The following reviews will appear in my Spotlight on Publishing column in Cemetery Dance #66. The “Reviews” portion of the column will be composed of reviews that have appeared previously on this website, so followers of this site are in essence getting the entirety of my column ahead of time, albeit in a different sequence.
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I’ve long been an admirer of Tony Richards’ work, having purchased several of his stories while I was editing CD. Any new fiction from him automatically gets my attention and his recent novella from Screaming Dreams Press, Yuppieville, is no exception.
Spurred to leave Los Angeles by an ugly incident that’s initially only obliquely described, Frank and Joannie make a major move, to the planned community of Youngesville, Nevada. Although the town is safe and quiet, just the kind of place they’re seeking to raise a family, they gradually discover some strange aspects. For example… they’ve barely settled in their new house when their Amazonian neighbor Leonora tries to seduce Frank, the first dinner party they attend turns into a series of drunken confessions and blurted bigotry, and when Frank overhears Leonora’s conversation after she successfully seduces another newly-moved-in neighbor, the details are disturbing indeed. Frank’s concerns get back-burnered when Joannie announces she’s pregnant, but when some new residents who don’t really “fit” in the community start having accidents, it seems his concerns are well-founded.
Things take a turn for the weird in the latter stages of the book, and a famous physicist who lives in the town plays a key role. There are a few rough edges to the plotting and characterization that keep this tale from ranking with Richards’ best work, but it’s nonetheless an imaginative albeit dour take on the elitist nature of many planned communities.
Similar to Tony Richards, Lawrence Connolly is a writer who I’ve followed for some time. Long before buying stories from him for Cemetery Dance, I called out his story “Traumatic Descent” as a highlight when I reviewed Borderlands 3 for CD. In fact, a quote from that review– “…deserves a place in the Paranoiac Horror Hall of Fame for its adept manipulation of the boundaries of reality and hallucination”–appears as a blurb on the back cover of Connolly’s long-overdue first collection, from Ash-Tree Press. And that very same story, under its variant title “This Way to Egress,” provides the title for the collection.
Gathering 19 stories published between 1981 and 2008, This Way To Egress provides a first-class overview of Connolly’s career. The aforementioned title story may still be my favorite, but there are certainly other highlights here as well. A prime example is “Circle of Lias,” concerning a father who leaves his family at an out-of-the-way motel in order to find some late-night food, only to stumble upon a strange cult en route to a descent into madness.
There are three stories included that are set in Russia in the early 1990s, and the best among that trio is “Smuggling the Dead,” which concerns an art collector’s quest to smuggle a legendary lacquer box, “fashioned from the blood, skin, and bone of over 400 illegal artists,” out of Russia using the naive protagonist. Similarly, there are three stories included that first appeared in Cemetery Dance, and the best of those three is likely “Painkeeper,” in which a woman possessing a supernatural ability to heal is kidnapped with the intention of forcing her to use her abilities to cure an ailing, powerful man. And among the five stories from early (pre-1990) in Connolly’s career, the best is likely “Things,” in which a group of kids who specialize in breaking into the homes of the elderly get a very creepy comeuppance–although “Mrs. Halfbooger’s Basement” is a contender as well.
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Like many of the authors whose work I choose to review (like, say, the two preceding titles…), James Cooper is someone who I purchased a story from while editing CD mag. But James also submitted several other stories which, even though I enjoyed them, I didn’t buy. This is one of the thoughts that came to mind when I sat down to write a review of The Beautiful Red, Cooper’s recent short story collection from Atomic Fez Publishing. The other thing that came to mind was a quotation from Peter Tennant’s review, in Black Static #23, of Cooper’s novella Terra Damnata: “[the book] is not at all what past experience has led me to expect from the pen of James Cooper. Gone are the surreal and outre elements that have been a mainstay of his work so far…”
What I’m trying to say, in a very roundabout way, is this: 1) I prefer Cooper’s less surreal work, and 2) there is a high quotient of surreality in The Beautiful Red. As a result, my opinion of the collection is that there are a lot of good stories among the 12 gathered, but not many great stories.
“There’s Something Wrong With Pappy” is a fine example of a surreal Cooper story that does work for me, even if it left me muttering “WTF?” at times. Two children whose mother died recently watch as their father’s loneliness and desperation lead him to visit the mysterious grey house across the moors, where a doppelganger of sorts awaits…and then they wait to see which version of their father will come home. Similarly, “Because Your Blood is Darker Than Mine” also focuses on two children, with this pair living in a house with their mother, her boyfriend, their grandmother, a facsimile of their dead grandfather…and a whole lot of dark secrets and unhealthy urges. “We are the Pigs,” co-written with Alistair Mowbray, is a somewhat standard tale of a backwoods abduction by an unhinged cult, but it’s enlivened by the frequent interjection of supposed dialog between the two co-authors, making it an interesting piece of meta-fiction. “The Hack” is likewise concerned with fiction-writing–in this case, the protagonist is plagued by the nearly 24×7 sounds of a clattering typewriter that emanate from the room of a writer across the hall. When the writer begins slipping excerpts from his work under our character’s door, things take a turn for the weird.
It’s safe to say that Cooper’s collection is not for everyone, but if you enjoy the surreal and don’t demand exactness in your endings, it may well be for you.
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In an earlier post, I reviewed Nate Southard’s already out-of-print He Stepped Through. So, while we’re on the topic of out-of-print titles that I’m nonetheless reviewing, let’s turn to Glen Hirshberg’s The Book of Bunk, from Earthling Publications. Although Hirshberg has written a fair share of horror, and won a fair share of awards for it, The Book of Bunk isn’t horror, nor even very dark, but it is wonderfully engaging, and definitely of award caliber.
Set during the Great Depression, the story follows writer Paul Dent, a refugee from the Oklahoma dust bowl who, sponsored by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, travels to the mountains of North Carolina to document the way of life there, as part of a planned series of travel books. Gathering material in the small town of Trampleton, Paul is privileged to hear the memories of the town’s residents, fascinating bits that are like stories with the story. He also manages to fall in love, and to meet a wealthy celebrity–modeled after F. Scot Fitzgerald–who finances a Buncombe (aka “Bunk”, hence The Book of Bunk) County gala, where everyone adopts a fictitious identity and plays their role–another story within the story. Through it all, Paul has to deal with the long shadow cast by his talented and upwardly-mobile older brother Lewis.
With an eye for period detail and a knack for creating mesmerizing characters, Hirshberg gives us a peak at a special time, in a special place. Grab a copy of the Earthling edition if you can find it, or buy The Book of Bunk once it’s been reprinted, as it surely will be if there’s any literary justice in the world.
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And, finally, I have one more review of an already out-of-print title–namely Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark, the debut chapbook from Spectral Press. Spectral began publishing in early 2011 with this chapbook and another from Gary Fry, and has an impressive slate of chapbooks scheduled for the future, by the likes of Paul Finch and Simon Bestwick, as well as a full collection from Simon Kurt Unsworth.
Similarly to Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys, which is reviewed below, McMahon’s tale is concerned with a husband and wife who have recently suffered through the death of their son. In this case, the son, Eddie, was murdered and the parents, Rob and Becky, after many months of dazed depression, have purchased a “fixer-upper” home and rolled up their sleeves to try and put their house in order. The house is a clear metaphor for their crumbling marriage, and both foundations seem to be in danger of being beyond repair. When Rob discovers a hidden door, leading to a windowless room where sound seems not to exist (Becky names it “the Quiet Room”), his reaction to the room is very different from that of his wife’s. Becky thinks she can sense the presence of their dead son, while Rob has a very different reaction: “Eddie isn’t in there…But something is.”
Even though it perhaps wraps up a little too quickly, What They Hear in the Dark is filled to the rafters with sheer desperation and quiet horror. Spectral Press is off to a promising start with this arresting tale, and they’re definitely a publisher to keep an eye on in the future.
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I’ve been amazed by Tim Lebbon’s prolific output ever since he burst onto the horror scene in the late 1990s. Sadly, I haven’t done a very good job of keeping up with all those books, but I’ve definitely admired the handful of titles that I have read–most notably As the Sun Goes Down, The Nature of Balance, and White (truth be told, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the consistent quality of his work, as other some other extremely prolific genre writers, who shall remain unnamed, have not been able to maintain a similar level of quality). The Thief of Broken Toys, Lebbon’s recent short novel from Chizine Publications, gave me a chance to check in on his career again, and I’m happy to report that the author continues to produce not just quantity, but quality as well.
The Thief of Broken Toys is a veritable treatise on loss and sorrow, exploring the aimless driftings of Ray and Elizabeth, a husband and wife who have separated in the year since the tragic death of their son, Toby. There’s a clear sense that Ray and Elizabeth are caught in a downward spiral from which there is no escape. Then one night, while walking the cliffs beyond the stark, rain-lashed fishing village of Skentipple, Ray meets a very peculiar old man. The old man takes a broken toy of Toby’s that Ray is carrying, then leaves it, fixed and good as new, for Ray to find the next morning. And, somehow, that fixed toy brings with it a lightening of Ray’s mood, a lessening of his guilt. But when the old man returns to steal and then fix more toys, Ray comes to realize that the fading of painful memories does not come without a cost.
Outside of a highly questionable decision to use a plural 1st-person POV for a few passages, this short novel is beautifully written while at the same time unceasingly sad. As the author says, near the end, regarding Ray: “There’s pain gone from his heart, but in its place is something worse. It’s not always best to forget. Sometimes, to remember is all we have.”
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I’ve heard about the Tesseracts series of anthologies for several years, and given that this issue’s publisher interview focuses on a Canadian press, it seemed only appropriate to review a couple volumes of this quintessentially Canadian anthology series. The contents of Volume 13, Chilling Tales From the Great White North, are more applicable for CD readers, and thus receive a bit more attention here, but Volume 14, Strange Canadian Stories, is absolutely worthy as well.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Tesseracts 13 is the consistency of its offerings. It’s rare that there are not at least a few mediocre stories over the course of a lengthy anthology, but the 23 stories contained here are, I’m happy to say, uniformly strong, a testament to the work of editors Nancy Kilpatrick and David Morrell. There are of course highlights among them…
For example, Kevin Cockle’s “Stone Cold,” which is indeed chilling, even if it this story of a man with a strange, debilitating disease and seemingly the potential to (unintentionally) affect those around him leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Rebecca Bradley’s “Kids These Days” is intriguing but slightly marred by to much exposition about “Bainbridge’s disease,” although it ultimately provides a great denouement in its revelation about the duration of said disease. Stephanie Short’s “Silence” is a great riff on the Pied Piper legend, while Matthew Moore’s “The Weak Son” is a welcome variation on the traditional ghost story, with an Alzheimerish twist of the tail.
Catherine MacLeod’s “His One True Love” is an excellent yarn about an enduring bad marriage, finally ended by death, and a Hitchcockian Birds attack, directed from beyond the grave. In “Overtoun Bridge,” Bev Vincent expertly builds upon a unique and interesting (if sad) setting–a bridge renowned for the number of dogs who’ve jumped to their death from it. In “Dead to Me,” Kelly Armstrong offers a short, biting tale of revenge via an ultimately unreliable narrator. Revenge is also at the core of Gord Rollo’s “Lost in a Field of Paper Flowers,” although here it comes from a no-longer-innocent child, and its nature is not revealed until a memorable final line. I’m not sure I completely understand what David Nickle is trying to convey in “The Radejastians,” but this tale of old religions, dark worship, and and sinister virgins (really) is nonetheless compelling.
Capping it all off is an essay on the history of Canadian horror, “Out of the Barrens,” by Robert Knowlton, a marvelously exhaustive piece that forced me to add a number of titles to my to-read and to-watch list. Knowlton’s article is worth the cost of admission all by itself.
As should be obvious by the numerous stories I’ve found worthy of mention, Tesseracts 13 is an excellent anthology. I didn’t find Tesseracts 14, which is edited by John Robert Colombo and Chizine’s Brett Alexander Savory, to be quite as consistently strong, probably at least partially due to the much more widely-varied nature of its contents, but it’s still a worthwhile read.
The volume’s virtues begin with the striking cover art by Erik Mohr, and continue within via stories such as Tony Burgess’ “Giant Scorpions Attack,” wherein two bored but imaginative siblings who are creating a map of the weird spots in their little town stumble upon a locale that’s far too dark, and too real. Burgess is in complete control throughout. Brent Hayward’s bizarre “The Brief Medical Career of Fine Sam Fine” involves a girl with two heads (more or less) and starts out whimsically before taking a wonderfully subtle turn towards the dark. M.L.D. Curelas’ “Harvest Moon” utilizes an offbeat setting and an interesting perspective to turn a well-aged horror archetype into something unexpected and unsettling. Daniel Sernine’s “Nights in White Linen” likewise takes a creature from ancient legend and breathes new life into it via a medical school setting and a hobbling addiction to cocaine, even though Sernine’s disjointed timeline is at times jarring. As in volume 13, David Nickle manages to both impress and baffle me. His story “Basements” left me feeling a bit like one of his characters, who says “Now, I have no fucking idea whether I’m coming, or going.”
Finally, three stories with dark science fictional underpinnings stand out–Matthew Moore’s “The Machinery of Government,” in which a recently promoted public official finds himself caught in the midst of an invasion of Canada by an unnamed aggressor (not the US), Catherine MacLeod’s “Hydden,” wherein human evolution takes a very nasty turn, and Leah Silverman’s “The Pickup,” concerning a small group of soldiers that’s apparently been abandoned in a contaminated area, with at least one of them already infected. Strangely, all three of these storier seem like excerpts from longer works — and in all three cases, I hope the authors do, in fact, expand on what they’ve done here.
Not only do Tesseracts 13 and 14 contain an impressive number of strong stories, but I also couldn’t help but note how many of the writers were previously unknown to me, a fact which would seem to bode well for the future of Canadian speculative fiction.