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.

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