Review of Defining Moments by David Niall Wilson

Defining Moments by David Niall Wilson may be the best single-author collection of short stories I have ever read. Considering that my favourites include Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Richard Thomas’s Tribulations, that is high praise indeed. But Defining Moments is a uniquely intense and joyous reading experience that will stay with me—probably forever.

I admit I was first drawn to Defining Moments by the cover. I was at AuthorCon III in Williamsburg, and my vending table with Blood Bound Books happened to be next to Crossroad Press. I saw this gorgeous hardback special edition—pictured below—and I simply had to own it. The author, David Niall Wilson, who was manning the stall at the time, graciously signed the book for me.

But Defining Moments is not only beautiful on the outside, but also within. From the first story—which gives the collection its title—I was riveted by a Niall Wilson’s narrative voice. His prose combines the narrative intensity of Stephen King on full throttle with moments of pure poetic flair. In other words, despite an unmistakeably literary bent to the writing, it is never at the expense of the reader or story. Thus, gorgeous descriptions of moonlit landscapes or beautiful and mysterious apparitions are juxtaposed against a character’s mundane desires for sex, highs, money, or just plain survival. His narrative hooks are compelling. We are not simply supposed to be dazzled by his writing. We care about his protagonists, what they want, and the ill-advised methods they use to get what they want.

This delicate balance of elements is also present in the themes of the stories. David Niall Wilson clearly has a deep interest in the occult, with story premises based around Tarot cards, past lives, and Crowleyan magick to give just a few examples. However, his stories are never lost in the high-falutin realm of spiritual ideas, but retain their grounding through all-too-real and relatable characters with human concerns and struggles. A case in point is the second story in the collection, “The Lost Wisdom of Instinct”, in which a student of the Tarot, Alex Beauchamp, comes to sort through the papers of his old mentor, Professor Robert Auburn Devonshire, who has recently passed away. Professor Devonshire was working on something big, a breakthrough in understanding of the occult systems of the ancients. Niall Wilson effortlessly conveys a sense of both supernatural power and human loss in this segment reflecting on the Professor’s house:

His spirit seemed to inhabit every corner, every shadow and flicker of light, surrounding them with the aura of mystery and promise of power just beyond the ordinary senses that made every thought, every motion sensual and vibrant, alive with purpose and meaning.”

In addition to the evocation of power and memory, the strange syntax of the sentence, which seems to trip over itself to progress to the end, mirrors the expectancy and fervour of our protagonist, Alex. This is top level writing.

While undergoing the work of reconstructing his old mentor’s theories, Alex finds himself sexually drawn to Professor Devonshire’s widow, Madeline, in ways that are both darkly compelling but also welcomely comedic, in that they expose the human condition:

What the hell was wrong with him? At a decisive moment such as this, all he could think of was what the widow of the one man he’d ever truly respected would look like without her dress!”

The bathetic juxtaposition of petty lusts against the spiritual unfolding that is taking place is comical, but oh-so true to human nature. However, as promised by the title of the story, we shall see that Alex’s petty desires might serve a greater purpose, a “lost wisdom”.

Not only does David Niall Wilson explore highly esoteric ideas, but he also puts interesting spins on familiar tropes, such as vampires and werewolves. Sometimes, he totally reimagines the mythos of these archetypal monsters, but other times, his innovations come at the microcosmic level, such as an ingenious scene where a character with a silver tooth bites down on a werewolf’s arm! It’s an unexpected moment of pay-off that is greater than the some of its parts.

Defining Moments is the perfect title for the collection. The stories, though originally published many years apart and collated into this special edition by Sarob Press in 2007, are extraordinarily cohesive. Each story deals with a character in a moment that will define them for the rest of their lives. In “Cockroach Suckers”, possibly my favourite story in the whole collection, the defining moment comes in the form of an unexpected business opportunity. Two hicks living in The Great Dismal Swamp stumble upon a seven-foot tall wooden effigy of a cockroach, supposedly carved by Native Americans, and they decide to make it into a roadside attraction. But of course, things aren’t what they seem...

All of us encounter these strange opportunities. Something unexpectedly crosses our path, and how we respond to this “something” can determine a lot about us and about our future. In some instances, it is never possible to go back to who we were before. This is the case in the deceptively erotic story “The Gentle Brush of Wings” (which won the Bram Stoker Award, by the way), in which one error of judgement—succumbing to baser urges—leads our protagonist down a path of nightmarish illusion. This story performs sleight of hand upon the reader, using its erotic glamour to conceal something profoundly sinister beneath.

These thirteen tales conjure a world alive with myth and magic—but the most astonishing thing is that it is our own world. Like the greatest spiritual teachers, Niall Wilson opens our eyes to the extraordinary all around us, and makes us believe there is something more to life than meets the eye, that revelation is just around the next corner. We never know when our own defining moment might come. Perhaps it will be with the death of a parent, as in “The Call of Farther Shores”, or when a mysterious stranger walks into our tattoo parlour and begins to tell their strange story, as in “To Dream of Scheherazade”.

The ghosts of several great authors are present throughout Defining Moments. In particular, Ambrose Bierce, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge feature time and time again, not necessarily in terms of explicit references (though there are a few), but in terms of how these writers understood the dreamlike nature of reality, the power of fantasy, and the hidden longings of the human heart. David Niall Wilson’s collection is not only a fitting tribute to those greats, but a worthy continuation of their legacy. His work is immersive, thought-provoking, and deeply moving.

As I understand it, the special hardback edition of Defining Moments is basically sold out (I think I quite literally acquired the last copy in the world, if you can believe it). However, the paperback, Kindle, and audiobook are still available on Amazon. I cannot recommend diving into this collection enough. It won't be the last book I read by David Niall Wilson.

Purchase here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US