Review: ‘Dark Screams Volume One’ edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

e_chizmar01Random House chose wisely in selecting Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar to edit their new horror anthology series, Dark Screams. Chizmar, as many of you who regularly stop by October Country already know, is the founder of Cemetery Dance, one of the horror genre’s premier publishers, and Freeman is an integral part of that self-same company. Their work with Cemetery Dance has put Chizmar and Freeman squarely in the path of the genre’s biggest names and brightest up-and-coming talents. Who better to put together a lineup of stories that will educate readers new to horror on its vast potential, while still appealing to those who’ve waded deep into the genre’s depths?

To be honest, this first volume of stories is likely going to appeal more to those who don’t already have a bookshelf full of the scary stuff. Experienced horror readers may find that these stories tread some overly familiar paths in terms of the twists and surprises they have in store. On the other hand, Dark Screams Volume One could serve as a fantastic gateway drug to introduce those who aren’t overly familiar with dark fiction to that which they have been missing.

Who better to kick off a new horror anthology than Stephen King? “Weeds” is a story many people will be familiar with thanks to the movie Creepshow, which used this story as the basis for the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” You know the one – it features King as a cartoonish buffoon who falls afoul of a meteor that lands on his farmland. But few will have read this version – it’s never been included in one of King’s short story collections. The movie version sticks fairly close to the original prose, although poor Jordy is not quite as inept as King portrayed him in the movie. It’s definitely reminiscent of King’s Night Shift-era work, and would have been right at home in that collection.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelley Armstrong reunites two old friends, Kara and Ingrid, who share a troubled past. Ingrid’s devotion to Kara has proved uncomfortably strong in the past, and Kara has found herself in a number of difficult situations as a result. When Ingrid shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Kara decides it’s time to take a stand. The story twists in on itself from there, and you’ll probably make at least one wrong assumption about where things are headed before all is said and done.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” features as unreliable narrator as you’re likely to find: Edward James Tolliver, currently residing in an asylum after murdering his wife. Tolliver is keeping a journal at the encouragement of his therapist, and Pronzini structures Tolliver’s entries so that we get a real sense of the hopelessness and paranoia closing in on the man. Tolliver believes that something invaded and possessed his wife, and that was what he was trying to kill – and whatever that entity was, he believes something similar has followed him into the institution. Is he crazy, or is he right? Pronzini does a great job of keeping both his characters and his readers off-balance throughout the story.

“Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark is the most brutal offering here, a visceral tale that provides plenty in the way of action but little in the way of answers. A man wakes up in a subterranean tunnel, and he’s chained by the neck to another man. His chain-mate wakes up in a nasty mood, and begins brutally murdering people who have been chained to the walls of the tunnel. From that simple, unsettling premise Clark spins a violent and unpleasant tale that’s probably going to divide readers right down the middle because of its ambiguity.

Ramsey Campbell wraps the volume of tales up with “The Watched,” a quiet tale that’s surreal and unsettling. A young boy, Jimmy, is recruited by a former policeman to keep an eye on the neighbors. Jimmy is afraid to spy, and he’s afraid not to, and even when the cop is involved in an accident the young boy can find no relief. Although the policeman couldn’t still be at their meeting spot, something is there…and as Jimmy watches, that something seems to be moving closer.

This is a solid collection of quick reads, a nice selection of appetizers that represent the horror genre and many of its incarnations well.

Review: ‘Prisoner 489′ by Joe R. Lansdale

Cover designJoe R. Lansdale spins another tall tale in Prisoner 489, a straight-up horror story about an island graveyard and an executed prisoner who ain’t quite dead. It’s part of the Black Labyrinth series of novellas from Dark Regions Press, and is up for preorder now in a variety of states ranging from ebook to deluxe, leather-bound, foil-stamped, signed-and-numbered editions.

If you’re not familiar with Lansdale’s work at this point, I both pity you and envy you. The pity is there because, damn, you’ve missed some good stuff. The envy is there because, damn, you’ve got some good stuff to look forward to, ranging from horror to the crime-and-misadventure stories of the Hap and Leonard series to his coming-of-age masterpiece Edge of Dark Water. But you can (and should) investigate those another time – right now, let’s talk about Prisoner 489.

Let’s say there was an island, upon which was built a maximum security prison designed to hold the worst of the worst. These are the people for whom parole is not an option; they have been thrown into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable, and will only emerge from the prison feet first, as they say. They’re so bad that, even dead, they’re not allowed anywhere near anything resembling civilazation. So next to this island there’s a smaller island, home to a graveyard where the bodies are unceremoniously buried, their plots marked only by a number. As our story unfolds, Prisoner 489 comes to the island for his eternal rest.

The body of 489 is received by a small crew of two current prisoners and one former prisoner. Bernard has already worked off his time but chose to stay on because he really has nowhere else to go. His co-workers, Toggle and Wilson, are finishing up their sentences on the island, which up until today wasn’t too bad for a work release program.

By the time the man they know as Kettle shuttles 489’s corpse to their island, the guys are on edge. It’s their tradition to watch the prison across the water on execution nights; when the lights dim, they know the job is done. But this night is different. The lights dimmed, and dimmed again, and then two times more. When Kettle arrives he comes bearing a metal coffin wrapped in chains, and he’s eager to share stories about the man inside it, how it took all that juice to kill him, and how they finally had to finish the job by wrapping a plastic bag around the criminal’s head.

Once the coffin is in the ground, their bellies are full of liquor, and Kettle has boarded his boat back to the prison, the guys settle in for the night. There’s a storm bearing down on them, but something else out in the darkness doesn’t sit right with Bernard. He’ll find out what that is soon enough.

What comes next, I’ll leave Mr. Lansdale to tell. He does a magnificent job, as the second half of the book is an exercise in tension, humor, and outright horror. Lansdale’s storytelling is a joy to behold; his voice is so natural, so fluid that it’s like you’re hearing the story straight from his mouth rather than reading it on the page. Prisoner 489 is Lansdale at his finest, which is pretty much what you can expect any time he puts out something new. Highly recommended.

Re-Reading King: ”Salem’s Lot’

''Salem's Lot' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1975) (First Edition)

”Salem’s Lot’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1975)
(First Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Doubleday | October 1975

My most recent read of ‘Salem’s Lot took place in a variety of settings: under the harsh, cold fluorescents of my office during lunch; under the softer glow of the lamp in my living room; in the bright sunlight on my back porch; and, on a couple of occasions, underneath the lone bulb on that same porch, with night creeping in all around.

It’s a testament to the power of Stephen King’s writing that, in each of those places, he managed to thoroughly creep me out.

I don’t remember how many of King’s books I’d already read when I got to ‘Salem’s Lot the first time – I know I read Pet Sematary first, and after that it was a big blur as I gobbled up everything of his I could find. Looking back at it in its proper place in the bibliography, ‘Salem’s Lot signifies for me the first real glimpse of the Stephen King who would go on to dominate the horror field. It has several of the characteristics that would define the early years of the “Stephen King brand” in my mind; most notably, the pointed, accurate portrayal of a small town and its people, and the use of classic horror tropes in modern settings.

For pure scares-per-page, ‘Salem’s Lot ranks high in that initial bundle of books, the ones that led to King being known as “America’s Boogeyman.” I wasn’t exaggerating up top when I said I got creeped out a couple of times; that rarely happens to me when reading anymore (a side effect, I suppose, of a steady diet of the scary stuff over the years), and I was pleasantly surprised at the power King’s vampires held over me. Danny and Ralphie Glick walking through the woods; Royal Snow and Hank Peters descending into the belly of the Marsten House with a huge, ominously shifting crate; Ben Mears and Jimmy Cody, sitting in a mortuary with Marjorie Glick’s body, and the way her body first begins to tremble and then to twitch underneath its sheet…those are a few scenes that stand out in a book that lives under a dark cloud of dread and tension from the very first page.

Character-wise, it’s always been Ben Mears that I remembered the most. That’s not surprising; he is, after all, the main character and our entry point into the world. But this time around it was Father Donald Callahan who came alive for me. Maybe it was having the full weight of The Dark Tower series, and Callahan’s role in it, behind me this time around; maybe it was the way King introduced a character that sounds like a cliche (Catholic priest with fading faith and a drinking problem) and elevated him into something more. Here is a man who knows he’s begun to coast through life and yearns for something more:

He had been pining for a Challenge….He wanted to lead a division in the army of – who? God, right, goodness, they were names for the same thing – into battle against EVIL….He wanted to see EVIL with its cerements of deception cast aside, with every feature of its visage clear.

'Salem's Lot (Doubleday Hardcover, 1991) (Reading Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1991)
(Reading Edition)

Callahan would get what he yearned for, here in this book and much later, when King picks up the thread of his story in the last three Dark Tower books. In ‘Salem’s Lot Callahan is a man who fails, utterly and completely, in his chosen mission, but knowing that he eventually gets a chance to make things right casts his failure in a whole new light.

I don’t know where I’d rank ‘Salem’s Lot in the overall King bibliography – high, but I’m not sure how high – but among his pure horror novels it reigns near the top. I’ve always had fond memories of reading it, and I’m happy to say revisiting it bore those memories out.

Up next is the book that many consider King’s masterpiece: The Shining.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: Carrie

A Halloween Treat from Kealan Patrick Burke

DeadLeavesKealan Patrick Burke is a favorite here in October Country, an extremely talented (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) writer who combines a keen eye for detail and atmosphere with an innate understanding of the importance of the human element in horror fiction. He’s got a deep catalog of stuff out there, but if I had to recommend my favorites I’d include his update/overhaul of the hillbilly slasher genre, Kin, as well as his excellent Timmy Quinn series: The Turtle Boy, The Hides, Vessels, Peregrine’s Tale and Nemesis: The Death of Timmy Quinn).

Those are all longer works, and they’re all excellent, but Burke’s greatest strength as a writer may be his short story work. So it’s great news indeed that Burke has made a collection of his Halloween-flavored short stories, Dead Leaves: 8 Tales from the Witching Season, available for free from Smashwords through November 1. In addition to stories like “Carve the Pumpkins,” “Tonight the Moon Is Ours” and “The Tradition,” he’s included a list of his favorite books and movies for the Halloween season and a new introduction.

I’ve followed Burke’s writing from the beginning, and I can tell you that this collection is worth a whole helluva lot more than the “nothing” that he’s charging, so please take advantage and check it out. I think  you’ll discover, as I did several years ago the first time I cracked open my copy of The Turtle Boy, that this is an author worth reading.

Review: ‘Fangoria: Cover to Cover’ edited by Anthony Timpone

This is the cover of the advance reading copy - not sure if it's the final design.

The first issue of Fangoria I ever bought was issue number six. It was dated June of 1980, and it was the one year anniversary issue of the magazine. I bought it because it had C-3PO and R2-D2 on the cover, posing in one of Hoth’s ice caves from The Empire Strikes Back. Back then, I was all about Star Wars and anything related to it.

I don’t remember when I noticed the other picture, the last one in the little filmstrip that ran down the left side of the cover. It was a shocking juxtaposition with the bright gold, blue and white of the Empire photo. It was of a man with an arrow sticking out of his eye, his face nearly obscured by bright red blood. The photo was from the original Friday the 13th; the man was an early victim in a franchise I would soon come to revere and enjoy as much as George Lucas’s space opera.

When I look back at the table of contents of that issue, I see so much of what would eventually come to shape my reading and viewing habits in the years ahead: Stephen King, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, George Romero, Hammer Studios, and so much more. I was fascinated by the articles and the photos, the little peeks into the wonders that were out there, waiting to be discovered. I don’t know how many times I read that issue; I do know that the cover didn’t survive, but I still have the rest of it. I have all my issues of Fangoria – not every issue they have published, but the majority of them, and one day I hope to track down the rest.

Fangoria is important to me, and flipping through the pages of Cemetery Dance’s new, oversized treasury of its covers, Fangoria: Cover to Cover, was a complete joy. Looking through the book took me back to the times when the unholy trinity of Freddy, Jason and Michael dominated the horror world (and the Fango cover slot), with their ol’ pal Leatherface not far behind. I marveled at some of the bold choices they made – like the skinless corpse (from Hellraiser, if I’m not mistaken) on the cover of #53, or the entrails oozing from the television set (Videodrome) on #25. Severed heads, people with hacksaws digging into their throats, melting vampires – all of this, and more, tucked away on magazine stands in grocery stores and drug stores, right up there with Time and Southern Living. There are 330 covers represented in the book, going from the first issue to the one released in February of 2014, and it’s an amazing thing to see them all grouped together.

The one that started it all for me.

The one that started it all for me.

However, Fangoria: Cover to Cover isn’t just pretty pictures. There’s a foreward by Bruce Campbell, talking about how Fangoria‘s early coverage helped the original Evil Dead succeed; an introduction by current Fango editor Chris Alexander, sharing his excitement over living out a life-long dream by helming the magazine; and an introduction by W.R. Mohalley, the man responsible for designing each and every Fango cover since #27. It’s Mohalley’s work we’re really celebrating here, and I’m so happy that Cemetery Dance gave the man some space to talk about his work. It’s brief, but gives a really nice overview of how far things have come for Mohalley and for the craft he practices.

Anthony Timpone, who served as Fangoria‘s editor for a huge chunk of its run, also chimes in with an issue-by-issue look at the magazine, providing brief overviews of what’s in each, and little peeks at some of the decisions that were made in putting those issues together. This is my only disappointment in the book. Don’t get me wrong, this section is great, but it’s more like a tease – I would love to see Timpone write a book about the behind-the-scenes workings of Fangoria. It’s clear from what he writes here that is enthusiasm for the magazine is unwavering, and I can only imagine the kind of stories he has to tell. Maybe one day….

Fangoria: Cover to Cover is an amazing chronicle of a magazine that not only covers the horror genre, but became (and remains) an integral part of it. It wasn’t long after devouring the book that I had to dig out my boxes of back issues and explore them at length. Long-time Fango readers and horror fans who pick this up will find themselves on a nostalgia high. As for new horror fans looking for a peek at the genre’s rich history – well, this is a damn fine place to start.

Review: ‘The Halloween Children’ by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss

TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumThe first weekend of October has arrived. A cold front is sweeping through Alabama tonight, scrubbing away the awful humidity and bringing us, at least for a few days, actual fall temperatures. I’ve got the makings for a huge pot of chili, there’s wood in the fire pit, and various autumn-flavored ales are stocked in the fridge. And, best of all, I’ve got a great October read to tell you about, the perfect way to start what I hope will be a month full of literary greatness.

The Halloween Children is a twisty funhouse ride through the minds of Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, two enormously talented writers who have created an instant Halloween classic in this, their first collaboration. Much like Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest, The Halloween Children is an expert distillation of the Halloween season, capturing that peculiar mix of excitement, dread and outright fear in its pages.

Stillbrook Apartments is a quiet apartment complex with a history shrouded in rumor and secrecy. Some bad things may have happened there at one time – or maybe not. “Truth” is something of an abstract concept in this novel, and the authors work very deliberatly and efficiently at keeping any sort of real answers tantalizingly out of reach.

What we do know is this: Harris, his wife Lynn, and their children Mattie and Amber live in Stillbrook. Harris is the complex’s handyman, met each day with a list of resident complaints both normal (burned-out lights and broken locks) and unusual (whining in the walls and untraceable odors). From the get-go we can see that there’s a humming wire of tension running through the family, an obvious dividing line that pits father and son against mother and daughter. For the most part they keep things civil, even loving at times, but as Halloween approaches outside forces go to work on the wedge that’s already there. First come small things, like uncharacteristic bursts of rage from Lynn, and possible hallucinations experienced by Harris. There seem to be easy explanations for these things at first, but as the story moves forward everyone – characters and readers
alike – begins to question, well, everything.

The final mad descent begins when the family finds a living creature being baked alive in their oven. From there the tone shifts from unsettling to downright horrifying. It’s a change that could have easily derailed the book, but Freeman and Prentiss keep a tight reign on the proceedings all the way through to the tragic end.

From the great, early slow build of the book to the terrifying, satisfying payoff, The Halloween Children is a complete success. Freeman and Prentiss do a great job in blending their unique styles into one pure voice – like Stephen King and Peter Straub with The Talisman and Black House, you’ll try to guess who wrote what, and you’ll most likely get it wrong. Reading this was the perfect kickoff to the Halloween season for me, and I have a feeling it will be part of my permanent October rotation for a long time to come.

Review: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.