Review: ‘Jack’s Magic Beans’ by Brian Keene

Jack’s Magic Beans is a collection of previously released material by author Brian Keene. Hardcore fans of Keene’s will have likely read all of these by now, but it’s a good introduction to his short story work for those only familiar with his novels.

The collection kicks off with the title novella, a tight, bloody tale that begins with the compelling line: “The lettuce started talking to Ben Mahoney halfway through his shift at Save-A-Lot.” It’s been a bad day for Ben, who was jilted by a girl he liked before getting reprimanded for reporting late for work. He’s 16, full of anger and confusion, and when the lettuce tells him to kill an old lady shopping at the store where he works, he abides.

We quickly see that this isn’t an isolated incident, as hallucinations and violent acts become the norm inside and outside of the store. Before long there are only a handful of people operating rationally, and they find themselves locked in the Sav-A-Lot’s meat freezer, debating on their next course of action.

In the notes after the story (Keene has notes after each entry in this collection, offering insight into how the stories came about), Keene refers to this as one of his “fun stories,” pure escapism he usually produces after working on his more personal books and stories. That’s as apt a description for this one as any – Keene throws the characters (and the readers) smack into the middle of a hellish situation and then cackles gleefully as he puts them (and us) through the ringer. He clearly had a good time writing this, and it shows.

Up next is “Without You,” a short tale with another compelling opening line: “I woke up this morning and shot myself twice.” It’s about a man ready to end the miserable run he’s made at life, only to find it’s not as easy has he thought it would be. Quick and effective, “Without You” shows that you don’t have to twist genre conventions to make a good story – sometimes you can just let ’em play out.

“I Am An Exit” and “This is Not An Exit” are two interconnected stories following a mysterious serial killer. Keene says he’ll be revisiting the character in a future book, and I hope that he does – we get just enough of a taste here to want more of the story.

Jack’s Magic Beans wraps up with “‘The King, in: Yellow,” a tribute to the Robert W. Chambers piece of the same name. The idea of art driving its patrons mad is nothing new, but Keene wraps the old idea in an interesting and engaging short.

Brian Keene is a man who loves the horror genre, who has studied the horror genre and who has made some important contributions to the horror genre. Jack’s Magic Beans may not stand as his crowning achievement, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining collection that shows the author having fun and paying tribute to the kinds of stories that made him the writer he is today. It’s available now from Deadite Press.

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