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: ‘Dark Discoveries’ #26 – ‘The Weird West’

DD26CoverDark Discoveries #26
Winter 2014

Dark Discoveries magazine has put out some great themed issues during its 10-year run, with topics including “Comics and Pulp” (#16), “Extreme Horror” (#19) and “Horror and Rock” (#22). The latest issue continues this trend with one of my personal favorite genre mashups, the “Weird Western.”

A quick glance at the cover, which boasts names like Gary Braunbeck, Norman Partridge and Quentin Tarantino, told me there was going to plenty for me to like inside. Braunbeck’s story, “Ungrateful Places,” turned out to be the highlight for me. It’s the story of a boy named Edward, a social outcast who leaves his
village and becomes a war hero. When he returns, savaged by injuries that cost him his face, he almost immediately settles back into his role as the village nobody. It isn’t long before he begins seeing ghosts of gravely wounded soldiers, and soon he has a choice to make – let others feel the pain he’s felt, or sacrifice himself once again to spare those around him. Braunbeck proves again he is one of the best at wringing pure, real emotion from words on a page, and this story reminds me all over again that we just don’t get enough new work from him.

Partridge is another one of my favorite writers, and he brings his uniquely gritty vision to Dark Discoveries with “Fever Springs,” a rousing werewolf tale that involves a greedy, amoral banker, a band of bank robbers, and a bloodthirsty shapeshifter.

Tarantino’s involvement comes in the form of an interview about his recent film Django Unchained, and while it’s not exactly timely it’s an interesting chat with the always engaging filmmaker.

The issue is rounded out by stories from Hank Schwaeble and David Liss, several nonfiction pieces, and a lengthy article by Stephen King expert Rocky Wood examining King’s use of Old West imagery that not only hits the obvious notes (The Dark Tower, The Regulators) but touches on some little-known nuggets like George D X McArdle, a humorous western novel King began and abandoned in the 1980s.

It’s a solid issue overall, and worth noting that it marks the end of Dark Discoveries founder James Beach’s role as editor-in-chief. Beach has poured a lot of love and sweat (and, no doubt, a lot of money) into the magazine over the years, shaping it into a respected title of consistent quality. He’s managed to feature some of the genre’s heaviest hitters over the years, but always made room for new voices. When I was first dipping my toes into the genre journalism waters years ago he gave me the opportunity to interview a couple of writers, Jon Merz (#4) and Joe Hill (#11), and even published a contest-winning short story of mine, “Pun’kin,” back in issue number 17. So perhaps I’m a little bit biased when I say “Job well done, James.” But I said it anyway. And while Beach is leaving the day-to-day duties behind he’s promised to remain involved, and is leaving the magazine in good hands with JournalStone Publishing and new editor-in-chief Aaron J. French.

So, here’s to another fine issue of Dark Discoveries, and to whatever they bring us next.

Short Story Review: “Wolverton Station” by Joe Hill

WolvertonI’ve never traveled abroad, but I think I’d be able to relate somewhat to Saunders, the main character of Joe Hill‘s short story “Wolverton Station.” He’s in a strange place, unsure of some of the things he’s seeing, and getting more overwhelmed by the minute. Of course, I imagine my feelings would stem from things like the strange food or the language barrier rather than, you know, wolves who walk upright, wear business suits and casually slaughter my fellow passengers.

Hill’s story, previously published in the 2011 Subterranean Press anthology Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy and recently released as an ebook single, mixes a little Twilight Zone with a little Tales From the Darkside and a substantial dash of
sociopolitical commentary to produce a solid if unspectacular horror tale. Saunders is an executive for a restaurant chain that specializes in coffee, and he’s come to England to oversee the chain’s first steps in expansion. This means finding locations that are near mom ‘n pop type operations and crowding his way into the market. Saunders makes no bones about his methods, and Hill does little to try and paint the man in a sympathetic light. So really, it’s no big deal when a wolf in a nice suit sits next to him on the train – we’re pretty sure Saunders is going to die, and we really don’t care.

Hey, not all horror stories have to be about the hero that gets away – sometimes they can be about the scumbag who gets what he deserves. Saunders is the kind of guy who went to a monastary and came away with the revelation that a burger joint across the street would have made a killing. While he’s adept at making great business decisions he’s made some poor life choices in his time, and he makes a couple here that seal his fate.

“Wolverton Station” is a minor note in Hill’s overall (brilliant) catalog, a fun, quick piece that would be right at home in a pulp magazine. It doesn’t hold a candle to the stories in his collection 20th Century Ghosts, his novels, or his work on the series Locke and Key, but for a buck it’s definitely worth a download and a half hour of your time.

Short Story Review: “The Wooden Box” by Steven Lloyd

TheWoodenBox-6Steven Lloyd dedicates this story to Ronald Kelly and Joe R. Lansdale, authors with two of the more distinctive voices you’ll find in contemporary fiction today. It’s clear their influence is strong as Lloyd attempts to emulate them throughout “The Wooden Box.” While he perhaps falls a bit short, you can’t blame him for aiming high, and his attempts do result in an entertaining if familiar tale.

Mack Grainy lives a hardscrabble life on his farm with his wife, Nora. Nora is sick – very sick, in fact; Mack is building her coffin when the story opens. She’s nearing the end of a long bout with cancer, and she’s asked her husband to do one final act of kindness for her. As Mack prepares to carry out her wishes, he reflects on their relationship and looks ahead to a life without her, a new reality he’s not sure he’s ready to confront.

In “The Wooden Box,” Lloyd has penned a bleak tale punctuated with moments of sweetness. Death hangs heavy over the story, and the author does a good job of detailing the last quiet hours of the couple. There’s a stumble here or there as he tries a little too hard to evoke the particular rhythms of Landale and Kelly, but when he steps back from that the story works, and is definitely worth a read.

Short Story Review: “A Child’s Problem” by Reggie Oliver

“A Child’s Problem” Reggie Oliver
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsReggie Oliver’s tale of a precocious young boy’s summer adventure reads like a Hammer movie with the gore reined in. What it lacks in blood and guts (“lacks,” perhaps, being the incorrect word, as the story doesn’t need the grue) it makes up in a rich atmosphere and measured, assured storytelling.

“A Child’s Problem” is one of the longest stories in A Book of Horrors, and to boil down its plot to a sentence or two would do it disservice. So I’ll give you the setup: young George is sent to live with his uncle, Augustus, on a sprawling countryside estate. The boy is more than a little bratty, and unafraid to flaunt his status in front of strangers and servants alike, but he’s also intelligent and insatiably curious. Augustus recognizes this and sends the boy off solving riddles about the estate to keep him busy, never suspecting what the boy might be able to uncover.

Oliver is a playwright, and you can feel those stylistic instincts at work in the story’s deliberate pace. It’s not all atmosphere – there are moments of pure horror punctuating the quieter beats – but it is that sense of place that Oliver is most successful at conjuring. “A Child’s Problem” takes time to warm up, but it’s time well invested.

More reviews from A Book of Horrors

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*

Short Story Review: “Afterlife” by Stephen King

“Afterlife” by Stephen King
Tin House
Summer 2013

TinHouseSummer2013To the Constant Readers among you, “Afterlife” is probably old news. King read the short story during his appearance at UMass Lowell in December 2012; over 3,000 people heard it that night, and the rest of us heard it almost immediately after thanks to YouTube. Still, there’s a difference between hearing new King and reading it, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who was happy to hear the story would be printed in the summer 2013 edition of Tin House.

“Afterlife” introduces William Andrews, a man who appears to have led a life as ordinary and vanilla as his name, at the moment of his death. There’s a white light, yes, and just enough time for Andrews to muse on the origin of that light. He’s been preparing for his death for a while, doing a little light reading on how that light might be the brain’s reaction to the sudden loss of oxygen, or perhaps its final, desperate scramble to compute what death is doing to its host body. As he’s considering all of this, the light fades from his vision, and Andrews finds himself staring at what comes next – a long hallway, a bulletin board covered with pictures from a company picnic, and an office door with the name “Isaac Harris” on it.

In this particular King story, “what comes next” isn’t filled with angels or demons, gold-paved paradises or smoke-choked hells. Instead you get a dreary office and one of King’s classic blue-collar types: the overworked, underpaid stiff who has to eke his way through a literally endless workday. You also get doors (a King staple, as any Constant Reader worth his salt will tell you) and decisions.

The basic conceit behind “Afterlife” reminded me a little of the waiting room scene in Beetlejuice, and the story has even more in common with the Dark Tower series than its use of doors as time- and dimension-travelling devices. All of that is up to the reader to discern, so I won’t delve too deep into it here. Suffice to say that “Afterlife” finds King exploring the themes that interest him in a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing manner. I don’t know that this particular story will ever rate among the essential pieces of King’s work – in fact, I’m pretty sure it won’t – but I do know that such an opinion won’t stop Constant Readers from seeking it out. I’d recommend you do so now…just in case you don’t get another chance to, somewhere down the line.

Short Story Review: “Invisible” by Nancy Kilpatrick

“Invisible” by Nancy Kilpatrick
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsHorror stories are more often than not filled with things unseen. Ghosts, the past, regrets, the threat just around the corner – these are things with no tangible presence, yet they can have a very tangible effect on people.

In “Invisible,” Nancy Kilpatrick examines the ways we find to make the people around us disappear, reducing them to an intangible presence in the hopes of minimizing their impact on us. Sometimes it’s someone considered “beneath us,” a person performing some menial task for us like bringing our food to the table and refilling our coffee cup. Other times it’s someone who needs – or needed – our help.

“Invisible” is also a story about the staggering weight of grief and loss, two other things we might wish we could make disappear. Perhaps we can deny it attention, just as we look away from some people, but these  are things that won’t be denied. Grief and loss have a way of weighing you down whether you acknowledge it or not.

“Invisible” is a quiet, contemplative piece. Kilpatrick teases us through the story with a mounting sense of dread that builds to a subdued but effective payoff. It’s easily one of the most memorable and effective stories in this collection.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails.

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*