Tag Archives: Bad Moon Books

Ants, Cops, and Criminals — Joe McKinney’s The Red Empire

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.

SoCal Creatures — A review of Lisa Morton’s Monsters of L.A.

As I commented in my previous reviews of The Lucid Dreaming and The Castle of Los Angeles, Lisa Morton’s fiction output has recently increased significantly. In the last couple of years, she’s published not only that novel and novella, but also the novella The Samhanach and the collection Monsters of L.A., the latter of which I’ll be taking a closer look at here.

Published by Bad Moon Books, Monsters of L.A. is Morton’s first collection and includes 20 stories, all published here for the first time. Each story is named for and focuses on a classic trope — such as Dracula, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and the Hunchback — but each bears a twist that makes it a distinctively L.A. story. Take, for example, the aforementioned “The Mummy,” in which a vain trophy wife in search of the latest in skin treatments finds more than she bargained for behind the doors of a new spa with Egyptian influences. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” features a doctor specializing in gender reassignment whose zeal for greater efficacy leads her to try an experimental drug on herself, resulting in…well, you can imagine, given the title. In “The Invisible Woman,” a nondescript and oft-ignored woman begins to take advantage of her inconspicuous status. A unique perspective — that of the house itself, wanting to be rid of the crew of a Ghost Hunters-style TV series — distinguishes “The Haunted House.” And “Cat People” stands out due to its effective use of the Latin American legend of “La Japonesa” legend, transplanted to Southern California by the workers who migrated there.

Many of the tales are less horrific and more focused on other emotions, such as the poignant “Quasimodo,” wherein a gay high school student tries to finish the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that he’s creating while fending off abuse from fellow students. Or the darkly comedic “Dracula,” which concerns an aging film star who finds there’s more to fear than just a young upstart actor hastening the decline of his career. Or “The Creature,” which has an attention-grabbing beginning — an amphibious creature crawls from the La Brea tar pits, while onlookers assume it be a publicity stunt — but is too short and ends a little too abruptly, with a little too much of a tongue-in-cheek tone, to be successful. The issues of brevity and “winking” tone are ones that are evident at several points in the collection, and unfortunately detract a bit from the book’s overall impact.

At 55 pages, “The Urban Legend” is drastically longer than any other story in the book and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the best story in the book, featuring the Professor and Teaching Assistant from “Cat People” and focusing on legends of a series of hidden tunnels stretching beneath LA. It’s worth noting that this is not the only story to re-use elements from elsewhere — a handful of other stories are loosely-connected to one another and one features a reference to Morton’s novel The Castle of Los Angeles. These are neat little touches that serve to unify the shared milieu, creating more of a cohesive whole, and I would’ve liked to have seen Morton do more of this. Story notes close out the collection nicely, with Morton describing the inspiration for each of the tales.

Writing twenty original stories for a collection is admirable but challenging, and Morton is not up to the task with every story, but she succeeds more often than not, resulting in an unpredictable and entertaining collection.