Joe McKinney is an author whose name I’ve been familiar with for quite some time, but who I haven’t had a chance to read until now. His collection The Red Empire and Other Stories, from relatively new but rapidly expanding publisher Redrum Horror, provided me with an opportunity to rectify that.
Even though the collection includes only a modest total of eight stories (the title story is a long novella, taking up more than 40% of the book), including three originals, there is a fairly wide array of styles and genres on display here, with the contents touching upon everything from a ghost story to cosmic horror to SF to police procedural to non-fiction.
The aforementioned eponymous novella “The Red Empire,” which leads off the book, is probably the highlight here, a taut page-turner that’s not ashamed to take a B-movie plot and make the best of it. A military truck transporting a dangerous payload, in the form of genetically-engineered fire ants, crashes during a storm in rural Texas, unleashing the ants. The military and their nefarious scientists attempt to capture the ants, enlisting the help of local police and a local doctor who happens to be something of an expert on fire ants. Complicating matters are an escaped killer who’s invaded the home of a single mother and her daughter, who’s recovering from a serious eye operation. On the heels of the killer’s arrival comes a wave of the deadly ants, trapping the unlikely trio in the house. It’s all expertly-paced and a lot of fun.
The second tale, “Blemish,” is the other standout, as a former cop turned private investigator is haunted by his past, via both the ghost of a former lover and his still-living ex-girlfriend. It’s a melancholy tale of wrong turns and missed opportunities, and the ending will likely haunt you as much as the two women have haunted the main character, Scott.
The collection is unfortunately a bit front-loaded, as the remaining contents for the most part can’t live up to the high standards set by the first two stories. “Eyes Open” comes closest, as a seemingly schizophrenic homeless man picked up by the police turns out to be the bearer of a sanity-threatening message with Lovecraftian overtones. “Burning Finger Man” is also worth noting, a fairly straightforward drama about a sexual predator plaguing a housing project. The story features an interesting array of characters and manages to wring a lot of emotion from its depiction of vigilante justice.
Showing the influence of McKinney’s day job as a Sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, four of the eight entries feature cops in primary roles, and his first-hand knowledge certainly helps lend a strong sense of realism to those stories. McKinney has largely been known for his zombie-oriented fiction, and this collection gives him the chance to show his chops in some different areas, and he largely does a fine job of doing just that.