I love westerns. I love horror. And frankly, when those two things manage to come together I think great things can happen. Look at the landscape of a great western story. You have a barren and hostile terrain, where death lurks around every corner. You have people struggling to survive in a world they don’t completely understand. It’s about striking out, exploring and breaking out onto new ground.
With those parameters in mind, it’s easy to see how naturally the horror genre fits in alongside it. All the elements needed for great horror come gift wrapped in the western genre so all that’s required is a great author to pull it off.
Cue Benedict Jones, please.
Mulligan’s Idol is the first of two novellas found in the book Dark Frontiers. It tells the story of Pedro Mulligan, a man who is drawn into a mysterious expedition due to his unique knowledge of the area in question. The journey will take them through hostile territory, into even more dangerous areas and for reasons that Mulligan is only barely aware of at first.
What I thought came through the strongest in this was the strength of the characters. Mulligan himself is a great protagonist but the supporting cast around him is fantastic as well. Pretty much every major character proves to have much more depth and texture than they seem to have at first and this only serves to enhance the power of the story. You could certainly make the argument that on some level, the characters in this are fairly representative of certain archetypes. I, however, have always been of the opinion that pretty much everything can be argued as being derivative or archetypal, it just becomes a convenient weapon when people want to criticize a thing. It’s more important to actually look at those specific elements and see how they are being used.
This story is exciting. It’s also bleak and brutal. There’s despair and fear and complexity here and that is what lifts the book up above any superficial complaints that might be levied against it. Ingredients in and of themselves may have the potential to be bland but when they are put into the proper hands, the execution makes everything sing.
The novella length of this story is also perfect for me. I don’t know if it’s my essential existential angst driving my reading preferences now but I just don’t have the patience for long books that I once had. Mulligan’s Idol is just right. Establish the premise and get to the point. Speaking as an writer myself, I find brevity to be a valuable trait and goal in story telling. In a world that’s overfilled with distractions, I don’t want to have to ask you for too much of your attention, just enough.
I found the title of the story to be kind of fascinating and I have no idea if this was by design or if it was coincidental. I don’t know how extensively this is used in the U.K. but in the states, a “mulligan” is basically a do-over. You’re playing golf and you shank it into the trees? Declare a mulligan and take another shot.
The reason I find this intriguing in this context is that (in the story) I often felt like there were undercurrents of redemption or second chances or getting what you think you are deserved. I felt this with a number of the characters so I found myself frequently coming back to the title and wondering if maybe there was a hidden message intended there.
I said at the start that I love westerns, although most of what I have ingested has been on film. And I say this, fully cognizant of how western stories are often guilty of distorting somewhat what life really was like then. It’s hard to be so far separated by time and distance and to tell a story that is historically accurate and an entertaining read. But frankly, I think that if an accurate understanding of humanity during a specific time period is your goal, there are far more academically inclined texts which are there for the reading. I have never taken novels or film to be historical documents but I also thought Jones did a good job putting in the extra time and effort to give this book a feeling of authenticity. Historical fiction is something I could never do, as I lack the patience and will power you really need in order to get that work done. So just add that to the list of reasons I have to show the love and respect for this book.
The point of all this is basic and simple. The pursuit of treasure and riches may be foolhardy. But there is plenty to be found within the confines of this story. And the best part is that with as good as this is, it only represents half of the book it appeared in.
A do-over on this one will not be necessary for Benedict Jones.
If you’re already sold on the experience that is Dark Frontiers, follow the links for either US or UK and pick up a copy today. Otherwise, tune in next week as we shine the spotlight on Anthony Watson as well as his contribution to this book.
At Machine Mean for the next two weeks, we will be conducting a discussion of the book, Dark Frontiers, volume one. This book is a pair of novellas, brought to you by authors, Benedict Jones and Anthony Watson. Both are Westerns put through a heavily horror-influenced filter.
This week, we will be focusing on the first of the two stories, titled Mulligan’s Idol. Today, we will be shining a spotlight on author Benedict Jones and tomorrow we will offer up our review of the book itself. Next week, the focus will shift over to Anthony Watson.
My introduction to Benedict Jones came in the form of his novella, Slaughter Beach. I think he has a great style and a knack for visual description and narrative pacing. Take a load off and check it out as a great artist breaks down his own craft!
MACHINE MEAN : First of all, thank you for taking time to answer some questions for us. Why don’t we start with a little about you and what led you to this craft of writing?
Benedict Jones : Well, I’m Benedict J Jones and I’m a thirty seven year old writer from south east London. I’ve been getting published for about a decade now and mainly write in the genres f horror, crime and the western.
I think it was creating worlds that drew me into writing. That was something I had always done since I was small – creating stories and the worlds in which they occur. I’d always been a voracious reader and I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember, although I didn’t really get serious about them till a bit more recently.
MM : Who are some of your main influences?
B: My influences are quite broad and seem to change and expand constantly.
For my horror stuff I’d have to cite Barker, King, Lovecraft, and Poe as well as authors like Adam Nevill who is producing some amazing stuff, Gary McMahon, Mike Mignola, and a tonne of others.
Crime; Chester Himes, Phillip Kerr, George Pelecanos, Donald Ray Pollack, Frank Bill, Ray Banks and Ken Bruen.
In regards to westerns I’m a big fan of Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard.
As well as that I read a lot of history books, plays and non-genre stuff.
MM : This is not your only foray into Westerns. Tell us a little about your other works.
B : I’ve been working on various horror-westerns, and a few “straight” ones, for the last few years. I had some early ones published on The Western Online and by The Big Adios (before it closed). Dark Minds Press collected ten of the horror westerns in my collection “Ride the Dark Country”.
I have a couple of recurring characters who appear in some of the westerns. There’s “Tomahawk Val”, a mountain man/trapper in the “Jeremiah Johnson” vein, who has appeared in a few shorts (“King of the Hill” and “A Merry Christmas in Hell”), and Gatlin aka The Exile who is an ex-Confederate soldier wandering around in Mexico and getting involved in strangeness (“The Arroyo of the Worm” and “The Brides of El Somberon”). I like the idea of these characters being on a kind of occult odyssey through the old west.
The collection itself was a nice canvas for some of the stuff that was already published as well as a raft of newer, unpublished, stories. There’s giant worms and mad monks, demons, cursed meteorites, the Wendigo, wolf-men, secret cults, blazing six-guns and sturdy pioneers.
MM : Personally, I think that horror and westerns make for great companions. There’s great potential for stories about isolation and of the unknown. Why do you think we don’t see more of it?
B : I’d agree with that very much. There is quite a bit out there both in book and film but the problem is finding the good stuff! I think one of the problems with it is genre labelling – whether people want to call it weird-westerns, steampunk, horror or western can mean that it can be difficult to find exactly what it is you like. For a long time I tended to categorise mine as “weird-westerns” but I’ve dropped that now and just describe them as horror stories set in the Old West.
I think that the genres merge really well – like you said, the isolation is there already and it isn’t a huge leap to add horror to that, whether of the supernatural or more natural variety.
MM : Tell us about Charlie Bars.
B : Charlie Bars is three time ex-con from south east London who has ended up working as a private investigator. The stories run through an absolute range being on the whole hardboiled neo-noir but several of them have occult undertones. He’s a violent man but does operate to his own “code” in terms of right and wrong. There’s rarely a happy or even neat ending to the stories.
Charlie first appeared in a short story called “Real Estate” in, the now defunct, Out of the Gutter magazine. From there I wrote a novella which ended up being called “Skewered” and formed the foundation for a collection released by Crime Wave press (“Skewered and Other London Cruelties”) and that was followed up by the novels “Pennies for Charon” and “The Devil’s Brew” along with a further handful of short stories.
He’s a character that allows me to explore a lot of different things and while the stories do tend to be crime I can slip in a smattering of “otherness” when the fancy takes me.
MM : Turning to Dark Frontiers, what can you tell us about Mulligan’s Idol? How did this story come about?
B : “Mulligan’s Idol” is set in the New Mexico Badlands at the outbreak of the American civil war. It is the story of a washed-up surveyor named Pedro Mulligan who is coerced by a gang of mercenaries to take them to a section of desert he surveyed a decade earlier. They are looking for the town of “Worship” and an ancient treasure they believe lies there.
Strangely, it started with the end… A whole portion of the end sequence, along with Mulligan, came to me fully formed one day while I was sitting at work. I scribbled down some notes and over the months after added to it until I had a vague story that I was happy with. Oddly, for me anyway, a lot of the characters in it had direct comparisons from the screen; Mulligan was always meant to be Mitchum, Baron is John Saxon, Frog – Dennis Hopper… It’s one of the few stories that I have written that has been like that, seeing the characters as actors rather than just how they appear in my head.
MM : How do you go about preparing a story set in a historical time period? Is there anything you try to do or avoid in creating a story and characters that feel authentic but are also accessible for a modern audience?
B : Well, I always want it to be as accurate as I can make it (even if there are demonic cults and creatures of the night…). I think research is key, really knowing the era that you are writing about and being able to slip in little details. I’ve always thought that the author should know a lot about the “world” they are writing in but that the reader doesn’t need to know all that. The small details you can add help to build the world and you don’t need big “info-dumps” to explain it to the reader.
Language can be hard – especially the dialogue – as you want to catch the way people spoke at the time but I think too much can be off putting. I’ve recently been playing with doing some Elizabethan horror and it’s really interesting to try and work out how to present the language. I read Anthony Burgess’s “A Dead Man in Deptford” and that is written very much in the language of the time, I loved it but not sure I could replicate it and then just after that I read Bernard Cornwell’s “Of Fools and Mortals” which employs dialogue of the time but the rest written in a more “modern” style. It’s really interesting to compare and contrast the different styles in which we can bring the worlds of the past to life.
MM : Do you see yourself returning to this story?
B : I’ll certainly be writing stories in the same milieu but whether the idol or any of the characters will return I couldn’t say for certain. You never know I may bring the idol into the modern world!
MM : What does the future bring for Benedict Jones?
B : 2018 will hopefully see the publication of the third Charlie Bars novel as well as a WW2-horror novella that I’m really excited about (but can’t say much more on that at present).
As well as that, Anthony Watson and I are hoping to get “Dark Frontiers volume 2” finished and there’s a bigger project that we are working on – historical horror again but I won’t say more than that at the moment.
I also have a few short stories already slated for publication with a few different publishers.
Lots of things on the go but I’d rather be busy than have nothing happening!
Thanks again to Benedict Jones for giving us some of his time! Make sure you check out our review of his half of this book as well as next week, when we dive into the mind and art of Anthony Watson. In the meantime, click here to see more of Benedict Jones.
Shaw looked up from the fire and the smells of his cooking dinner towards the sound coming from the tree line. It could have been a deer stepping on dead branches, but from the echo, it had sounded like bones popping. He shook his head and went back to tending the fire. The shitty job back in Detroit was supposed to be the source of his stress, not this place. His hunting and camping trips up here to the upper peninsula were supposed to be the remedy. Still, he had been uneasy these last few nights, some instinct in the back of his mind feeling restless, telling him that somehow he was becoming the hunted.
His head shot up at the new sound that erupted, this time that of footsteps marching out from the trees and he jumped up at the sight.
“What the Christ?” he yelled as he stood, nearly tripping over the log he had been sitting on and began looking around for his rifle.
From the light of the fire, he could see the thing striding towards him. It looked like one of the model skeletons from high school science rooms, but with ragged strips of sinewy flesh hanging off of it, eyes blazing with a red light that hurt to look at.
Shaw had his hands around the stock of the gun, but the thing had already produced a bow and drew it back. He could see no arrow notched, but when the bowstring snapped, he felt the burning impact in his shoulder and was thrown to the ground. Burning that started in his shoulder, spread to the rest of his body, and in a blink of a moment, he was lying on his back, completely immobilized. He tried to move, to struggle and get away, but no part of his body responded to the commands.
He was being thrown down next to the fire, on his back. He could see everything around him and feel what was happening, but was lost inside himself, unable to articulate anything, even in his mind. He saw the animate corpse produce a long, silver dagger, and in a moment of unadulterated pain, the thing stabbed and sliced down his midsection. As his consciousness dwindled, he was ushered off by the moist sounds of something off in the dark chewing, food being sloppily and greedily consumed.
* * *
It had been campers who brought the man in. He had come stumbling out of the woods, delirious and raving about a skeleton attacking him, and while he was clearly sick, barely able to stand under his own power, the doctors could not figure out what was wrong. John Doe lingered under intensive care for several hours while they conducted tests and ran out their best guesses but, in the end, they were unable to save him.
It wasn’t until during the autopsy that they finally found the large rock that had been placed inside of him, precisely where his liver should have been.
For more short fiction, check out Chad’s books : A SHADE FOR EVERY SEASON (available in paperback, eBook and audiobook) and TWO BELLS AT DAWN (available in paperback and eBook)
The ship was bathed in blood.
At least, that was what it looked like, from across the twenty feet that separated the two vessels as they passed each other. Gavin leaned over the side rail and tried to get the attention of the one person on the other ship that he could see. The man was crouched down on his knees on the deck, rocking back and forth, screaming incomprehensibly.
“Eli, what the hell is he saying?”
Eli was staring at the man, mouthing the words silently as if he was trying to figure that out himself. He shook his head as he answered. “Something about a snake. A snake with wings in…in the clouds?”
Gavin looked back at the plume of cloud cover that swooped down across the water towards them. The sight of the sudden, impenetrable clouds was unsettling enough, but add to that the image of the vessel coming forth from those clouds transporting such human carnage.
“Maybe we should turn—”
Gavin looked back at Eli and saw the man now standing completely erect, his arms hanging limply at his sides, staring up at the sky with his mouth hanging open.
“Eli? What’s wrong?”
His friend dropped his head back down to look at Gavin, who took an immediate step back. Eli’s eyes had glazed over and all he could see was the whites, with bright lines of veins cutting across the surface.
“I shall have you now.” Eli’s voice had taken on a modulated tone, sounding almost female to him. Gavin turned back towards the bow and saw the clouds rushing in to overtake them. In an instant, they were engulfed in swirling, gray smoke. A black shape passed overhead, so close that a hot breeze trailing behind knocked them off their feet.
The boat floated through smoke, endlessly, until finally it broke through into what must have been the center of the cloud, a patch of raging sea underneath a bubble of otherwise clear sky. Thunder crashed from the cloud and flashes of static electricity rippled from within as well. Gavin heard a sound and looked up, slack jawed as the dark shape flew out from the cloud cover and could be seen clearly for the first time.
“Snake? That’s a God dammed dragon.”
The inconceivable sight of the winged beast bearing down on them caused some of the men to jump overboard, screaming frantically. One by one, the demon plucked them out of the water, showering the boat with blood as it bit down on its victims.
“Too late for you to turn back now.” The voice of whatever was possessing Eli spoke one more time before his head was twisted violently, by the unseen force that had taken hold. Gavin could hear the bones cracking from where he was standing, and watched as the body of his best friend fell limply to the deck.
He looked around him as his crew started to be taken from the ship and the blood began to rain down in heavier torrents. He heard the shrieking cries and looked up into the visage of hunger and desire on the face of the thing as it swooped down on him, flesh torn, and pain, followed not quickly enough by eternal night.
For more short fiction, check out Chad’s books : A SHADE FOR EVERY SEASON (available in paperback, eBook and audiobook) and TWO BELLS AT DAWN (available in paperback and eBook)
The end began with the fight.
She had screamed at him so loudly that he had actually thought one of her pupils were going to pop. The vase she had been so happy to buy, now became the missile hurled at him to shatter against the china cabinet. He had left the house wondering if he even truly wanted to come back.
The fight consumed every thought as he sat behind the wheel, driving but not really seeing. He looked down at the passenger seat for a moment when the sound of brakes and horns snapped him back to attention, and as he jerked the wheel, his fleeting thoughts were of how the median looked. It stretched away from him as if being pulled by a rubber band and the world around him slowed to a near-halt. He looked around, wondering if the car was spinning or if it was just him. His stomach felt like it was turning upside down as he felt a dull impact to the back of his head and the world blinked away.
He looked around and instead of the car, found himself suspended amidst a swirling mass of gray clouds. They roiled around in all directions, occasional flashes of light so brilliant as to leave harsh after images in his eyes. He felt the tremor of a massive explosion and pulled away instinctively.
In the blink of an eye he was standing in a long hallway. There was a dull illumination about everything, everywhere he looked but he could not detect any actual source of the light. The hallway seemed to stretch out away from him into infinity, with occasional doors marking either side.
He was still taking in the surroundings, trying to understand how he had come to this place when he noticed the child standing next to him. The face looked so familiar as he looked down at it. As he scrambled for a mental foothold, the child gazed up at him as if waiting for the answer to an unspoken question. He couldn’t understand why he felt so familiar until the realization flooded in.
The child was him.
The child-version of himself reached up and held out his hand, waiting patiently. It was impossible to accept what he was looking at but there were so many pictures lying around their parents’ house, it would be hard not to recognize his own face, even at such a young age. It was him in every way, greeting himself as a seven year old guide waiting to take him…where exactly? Jacob reached out and took the tiny hand in his and together, the two began walking down the hall. To their left and right, the doorways began to open and his child companion stopped at each, clearly expecting him to look within.
In one room, he saw himself as a teenager, hunting for the first time with his uncle. He was reaching down to lift a baby rabbit up out of a nest, looking around to see if anyone was watching before taking hold and twisting the head until the neck broke. The next room contained the college version of himself, in bed with the waitress from the restaurant he had met during his part time job. She sat atop him, already taking him into her as she was removing her bra, moving onto him as she took his hands to place them onto her breasts. In another room he saw himself at the age of ten, at his grandfather’s funeral. The scenes jumped back and forth, displaying moments that he remembered vividly and yet had given almost no thought to since.
The tiny hand that was once his own gripped him suddenly and he saw that they had reached the end of the hallway. Jacob looked down into his own face and watched as the child that once was him slowly began to dissipate, vanish away from reality. He looked up, now standing at the base of a staircase leading into darkness. The world felt like it was wobbling around him as he took one unsteady step forward. The stairs were solid underneath him so he followed that first step with a second, and then a third.
The room he stepped up into was an empty hospital room. There were no windows or doors, just equipment unused inside a sterile operating theater. He turned to look over his shoulder and saw that the stairs were now gone. When he turned back he saw that a patient was now strapped down to the exam table, which was tilted up to an almost entirely upright position. Even with all of the blood and damage to the patient’s face, he could still recognize what he was looking at.
The patient on the bed was him, like looking into a distorted reflection. This version of himself on the bed looked like he had been badly beaten, with bruises, cuts and lacerations all over his body. Immediately, his body began to sear with pain and the details of the car accident began to come back to him. Fresh wounds appeared on the injured version of himself, cuts opened up on the arms and face, causing blood to start flowing freely. He remembered the shattering glass, the sensation of being thrown forward. This was what he must look like, a three dimensional mirror on the table. As he stepped forward for a closer look, his mangled self opened his eyes and spoke to him softly.
“What you were is gone forever. What you will be is never known and what you are is not long for this world.”
Jacob shook his head, “I don’t understand what you mean.” He tried to ask for more but the injured version of himself had already drifted into a state of unawareness, looking blankly off into the open space of the room. A repetitive beeping had started to fill his head, starting slowly and now reaching a manically frantic pace. He felt sweat beading up on his forehead and looked around the room, not understanding where he was or what was happening. If these shades of himself were supposed to be functioning as guides of a sort, they had yet to explain to him what he was doing in this place or where they were taking him.
There was a deep vibration that he felt, not from the walls or the floor, but from within himself. He looked up and saw that the hospital bed was now gone, replaced by a simple wooden ladder, going up towards a ceiling that had now become, impossibly, hundreds of yards away. He took hold of the rungs and began to climb, white knuckling as he was buffeted by increasingly powerful blasts of hot wind. The ladder swayed from side to side, and the muscles in his legs were twitching, either from fear or fatigue.
The ground below him had long since vanished into a swirl of dense fog when his head ran up against something solid. He looked up but found that he was still staring up into open space with no sign of whatever barrier he had just encountered. His hand shook badly as he reached out and could definitely feel the solid surface. It gave slightly as he applied pressure, making him think about trap doors leading up into attics and crawl spaces. He pushed upwards and first heard a skree that could have been the sound of rusty hinges followed by the heavy sound of a door falling open. Where blue sky had once been above him, there was now a portal leading into darkness amongst the clouds. Jacob climbed up and pulled himself through.
The ladder dissolved from under his grip and out of instinct, he grabbed futilely at thin air and screamed even after his brain had registered that he was standing on solid ground. He was on the roof of a building of skyscraper height, looking out into gray horizons. An old man stood by the ledge, gesturing for him to come over. Jacob couldn’t help but scrutinize him as he approached. Could this also be him? A version of himself that was yet to come?
The man gestured towards a coin operated set of binoculars mounted into the stone ledge and handed Jacob a brilliantly gilded golden token. Jacob inserted the coin and peered through the eye holes.
The world was engulfed in flames.
Everywhere he looked, all there was to see were towering plumes of smoke and flame, waves of heat he could feel even from such a great distance. He pulled back and looked at the geriatric reflection of himself but the only response he got was a shrug and a turn of the head, to gaze off into the horizon.
“I don’t understand!” Jacob yelled again. His older self pointed at the binoculars and handed him another coin. He looked again but this time saw an expanse of the most beautiful valley he had ever laid eyes on, grass so green and waters so blue that it almost hurt to look upon them. He could see fish in the lake, birds in the trees, deer in the field.
Then, like a photo negative exposed to heat, the image in front of him started to curl in from the edges, blistered and begin to burn until again he was looking out upon a maelstrom of fire.
Three versions of himself he had seen. His past, his present and this. “Is that supposed to be my future?” Jacob asked, “Is that what you’ve been showing me? Some kind of a warning?”
He looked up, and now saw all three versions of himself staring back; the child, the accident victim and the senior citizen. As they stared him down, their hands came up slowly to take hold of each other and in one last flash of blinding light he was suddenly looking at a perfect mirror image of himself.
Again, the sound of hospital monitors filled his head. He could also hear the sound of distant chatter, like doctors and nurses in an operating room. In that moment, the only thing he cared about was getting back into the life he did not realize until now, how much he wanted. He could never return to the past, his expectations of what his life should have been and his fears of what was yet to come. He needed to leave it all behind so that he could truly live his life within each moment.
He looked down from the rooftop, thinking idly that it sometimes took rising up above things to be able to look down and take perspective.
He stepped up onto the ledge in a sudden moment of inspiration and looked down into the billowing storm clouds below. Jacob stepped off the edge.
Hot screaming air rushed past him as he fell, headfirst into a swirling mass where no light entered. Then, after an eternity of a moment he found himself rushing down into a luminescent ocean of stars and light that grew only brighter.
His eyes snapped open in time for him to jerk the steering wheel and apply the brakes. He pulled to the left and was able to get the car stopped as the truck barreled past him, nearly clipping him in the process. A few more seconds and he would have planted the front end of his car into that median.
Jacob shook his head and looked into the rear view mirror, scanning traffic for an opening and smiling ever so slightly, either from the elation of still being alive or from the ever elusive understanding of what really was important to him in the one life he had been lucky enough to be blessed with. He resumed his path, spirit renewed in the foundry of second chances.
This has been a busy year of books for me. Kicking things into high gear in order to finish my project on Stephen King has led to a grand total in the neighborhood of a hundred and eighty books. With this number in mind, even considering that many of those books were quite short, I feared it would prove to be too daunting of a task to choose a handful from such great work.
Still, just because a decision is hard doesn’t mean that we should shy away from it. After all, the artists who really went above and beyond in order to produce great work deserve recognition.
So, with that said, on with the show.
What Good Girls Do
I Was Jack The Ripper
Naming The Bones
A Tear In The Veil
Every now and then, you get to read a book that is so unique, it becomes something that only that author could ever produce. A book with so much depth and so many clues and hints and winks that you could turn around and start over upon finishing, reading the book again and again, each time getting a whole new experience.
I was drawn in by how intriguing the description of the story was. What kept me in was how the narrative continued to surprise me and keep me on my toes. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it, I think I would have to read this several times before I really felt like I was on top of it.
I also loved how dynamic the setting was. I’ve never been to San Francisco in my life but having read this book, I almost feel like I have. The use of the city is quite vivid in its description and I thought it added great texture to an already great book.
If you’re willing to be taken on a ride, take the keys and give this one a go.
Jasper Bark definitely has a knack for taking a story that is crazy bananas and bringing it down to a level that is engaging and captivating. This is a story that is steeped in the atmosphere of folklore and mythology, of the mysteriously supernatural history of a small town.
I was most captivated by the structure of the story, mostly because there was no rational reason why it should have worked. there were so many flashbacks, it was almost like I was reading the story in reverse. But somehow, this nested doll method of telling the story manages to work. More often than not, I would have likely given up on a story like this but Jasper’s prose and story building kept me interested and it all wound back to a conclusion that was powerful and gripping.
The Dark Roads
Favorite Short Story Collection
Things We Leave Behind
I was definitely impressed with this collection. I don’t want that to sound like I was surprised as I have been a fan of both Mark West as well as Dark Minds Press for some time now. Still, this was a really fun read and the stories were varied in a satisfying way but while still maintaining some common atmosphere and emotions.
If there is anything I have learned about Mark’s style is that looking across the board at works like Drive or The Factory, he is a master of establishing genuinely creepy atmosphere. Whether he is writing about monsters of a human or supernatural nature, he manages to infuse his stories with a sense of dread that is somehow both foreboding and beautiful. The craft and storytelling in this book is outstanding. Often I find collections to be somewhat of an emotional slog, having to transition so quickly from one story to the next. When it is done right, however, I rarely feel this way and in this case it was definitely done right.
It was possible that the boozy Christmas Eve dinner he had just put back was causing this, but at that moment, “the ghost” was the best he could come up with to describe the apparition that now stood in front of him. It was a young woman, maybe in her early twenties, wearing a white dress. The fabric looked old, worn and frayed in several places as it fluttered in the cold night breeze. Her skin was the palest he had ever seen, verging on a translucence that was frightening and yet somehow, intriguing.
Crayson stepped forward and put a hand out, for what exactly? Not a handshake to be sure, those hands didn’t even look solid. It wasn’t like the girl had something to give him. He lowered the hand back to his side, raised it again after it occurred to him that he was being rude, and then dropped it, again, because he couldn’t ignore the chills that were gripping him by the spine.
The long walk home from his parents’ house had led him past this alley at just the right time to find this woman, as if she had been waiting for him. He looked at the dark curls of her hair with the red ribbons and in a flash of memory, he knew where he had seen her. The near car accident from a week ago. The taxi swerving recklessly into the opposing lane and this woman had been driving the other car, the one who had almost been hit. Everything had seemed fine but not long after, he had spotted an ambulance tearing off in the same direction she had been driving, so maybe something had happened.
Why was she staring at him like that? What did she want? How was he supposed to help, because after all, he felt confident that help was what she desperately hoped for.
He put his hand out again, still unsure what he was offering, but this time, she moved closer to him. She didn’t walk up to him, but rather, seemed to slide forward on the back of a breeze. He felt a coolness creeping into him as she drew close and lifted up a hand of her own to caress his. This was going in a direction that he had not expected, but he still felt completely safe with her, not mistrusting her intentions at all.
Her hand came up to stroke the back of his neck, and with the slightest force applied, drew his face down to hers for a kiss. The feel of her lips was of cool, moist skin, there one moment, gone the next and immediately there again. Her breath was like wafts of air from a freezer as she let it out into his mouth and, as the kiss grew deeper and her tongue slid ever so slightly against his, he felt a shudder and warmth that started in his groin and radiated outward to the end of each fingertip and toe.
The kiss finally broke, and he looked down at her. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, but he didn’t think they were brought on by sadness. He placed his hands on the cool elusiveness of her exposed arms and pulled her up against him.
The clatter of a garbage can lid drew his attention from her as the sound of laughter scoured away the moment they had just shared. Three kids, teenagers at most, were making their way down the alley towards them, pointing, with cackling laughter that made him grit his teeth in anger.
“Look at this.” The one who seemed to be the leader was wearing a brown bombardier’s jacket, several sizes too large for him. The other two were wearing faded jean jackets and had a look about them that suggested that there were very few things that they ever did without a “by-your-leave” from their fearless leader. As such, they both laughed a little louder than necessary.
“Look at this,” he repeated himself. “Where the fuck did you wander in from? Didn’t care for the opera me good sirs?” The last sentence was delivered in a stereotypical British accent that made them seem somehow more menacing. “I think you should be givings us your money. Alls of it if you please.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell them to wait, that he would get his wallet out and give them whatever they wanted. The tip of his tongue was as far as that sentiment advanced before chaos exploded and suddenly, he could barely track anything that was happening.
The alley was filled with the echoes of a shrieking cry that brought to his mind’s eye the wraiths of Tolkien, cutting through his train of thought like a blade. He knelt down and clutched at the sides of his head, trying to blot out the sound. The first of the three kids, jean jacket number one probably got off the easiest. In one moment, his head was ripped straight off and hurled out into the street. The body continued walking away for several steps before collapsing. Jean jacket number two started to run and was lifted up off his feet. Crayson winced at the sounds of his screams as he was beat against the buildings, swung violently from side to side until there was little left to drop into a bloody heap on the ground.
The leader, Mr. Bombardier himself, screeched like a child half his age, and collapsed, as close to the fetal position as someone of his size could manage. He swung through the air around him with one clenched fist but, all it served to do was provide a target, as the arm was quickly severed at the elbow. He screamed, and continued waving the arm around, now spraying blood all around him. The invisible force lifted him up to his feet and one by one, his limbs were plucked off, like the wing off a chicken.
Crayson felt an icy breeze from behind him and turned to look again into the woman’s revitalized eyes that blazed with new life, new warmth. He took her into his arms and resisted the urge to turn his head to look over the grisly carnage left behind by his guardian, his love. He held her close, and felt her arms sliding around to his back, caressing him with cold hands that he couldn’t help but think would be the hands that would eventually pull him down into the deep abyss of infinity that he would share with her forever.
Katie turned the car onto the main drag, cursing again as the wheels slipped on the ice. Why the city couldn’t get the roads cleared faster than this was a mystery to her. What the hell were her taxes paying for anyway? And of course the asshole behind her in the puke-green Honda wouldn’t give her any room, tailgating so close, she could read the digits on the fuzzy dice hanging from the guy’s mirror.
Her paycheck was too small again. How was she supposed to keep her head above water with these shitty wages? It was the holidays, things were supposed to be easier. All she felt was more annoyed at what she saw as cheer and joy on display from people who were as fake as her knock-off handbag.
The brakes skidded as she slammed on the pedal for the fourth straight red light. Apparently the city couldn’t time the stop lights worth a damn either. Moments like this made her think more seriously about taking the bus, but why suffer the indignity?
At the fifth straight barely-missed green light, she stopped and the sight of the man on the corner halted her, mid-thought.
He stood there in a threadbare dinner jacket that looked like it had been out of style for about 20 years. His pants were torn in several places and the snow looked like it had completely saturated his thin Converse sneakers.
Well, she wasn’t standing out there, at least. She was in a warm car, coming from a warm house going to a job that at least paid her a little. It was Christmas. She rolled the window down and handed over a twenty, just before the light turned green and she drove on with her life, the frustrations at least temporarily quieted by her freshly bolstered self-worth.
* * *
Randall watched the lady’s car pull away and he stuck the twenty into his pocket. That brought his total for the day to just over five hundred dollars, which would be more than enough for a hotel room and a massage. Maybe even a nice steak dinner too.
He made more money scamming these suckers than he ever had at his job. And he didn’t have to pay taxes. He loved the holidays.
Seven more days until Christmas. He might even bring in a couple more grand before St. Nick came down on his sleigh. He looked up in time to see the crowd of carolers crowded in front of the drugstore. No way he wanted to get too close to that group so he quickly turned down the alley.
He was lost inside of his own cleverness, so far gone, that it was too late when he heard the crunch of snow under someone’s feet. Before he could even step out of the way, the box cutter was pressed to his throat and the gnarled, tobacco stained fingers shook excitedly as they dipped in for his wallet.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page
The only reason he had come to the house was to deliver the pizza. But from the moment he buzzed, and the door opened, he knew that he was in for a lot more. Whatever the argument that the woman had just finished with the boyfriend or the husband or the girlfriend or whomever, the result was her standing here on the threshold wearing the moist tracks of tears, and barely more than a suggestive smile.
Timmy had immediately averted his gaze, suddenly fascinated by the crown molding and the color of the drapes. She was asking him something about accepting special gratuities. He tried to focus on what it would feel like to have a knife driven into him at Jenna’s hands if she ever heard about this incident.
“It’s…” his voice was lost in a volley of coughing and he took another run at it. “It’s $17.95 ma’am.”
“But you need my coupon,” she said, running a hand down the front of her shirt, conveniently unbuttoned. She slid her hand to one side, revealing the swell of one breast. “I think I’ve got it here under my—”
“Nope, I’m good.” Timmy let out an abrupt laugh that sounded fake, even to him. “I don’t need your coupon, I’ll take your word for it.”
She looked down at herself, underneath the tails of the shirt that revealed the micro-thin underwear that she was wearing. “My wallet is all the way over there on the table by the phone. Take whatever you think is fair.”
Timmy contemplated paying for the pizza himself, just to get the hell out of there, but ended up lurching into the room and grabbing the wallet. He was looking through the bills when suddenly her hand reached around from behind him, caressing softly and moving for a vacation down south. Timmy groaned and turned, finding himself thrust into a clumsy embrace. The hands that he had raised to push her away had ended up cupping the least opportune place on her body while her lips were suddenly on his and her hands were fumbling with the elastic band of his shorts.
“What in the blue fuck is going on here?” the authoritative tone of the police officer that was evidently also her husband, brought a high pitched shriek to Timmy’s voice and he pushed her away. She tumbled backwards over the coffee table and fell roughly to the ground. To his dismay, she was now screaming at her husband to help her. All she wanted was a pizza and thank God, he had come home, just in time to save her. Timmy froze over her prone body, vaguely aware that her purse was now clutched tightly in his grip. The sight of the officer reaching for his pepper spray broke him out of his stupor and he fled towards the back door.
When he hit the yard, the husband hadn’t taken pursuit yet. Timmy dove into the gigantic play house that the man had probably built himself for his kids. He slammed the door shut behind him and looked around at the plastic tea set that he had knocked askew.
Outside he heard the husband raging obscenities and throwing lawn ornaments. It went on for some time, but eventually, the sound began to fade and Timmy started to feel like maybe it was safe.
Then he heard gravel crunching, followed by the sound of all things, a light tapping on the front door of the playhouse. Timmy’s voice went up several more octaves as the only words he could think to say spilled out.
“Not without a warrant!”
So now the pressure is fully on my shoulders. The whole point of this project has been to read the works of Stephen King and reflect somehow on how his writing style has progressed and changed over the decades. I don’t know if I’m capable of providing the big fireworks display finale that completely draws it all together in one shocking climax, but I will present what thoughts I have, in as organized a manner as is possible for a brain as small as mine.
I have been a fan of Stephen King since I was in grade school. And I will be the first to admit that there were probably a number of titles that I probably should have been kept away from at that age, but I had been reading passionately for quite some time when I picked up my first Stephen King book and fortunately for me I had parents who supported and trusted my development. I don’t think you can accurately make any single across-the-board statement when it comes to what your kids should or shouldn’t be allowed to read. I think that is a an incredibly personal question that parents must deal with and I think a lot of that depends on the specific child and their situation as well.
It’s also possible that my reading of Stephen King at a fairly young age was facilitated somewhat by the fact that he was such a huge phenomenon at the time. That’s not to say that he isn’t a big name now but I would argue that in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was in junior high and high school, Stephen King was much more of a buzzword and culturally relevant then he is now, necessarily. In 2017, I see the popularity of King largely as a continuation of that era when he was a massive figure on the landscape of popular culture. I recall even my grade school having some Stephen King books in their library. There was a series of posters from that era that schools often had on display, featuring various celebrities promoting books and libraries. And one of those posters featured none other than Stephen King, with the caption “Stephen King for America’s libraries”. I would be willing to bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a Stephen King book in as many grade school libraries nowadays.
So the point I’m trying to make with this is that obviously I have been a fan of King for a long time. And the argument certainly could be made that my nostalgia for these books of my childhood is driving my continued interest and passion for his work. But what I find is that over the course of my life, I keep coming back to his books, not because I need that remembrance of something that was important when I was a child, but rather that I continue to find things to like in his writing regardless of what age I am at.
I see Stephen King’s career as going through several distinct phases. And please remember that as you read this, I am in no way connected to anyone in the King family. This is not intended to be a definitive psychological workup of Stephen King. These are just the superficial observations of one lowly outsider.
Early on, I see King going through pretty much every phase other authors go through at the start of their career. In other words, how the hell do I get my work noticed amongst this mountain of other literature? It really feels like you against the world. And for as many challenges as authors face today, I suspect that this was no easier for writers in the mid seventies.
Imagine this problem, amplified by the fact that, pre-Internet, people were much more isolated from others who might be of like mind. It isn’t like Stephen King could just log onto Facebook and start networking with all of his author friends from around the world. At that time, I can easily imagine writers suffering alone with their typewriter, feeling like they’re off on a siege that no one can help with or really truly understand.
As such, it’s interesting to look at books he published primarily during this period of his career. Books like Carrie, Salems Lot, The Shining, the Dead Zone and Firestarter. Interesting in that, in pretty much all of these stories, we see younger characters who, either through some ability or knowledge or life experience, have been isolated from the rest of the world, left to fend for themselves in fear from forces they don’t really understand or comprehend. Is it possible that the lives of Carrie White, Ben Mears, Stu Redmam, Johnny Smith and Charlie McGee were heightened metaphors of certain aspects of King’s life? Again, I have no idea. But it’s hard to not see these experiences as an unconscious reflection of the struggles and fear involved with striking out into a new profession, with an extremely low probability of success and feeling completely alone in the world.
Another factor we know Stephen King’s life to be plagued by was the real world demon of addiction. Too many people are taken apart and left for dead by this monster that cares not for who you are, where you come from, how much money you have or how good of a person you are. Addiction only fulfills its purpose. It destroys and it kills.
As such, I can’t help but take note of the fact that so many of his books during the eighties deal with similarly powerful and implacable monsters. The Man In Black, Pennywise, Christine, the dark forces in Pet Semetary, Cujo and Annie Wilkes (who King himself has stated is basically a metaphor for cocaine).
It goes without saying that this aspect of his life’s story came with a happy ending, thanks to the intervention at the hands of his family. But there had to have been a period where this ending was by no means assured. I would imagine that there are as many people (if not more) who fail to get off of drugs as succeed, and the route to victory goes straight through a personal hell that few of us can really understand.
I see King’s book, The Dark Half, as the definitive fault line between the phases of his life, pre and post-sobor. First of all, the book was angry. Much more in tone than anything I can think of reading before that. George Stark’s actions are violent and brutal and I thought for King, much more graphic than most of his previous writings. And let’s not ignore the fact that in this book, a novelist is literally being hunted by an aspect of himself. And this is a theme he seemed invested in as it would show itself again in his novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden.
The next book that would follow, Four Past Midnight would have a similarly dark and intense tone to it and for me, it seemed like everything related to his addictions seemed to culminate with Needful Things. It was a book he labeled as being “The Last Castle Rock Story”, almost as if he was trying to metaphorically move on from a phase of his life as well as literally. And I think it’s no coincidence that Leland Gaunt could fairly be categorized as the world’s original drug dealer. And what ultimately happens to him? He’s defeated, but in a way that we also know he’s still lurking out there, taking in new victims and readying for a fresh round of mayham.
I can imagine that for years leading up to this point, Stephen King had dealt with the frustration of being boxed in with people’s expectations. Fans don’t always react well when artists try new things. Stephen King is the master of horror, right? I have read an account that on some level, in addition to drugs, Annie Wilkes also represented King’s feelings of being held hostage by his genre.
I bring this up here because the nineties would come to represent a major departure for King from his tried and true subject matters, into other genres and other ideas. It’s a time period that a lot of his fans identify as being when they began to lose interest in his books.
I’ve wondered at times what might have happened differently with King’s career if he had stuck it out with what he had done before and I have to admit that I think it likely could have ended up exactly the same. He was trying to keep his books fresh and unique. For some, that succeeded and for others it was a failure. But I think that even if he had gone in the other direction and stuck with pure horror, it’s just as likely that the accusations leveled would be that the nineties were a bland recitation of the eighties. Ultimately, there are just some people who can’t be satisfied and I think if anyone understands that, it’s Stephen King.
And I will be the first to admit that many of King’s books in the nineties and beyond came off as flat and unexciting for me. I’ve discussed this point thoughout many of the individual reviews but I don’t think being critical of his work makes you less worthy as a fan. I’ve never held to the notion that you have to love every thing an artist produces in order to call yourself a “true” fan.
Following his victory over addiction as well as his near fatal accident, I think King gave himself more permission to write the kind of books he wanted, as opposed to falling in line with the kinds of stories that would be expected from the “king of horror”.
And I suppose I should address the elephant in the room, the one combined work that spans across most of his career.
The Dark Tower.
This series was a huge part of my life and the constant waiting for the next volume made the new books that much sweeter when they came out. This has been defined and accepted by the fans as Stephen King’s most important work and the super-fans out there never seem to grow tired of drawing connections from one character in this book to another character in the next. For me, I tend to keep the scope of the Dark Tower books more limited than many. For me, The Dark Tower is about telling a great epic and I don’t worry myself with endless theorizing on subjects that I don’t feel are really supported by the book. So with a few exceptions, I see the stories in the Dark Tower as self-contained. Whether they are intertwined with all of his books or not, it doesn’t really matter to me. For me, its just a great series of books.
What can I say overall about the “King legacy”? Being totally honest, I think I’d say that if Dolores Claiborne had been King’s first book instead of somewhere in the middle, our view on him now would be quite different. I’ve heard it said that the success of his later books was at least somewhat built on the back of a phenomenally incredible decade and a half of writing, early on. I think it’s a fair criticism. And I don’t mean that in an entitled sense of, “How dare you stop writing what I want?” or from a place of, “Stephen King really lost his edge.”
Starting in the seventies and going into the eighties, Stephen King had one of the most prolific stretches of time that I think we have seen from any popular authors. There were years when he would publish multiple titles, each one being good enough to make a career on, individually. This was a rare example I think where you had a string of books that were both incredibly successful and incredibly good. And besides the books, billions of dollars in box office revenue has been spawned by material he wrote during that time.
That isn’t a pace that you maintain. That isn’t something you just keep up, indefinitely. Artists that are in that mode seem to go one of two ways. Either you slowly burn out or you detonate in spectacular fashion. And the latter was nearly what we ended up with.
So, is it possible that later readers of his books were more lenient in their criticism because of how much they loved his earlier books? As someone who likes to see himself as honest, I have to acknowledge that as a possibility.
It is also worth taking consideration of the fact that moving into the nineties and the new millennium, the horror genre definitely saw a dip in the popularity it enjoyed in the eighties. As such, a new Stephen King book would be received with much less fanfare in 1997 or in 2005 than it would have in 1984. Is it also possible that King used this to his advantage? Slipping in under cover of darkness in order to write the kind of stories he wanted? Again, I have to admit this is also a possibility. Between his trip to rehab and his near fatal accident some ten years later, I could completely understand how King could have come out with a new fervor for life, with a renewed determination to not let readers’ expectations steer the ship quite as much.
Do I think that Stephen King is less of a writer because he has the luxury of having his books classified as bestsellers before they even come out? I do not. Because the way I look at it, if he had succumbed to his addictions and was lost to the world in 1988, I think he still would have gone down in history as this generation’s Poe. So the qualitative analysis of all his work after that point doesn’t diminish that status in my eyes.
For me, the power of King’s stories has always been in his characters and I don’t think that aspect has diminished over the years. I’m finding myself as compelled by characters like Bill Hodges, Big Jim Rennie and Jake Epping as I was with Roland Deschain, Richie Tozier and Louis Creed. The stories themselves might not always be up to par, but the essential building blocks have been consistently strong. I think this is the main thing that has kept me coming back and feeling drawn to his books.
I think of Stephen King in a similar way as I think about the Beatles. I’ve always held the belief that there is at least one Beatles song for everyone. In similar fashion, I think there is at least one Stephen King book for everyone. At this point, his writing has become so diverse and varied, there’s likely something there even for people who claim to not like him. And also like the Beatles, you may not like him but if you’re a fan of the horror genre, chances are pretty good the authors you do love wouldn’t be who they are without Stephen King. Speaking as a writer I can definitely state that I owe a lot of what I am now to his works.
As artists grow more popular and more of a fixture on the landscape of popular culture, there is a natural pushback, a need by some to tear that artist apart. There are plenty of detractors of Stephen King but I truly believe that in a hundred or so years, people will be looking back on him in the same way they now do Poe or Lovecraft.
There was something under the surface of King’s writing that I was drawn to at a fairly young age. Something about the stories that I couldn’t deny or turn away from. And even today, after so many books under his belt, I still find the unconscious push to read onward.
I feel like I’m getting to the limit of what will likely be the patience of those reading this. So in the spirit of some closing thoughts, allow me just a few paragraphs more.
Growing up from a passionate fan of Stephen King as a youth and into adulthood, I turned my back on him, secure in my own superficial conclusion that he had simply lost his touch. That there would be no more new Stephen King books out there for me to enjoy. I closed myself off from that experience and I shut the door to that stage of my life.
Doing this project has really opened my eyes to the fact that while Stephen King has obviously changed as a writer over the years, as have I as a reader, there are still plenty of books throughout the later decades of his career that I have loved.
The main difference I would identify between the first half of his career and the second is that I think his books started in about the mid-nineties to feel more standalone. The references were still there but when I read the classic titles of the seventies and eighties, I had much more of a sense of an overall, unified narrative universe. And I’m guilty of projecting here again but this progression makes sense to me.
I could see a writer in his younger years being more enthusiastic about the creation of an overreaching fictional universe in which to place his books, drawing connective threads between them like a spider’s web. Then, as that writer gets older and experiences multiple life threatening transitions, maybe there is more of an urge to simply write the book and move on. After all, when you’ve likely made more money than you could ever spend in your life, why not scale things down and actually enjoy what has been gained from your hard work?
Rediscovering my love for Stephen King’s books has helped me also rediscover my love for reading in general. So I thought that this project was a perfect way to pay tribute to that. Stephen King certainly has his detractors and I am not interested in swaying them. This has been about my journey and my love for this author. Reading his work growing up was likely one of the best internships a budding author could have partaken in. So to say I am grateful doesn’t come even close to touching the reality.
Do I love all the books of Stephen King?
But I sure do love a lot of them.
In parting, I wanted to make sure I extended my thanks to you for sticking through this with me. Anyone who has been here, dropping in to check out the reviews over the years, thank you. Your support and interest has been appreciated. This was a labor of love, one I am happy to have seen through in its entirety and for how it has actually deepened my appreciation for King’s writing overall. So it is with a great deal of happiness that I am able to say this to you, one last time.
My name is Chad Clark and I am proud to be a Constant Reader.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page