Tag Archives: short stories

Tiny Bits of Blackness in Paul Edwards’ Now That I’ve Lost You

ntily2bI’m normally not a fan of either flash fiction or its big brother, very short stories, but the collection Now That I’ve Lost You (Screaming Dreams, 2013; trade paperback), by Paul Edwards, has enough high points to make me re-think that viewpoint a bit.

There are 19 stories squeezed into 146 pages here (plus an Introduction and Story Notes), mostly reprinted from lesser-known small press magazines. Stories of such short duration, by their very nature, have zero to little room to develop characters, and yet Edwards for the most part does an admirable job of drawing characters who are distinctive, if not quite deep. For example, there’s the female protagonist of “Dead City Blues,” a survivor of the zombie apocalypse who becomes convinced that a slightly geeky guy from her school is somehow controlling the events. Or the paranoid, over-protective father in “Mine,” whose worldview proves to be far from trustworthy. Or the journal-keeping narrator of “A Place the Night Can’t Touch,” another apocalypse survivor, who’s managed to train one of the hungry horde, and doesn’t like the interruption to her little world when another survivor shows up unexpectedly. Or the conflicted couple at the heart of “Highways,” as expressed eloquently by one of the pair, “We’re at that stage where we’re too frightened to cement what we’ve got, and too frightened to break up.”

Other notable stories include the Lovecraftian “Cure,” in which a lonely man believes he may have found a magic potion to solve his solitude. In the haunting “Anja,” a love-stricken woman determined to get things “right” forces the object of her affections to relive the experiences over and over again. “The Art of Driving” stirs a couple’s experiences with sleepwalking, suspicion, an affair, and driving lessons all together into a somber stew.

The depressed, angst-ridden, and sometimes nihilistic characters that people Edwards’ tales sometimes threaten to become a bit too much, but more often than not, the stories win out. Now That I’ve Lost You is probably not for all tastes, but if brief bits of modern gothic are your cup of tea, there’s much to like here.

Anatomy Lessons with Stephen Volk’s Monsters in the Heart

volkMonstersI’ve reviewed a couple titles by Stephen Volk in the past (here and here), and really enjoyed those books, as well as his regular column in Black Static magazine.  His latest collection, Monsters in the Heart, from Gray Friar Press, is a substantial one, reprinting 13 tales originally published between 2006 and 2012, plus two originals.

The book certainly leads from strength, as the top-of-the-order story, “After the Ape” is a true standout, putting an interesting spin on the story of King Kong and his “human mistress,” Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray in the original 1933 version of the film). The story is narrated from Darrow’s perspective, grieving over the tragic loss of her misunderstood guardian.

Other standouts include the following:

  • “Who Dies Best,” which starts with the arresting line “I watched my mother die again today,” and is set in an alternate reality where widespread economic collapse leads to a legitimization and broadening of the “snuff film” concept, with the financially unfortunate becoming “one-off” actors and dying on screen, in exchange for a payout for their survivors.
  • “In the Colosseum,” wherein a relatively innocent film editor is insidiously drawn into a beyond-decadent clique of film crew and hangers-on, led by a particularly perverse producer.
  • “White Butterflies, a tragic tale concerning two young Kazakhstanian brothers whose quest to scavenge scrap metal from an area where spacecraft debris falls leads them to an unfortunate meeting with what Volks calls “monsters…of the predatory human kind.”
  • “Pied a Terre,” in which a woman viewing a potential work-week apartment for her husband encounters something strange in the apartment, and is forced in turn to face certain facts in her own life.
  • “Appeal For Witnesses,” a longer story involving a cop’s investigation of a crime, which leads to an unsettling discovery about the true nature of some apparent Russian gangsters.

The only negative I found in this collection is the *extremely* varied nature of its contents — so much so that it’s somewhat distracting.  Although Volk claims in his Afterword that the collection has a unifying theme that’s expressed in its title, I can’t say that I agree with what  the author says:

The title of this collection, Monsters in the Heart, refers partly to the deep fondness we horror aficionados have for the famous monsters and fright night fiends created by other writers before us…

Some of the stories herein are about human monsters. Individuals with an evil streak or deeply aberrant nature, or those who are simply physically wrong. Others are about, or riffs on, certain myths and legends, or our modern myths and legends from novels or the big screen. Some are about both.

With stories written for the Sherlock Holmes and Hellboy universes — plus other tales such as a surreal bit about a boy with a giant head that grows to fill an entire room, and a sociological SF story set in a near future where genetic screening has become illegal, to name just a couple — there’s an extremely wide range of fiction here. Normally, I’m all in favor of that, but in this case, as I said, it just seemed a little…off-putting, in what is for the most part a very good collection.  As always, your mileage may vary.

Creatures of a Different Sort in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters

lakemonsterscover1Nathan Ballingrud is an author who I’ve been reading about for a long time — largely via reviews of his stories in various anthologies — but who I had not, up until now, actually read.  Small Beer Press has helped to correct that oversight by publishing the Ballingrud collection, North American Lake Monsters (ebook $9.95; trade paperback $16; hardcover $24).

The book gathers nine stories, one of which appears for the first time here. There are a wide variety of themes and styles represented, but every tale is smart and stylish, and the stories are often more about the wider repercussions of a supernatural situation — like the ripples emanating from a rock dropped in water — than directly dealing with an attack or an encounter.

“You Go Where It Takes You” is the first story in the book and it’s one helluva leadoff hitter, starting as a somewhat folksy tale about Toni, a waitress and single mother, who winds up taking home an offbeat customer named Alex. The story takes a turn for the strange when Alex confesses that he’s driving a stolen car, and insists on showing Toni what he’s found in the trunk, which is some surreal cargo indeed. Convinced that he’s being pursued, Alex soon moves on, but his impact on Toni continues to resonate, leading to a devastatingly sad ending.

In “Wild Acre” a construction site for spec homes, bordering on wilderness, is marked by repeated acts vandalism.  In response, the owner of the construction company, Jeremy, and a couple of his employees spend a (drunken) night at the site in order to guard it. The violent attack — from what may be a werewolf — that ensues leaves one of them dead, but it’s not so much the attack that is the the focal point of the story as it is the fallout from that night. Ravaged by the memories of his inaction on that fateful night, his company forced out of business, Jeremy is a haunted man, dreading even his wife’s holiday party:

“Jeremy supposed that a Christmas party full of elementary school professionals might be the worst place in the world. He would drift among them helplessly, like a grizzly bear in a roomful of children, expected not to eat anyone.”

Blue-collar protagonists are a staple of Ballingrud’s work, and in “S.S.” that role is filled by Nick, a high school dropout working as a restaurant dishwasher. Stumbling towards acceptance in a white supremacist gang, Nick’s dismal existence is complicated by the bizarre yearnings of his elderly, infirm mother. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this particular tale, but it’s dark and disturbing nonetheless.

“The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, expertly utilizes its Antarctic setting, as a scientific expedition stumbles upon something vast and Lovecraftian beneath the ice, although some members of the group are unwilling to admit what they’ve seen.  In “The Monsters of Heaven,” the sudden appearance of strange creatures that are referred to as angels — and of one such creature in particular — helps to fill the gap left in one couple’s life by the disappearance of their son. But this is no feel-good story — the specifics of just how the “angel” fills that gap are…disturbing (there’s that word again).

Ballingrud turns his eyes to vampires in “Sunbleached,” and, fortunately, it’s a refreshingly offbeat take.  Joshua lives in a hurricane-damaged house with his mother and younger brother…and, lately, with a sunburnt vampire hiding in the crawlspace beneath the house. Joshua tries to manipulate the weakened vampire into doing his wishes, but he soon finds he has underestimated the danger lurking below.

A hurricane also figures in “The Way Station,” wherein progatonist Beltrane is aging, homeless, and more lost than ever after Hurricane Katrina. This story is something of a departure from the other tales here, a surreal saga of a haunting, by the ghost of New Orleans itself.

“The hole in his chest reaches right through him. Gas lamps shine blearily through rain. Deep water runs down the street and spills out onto his skin. New Orleans has put a finger through his heart.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, and raises his eyes to his own face. His face is a wide street, garbage-blown, with a dead streetlight and rats scrabbling along the walls. A spray of rain mists the air in front of him, pebbling the mirror.”

“The Good Husband” is a heart-wrenching story of a husband who, weary of his wife’s suicide attempts and convinced that she will never know happiness, chooses to let her succeed with her latest attempt.  But his decision comes back to haunt him when she comes back from the dead, although it’s a temporary return, as she is slowly, inexorably pulled toward the soft whisper of the grave.

North American Lake Monsters is a diverse, highly-engaging collection from a grossly under-appreciated author.  Hopefully this collection is the first step towards rectifying that.

Michael Marshall Smith’s Everything You Need… and Some Things You Won’t Forget

everything_lg

I’ve been singing the praises of Michael Marshall Smith’s short fiction for longer than I care to remember and, given how relatively little work he does at shorter lengths, the appearance of a collection of his work is reason to celebrate.  Everything You Need (Earthling Publications; 280 pages; 1,000 signed copies; $45), his first collection since 2003, is one of those infrequent reasons.  The book gathers 17 stories, with six published here for the first time.

Smith has a knack for taking relatively simple situations and casting them as symbolic of more macroscopic issues, and representative of situations that most, if not all, of us will face. Take, for example, “This is Now,” wherein a group of men, longtime small-town friends just beginning to grow a little long in the tooth, reminisce about a night in their youth, when they forced their way into a secured area (the nature of which is both fascinating and frightening) and barely escaped with their lives. Not surprisingly, they’re moved to try and breach that barrier again in an attempt to recapture their youth. In one character’s simple reflection, Smith manages to capture a universal sentiment for everyone over a certain age:

“As I looked now through the fence at the other forest I was thinking how long a decade had seemed back then, and how you could learn that it was no time at all.”

In a way, both “Walking Wounded” and “Different Now” are about definitive moments in relationships.  In the former, a past experience begins to physically haunt protagonist Richard, leading him back to a former residence that was the site of said experience, while the latter centers on a couple’s argument that spirals out of control, leading one to walk out and leaving the other to try and pick up the pieces in a world that has literally been broken by their break-up.

There are a couple zombie stories (nearly requisite these days) to be found in these pages, but you wouldn’t expect Smith’s takes on the sub-genre to be perfunctory, and these certainly are not.  “The Last Barbeque” is related as a description and transcription of a video that  records two men preparing for a barbecue at a strangely-deserted lakeside location, while “The Things He Said” concerns a solitary man in a remote cabin, reminiscing about his father while detailing his rigid daily schedule.  Both are stories are unveiled in layers, with their true nature not revealed until the innermost levels are reached.

It’s possible that one of the reasons I like “Unnoticed” so much is because of its locale, just a few miles from me, but there’s much more to like in this tale of a man who suddenly notices a building in his neighborhood, with a strange automobile from yesteryear (but…not quite) that’s somehow been shoehorned into the building lobby.  Sometimes, when we tend not to see things…it’s safer that way.  The setting for “Sad, Dark Thing” is even closer to my house, and the story is even better, involving a man on a Sunday drive in the Santa Cruz mountains, who stumbles upon what seems to be an extremely low-rent, and half-assed tourist attraction, but which turns out to house an extraordinary, if very dark, find.

Melancholy would be the word I’d use to describe much of “The Good Listener,” although this story of a son tracing his deceased father’s final steps, which include a mysterious missing period of time, is ultimately redemptive.  The son’s thoughts about the gap in his father’s history represents one of Smith’s best passages:

“I’m happy for the hole to remain. I no longer feel the need to fill it. There have always been silences in the world, and that’s the way it should be. There should be gaps. Sometimes it’s in those moments of silence, of dead air, that the meaningful things happen. It’s good we have things listening to all our stories now, keeping track of everything we have been and done.

It’s even better if, like the best listeners, they turn a deaf ear from time to time.”

Speaking of exceptional passages, although “The Woodcutter” is not one of my favorite stories in the collection, it does contain another prime example of Smith capturing a universal truth in a few sentences:

“He knew himself well enough to know that this was a bad idea, however. It was this kind of impulse that had gotten him here in the first place, a tendency to grow tired of one kind of life, of its hierarchies and constraints and rituals, and to think he could flip tracks. It didn’t work… Sometimes when Spike spent afternoons killing time in bookstores he wanted to go up and tap the shoulders of the people earnestly browsing the Self-Help section and tell them this fact, that they should give up on the idea of change and try to make friends with who they were before they did something dumb and fucked up what they had.”

The last story I want to call out is “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night,” a deliciously dark (literally) tale, in which a family of three wakes up in the middle of the night to find themselves trapped in an unfamiliar, pitch-black room, with no exits.

In the publicity notes for this collection, Earthling Press publisher Paul Miller says:

“A decade ago, my press was privileged to publish Mike’s last collection, which was hailed as ‘stellar’ by Publishers Weekly and a ‘major publishing event’ by Ellen Datlow… As strong as that collection was, I believe this one is even better.”

My first thought was that, no, this is not a better collection than that previous collection, More Tomorrow and Other Stories… not even close, really, because Smith was still in his short fiction heyday ten years ago, and has mostly concentrated on novels since then, and the lack of focus on short fiction would have to be evident in this collection.

But.

But.

As I skimmed back through these stories and reviewed my notes in order to write this review, I had no choice but to acknowledge that this is in fact one helluva collection. I still don’t think that I can declare it better than More Tomorrow, but it’s definitely in the same league.

In short, Michael Marshall Smith is one of our very best authors of short dark speculative fiction, period. It’s a shame that he doesn’t write more at shorter lengths.  Bracketed with fantastic art by Vincent Chong and capped by Smith’s highly engaging story notes, Everything You Need is definitely something you need.

A double dose of Ian Rogers

A while back, I reviewed Ian Rogers’ trio of chapbooks from Burning Effigy PressTemporary Monsters, Ash Angels, and Black-Eyed Kids — all of which feature wisecracking Private Investigator Felix Renn and are set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands.

As I said in the review:

It should come as no great surprise that I love horror, and I also happen to love comedy. However, I’m usually not a fan of horror/comedy mash-ups. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I do enjoy horror-comedy when it’s done well, but more often than not I find attempts to combine the two genres fall flat. So when I say that I really enjoyed Ian Rogers’ three darkly humorous Felix Renn novelettes, understand that I’m a tough critic when it comes to these types of tales.

imagesNow Burning Effigy has followed up with a Renn-based collection, the awkwardly-but aptly-titled Supernoirtural Tales, which features the three Ren stories from the chapbooks, plus two other Renn reprints and a new 50,000-word novella.  Since I’ve already reviewed the novellas from the three chapbooks, I’m not going to say any more about them, but I do want to comment on the other tales gathered here.

Let’s start with by far the most substantial of them, the new novella “The Brick.”  As with the three earlier chapbook tales, the higher word count allows Rogers to really stretch his wings and fully develop his fictional world, and it’s the details of this alternate reality, along with the distinctive voice of Renn, that makes these tales something special.  “The Brick” starts with the seed of a simple missing-person case — a teen-aged girl, in this case — and grows into something much more substantial.

The missing girl, Aubrey Wood, turns out to be a runaway, and as Felix undertakes a quest to find her, his friend Jerry Baldwin, a realtor specializing in haunted real estate, contacts Felix out of the blue and lends him the eponymous brick.  The brick is special because it comes from the ruins of what many believe to be the deadliest house to ever exist — Rosedale Cottage.  And Felix soon finds that Aubrey’s grandmother was once an occupant of Rosedale, an experience that marked her forever, as she alludes to in a letter that she wrote for Aubrey:

I remembered something one of my teachers had said. She was quoting someone, but I can’t remember who it was. She said the eyes are the windows of the soul. That phrase came back to me time and time again that summer. I remembered staring up at that alien moon and thinking, If the eyes really are windows, what happens when they’re open? What happens if you let something inside?

Felix comes to understand that something from Rosedale Cottage pursued Aubrey’s grandmother for years, due to certain abilities she had, and with the grandmother now dead, that same creature is now pursuing Aubrey.  Felix sums it up nicely in the following passage:

There were two entities at Rosedale Cottage. One dwelled within the building itself, while the other stalked the grounds on which it stood. One tried to save the people who lived there, while the other stalked and murdered them. Only now, the cottage was gone and the Whyver had left to hunt abroad.

“The Brick” alternates between moments of dread and bits of dark humor, and it does so very adroitly.

The other two works, “My Body” and “The History of the Black Lands,” are much more slight, in terms of length and (somewhat) impact. The former is the first Renn story ever written by Rogers, and it’s a somber tale that possesses none of the wit present in later tales. Nonetheless, it’s well-written, relating Felix’s discovery of a little girl standing alone on a roadside, but goes pretty much just where you’d expect. “The History of the Black Lands” is exactly what it says it is, a faux reference work on the Black Lands, providing some interesting background info on the milieu, but nothing more.

Available as both a trade paperback and ebook, Supernoirtural Tales is a highly entertaining collection, showcasing a character and setting that are decidedly worthy of repeat engagements. If you’ve never encountered Renn through the prior chapbooks, this is the perfect opportunity to get a full dose of Felix, in one convenient package.

* * *

everyHouse_coverIan Rogers’ other recent title is the collection Every House is Haunted from Chizine Publications, and after my prior experiences with Rogers & Renn, my expectations for this book were very high…too high, perhaps, as I came away a tad bit disappointed.

I think a major reason for that disappointment is that, as alluded to above,  Rogers seems much more comfortable when afforded the opportunity to work at greater lengths. As evidence to support that argument, I present “The Dark and the Young” and “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the two longest tales included here and, not accidentally, two of the best.  The former involves a linguistics specialist recruited by a shadowy government agency to help translate a very dark and dangerous book, while the latter (which happens to be a nominee for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette) centers on two operatives from a clandestine organization, who visit a very dangerous haunted house — the “architectural equivalent of a great white shark” — after two deaths occur there, in order to try and find the source of the evil.

Overall, the collection gathers 22 stories, seven of which appear here for the first time.  When confined to shorter lengths (assumedly, many of the 15 stories that are reprinted here originally appeared in markets with word counts that held Rogers far below the length of the Renn novellas), the author sometimes struggles with developing characters and crafting satisfying finales.  What I’m trying to impart via the latter comment is that Rogers relies too often on ambiguous or unresolved endings (at least for my tastes, and I generally don’t have issues with ambiguity).  Witness “Leaves Brown,” wherein an elderly man, who’s recently reintroduced himself to his daughter’s life after a long absence, seeks to counsel his grandson on their shared ability to see ghosts.  It’s a very intriguing premise, but the story just…ends, almost randomly, as if it’s an excerpt from a longer work.  Another strong tale lessened by an “open-ended ending” is “The Candle,” a chilling little ditty centering on a man rising from bed to see why it’s taken his wife so long to go check on a candle that may have been left burning, only to find his wife in an altered state, with hints of similar happenings perhaps occurring in nearby houses.

But enough about unsatisfying finales… Let’s switch focus back to the best tales collected here, starting with “The Rifts Between Us,” a fascinating work with science fictional underpinnings, as summarized perfectly by the following excerpt:

“We’re exploring the borderlands. We found a frequency that the brain gives off before it dies. We can ride that signal into the rifts, the veritable waiting room of death, and explore it.”

But the scientific expeditions to the land of the nearly dead are trespasses into a realm where man was not meant to be, as they soon find out.

Quick summaries of other standouts here:  Like the aforementioned “The Dark and the Young,” “A Night in the Library with the Gods” revolves around a dangerous book — in the case, a tome that can overwhelm the thoughts of its readers. And like the aforementioned “The House on Ashley Avenue,” “Cabin D” also has an operative from a shadowy government agency seeking to neutralize a dangerous dwelling, although in this case a major sacrifice may be necessary to achieve the goal. “The Nanny” also focuses on interlopers in a haunted house, although in this case it’s a real estate agent and a ghost-hunter conducting the investigation.

In “Relaxed Best,” a private investigator follows a wayward husband into a private club that at first evokes humor — “It looks like a Philip Marlowe novel exploded in here, he thought” — but then takes a dark turn. “The Inheritor” is a story that I originally purchased for Cemetery Dance while I was editing the magazine, and this tale of a son whose inheritance from his father includes an unpleasant task that dear ol’ dad just couldn’t bring himself to do remains just as creepy now as when initially published.

While there are some very good stories gathered here, there’s also more inconsistency than I’d like to see, with the lesser works clumped almost exclusively amongst the shortest stories, as mentioned earlier.  Lest I sound too harsh, I should note that, if I’d come to this collection sans expectations, my reaction would likely be pretty darned positive.  Even with my high expectations, I have to say that Every House is Haunted is largely a success, even if a few rooms could use remodeling.

Riding the Nightmare with Rio Youers’ Dark Dreams, Pale Horses

Rio Youers is a highly regarded newer writer, although not quite as new as I’d thought — some quick research showed that Dark Dreams, Pale Horses, his recent collection from PS Publishing, is his fifth book, preceded by three novels and a novella. Dark Dreams acts as a fine introduction to Youers’ work, gathering six stories, half of them on the long-ish side, and allowing him to employ a variety of styles and attack a number of different subjects.

Youers flexes his auctorial muscles most impressively when trying his hand at post-apocalyptic tales, three of which are collected here. First up is “Pure,” which is set largely in the teeming slums of Rio de Janeiro in 2064. The protagonist is part of an underclass whose ancestors were infected by a vampiric plague, and who are now marked with facial tattoos to help identify them and keep them quarantined. Youers expertly evokes the misery of the milieu:

“These streets, as crowded as a child’s imagination, once filled with color and vibrancy, but now made gray by clouds of fear; thunderhead of disease. The locals—the cariocas—pressed to get out of the rain, heads down, bodies wet. They did not look at him.”

“Pure” is perhaps the best story here, a gripping work that’s further enhanced by the unexpected turns it takes.

In “Alice Bleeding,” the catastrophic near-extinction event is a huge meteor strike in Australia.  A group of survivors elect to stay behind in the Outback when the other residents of their small town head for more populous areas in hopes of finding aid.  Their decision proves to be even more disastrous, as supplies dwindle and no rescuers come:

“In the semi-desert west of Yulara, across the ruptured highway, the letters SOS had been spelled with the detritus of aftermath: furniture and timbers, siding and appliances, carpets and vehicles, towels and bedding, tiles and panels. The letters were forty feet long—the industry of the remaining townspeople, those too foolhardy or stubborn to evacuate. They pillaged the ruin for any morsel of hope. They dragged their findings across the highway and anchored them to saviour. SOS.”

The final tale of cataclysm is “Chrysalis,” a dark fantasy detailing the stubborn observance of religion in a despair-filled world where the sun no longer shines, and a seeming miracle that perhaps rewards the enduring faith. Youers’ prose is again worthy of quotation:

“Imagine the world as a diseased heart. A pale shape hanging in the substance of time, tumbling on its axis: a distorted sphere, like a swollen eye. The grey flesh of the ocean rages, unimaginable depths swirling with muscular movement. Contaminated waves break against the earth’s skeleton, delivering scores of the dead. The forests are broken toys. They lie in pieces, slick with rainfall.”

Among the trio of non-apocalyptic tales, “This is the Summer of Love” certainly merits mention, a bittersweet tale of young lovers Billy and Terri in a relationship that’s headed for disaster as surely as a train with no brakes. Even though the story meanders at times  and ends somewhat arbitrarily, Youers’ descriptions again show his flair:

“Home is five rooms held together by tattered boards and siding. The structure leans to the east and has bowed on that side. It has swollen, like an infected limb. The windows are smeared with neglect. They let little light in, and no darkness out. They hide the loss of hope, the creaking floorboards, and the shadows that crowd the seam of light under the doors.”

“The Ghost of Lillian Bliss” revolves around an aging Alzheimers’ patient’s wistful recollections of a ghost she knew as a girl. The only somewhat disappointing story here is “Promised Land Blues,” in which an obsessed Elvis Presley fan gets far more than he bargained for when he arranges to drive a vintage pink Cadillac across the country.

Dark Dreams, Pale Horses is the tenth volume in PS Publishing’s Showcase series, and it’s a perfect fit for that series descriptor, given that the collection serves as an ideal showcase for Youers’ substantial skills.

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.

Examining The Fairer Sex in Richard Davis’ The Female of the Species

Shadow Publishing’s collection of Richard Davis’ short fiction, The Female of the Species And Other Terror Tales, is the type of book that I love to see from small presses — a gathering of never-before-collected tales by an overlooked writer from decades past.  Davis is perhaps best known for his editing work, and most notably for editing volumes 1-3 of The Year’s Best Horror Fiction (the series later edited by Gerald Page and Karl Edward Wagner), but he was a writer as well, and quite a good one.  Shadow Publishing’s owner, David Sutton is the perfect person to resurrect the author’s work, as he knew Davis back in the day, and in fact purchased a story from him for publication in the 1971 anthology New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural.

That 1971 date falls smack in the middle of Davis’ fiction-writing career: all 11 stories he published are gathered here, and they originally appeared between 1963 and 1978. Also included is an interview Sutton conducted with Davis in 1969; the text of a speech Davis gave on horror fiction at a 1971 convention; an article that Davis wrote about Late Night Horror, a short-lived BBC for which he was Story Editor; and a bibliography.

Despite all the wonderful ancillary material, the main draw is obviously the fiction, and there’s a lot to like in that department, starting with the title story, which is related via the narrator Jim’s journal entries, a series he’s started while his beloved wife Viola is traveling to visit her brother.  Unfortunately, Viola’s plane crashes, leaving Jim devastated and lonely…until he adopts a kitten, who quickly bonds with him.  What ensues is perhaps a tad predictable, but it’s effectively told, resulting in both suspense and chills.

Jim was a loner even before Viola’s death, and a similar social outcast, although female in this case, features in “The Lady by the Stream,” the story of a middle-aged spinster’s growing obsession with a young boy in her neighborhood.  There’s nothing supernatural to be found in this story, but it’s probably the most disturbing tale in the collection.  The following story, “The Inmate,” also documents a disturbing relationship, this time between the wife of a wealthy man who’s created his own private animal preserve and one of her husband’s animals…namely a gorilla.  Unlike its predecessor, though, “The Inmate” is a bit too sensationalistic — likely a result of the fact it was tailored for its appearance in the often over-the-top Pan Book of Horror series — to ultimately be successful.

The other three tales I want to mention all prominently feature young boys and their fathers.  In “The Clump,” a cheating husband is on holiday with his family, visiting a small Caribbean island.  The husband is so busy scheming to kill his wife that he pays no attention as his son wanders into a forested area of the island that’s the subject of local superstition…for good reason.  The father in “The Nondescript” is much more attentive, and helps his son Bob to identify just what it is that he’s found in the attic of the old home they’ve just moved into.  The attic find is an eponymous nondescript — a fake creature, created by attaching the shaved torso of a monkey cadaver to a fish tail, employed during the 18th and 19th centuries by hucksters to extract money from the gullible.  Unfortunately for Bob and his father, there may be a real-life inspiration for their taxidermic terror.  The father in “Guy Fawkes Night” is selfish and overbearing, and after his actions lead to the death of his son’s beloved dog, the son is determined to exact revenge, which he does in frightening fashion.

There are one or two subpar stories, most notably “A Nice Cut off the Joint,” which has logic holes you could drive a truck through, and I don’t care for the cover art by Caroline O’Neal, but every other aspect of The Female of the Speciesis top-notch.  It’s a shame Davis, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see the appearance of this collection, but readers who appreciate 1960s- and ’70s -era horror should rejoice, for there’s much to like here.

A Darkly Promising Debut – Jason Wyckoff’s Black Horse and Others

An author’s path to getting a horror or weird fiction collection published typically involves years of toiling in the small press field and perhaps beyond, building publishing credits, and then compiling a collection of mostly reprints with a few originals sprinkled in. Jason Wyckoff took an entirely different route. His book Black Horse and Others, published by Tartarus Press, is a rare bird indeed — a collection of all never-before-published stories by an author making his first foray into print. Tartarus Press has obviously chosen to take a chance with this new author…and I have to say that it was a well-placed bet.

Black Horse is no one-trick pony, as Wyckoff utilizes a variety of settings and styles throughout the sixteen stories collected here, with most succeeding — although I didn’t particularly care for the handful of tales that were whimsical.  An example of a tale that works well is “Panorama,” wherein agent Vincent goes searching for his missing client, the painter Geoff Schloesser. Arriving at the artist’s country retreat, he finds a stunning panorama painted on the interior of Schloesser’s large circular studio. As Vincent examines the work in increasingly greater detail, he finds that the artist has captured more than just likenesses in his work, and the phrase “getting lost” in a painting takes on an all-too-literal meaning.

“Intermediary” features a refreshingly different setting, as two highly-stressed archeologists, attempting to sneak a prized skeleton out of Ecuador, are surprised and angered when a local intrudes upon their campsite, displaying uncanny knowledge of who they are and what they’re doing, and ultimately setting the two against one other.  An eccentric loner is somewhat mystified to find that he has been willed by his Uncle the eponymous equine in “Black Horse.” He ultimately finds that the horse is a very special one indeed, and that there’s a hidden world out there in the darkness that he’s never realized.

“Raise up the Serpent” focuses on Kentucky social worker, Bradley Thurman, who has been chartered with assisting a teen-aged boy whose family were members of a snake-handling religious sect that was the target of a violent attack by outsiders who opposed their practices.  Thurman himself holds a dim view of the serpent worshippers, but once he meets the boy, his outlook is is enlightened, in a manner of speaking.

An elementary-school teacher gets an unexpected call, informing her of her mother’s death in “A Willow Cat in Meadowlark.” It’s unexpected because her mother is long dead already. The call turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, but the teacher finds herself nonetheless strangely drawn to view the dead woman’s body and dig into her history.  Phantom visions and voices ensue, but the ending here is a happy one.  A recently-deceased corpse is also at the heart of “Hair and Nails,” as a young man engineers the use of his great-grandfather’s body in a occult ritual, the outcome of which is not exactly what the practitioners hoped for.

As its title implies, “Knott’s Letter” is narrated via a letter — specifically a copy of a message found on a laptop, informing two grieving parents of the true story behind their son’s disappearance during a search for evidence of Sasquatch. Effectively utilizing an email as the equivalent of “found footage,” this is a gripping, chilling tale.

Other stories, such as “The Night of His Sister’s Engagement,” “The Mauve Blot,” and “The Bells, Then the Birds” display numerous strong points but are flawed in small but conspicuous ways. And there are a small handful of what I’d call throwaway stories. But overall, Black Horse is a surprising and impossible-to-overlook debut, perhaps even a dark horse contender for best collection of the year.

Checking in on Cemetery Dance Alumni – Steve Vernon’s Sudden Death Overtime and Keith Minnion’s It’s For You

In this post, we’ll examine recent books by two long-time Cemetery Dance contributors — Steve Vernon, who authored the “New Voices” series of interviews with newer writers (and has also had multiple stories published in the mag), and Keith Minnion, whose illustrations for the magazine preceded my stint as editor of the mag and have continued after my departure.

Let’s start with Vernon’s Sudden Death Overtime, a novella that serves as the Canadian author’s love letter to the game of hockey, couched in a story that features both horror and humor, with the balance perhaps tilting more towards the latter. At its heart, the story is a simple one, as a bus full of vampires pays a dead-of-winter visit to the small town of Hope’s End in northern Newfoundland. Where they’ve come from is never explained, nor why they’ve come to this particular town, but all that’s really important is that they’re there… and their presence may cause Hope’s End to live up to its name.

“That long black bus parked and idling on the road that crossed in front of his fence. Rufus sized it up. You just didn’t see a bus of any kind in this old town. There wasn’t bodies enough to fill one, and where would they go once they filled it?”

Throughout, Vernon’s voice and tone are notably singular, and his facility with language can be seen in passages such as the following:

“Her hands weighed heavy on the scarred pine tabletop. Her knuckles were cracked and leathered like old alligator skin, tattooed with nicotine and age. Her eyes had grown dull and nothing that hinted of girlhood was left to her save a shotgun blast of freckles playing hide-and-seek within the wrinkles and worry-lines that troughed down her cheeks like a memory of tears.”

The character in the preceding excerpt is secondary to the story, but Vernon’s protagonists are similarly elderly, and more than a tad bit eccentric, resulting in a group of primary characters that are far from the norm, and quite memorable as a result.

Not surprisingly, the trio of protagonists are all hockey players, even at their advanced age. They’ve never been afraid to drop their gloves for a scrap on the ice, and they’re likewise not afraid to take on a bus full of vampires. Their nominal leader is one Sprague Deacon, who’s fighting a losing battle against incontinence, and who has a rink he’s built behind his house, where he and his friends clear the snow for a community game every Saturday night. Sprague’s best friend Fergus McTavish is a loner who spends too much time watching John Wayne movies, while the third musketeer, Rufus Timmerman, is losing a battle of his own, against cancer. Together, they’re three of the most offbeat protagonists you’re likely to find.

Although Sudden Death Overtime is saddled with some amateurish cover art, the fact that the novella is only available as an ebook should minimize any PR damage caused by that unfortunate illustration. Outside of the art, my only real complaint is with the tone Vernon ultimately settles on — in the early stages of the book, the author is quite successful at creating an atmosphere of tension and fear, and it’s somewhat disappointing to see him turn decisively towards humor in later stages of the book. The following passage is a good example of the frisson generated early on:

“And then the figure smiled, only its expression went way beyond what you’d call a smile. Its jaw dislocated and its gums seemed to peel back and its teeth grew icicle-long, winter-sharp and hungry until it looked like nothing more than a set of those wind-up walking false teeth.”

All in all, Sudden Death Overtime is fast, frenetic and fun…not unlike the overtime periods referenced in the book’s title.

Turning to Keith Minnion… his collection It’s For You gathers nineteen stories, five of which are published here for the first time, spanning a broad spectrum from horror to SF to fantasy to historical fiction and more. As I mentioned earlier, Minnion is better known for his work as an artist, but this collection clearly illustrates that he’s skilled with words as well. There are several impressive blurbs included on the book cover and press release, and perhaps the one that resonates the most is the following from Gary McMahon:

“Keith Minnion writes clear and lucid prose, not unlike a less verbose Stephen King. And, also like King, his stories tell us of a strange shadowy Americana that exists just off-center of the real world.”

A good example of the prose that McMahon is referring to can be found in the title story, “It’s For You”:

“American Street was a short block of narrow, tired bungalows, with postage-stamp front lawns and sidewalks that were cracked and tiled from trees long-since cut down. Every one of the houses needed paint; three were boarded up; one was burned out. It was a sad, lost little street in a section of the city that had last seen prosperity when people wore ‘I Like Ike’ buttons and parked Studebakers and Ramblers at the curb, one to a family.”

Told from the perspective of Detective Frank Graham, the tale concerns a series of phone calls, each of which results in the death of the call recipient, and is a real highlight of the collection. Also impressive is “On the Midwatch,” wherein a Navy Lieutenant experiencing his first opportunity to be Officer of the Deck unfortunately find that his big opportunity occurs in the Bermuda Triangle and culminates in an encounter with a UFO. In “Dead End,” a bit of inner-city vigilante justice goes seriously awry. “Up in the Boneyard,” meanwhile, is a mysterious and sometimes chilling tale about an elderly man, still sporting scars from his encounter with something in the clouds when he was a young daredevil pilot, and his quest to find and destroy his attackers.

Halfway through this collection, I was ready to declare it my most pleasant reading surprise of 2012, and to express my amazement that I had been so remiss in appreciating Minion’s writing talents — the stories in the first half of the book are that good. Unfortunately, there are a few less-stellar tales in the early stages of the book’s second half, before the author rights the ship and ends on the same high note on which he began.

Highlights in the latter half of the book include the post-flood-apocalypse tale “Empire State,” a Waterworld-style story (although predating the Costner flick) about a ship’s journey to a submerged New York City. “The Can Man” is another tale of the future, involving a couple of bored and inquisitive children who discover some long-neglected cryogenic freezers and release their occupants with an unfeeling curiosity not unlike pulling the wings off a fly. The collection closes with the excellent “Island Funeral,” in which a young widower visiting  the coast of Maine for his wife’s funeral discovers some highly unusual and unsettling family traditions.

It’s For You is a very strong collection overall, providing ample evidence that Minnion is versatile and multi-talented…and fans of Minnion’s art will be happy to know that the book includes several of his illustrations.