To get the important details out of the way real quick, Criterium : Extended Edition is written by Tyler Jones, published by Dark Room Press and contains TWO stories versus the original run which was ONLY Criterium. This extended edition(which takes the form of a fast paced read in Novella length) includes the title story, Criterium, and the story Enter Softly, which is a story featuring a different character yet is set in the same place and time as Criterium. I won’t tell you what that crossover is, exactly, because it’s a nice reveal and addition to the main story, but just know they ARE tied together as a pair. Though it’s not QUITE a continuation or sequel. Think of it more like another side of the evil within.
Criterium begins with our main character, Zach, hearing his parents having yet another fight. His Mom works hard to keep things together for the family and his Dad is hopelessly addicted to drugs. When his father leaves after the argument, Zach follows him out into the street only to find him later in front of that Old Gray House on Archer Way.
Burned to a crisp after zooming down the streets, screaming, inside a ball of fire.
Three months later, Zach finds himself trying to escape his grief. He never wanted to follow in his Dad’s footsteps but yet…he’s turned to drugs to numb the pain. Now, that addiction has Zach in it’s grip and it’s fueled by grief and guilt. Guilt of the pain he’s putting his family through.
As he tries to break free he finds that what he thought was rock bottom is really a rotten swamp, and he’s sinking to depths he’s never imagined possible. Worse, he’s going to drag those he loves most down with him. There’s little hope that the sinister evil sinking it’s claws into him, will actually let him go.
There’s a lot about this book that was SUPER uncomfortable to read, in the best ways possible. The language and wordplay that Jones uses are, at once, ultra disturbing and exquisitely beautiful. Here’s a couple quick examples, but don’t worry, there is nothing to spoil the story for you.
But Mom’s silence had a certain sound to it, a sort of psychic ringing and rush of exhaled breath.
Jones, Tyler. Criterium: Extended Edition (p. 18). Kindle Edition.
The clothes, if it had been wearing any, were gone. So was the hair. The entire corpse was black, except for the teeth, which were bared in a horrifying lipless grin, and the bright-red, wet-looking strips where the skin had split open and exposed the tissue underneath.
Jones, Tyler. Criterium: Extended Edition (p. 31). Kindle Edition.
A breeze blew and scratched dead leaves on the sidewalk.
Jones, Tyler. Criterium: Extended Edition (p. 36). Kindle Edition.
So he kept walking, each step farther from the house a little nail in the coffin that held his conscience.
Jones, Tyler. Criterium: Extended Edition (p. 39). Kindle Edition.
Ok, you get the idea. There are so many great examples I’d love to share, but we’ll be here all day if I do. Besides, if you like those, just go pick up a copy and read the book for yourself. That way you can savor them in context of the story. Anyways, back to the thoughts on the book itself, shall we.
There is a lot to love about this book. Jones takes an already dark subject, one more than a little uncomfortable for most people to digest, and presents it in a way that is equally brilliant and disturbing.
Through the first third of the story I found myself wondering if it was going to include anything OTHER than the real world horrors faced by those battling addiction.
But Jones kept dropping hints and references to things that seemed not quite right. Be it someone screaming down a street in a blazing fireball as they’re burned alive or the Old Gray House on Archer Way, we’re left to wonder. Is it really supernatural? Or are they the drug induced hallucinations of an addict stoned out of their mind?
Soon enough though, Zach finds himself trapped by a supernatural item. Beautiful on the surface, but coldly terrifying. An item that beats the shit out of him, drags him to the pit of hell and threatens to do the same to those he loves. The evil is punishing, brutal and uncaring. Evil like that doesn’t NEED a reason or motive, it just IS.
Jones blends the real life horrors of addiction with the horrors of the supernatural world and leaves you feeling the anguish and despair of his characters. Capturing the essence and feeling of the characters state of mind (be it sober, high, terrified, grief stricken, guilty or depressed) this story grabs hold of you and drags you through hell with them. As if YOU were the one feeling the pain and terror they are experiencing.
That was a long, run on sentence. Sorry about that. Once you read the story though, you’ll understand what I’m saying.
When Jones is writing about Zach feeling guilty, as a reader you’ll notice a shift in the “voice” of the story. When Zach transitions from being sober to the high of the drugs kicking in, the “voice” of the story changes to reflect it.
This is even MORE pronounced with the second story, Enter Softly, with the main character of Lisa. A trauma nurse facing her own demons and her own battle with the sinister evil that beats the hell out of Zach in Criterium.
Lisa’s story hits on a different level because it’s coming from the viewpoint of a parent that has made a single, terrible mistake. A mistake that leads to another…and then another, until the evil and addiction has a firm grip on her in much the same way it did for Zach.
I enjoy how Jones doesn’t rely on the more conventional horror aspects of evil. There’s no backstory to the evil, no tropes of gory monsters in the night. The real terror here comes in the form of the gritty, punch you in the gut just because it felt like it – no backstory required, kind of evil.
It’s an evil at once understandable yet completely mysterious. It’s never explained, there’s no motive and no reason WHY this darkness is doing what it’s doing. It just IS.
One thing that never quite settled for me with this story was Zach’s age. Jones hints that he’s probably around high school age, his sister seems much younger. Most of the story finds Zach anywhere BUT in school. In general it seems he’s around 16-18 years old. Yet there are other times he seems younger, much younger. During the span of 3-7 months it’s like he’s suddenly gone from being 16(ish) to being out of high school and a young adult. It’s a minor quibble, but feels like a tiny pebble in your shoe that nags at you the whole journey.
The Bottom Line
If you like heart-wrenching, despair-filled horror stories that don’t rely on the typical “horror tropes”. Stories that blend real world horror with a touch of truly sinister supernatural evil. Then you’re going to enjoy the ride this story takes you on.
I give Criterium : Extended Edition by Tyler Jones a 4 out of 5 stars.
It’s a solid horror novella with two horrifically fun stories. Stories that make me want to know more about the nature of the bike and hear more tales of that Old Gray House on Archer Way.
Seeing a LITTLE more about what’s behind the evil or where it comes from would have been great, our minds crave a motive. But the reality of it manifesting in the darkness that lies within all of us, via human nature, addiction, grief, loss, or despair, well…that’s more terrifying than any fictional monster could ever hope to be.