Reviews of Universal Monsters

Review from Pen and Cape, by Jason Mott:


Review from Pleiades, by Ned Balbo

Darkly comic is Bryan Dietrich's second collection Universal Monsters, whose title refers to the creature features of a bygone age, specifically those produced by Universal Studios.  Known for Krypton Nights, a playful, perceptive retelling of the Superman myth in poetry, Dietrich here extends his reach to horror and science fiction, even posing, raygun in hand, in his author's photo.  Dietrich is no snob:  for him, the kitsch of childhood hours spent in front of the TV holds a range of humor and heartbreak worthy of thoughtful scrutiny.  The Incredible Shrinking Man--one of the best, and most unsettling, '50's-era sci-fi flicks--lends its title to a poem whose speaker views the world with wonder:  "...But then I'd never imagined how / beautiful it could be to touch the surprising / curves of black locust blossoms from inside...."  Elsewhere, "The Black Lagoon" offers a third-person account of the Creature's encounter with civilization:  "born for the breaking / waves, something like Aquaman without the tights," he is tranformed by the surgeon's scalpel "so that he might shake / free, shuck the lagoon's dark swoon..." 

At times, Dietrich's protagonists sound too much alike, though this kinship does remind us that his gallery of grotesques are masks that the poet wears to talk about what's human.  "Skull Island," a poem I love, is a case in point:  the voice of the speaker, a tribesman raised in the worship of King Kong, sounds almost overeducated--"So much larger / than any one of us, [Kong] was too like the wall / we fashioned:  vast, insatiable, necessary"--though this diction contrasts nicely with the film's demeaning stereotypes.  (It's comical, too, when you recall the outlandish costumes.)  Outstanding, too, is "Psycho," a sestina spoken by Norman Bates as Marion Crane's car and corpse sink slowly into the swamp:  "Really, it's what anyone / does, dissecting what preys, what must begin / with father and mother, albatross and owl, bird and bee...." 

Dietrich knows he shares the taxidermist's impulse, wisely dipensing with such masks in poems that balance the collection.  Impressive and emotionally textured, two sequences, "A Sensible Longing" and "American Gothic," depict Dietrich's family background with compassion and mordant wit; "Dementia 13" and "When World's Collide" examine an unconventional marriage; while "The Creature Walks Among Us" features a father holding a skull flashlight, chasing his son through the dark:  "And, ah, how I'd run, fretted to a fearful pitch, / ...aglow / with terror and delight."  Universal Monsters may be too long--at nearly 140 pages, there's much to devour and digest--but with Krypton Nights now scarce due to the collapse of Zoo Press, Dietrich errs on the side of plenty, including enough poems here for at least two full-length collections.  Anyone with an interest in horror or science fiction will find Dietrich's voice and vision irresistible; more important, his command of craft transcends popular genres to uncover the universal truths that they reflect.


Review from Star Line, by G. O. Clark

Bryan D. Dietrich's new book of poems is at first glance a nostalgic romp down memory lane, touching base with many classic "monsters" from the movies and literature.  It's much more than that, though.

I'm only going to quote one of the poems, "B Movie," because it seems a good summing-up poem.  To quote, "Too bad real life doesn't come with danger music."  The majority of the poems in this collection deal with "danger."  The dangers of childhood memories come back to haunt.  The dangers of casual and long-term relationship--divorce a truly scary concept.  The dangers of monsters lurking inside one's self, a bit of Norman Bates in each of us.  The dangers of obsession--someday those silver ships will come.  And finally, the dangers of love, that universal theme across all genres.

Dietrich uses familiar horror and science fiction characters, (and worlds) to deal with the traumatic and non-traumatic aspects of life.  The nostalgia in these poems is centered more on the real world, not that of the fantastic.  Some of the work is confessional, but not in the usual sense.  Ghosts have equal time here, and blame never gets an upper hand in his Creature Features world.

In retrospect, he's held the dangerous past at bay by adding a soundtrack, a little "danger music," which combined with the two dimensional remove of the movie screen, leaves him at a safe distance to contemplate all the highs and lows of the past.  Monsters are universal, and we leave his theatre in the end knowing we're not alone.

This is a thoughtful, well-penned collection of poems.  Sometimes witty, sometimes serious, and always interesting.  It's well worth the price of admission.

Missouri Review (coming soon)

New York Review of Science Fiction (coming soon)