"Wagon Buddy & Scott: A Wagon Buddy Tale" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Amazon Media & Black Void Publishing
Written by Steve Stred
2018 & 2020, 132 & 94 pages, Fiction
Released on 15th September 2018 & 2nd October 2020
Back in March 2019, I reviewed Steve Stred for the first time, giving The Girl Who Hid in the Trees a middling 3/5, stars and sometime later I read The One That Knows No Fear, which made a stronger impression. Following that, I was totally blown away by The Window in the Ground, which is both significantly meatier and more complex than those earlier works. Steve can count himself unfortunate this story did not make the Final Ballot of the HWA Stoker earlier in 2021 in the fiercely contested novella category, but did feature in my top novella selection of 2020. Impressively, this author is equally prolific as a book reviewer as he is with producing his own fiction, banging out reviews with frightening regularity. I would guess he must sleep a mere two hours a night to fit it all in! As his body of work has grown, I enjoy the random dip into Steve’s ever-growing back catalogue, which recently led me to his Wagon Buddy novella, originally published in 2018.
This review is going to double up and cover both Wagon Buddy and its sequel Scott: A Wagon Buddy Tale. The novellas were written two years apart, however, they should be read as one story with the second picking up directly after the conclusion of the original. Wagon Buddy made such a strong impression on me that I bounced to Scott immediately after it dropped on my kindle. They are both very simply but strikingly told first-person narratives laced together with a sly deadpan sense of humour and a level of weirdness which is nicely reminiscent of the great Jeff Strand. If you are going to tell a story about a nine-foot creature that has a passion for basketball and a deeply respectful friendship with Scott, then it takes a certain type of literary skill to pull it off, and Steve Stred is particularly adept at breathing life into this type of wackiness.
A couple of years ago Stephen Chbosky published a huge novel called Imaginary Friend, about an invisible friend. Steve Stred’s Wagon Buddy covers some of the same ground, but without the 500 pages of flab, which weighs that story down. Given the choice, I would recommend Stred over Chbosky every time, as neither of the Wagon Buddy books have an ounce of fat and I was disappointed to reach the end of the sequel. Chbosky may have written a more literary and intellectually challenging novel, but Stred gives us heart, humour and a personal, autobiographical even, message all of its own.
Plotwise Wagon Buddy and Scott: A Wagon Buddy are very easy to spell out. Scott, a lonely young boy, is delighted to make an invisible friend, a huge monster he calls ‘Wagon Buddy’ who viciously murders anybody who threatens him. Because Scott is horribly bullied at school, the Wagon Buddy has plenty of victims which he gratefully and almost apologetically devours. The first story is told through a police narrative, with Scott being quizzed by detectives over the murder of a young woman. The second part is a straight continuation, with Scott trying to reconnect with the family he has lost contact with. The creature allows Scott to provide him with a name of his choosing and as their friendship blossoms, they take turns pushing each other in his toy wagon, and whenever the wagon appears, it is a sure sign the creature is not far behind. However, murder is not always on the agenda and often the two buddies simply chill out and shoot hoops. I particularly enjoyed these quirky friendship-based scenes.
The underlying theme of the stories is undoubtedly bullying, with Scott being first targeted when he is very young after his father has run off and his mother struggles with alcoholism. The bullying is made worse by the fact that Scott is a very easy target who repeatedly fails to defend himself and even as he gets older he never truly outgrows the torment. Even though the stories are relatively short, they span a couple of decades. Whilst most people outgrow invisible friends, this does not happen to Scott and the Wagon Buddy is as connected to loneliness and the toy wagon a symbol of his broken childhood.
Although it is a fun story which takes in serious subjects, I wonder whether some might argue whether the Wagon Buddy beast is a figment of Scott’s imagination. That’s an interesting question to ponder should you decide to search deeper for ambiguity. He is most certainly a very unusual guardian angel who is portrayed in imaginative detail and is clearly ruthless and totally bloodthirsty whenever Scott was threatened. However, Scott’s reactions to these mass murders are also strange, perhaps reflecting the traumatic childhood experiences which desensitise him towards violence. Ultimately, Wagon Buddy is a very sad story about a boy who can't escape the physical scars of bullying and how the creature, a constant protector and enforcer, provided friendship for the friendless.
Although these novellas are not long, if I were to flag any points of criticism, they would be very minor; for example, the kill scenes are slightly repetitive and predictable, which results in the stories being rather one-paced. One could also argue that we could have found out more about the origins of the Wagon Buddy; he is given the smallest of back story, but his true name or nature is never revealed, but that fits perfectly within the boundaries of the story. Actually, towards the end of the sequel, Stred does provide the opportunity for Wagon Buddy Part Three, but it would be unnecessary, as part two has a terrific ending and closure. But hey, if Stred decides to write it, I’ll read it!
If you have never tried Steve Stred, Wagon Buddy or The Window in the Ground are both terrific places to start and his work is beginning to feature in an impressive range of small and indie presses, including Eerie River, Storgy, Kevin J. Kennedy, Demain and The Writing Collective. Steve also continues to publish on his own print, Black Void, and in recent times has branched out into science fiction and westerns. Later in the year we should see the second book in The Empyrean Saga and possibly another novel. I did warn you that Steve Stred was prolific and I already have another from his back catalogue on my Kindle!
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