And so we come to the end of the series that began with Porn Gnomes and continued with Bike Riding Wood Apes and find ourselves asking: that’s it? While I found both of Paul Chapman’s prior quirky, comic, tragic, and horrific short story anthologies fairly worthwhile, I’m left looking at Dragon Kicker XV with a bit of a shrug. Part of this might be its length, clocking in with the least amount of stories and thus having the least chances to find something that really hits among the tales that make one smile and the ones that actually resonate. A much larger part may, unfortunately, be a matter of familiarity. The luridly purple prose that almost singlehandedly carries some of Chapman’s stories in the first anthology feels very nearly rote and unfortunately (rather than entertainingly) overdone in many of Dragon Kicker‘s stories, and the jokes never hit as hard even in a series of books where the drama has always been the highlight over the humor.
Dragon Kicker XV does have two outright dramatic tales to tell in its collection of eight short stories, and once again I think I find these to be some of the strongest entries. Devil in Blue Eyeliner kicks off the collection with an unsurprising but well-done yarn spun around a sinister circus and the emotional backstabbing that an expert knife-thrower might actually be capable of, continuing the strong EC vibe that Chapman’s writing has always carried with aplomb. Scrap Escape shortly after demonstrates an interesting world that we never actually get to see, not even dropping hints about just what might be going on in a junkyard that has a spontaneous robot problem and manages to maintain its gravitas even beyond an appearance by UFO Jesus. Sandwiched between the dark chocolate cookies is the fluffy vanilla ice cream that is Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, the anthology’s mandatory gnome story this time taking the form of a wizened old gnome guarding the old and steadfast ways in the face of a gabby goblin lass who wants to prove that there’s room for new ideas. There’s a giant robot and a litany of warnings against sex with fantasy creatures, and it manages to probably be the single most energetic and fun story of the eight. It’s unfortunate that these three are the ones that lead off the collection, because I found the remaining stories to be some of my least favorites across the three anthologies. The half-titular Dragon Kicker V is one of the less successful set-ups for a punch line ending wrapped around a story of a child in the grip of a video game addiction which itself leads to the final story in the anthology, Dragon Kicker X. The follow-up has a few interesting motifs and ideas, but between the pair of them, I just couldn’t get too invested in this particular variation on things in a game becoming too real.
Budget Bug Hunt is a clever idea that suffers from what might be the most obnoxious writing in Chapman’s anthology oeuvre, beating the joke of a character in a terrible movie realizing just how much spit and glue is holding his set together so far past the point of reason that by the time the story enters Stranger Than Fiction territory it had already left a sour taste in my mouth that suspiciously seemed like the overuse of a narrative conceit. Revolt of the Burger Zombies is a not particularly subtle metaphor about the downtrodden existence of fast food wage slaves, and Sugar! is unfortunately a sequel to Sasquatch Rides a Harley’s Belladonna, my least favorite story from that particular anthology. Your mileage may vary on the terms of a mad scientist ape fighting back against the giant talking ant army he hath wrought.
At no point did I hate reading Dragon Kicker XV, though it would admittedly be hard to muster up the time to hate most of Chapman’s short stories since you’re along to the next so quickly. If you read and enjoy the first two anthologies, there’s not much reason not to continue to enjoy the final one. But with so many of the stories slotting so easily into funny or dramatic niches and the influence of old fashioned pulp worn so thoroughly on his sleeve, by the final story here the bloom has come off the rose a bit. Humor is often the element of surprise, and it’s the stories with the most sudden poignancy that stab their deepest. Three anthologies and twenty-nine short stories down the line, the element of surprise is a bit harder to come by. If I’d read Dragon Kicker XV first and worked my way back, I might have found myself more fond of the stories contained here, and I still feel that Porn Gnomes has the strongest writing of the three. Even though Sugar! is a sequel to Belladonna, the actual plot is flimsy enough in both that the order of reading them is irrelevant, such that I might actually recommend reading these anthologies in reverse order. But perhaps I wouldn’t have been so charmed by the stories in Porn Gnomes either, had the surprise equally worn. All in all, I do hope he puts together another collection at some point. There are yet more uncollected stories available on his radio-play podcast archive at Silicon Chickens, as well as four of the stories in this collection available for your listening pleasure. And if nothing else, I got to read one good story about an ancient elemental fighting a giant robot.