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

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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.

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Short Story Review: “Attitude Adjustment” by C.L. Gordon

AAReality television is rarely about reality as it exists now – it’s more often about reality as we want it to exist. You’d think that such concepts would be reserved for the fictional shows, but no, someone, somewhere figured out a way to sell the viewing public content that is just as idealized even thought it is supposedly “real.” And the public loves it, just laps it up.

Thus you have shows on which overweight people lose large amounts of weight in seemingly unhealthy amounts of time; on which people win ungodly sums of money through manipulation, deceitfulness, and their mastery of over-sized obstacle courses in remote locations; in which people pretend to invite you into their lives for a peek at what it’s “really like” to be a redneck or a fashion designer or a movie star, even though “real life” doesn’t involve a handful of producers helping you make day-to-day decisions.

How far will the trend go? How much are people willing to alter their lives via made-for-tv shortcuts in the hopes of getting the kind of life they’ve always dreamed of? We’ve gone a long way down that rabbit hole, but according to C.L. Gordon, there’s plenty of room left on the downward slide.

In Gordon’s short story “Attitude Adjustment,” we’re brought on the set of a show called “Radical Makeover: Attitude Adjustment.” Participants on the show have agreed to a new neurological procedure to help them deal with the issues that they don’t have the ability – or the patience – to deal with through more traditional means. Thus, after a quick operation, the inhibited recluse becomes an impulsive hellion, the over-giver becomes the embodiment of selfishness, and so on and so on. On a set, and in a world, like this, who can be trusted?

It’s a good idea, one that I wish Gordon had delved into a little deeper. This is a short piece of writing, and really only takes a broad swipe at the concepts the author introduces. This is the kind of subject matter in which the more you know about the characters getting these procedures, the more engaged and invested you’ll be. In the short amount of space Gordon gives this story, we don’t really get full characters, just quick sketches. There’s also a little twist at the end, something which I generally enjoy but felt a little out of place here.

To say much more is to give too much away, and I don’t want to to that. “Attitude Adjustment” is enjoyable enough, but it really opened up a lot of questions that I’d like to see explored more fully. Perhaps this is a subject the author will return to at another time. In the meantime, if you’ve got a tiny hole in your reading schedule and ninety-nine cents to kill, you could do worse.

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.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails.

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Short Story Review: “The Man in the Ditch” by Lisa Tuttle

“The Man in the Ditch” by Lisa Tuttle
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

Horrors“The Man in the Ditch” is a tense and unsettling contribution from veteran genre author Lisa Tuttle. It starts with a simple yet disturbing image: a dead body by the side of the road. Or, at least, that’s what Linzi thinks she saw. She can’t convince her husband J.D. to turn around, but the idea of it – and the fact that she saw it so close to the land where the couple is about to build a new home – shakes Linzi to her core and throws a pall over the whole day.

Linzi’s refusal to let the idea go is just another wedge in what appears to be a somewhat shaky marriage. There’s a dark secret between Linzi and J.D., a single misguided act that resulted in a large gap in their marriage. It leaves Linzi on an island, and Tuttle takes a nearly sadistic glee in ratcheting up that sense of isolation throughout the story. In her marriage, in her new home out in the country, in her inability to conceive, and in her absolute belief that something dreadful is haunting her, Linzi is alone at every turn.

This is the kind of horror story that finds true fear in the details, the subtle moments, that quiet pause before the big explosion. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. It’s the kind of story that makes collections like this so damn good.

More reviews from A Book of Horrors

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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


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.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails.

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Short Story Review: “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman

“Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsAlan and Alice are a tightly wound couple living in a nice neighborhood. Their next-door neighbors are the kind of neighbors that, once you have them, you hate to lose them. They are quiet and respectful, they keep their yard properly groomed and their conversation to the most polite levels of shallowness and brevity. It’s not hard to live next door to people like that.

Unfortunately for Alan and Alice, the neighbors are moving, and the family that takes their place is the antithesis of everything that was good about the people they’ve replaced. They are mysterious and noisy, and they quickly begin to drive Alice to distraction. She insists one night that Alan go over to intervene, and what he finds is that the people who live next door are nothing like anything they’ve ever encountered.

From that point on, these new neighbors seem hell-bent on torturing Alan and Alice. The play Christmas carols all hours of the day, sometimes the same song on an endless, maddening loop, and always at ear-busting volume. As they unpack their belongings they toss cardboard boxes and styrofoam pieces out into their yard, where it drifts into Alan and Alice’s place like snow.

The stress of the situation quickly crumbles the careful routine that Alan and Alice (and their son and dog) have always lived by. The stress causes fractures in their marriage and at Alan’s job; and the fact that the police seem to take pure joy in ignoring their complaints only worsens the situation.

Robert Shearman’s story is at times an achingly real examination of the strains and breaks that can occur in the wake of the slightest shift in a relationship, whether it’s between neighbors or between spouses. At other times it’s a surreal, nightmarish narrative with its own twisted, borderline insane logic. Are the neighbors real, or are they some sort of manifestation of the pressure that Alan and Alice feel to keep up what is clearly a facade of a partnership? Are their actions justified, or the acts of people who’d crossed the line of sanity long ago and are just now realizing it? I know what I think, but the beauty of a story like this is that you might thing something completely different, and yet we both could be absolutely right.

More reviews from A Book of Horrors

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