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.

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Short Story Review: “Dying to Forget” by Sunni K. Brock

“Dying to Forget” by Sunni K. Brock
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsIn which we meet a man named Tim as he is hopping from consciousness to consciousness, inhabiting the bodies of random people in their final moments of life. The guilty lover with a rope around his neck; the sword swallower with a fatal tickle in his nose; the blind man with a faulty heart…he’s there for all of them, experiencing death with them – or, perhaps, for them. No one wants to die, but Tim is able to push through the experience multiple times – until he looks in a mirror during one of his “stops” and sees a familiar face staring back at him. Suddenly, Tim is no longer interested in riding the wave to the next death. Suddenly, he decides to take matters, and fate, into his own hands.

“Dying to Forget” is a compact, economical sucker punch of a story with a touching and surprisingly poignant ending. No matter how you may feel about editors who include their own work, or the work of a relative or loved one, in something they produce (Sunni Brock is editor Jason Brock’s wife), there’s no doubt that this particular tale is a snug fit in this collection.

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Short Story Review: “The Woods Colt” by Earl Hamner, Jr.

“The Woods Colt” by Earl Hamner Jr.
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

Coattails

Earl Hamner Jr. created two well-known television shows from the 1970s, Falcon Crest and The Waltons. This might make his appearance in an anthology of dark fiction a bit surprising, but it’s less of a surprise when you realize that his other writing credits include eight episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Subject matter notwithstanding, Hamner’s story “The Woods Colt” has more of a Waltons vibe than a Twilight Zone vibe. It feels a bit old-fashioned in pace and execution; this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a bit jarring when held against some of the edgier content found in The Devil’s Coattails up to this point.

The story centers around a man named Fletcher who has returned to the family home for one last look around before it’s out of his life for good. His mother has died, and with his father and sister also gone, Fletcher is left alone at last to get ride of this bastion of bad experiences and memories. Unfortunately for him, his presence stirs up some otherworldly presences, and Fletcher finds that there are still family secrets to be told – and blame to be assigned.

It’s not a bad story, but it lacks a little something needed to make it more memorable. To me, haunted house stories require a ton of atmosphere to work, and the house in question needs to feel like a character in and of itself. That doesn’t happen in “The Woods Colt,” leaving it a pleasant but largely forgettable read.

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Short Story Review: “Interrogation” by Richard Christian Matheson

“Interrogation” by Richard Christian Matheson
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsJokes end in punch lines. Flash fiction often ends in a punch – a final stinger of a sentence that brings the story home. “Interrogation” has just such a line, and while it may draw a chuckle from the reader, it will likely be of the uneasy, I-shouldn’t-laugh-but-I’m-laughing variety.

Richard Christian Matheson wrings maximum impact from a minimal word count, telling a complete story with a sharp twist in a fraction of the space that other, lesser stories fill. It would take me even less time to spoil the whole thing, which I absolutely refuse to do. Reading “Interrogation” for yourself will take roughly the same amount of time to read as this review, and it will be infinitely more rewarding. Let’s leave it at that.

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Short Story Review: “Cattiwampus” by Steve Rasnic Tem

“Cattiwampus” by Steve Rasnic Tem
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

Coattails“I never seen a cat fight back like Ma,” says the narrator of Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Cattiwampus.” Her Ma is actually fighting back against her Pa, an abusive man who finally pushes too far. They’ve fought before, but Ma has always been able to keep herself in check. This one last time, though, she loses control, and as a result she’s forced to gather up her children and go into hiding.

Ma is no ordinary woman. She’s a shapeshifter, and she’s lived her life in fear of two things: losing control, and passing her curse down to her children. Now she’s done the first thing, and as the family ekes out an existence in the harsh wilderness of the Appalachians, signs are beginning to appear that she may have done the second thing, too.

Tem based this story on an actual Appalachian folktale, and he maintains that sense of place here with his vivid descriptions and liberal use of the vernacular. I love it when talented authors take on folktales and legends, and Tem takes this simple, common premise and wrings something special out of it.

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Short Story Review: “Barrels Ready?” by Norman Corwin

“Barrels Ready?” by Norman Corwin
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

Coattails“Barrels Ready?” is a short essay in which Norman Corwin (a respected essayist, journalist, and radio drama scriptwriter and director) reminisces about a colorful character from his past, a man determined to bring attention to a new sport he invented, a cumbersome-sounding affair in which men would race wheelbarrows loaded with cans full of ashes. The winner of said event would be the man who completed the course without spilling his ashes. Corwin, who was working at the time as a reporter for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, covered the story, only to discover much later that the “sport” may not have been as unique as its “inventor” believed.

This one’s a real head-scratcher. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a well-written, enjoyable read; a nice little slice of nostalgia, the likes of which used to run in newspaper columns all the time (back when newspapers really were interested in covering the entirety of the community, not just the bloodiest, most sensational aspects of it). But its inclusion here, in this collection of horror fiction and other dark writings, is a little puzzling to me. Perhaps there’s some reason, some connection that’s going over my head, but I confess that as of now I don’t see it.

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Short Story Review: “On the First Day” by James Robert Smith

“On the First Day” by James Robert Smith
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsNorris Atwell is a Defense Intelligence Agency assassin with the peculiar hobby of collecting “last lines,” or the final words of his targets. Most recently he successfully took down a man named Terrence Thackery, a pseudo-philosopher whose work graced the self-help shelves in the bookstores and the late-night infomercials on cable TV. This was not the kind of guy Atwell’s bosses usually targeted, but Thackery’s teachings of late had drawn a huge following, and his end-time prophecies were beginning to have a serious impact on society and, more importantly, the economy.

Atwell, the consummate professional, did his job, but not before taking in Thackery’s last lines – words that have resonated with him more than he expected. Those words continue to haunt him as his daughter wakes one morning with an ominous declaration: “No one can go outside.”

As you can see, “On the First Day” has an intriguing premise, and I was excited about its potential. However, while the idea is good, the execution left me a little wanting. Smith’s style is a little too formal and stiff for me, and the dry prose really kept me from engaging with the story and the characters like I wanted to. Smith has written and published a great deal, but this is my first encounter with his work so I’m not sure if this is his usual style or something he felt best suited this particular story. Either way, the stilted dialogue and matter-of-fact descriptions didn’t work for me at all, making this particular story a hard one to recommend.

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Short Story Review: “Too Good to be Human” by J. Brundage

“Too Good to be Human” by J. Brundage
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsIt’s all but impossible for me to categorize “Too Good to be Human,” and that’s one of the things I like about it. There are elements of sci-fi in this story about….something that is taking over humans, replicating themselves based on their host and then gobbling up the remains. Obviously, given that description, there’s more than a little horror in its DNA as well. There’s also some spot-on observations about the cruelty of office politics, and the way that adults are often reluctant to leave the cliquish behavior we learn in high school behind.

This is a really odd, off-kilter piece of writing that’s best left to discover as it unfolds on the page – hence, my avoidance of any real plot summary. It seems like it might be more at home in a dark sci-fi collection than one that’s titled more like a straightforward horror collection, but the more I dig into The Devil’s Coattails the more I understand that the editors had a much broader idea in mind while putting it together. More and more, that’s bearing out to have been a very good decision.

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Short Story Review: “Night Food” by Jerry E. Airth

“Night Food” by Jerry E. Airth
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsAs “Night Food” opens, a man named Jon is in the desert with Dessie, a woman he met at a UFO seminar conducted by his neighbor “TNT,” professional exterminator and survivor of an alien abduction. Jon considers himself an abduction survivor, also; he has a memory, from when he was seven years old, of a being with gossamer wings and the name Lorilee. He’s come to the desert in the hopes that she will return to him, find him worthy and take him away.

As dawn nears, Jon begins to lose that hope; fortunately, Dessie seems willing to throw a little comfort his way. But before she can take his mind completely off his woes “TNT” crashes the party – just in time to put his exterminating skills to use.

“Night Food” is a dark little piece of sci-fi with a nice twist at the end. It’s not the kind of story that sticks with you once you’ve read it, and it’s far from the strongest piece in this anthology, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and worth a quick read.

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Short Story Review: “Dread Voyage” by William F. Nolan

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

This poem by William F. Nolan, co-editor of The Devil’s Coattails, serves as a nice breather amidst the book’s longer prose pieces. It’s Nolan’s version of mythology, telling the tale of Diocreasas, a young warrior who seeks to vanquish the sorceress Circe, who has used her powerful gaze to turn his homeland’s soldiers into slobbering beasts. Along the way Diocreasas encounters Venus, the angry seas of Neptune’s kingdom, and his former comrades who are now under Circe’s spell.

The piece is compact and evocative, and serves as a good change of pace from what’s come before in Coattails. It’s a nice reminder that the editors took a broad approach in selecting material for the collection, and it’s short enough that even those not predisposed to enjoy poetry will feel comfortable in giving it a read.

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