one, which closes the collection on a note of reminding the reader to maybe leave a light on.