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.

Breathing New Life Into Zombie Fiction — Mason James Cole’s Pray To Stay Dead and Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron

The zombie fiction onslaught shows no signs of abating as of yet, and there are only so many times that one can read a slight (if that) variation on the same theme before it starts to feel tired, if not outright…dead. Fortunately, not every author who’s penning a zombie novel these days is dragging out the mouldering approach. Two cases in point are Mason James Cole’s Pray To Stay Dead and Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron, each of which offer something fresh in the realm of the rotting dead.

On the surface, Cole’s novel, which comes courtesy of Creeping Hemlock’s Print is Dead imprint, might sound pretty run-of-the-mill, as a variety of characters suddenly find themselves living in a post–zombie-apocalypse world: five friends on a road trip to Lake Tahoe, a feuding older couple running a small store on the road to Tahoe, a war veteran and long-haul trucker seeking to make his way back to his daughter in New Mexico, and a backwoods clan/cult led by a patriarch whose religious fervor is outweighed only by his hypocrisy.

Three things, however, make Pray To Stay Dead stand out:

  • The 1974 setting, which adds interest, especially the references to the Cold War, Watergate, President NIxon and other touchstones that serve to capture the zeitgeist of that era.
  • The inhumanity displayed by several characters to their fellow man, which at times makes the zombies’ empty-headed hunger seem tame by comparison.
  • The characters, who are sufficiently well-drawn to generate reader empathy.

Among those characters, the characters seeking survive the zombie siege in the small store are particularly interesting, as wife Misty, her estranged husband Crate (who’s been living as an exile in a shack behind the store), and her adopted lover Charles form three points of an odd triangle, with emotions and positions shifting significantly during the course of the story, as the stress of the situation naturally brings out the worst in some.

Along the way, Cole makes some interesting observations, such as comparing the naked, morbid curiosity of many onlookers during the Vietnam era with the hunger of the living dead:

“…it was pretty damned obvious: she wanted to know if he’d killed anyone, and if, how many; and what did it look like, feel like, smell like? He saw here eyes crawl over his body, scavenging for overlooked scars. Everyone was a ghoul, eager to rip the bones from the dirt and see if there was anything wet left to suck out. Everyone wanted to hear about the bad stuff, about the brains popping and the blood flying. This had once surprised and disappointed him.”

The above passage may be the first time in P2SD that Cole contrasts the living with the dead, but it’s far from the last. Combine such trenchant observations with engaging characters and an offbeat setting, and you’ve got a recipe for a zombie revival. Cole is apparently the pseudonym of a conservative Utah resident who’d like to keep his authoring alter ego under wraps. Here’s hoping he allows his dark writer side to emerge again soon.

Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron, which is published by zombie specialist Permuted Press, employs an equally offbeat milieu — it’s set in Iraq and literally starts with a bang when Captain Nathan Leathers’ small convoy is hit by an IED that leaves several members of the convoy dead and Leathers captured by apparent insurgents. When a series of earth-shaking tremors and explosions, punctuated by some strange, unidentifiable noises, serve to open an escape route for Leathers, he emerges from his subterranean cell to find a city enshrouded in green mist… and when he explores the mist, he finds it hides not only the walking dead but an assortment of other strange creatures as well.

A chance meeting with an Iraqui who Leathers nicknames Muhammad ends up saving the Captain’s life and leading to his meeting several other survivors, both Iraqui and American, holed up in the new Iraqui Police headquarters. Included among those survivors are some archeologists, who describe what they believe to be the source of the supernatural events, and a small group of American private security/mercanaries, who provide the man vs. man tension and subplot, similar to the encounters seen in Cole’s novel.

Acheron is related via eighty-six short, punchy chapters, a staccato style that matches well with the action-driven plot. This novel is loosely connected to Morrigan’s earlier book The Desert, and it’s apparent that the author has improved his craft fairly considerably since the first book. The occasional awkward passages and stilted dialog that detracted from The Desert are almost non-existent here, and character development is noticably stronger. Morrigan’s style is fairly vanilla, so it’s plotting, and pacing that have to carry the day and fortunately they manage to do just that. The tale closes with an indication that a true sequel will follow, a development that I look forward to, given Morrigan’s ability to combine war and horror into an action-packed thriller.