Tag Archives: novella

Quick Take – Lorne Patterson’s Witch

One of the new publishers I briefly covered in my June 2012 round-up of new publishers was Dark Hall Press. I’ll save you the trouble of navigating to that post by telling you the key parts of what I said about Dark Hall: “Launched on Halloween, 2011, DHP debuted with the novel Witch by Lorne Patterson, and has so far announced two more books, including a new Ty Schwamberger title.”

Not longer after writing that, a review copy of Witch came my way. It’s a short novel, or perhaps novella, weighing in at less than 100 pages, narrated via two juxtaposed timelines. The first, set in 2013 Scotland, comes from the perspective of Detective Sergeant Jamie McFadden, who as the story opens is visiting a private psychiatric facility called Haven in order to interview Caroline Blair, the only surviving victim of a pedophile and killer who’s now also been murdered . The second takes place in 1591 Scotland and focuses on Margaret Berwick, a young woman wrongly accused of being a witch. It seems apparent from the first few pages that there will be a connection of some sort between Blair and Berwick.

The McFadden-based chapters focus on his investigation and some intriguing discoveries he makes about Haven and the nearby town, while Berwick’s chapters are primarily descriptions of her torture at the hands of her sadistic jailers, which is a little detailed a little excessively for my tastes, and her apparent conversation with a demon in the midst of some pain-induced hallucinations.

Anytime that an author elects to split their storyline (via multiple timelines or multiple primary perspectives), the potential downside is that one thread will resonate much more strongly with the reader. That’s exactly what happened with Witch, as I found the contemporary storyline much more engaging. The historical thread is well-written, but it seems apparent from the get-go what’s going to happen, and for the most part, what’s expected is exactly what happens.

Although Witch has its blemishes, none are too glaring, and there’s certainly potential flashed here as well. This is author Patterson’s first novel, and I hope we see more from him.

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.

On Terror Firma with James Cooper’s Terra Damnata

When I reviewed James Cooper’s The Beautiful Red several months ago, I briefly lamented the fact that the stories contained in that collection were for the most part surreal in nature, while I preferred Cooper’s work that features more of a realistic bent.  I’m happy to say that Cooper’s recent novella Terra Damnata, from PS Publishing, is gritty and lucid, and it’s thus perhaps no surprise that I found it to be a gripping read.

At its heart, Terra Damnata is a tale of anguish, loss, and regret, as personified by two very different couples who’ve both endured the tragic deaths of adult children.  It’s been less than a week since Arthur and Beth Woodbury lost their daughter Cherise to a drunk driver, but before they’ve even begun to come to terms with that event, they’re forced to deal with a bizarre intrusion upon their grief by millionaire Rupert Appleton, whose son Daniel was likewise killed by a drunken driver, several months previously. Since Daniel’s death, Rupert’s wife Hester has become obsessed with the idea that the unmarried Daniel will be spending eternity alone.

“She’d stumbled upon an old Chinese tradition where relatives of the dead would shower the grave with archaic objects to supposedly make the deceased’s afterlife more pleasant. When she started to leave some of Daniel’s childhood toys inside the vault, Appleton had sat in his darkened conservatory and cried.

Hester had also unearthed another ancient tradition, this one slightly more bizarre. Apparently some Chinese families of dead bachelors would buy corpses of unmarried women and bury them with their sons in posthumous wedding ceremonies, thus ensuring both spirits a smooth passage into whatever awaited them on the other side. Hester had become so enchanted by this idea that it seemed to Appleton a more effective outlet for the woman’s grief than five years of therapy. He’d agreed to buy Daniel a bride, someone his son might have connected with had both parties still been alive, if for no other reason than to satisfy his wife’s flailing spiritual belief. Yes, it was desperate; yes, it was obscene, but he was doing it, Appleton said, simply because he could.”

Arthur and Beth are, of course, initially inclined to rebuff Rupert’s overtures, but there are complicating factors that force them to reconsider. Arthur has a gambling addiction that has not only burned through the family’s savings but also led him to build up a substantial debt to casino owner Norman Foley who, not surprisingly, is an evil man who’s prepared to bring real harm to Arthur and his wife if the debt is not repaid. Faced with the loss of everything they have, and the real threat of physical violence, the Woodburys are forced to accept Rupert’s offer.

In possession of a check that will pay off his debt and leave him with plenty left over, Arthur’s first move is to return to the casino tables, a reaction sure to make most readers cringe in anticipation of a character intent on self-destruction. But Arthur is not a simple character, and all is not as it seems. Throughout, Cooper’s prose is rich yet precise, creating lasting images such as the one conjured by this description of Arthur’s return to Foley’s casino:

“There was a rich, hedonistic cloud of cigar smoke circling the room and six roulette tables spaced evenly along the posterior wall. Behind each table was a meticulously-dressed croupier, each one bearing the solemn demeanour of a pall bearer, understanding implicitly that each client was engaged in a personal duel, not against the House, but against chance itself and whatever demons their desire had conjured up.”

After Arthur’s re-entry into the world of gambling, he finds that he’s not finished with experiencing tragedy, either. To say much more would be to risk a spoiler, but suffice to say that Norman Foley has a central role in the proceedings. Terra Damnata is seemingly the perfect length, and the perfect style, for Cooper to show his stuff, and he certainly delivers the goods.