Morris ducked through the archway into the cemetery, trying to stay out of sight. That intern had been at the movie and clearly was interested in conversation that Morris wanted no part of. As soon as the credits started to roll, he jumped up out of his seat and darted out through the rear emergency exit. He thought he had made a clean getaway but still, he heard the sound of dragging footsteps, coming from somewhere behind him. The kid was nothing if not relentless.
A certain amount of hero worship was to be expected when you were a vice president of foreign acquisitions. He was used to that, but the unending barrage of questions and requests was almost enough for him to consider early retirement. He had neither the interest nor the time to be just some renewable resource. Not unless he was getting paid.
Besides, it wasn’t as if there was a career path that he could recommend, based on his vast experience. Granted, climbing the corporate ladder had always been easy for him. What he could never say was that the reason was that people ahead of him on the food chain always seemed to fall victim to convenient accidents. How could he phrase that in the form of a mission statement? Kid, just make sure you’re always in position to step up, if and when someone kicks the bucket. Better yet, make sure you provide the bucket. Continue Reading
A few months ago, I began writing what I thought was going to be a short story. As I got into it, however, I realized that this was likely going to end up being a full novel. For posterity and maybe to motivate myself, I am sharing the first chapter with you now, in all it’s rough-draftiness-glory. I’ve done very little to this, keeping it pretty close to how it sprang out of my mind. I’ve given it a quick read to make it (hopefully) not completely embarrassing. Still, it’s a project that I’ve been intrigued to see what direction it’s going in. Check it out, I hope you enjoy it. It will be some time before this project sees the light of day but it’s from here that it begins.
Nolan picked up the battered Zippo from the gravel. He took note of his fingers trembling as he wiped the greasy leavings of blood from the tarnished metal. The thing was frail-looking, despite the breadth of time and destruction that it had borne witness to. He wondered at how many fire-fights it had gone through, tucked away in his grandfather’s uniform as he struggled to find warmth in the Ardennes Forest. A battered landscape long since given itself up to the cold of empty death.
Now the thing was no better than a token for drunk rednecks to go bare-knuckles over in the parking lot of a bar that looked like it only served as the last stop before the end of the line. He hawked up the gunk in his throat and spit, feeling something dislodge in the process and watched detachedly as a tooth skittered off towards the sewer. Considering how much the side of his face still burned from where the guy had put the pool que, one tooth was probably getting off easy.
Maybe it was time to call it quits on this town. Put boots to that dusty Iowa road and depart for yet one more point B. It was a bit far to the next town but he could always get a good start now, thumbing his way for the rest. Someone would be willing to pick him up and toss him a ride. Even if it was in the flatbed of a pickup that wheezed and groaned, like it was on the verge of giving up the ghosts. He just had to be patient and put himself in the right position to catch a ride. Continue Reading
And Don’t get me wrong, the language of Mary Shelley is beautiful and it is a book I enjoy a great deal. It’s just that, generationally we are so far removed from that period of time and that language. It’s overly simplistic to accuse a lack of intellect when people have a hard time engaging with classic literature. It’s simply that for many, the process of engaging with a voice so far removed from us just isn’t worth the pay-off of what we get in the narrative. And for as simple as I’m sure many would dismiss books of our current era, I have to think that a hundred years from now, readers would have just as much trouble trying to get at the heart of what was being written. The key I see to my enjoyment of this book is how it manages to dust off the power of Shelly’s work and make it feel less like a literary artifact.
Tune in tomorrow for our review of Jack Wallen’s latest book, Frankenstein Theory. For now, check out this interview we conducted with him as well.
MM : Tell us a little about yourself and what put you on the road to being an author.
JW :I spent the first 30 years of my adult life as a professional actor. I was on the road, traveling across the country, from gig to gig, and finally landed at my current home state, where I performed for one of the largest theater for young audiences in America. During my ten years as a resident actor there, I realized that Actor’s Equity Association’s retirement plan was, in a word, sad. When that hit home, I knew I had to find something that could serve as a retirement.
Flash backward to graduate school (go, Purdue!) and I had a very tight-knit group of friends who played a lot of role playing games. We spent an entire year playing Vampire: The Masquerade. I became so connected with the character I played, I decided I wanted to continue his story. After leaving Purdue, I had no one around me to play with (sad panda), so I decided the best way to keep that character in my mind was to write out his story.
Turns out, I actually had a knack for verbiage. That story never saw the light of day (although I do still have the manuscript), but it kicked off my love for writing.
MM: How would you characterize your writing? Genre? Ideal audience?
JW: To sum up my writing is tough, because I write in so many genres. I tend to allow the Universe to instruct me what to write next, so I never know what genre I’ll be playing in. Outside of that, my writing tends to be intellectual and lyrical. I’ve always felt, as a writer, words are my tool to convey plot, character, relationship, ambiance, mood, style, rhythm … and so much more. And so, I use those words as a composer uses notes, a painter uses paint, or a sculptor uses a chisel and clay. To me, it’s artistic expression on a high level.
MM: A number of your books have connections with music. The Kitty in a Casket series as well as Punk Ass Punk. Music certainly plays a central role in Frankenstein Theory. How does your background as a musician and an actor inform your writing?
JW: It’s one of the things I hold most dear, as it helps me to understand things like point/counterpoint and rhythm. As an artist, one of the things I talk about a lot (when I teach) is a bit of music theory call non-harmonic tones. These are tones which color melody as it passes from phrase to phrase. It’s a bit of a stretch to use it with the written word, but there are ways – as in transitions from beat to beat, or scene to scene. Being able to blend those moments together with tension or resolution really brings the writing to a new level. Those “passing tones” help the characters to navigate the waters of plot with grace, precision, empathy, pain, wit … you name it. Outside of that rather esoteric notion, the use of rhythm is incredibly important to my writing. When I see paragraph after paragraph written as big blocks of text, I immediately see a writer who has no sense or understanding of the role rhythm in the written word. Most humans don’t speak or think in that manner … they think in spurts and sputters, intermixed with long, drawn-out thoughts. Writing should reflect that type of rhythm.
MM: I’m old enough that I can still just remember the end of the era when going to the movies was more of an event, almost on level with going to the theater. I see the Universal Monster Franchise as a great symbol of that era. What drew you to these stories?
JW: First of all, I adore those old black and white films. When I was a child, my favorite memories are watching the horror films of old. I couldn’t get enough of B-Horror and B-Scifi. I think there’s this layer of innocence to those films that allowed people to be so much more frightened of the unknown. These films brought to the celluloid table something no one had ever before seen, so even the original Frankenstein was able to frighten them to nearly fainting. Today, we’ve pretty much witnessed every possible horror and calamity that there is to behold, so there is no longer such thing as innocence in the cinema. The same thing holds true with books.
MM: How did Frankenstein Theory come to be, specifically?
JW: It actually started out as a short story. A gent reached out to me, saying he was going to be doing an anthology of short stories, based on the Universal Monsters. He gave me Frankenstein, and I decided to do a sort of prequel to the film … a sort of “What happened to lead up to Victor reanimating a human?” After submitting the short story, the gent had to abandon the project (for reasons unknown). I loved the story so much, I decided it needed to be fleshed out. That led to me taking on the story with the twist found in Frankenstein Theory.
MM: You seem to engage much more directly the contrast between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. How the morality of the Doctor seems to decrease as the morality of his creation seems to increase. Is this something that was on your mind as you wrote?
JW: Yes. One of the biggest themes in all of my horror writing is turning the mirror back on humankind, to illustrate how, left unchecked, we are the most horrific monster of all time. So I spend a lot of time in much of my work on that theme. Why? It serves as a way to help remind readers that we are only a twitch away from the monstrous … so keep yourself in check. Without keeping tabs on our morality, the human condition wants to spiral down into a rather dark abyss. It is that dance, I find, where so much horror gold can be mined.
MM: There is such a disconnect between Mary Shelly’s book and the way the monster is represented in the films that followed. Have you ever wondered how point A led to point B in this case?
JW: At the time, Hollywood believed Shelly’s book to be too intellectual for the standard audience. They couldn’t offer up a “monster” who was not only intelligent, but worthy of sympathy. The “monster” in the book speaks with an eloquence we don’t find in most villains (save for the likes of Hannibal Lecter). There is no way Hollywood could have placed the burden of sympathy on a character like the “monster” and turn the protagonist into a villain. In the book, the monster says “I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?” That is far too moralistically confusing for audiences of the period. Because of that, Hollywood opted to strip the monster of eloquence and make him hideous.
MM: Can we expect more from you in this series?
JW: Yes. I am about to release “Dracula Theory”, which does the same thing (for similar reasons) that I did with “Frankenstein Theory”. I also plan on continuing the series with the rest of the Universal Monsters and beyond. I love writing these types of period horror, because their tapestries are so rich and lush.
MM: The landscape out there for authors seems to experience constant tectonic shifts. What advice would you have for authors who are trying to get noticed?
JW: Patience, patience, patience. Back in 2014, it was reported that a new book went live on Amazon every five minutes. I would imagine that number to be exponentially higher now (more like 100+ every five minutes). That translates to a very large number of new books every day, which (in turn) translates to it being harder and harder (with each passing day) for authors to be seen. That means you have to work … hard. At what? Your craft. Make it your goal that the book you’re working on now is better than the book you previously finished. Never. Stop. Pushing. Yourself. Also, don’t adhere to someone’s advice as though it were gospel. Why? Just because it worked for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you. I have witnessed so many authors fail, simply because they were trying to recreate what succeeded for another. Pave your own way. Know the rules, break the rules, make your own rules. I’ve pretty much lived and died by that mantra, and it pays off.
The beat I march to is my own. Find yours and make it something glorious.
MM: Is there anything coming up for you on the horizon that you would like to share?
JW: As I mentioned, I have “Dracula Theory”, which is my take on Bram Stoker’s fabulous tale. My version is in the same period, but flips the whole narrative on its head. Besides that, I’m working on my first romance novel, called “Beautiful Complication”. This is far from a standard romance, so expect the unexpected. Beyond those two pieces, I have a “to be written” file that’s massive, so there’s never a lack for ideas.
I do believe this film is an example, not unlike Apocalypse Now, of a director becoming consumed by a project. I have no idea if Friedkin had a Coppola level breakdown, but from what the cast has had to say, he became quite invested in the success of the film. In one heightened incident, after extensive takes of not getting the emotional performance he wanted from an actor, he proceeded to slap him before a take. In the scene, as the priest delivers the last rites, you can see his hand shaking. This wasn’t a result of just his acting craft.
Say what you will about Friedkin’s tactics and behavior, but he managed to take this book and turn it into one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It is a tour de force that employs brilliant suggestion and foreshadowing that leads up to a terrifying confrontation.
I read Blatty’s novel recently and found it excellent as well. There isn’t a ton that strays from the film and I think it pays testament to how effective of an adaptation Friedkin managed to put together. The Exorcist fires on all levels and if by some chance you haven’t seen it, you should make all efforts to rectify that oversight as soon as possible.
In one week, the final chapter in Chad A. Clark’s apocalyptic trilogy will be released. It’s now available for pre-order. Are you curious? Interested in checking it out and don’t want to wait? Machine Mean has for you an exclusive look at the first chapter. Enjoy, and please considering pre-ordering, via the link at the end of this piece.
The dime was what first caught her attention.
As she walked along the street, Roxie caught a flash from the corner of her eye, glancing to her right to see sunlight reflecting off the small piece of metal on the ground. She slowed and veered towards the coin, bending down to pick it up. As she did so, her feet absurdly tangled and her balance began to slip. With a mocking laugh from within, she realized that there would be no way to prevent this as she held out her hands to try and brace herself, with nothing but open air to stop her. Two pedestrians offered their help in the form of deftly stepping out of the way when she fell, grunting as her shoulder hit the ground and possibly in an unconscious attempt to escape from reality, she allowed her momentum to carry her on as she rolled between two newspaper machines.
The world erupted in bright white light.
Roxie squeezed her eyes shut, putting her arms up over her head as a blast of heat flowed over her. There seemed to be a collective outcry as the ground shook, glass breaking all around. Car horns seemed to go off all at once, only to be immediately silenced as if from some higher power and above, tendrils of darkness stretched out into the sky.
“What the fuck?” She looked at the blood on the pavement, rubbing the side of her head at the unexpected warmth. It was like an oven door had been opened next to her head.
It took a moment for her to register the screams.
Ten feet away, two people were on the ground, kneeling and shrieking in clear agony. One woman had clamped hands to her face, blood seeping through clutching fingers. The other was trying to rise to his feet, blinking with bloodshot eyes, looking like they couldn’t draw a focus, screaming as he did so.
“I can’t see! Someone please help me, I can’t see!”
And as she looked up and down the street, there was more of the same. Either prone bodies littered across the ground or people doubled over in pain and confusion. She looked up to City Hall when her breath caught at the sight of the clouds roiling up into the rapidly darkening sky. There was no denying the sight of the mushroom cloud, something she had only previously seen in documentary footage.
The muttered protest was all she could think to do as she averted her gaze from the explosion, thinking of all the people around her who had evidently lost their vision. They writhed on the ground everywhere, plunged into their own pain and confusion. An odor of something burning was in the air and all she could wonder at was how she had managed to avoid being hurt herself. How she had the luck to not be looking into the sky when the detonation had happened. There were more vibrations under her feet and part of her wondered how long it would be before the ground itself split open.
“Hey!” The voice came from behind her as a hand landed firmly on her shoulder to drag her to the ground.
“What…what the hell are you—”
“Shut up and follow me. There isn’t time!” The tall, reedy man darted off through the crowd and as she struggled to keep up, she pulled up at the sight of him pulling on a manhole cover, stepping onto the ladder below. She detected a foul odor as she stepped closer, watching him descend. He snapped at her again, his tone leaving no room for debate. “Come on, we don’t have a lot of time!”
She shook her head at the insanity that somehow, climbing into the sewer with this stranger was almost more crazy than what she had just witnessed. The crashing report of a car colliding with a signpost across the street snapped her back to reality and she stepped onto the ladder.
“Who are you, do you know what’s—” Her question died on her lips as she stepped off the ladder and found her new friend stripping off his clothes and dropping them onto the concrete next to them. “What…the hell are you doing?” she asked him.
He shrugged as he continued to undress. “You know what that was, right? That was a nuclear explosion. That means your clothes are contaminated. You got to get them off. Careful not to get them in the water, though.”
Roxie glanced at the wide, man-made stream flowing past in the trench. She wanted to protest as every instinct screamed how insane it was to simply strip in the presence of this man. Still, if what he said was true, she had to do it. Pulling her clothes off, she looked over as he stood there, down to his bare ass and glancing off to the side as if he was trying not to watch.
“All of it,” he said, almost sounding apologetic. Roxie slipped out of her underwear and added it to the pile. Reaching down, he added her clothes to his but as he turned she had a sudden thought.
“Wait!” she cried out. He paused and turned back, clearly agitated, one foot already on the ladder. “Wait, my keys are in my pants pocket.”
He snorted and shook his head. “Kid, you aren’t going to be driving anywhere anytime soon.”
“No, you don’t understand, the key-chain!”
He reached into the pockets until he found the keys and held them up, looking but clearly not understanding.
“The key-chain!” she repeated. “That’s a picture of me and my brother. Please, I can’t lose that. Please give them back.”
He let out a slow breath before nodding and tossing them to her. She had a brief, terrified vision of missing and watching them slide into the water but she managed to catch them cleanly, clutching them to her chest while he scampered up the ladder. He threw the clothes up and out, coming back down after he had disposed of them.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got clothes where we’re going.”
“Christ,” Roxie muttered to herself. The guy acted like he hadn’t heard, leading her down the walkway along the water. At some point, he bent down and picked an object up off the ground. She heard a clicking sound and light emerged from the flashlight he now held. After what seemed like an eternity and as the echoing sounds of explosions above began to fade, he stopped abruptly and reached for a ladder. Her mouth gaped open as he stepped down and began towards the water.
“Don’t worry, it’s only about four feet deep and the current isn’t that strong. Just keep close to the side.”
“You want me to—”
“Come on! I promise we can talk all this over but we need to get to a safer place. Please just shut up and—”
“Okay! I’m coming, for fuck’s sake. Just hold on.”
The water was surprisingly cold as she eased into it. It came nearly up to her armpits but the foothold underneath was more secure than she had been expecting and it was relatively easy to move along the wall without losing control. From above, there were occasional tremors, followed by a shower of dust. All she could cling to was the hope that at any moment she would wake up, having had the most surreal dream.
“Come on. In here.” He stopped and turned into what looked like a small alcove. She could see the top of what looked like an arch of some kind but it seemed to be a solid wall, inset somewhat from the main tunnel.
“Okay,” he said, turning to her. “This is the point you’re going to have the hardest time with and I need you to trust me. Take my hand. Now what we’re going to be doing is going underwater and swimming straight ahead. I know it sounds crazy but just close your eyes, take in a deep breath and stay with me, all right?”
Roxie barely had time to nod before the light clicked off and they were going down. The water swirled up above her as they submerged and the world took on a tinny, hollow echo. They swam forward but the wall she had expected to find before them wasn’t there. Instead, they swam through a secondary tunnel that had been obscured by the water level. She had the vague thought that she wished he had told her how far it was going to be but they were already angling up.
As they broke the surface, she coughed out the moisture that had managed to seep in, looking up into the chamber they had just entered. The water went another ten feet before reaching a dead end. The room itself was shaped like an over-sized horseshoe, with the water at the center. At the very end, another ladder took them up to the platform, at least ten feet above.
“Wait for a minute,” he said as he climbed out of the water. He moved away, out of sight for a moment before returning with a towel, holding it up for her as she climbed. He averted his gaze as she wrapped it around herself and pointed off towards one of the walls. “There’s some clothes over there you can choose from. Sorry I don’t have more but it’s better than nothing.”
Roxie wasn’t interested in clothes, though. She looked around the chamber, seeing that there was no way in or out, other than the submerged tunnel they had just swam in through.
“What is this place?” she asked.
He shrugged in response. “I don’t really know. I found it about a year ago.”
“And you…you’ve been living down here?”
He smiled for the first time. “Beats the alternative at the moment, doesn’t it?”
“So…what the hell just happened? What are we going to do down here? Where are we…” She trailed off as she began to feel her breath running short. The questions flew into her head too quickly to articulate them.
“Let’s take that slowly and start simple, okay? I’m Jeff. What’s your name?”
“Roxie. I…why did you help me?”
It was the only question she could phrase from the stew of confusion brewing within her.
“Honestly, I don’t really know. Everything happened so fast but you had been lucky enough to not be looking into the blast and I…whoa, easy there!”
Before she could speak, she threw up what was left in her stomach, feeling her eyes dropping shut and the last sensation she could mark before darkness rushed in was pitching forward into his outstretched arms.
Click HERE to preorder today!
Way back in the day, when I was starting to get legs as a reader, while I had yet to find my way into the universes of Stephen King, my early sensibilities towards horror were already beginning to manifest in my love for one book in particular.
The House With a Clock in its Walls.
I think I was drawn initially to the fact that the hero of the story was a child, of roughly my age. But more than that, this was a child who felt out of place, like me. Like Lewis, I often found it easier to retreat to the comfort of books than to expose myself to the stress of trying to make and hold on to friends. I had recently moved to a new town as well and much of my life at that point was spent feeling out of place. I knew all too well the drive and desire to want to impress people and to set myself apart from the pack.
I was immediately drawn to the characters of Uncle Jonathon and Mrs. Zimmerman. They were great but beyond that I was also still at a point in my life when I looked up to adults and again, because I generally didn’t feel like my peers ever accepted me, I felt much more comfortable around adults.
I also loved magic. And magic was something this story was steeped in. But not the magic of Tolkien or CS Lewis. I think this was the first time I considered the possibility of magic in the context of a contemporary setting. I had never entertained the notion that a wizard need not come cloaked in robes and a tall hat. And that witches didn’t need to be accompanied by a cat, a cauldron and crystal ball. In this story, the witches and warlocks were also just the neighbors that lived up the hill from you.
John Bellairs did a great job making his books exciting and spooky, but never so high on the scare scale that I couldn’t handle it. His books had ghosts, dark magic as well as apocalyptic leanings but it was still in a format ideally to be consumed by an emerging reader. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his books had been some of the earlier influences taken in by a young JK Rowling.
As an adult, I found that the books had slipped from my recollection. I couldn’t remember the titles or the name of the author. All I could really remember was something about a young character moving in with an uncle. And magic. For years, this book held an almost mythical status in my imagination. The notion of it would rise up into my mind but with no way of really satisfying the urge. It was finally thanks to the internet that I was finally able to put the pieces together as someone on Facebook was able to steer my in the right direction.
John Bellairs and this book in particular were a part of my life again.
And the book has again risen to the national consciousness with the recent film adaptation. And while I was definitely skeptical of the notion of it being another Jack Black vehicle, I ended up enjoying it, quite a bit. There were some departures for sure, but that should always be expected. There were aspects to the film I would have liked to have seen done differently but I definitely felt the spirit of the book. Even Jack Black proved to be great as the enigmatic Uncle Jonathan and of course, Cate Blanchett was spectacular as Mrs. Zimmerman.
In all, a highly entertaining book, one that I am glad was a part of my development as a writer. It may be a bit on the mild side, especially with the older readers but it’s still a fine example of fun and spooky entertainment.
I decided to take a trip down amnesia lane and revisit an old classic with the Evil Dead, the movie that would launch both a franchise as well as (arguably) the career of Bruce Campbell.
I’ve always loved the punk rock, cult atmosphere around these films, for as much more attention as they have gotten in recent years with first the remake and then Ash vs Evil Dead. These films exuded what I have argued is crucial to the heart of great horror movies.
Practical special effects.
The thing that I consistently love the most about this movie is how it feels like it’s occupying an actual physical space. And despite the fact that the budget was so low, they did a phenomenal job making that practical space seem terrifying. Despite having very little backstory, preamble, prologue or exposition, I immediately felt the unease and discomfort around this cabin. Everything has an aged, worn- down look to it, as if the thing is rejecting life itself.
The people who were responsible for dressing the set were geniuses. Everything from the groaning and creaking of the wood, to the look and feel of the faded book which our heroes find, to the sound of rain dripping down through the ceiling and onto the floors. The basement was incredible, with buckets and tools clanking against each other, the sound of it all really brought you into this frightening place, more so than many other movies I’ve ever watched.
I think another area where the film excels is in that it proves that you don’t need make the development of a concept overly complicated. These aren’t difficult machines that we are putting together. It is entirely possible to scare people and engage with the viewer while at the same time laying down some fairly basic brushstrokes. We know nothing about this cabin or how this group of friends came to renting it. We don’t know what’s going on in those words or what the history of that location is. But with a few simple and basic scenes, the film manages to infuse a huge level of dread and foreboding in every set piece that comes onto screen.
All it takes is for our heroes to find a creepy looking book along with some tape recordings from who I assume used to live at the cabin. We have all the basics we need to figure out pretty much exactly what ends up going on for the rest of the film. And while we have an intellectual understanding of what’s happening, the fact that we don’t really have any clue what the hell is going on makes the story that much more captivating and scary.
This is certainly not without its flaws. I’m not going to stand here and try and trumpet some ridiculous song about how this is the pinnacle of modern cinema. The acting isn’t great, pretty much all around. And I realize that Bruce Campbell has achieved a certain level of adoration from his fans. Hell, I’m a fan of his as well, but it’s not like his acting is that dynamic. He plays a character and he’s great at it. His reputation and popularity is well deserved. But I don’t think anyone would mistake this movie for high-level craft. And I don’t think that was what they were going for. This is not meant to be a deep or insightful film. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to gross you out and scare you.
This is about the ride.
Evil Dead is the epitome of fun horror. The premise and the atmosphere are scary. The monster is implacable and disturbing and there are some beautifully cringe-worthy moments. It’s the kind of film that can stand on its own or can function as a part of a series. It’s not the peak of cinema but it’s the perfect movie to order a pizza and include as a part of a horror flick marathon.
For as low budget as this was, the film still works surprisingly well, even after all these years. It’s a movie of heart and soul and writhing guts that I often find to be a defining product of this time period, the likes of which I have rarely seen again, before or after.
The Sinister Horror Company has long since established itself as a source for outstanding fiction. I have been introduced to a number of fantastic authors, courtesy of their releases and they are one publisher in particular that I always keep a close eye on to see what might be coming next. The handling of the books has consistently been of the utmost care and respect and I always feel confident that my purchasing dollars are going to a good place whenever I support their authors.
One major centerpiece of the Sinister tabletop has been the anthology series, the Black Room Manuscripts. Having run over multiple editions and years, more amazing fiction than I could keep track of has graced the pages of these books, with a hefty amount of money going to charity on the back of the work of so many spectacular authors.
This year, the Black Room series has come to an end with volume four, the final installment. And Sinister Horror laid down a collection of great stories to go out in fine form. Overall, I found them to range from entertaining to staggering and it reminded me of what I have loved about the series (that I have read), that the stories contained in these collections make a point of straying from the convention and striking out into narrative territory that is maybe a bit less tackled by other authors and publishers. I have always held that there isn’t really that much new to be done out there and that the important issue is the talent of the writer. Despite my holding to this conviction, this book still manages to feel at moments like writing I have never seen before.
If I had any critical comments to make about the book, it would be that some of the stories felt a bit on the ambitious side for the length they had to work with. There were a number of stories where, when I reached the end I was kind of surprised and disappointed to find that there weren’t a few more pages to contexualize everything. But even taking this issue into consideration, even those stories where I wished the ground felt a little firmer underneath me, I still found plenty in the prose to enjoy. The journey of words in all of these stories were enjoyable to experience. I think it’s normal and should be expected with any anthology that some stories aren’t going to work as well for you as others. It’s just the nature of the beast. A story that I might not respond to could be the one that splits the skies open for someone else. You never know.
So with those prefacing statements, I felt it would be appropriate in recognition of this great achievement from Sinister that I go through the book and offer up my thoughts on each individual story. And I want to make sure it is clear how much I would like to pass along my compliments to all the individual contributors to this book. You are of a quality we all should aspire to and the work you contributed here is well deserving of all praise and honor.
THAT THING I DID, by TRACY FAHEY
This was about as powerful an opening to an anthology as I may have seen. It’s the kind of story where you aren’t really sure where things are going until the last few moments when all you can do is bask in the heightened tragedy of the whole thing. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t have to have stereotypical horror elements to make a story terrifying. You don’t need monsters or ghosts.
Sometimes the horror is found in the circumstances.
This story is short but it uses the small space to build a ton of character history and emotional punch. The pacing is perfect and there are just enough crumbs to indicate what’s about to happen. And there is a perfect moment where you almost unconsciously say to yourself, “No, this isn’t going there, is it?”
Of course it’s going there.
EATING THE DREAM, by K.A. LAITY
This one was more of a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I thought the concept of the story was interesting and that a lot of history was packed into a small amount of space. On the other hand, though, I also had a harder time engaging in the story and I kind of wish certain narrative parameters had been more clearly established, earlier on.
The language of this piece is incredibly gorgeous. The tactile imagery and sensations in the story were about as intense and effective as I have seen in a book in a long time. Passages like “The lights of a small town are just right, a bouquet of neon, headlights, and flickering fluorescence. Makes me feel pretty” or “The main transaction is between loneliness and cash”. Lines like that just take me off my feet and remind me about what language can be and why I love doing this in the first place. So many turns of phrase that are just awesome and the poetry of the setting is so powerful, I might just be happy reading it off into the horizon, like the longest Tom Waits song ever written.
All that aside, I did find it harder to pick up on what was going on in the story and where things were going. And please don’t let this arbitrary note deter you from reading this because it’s entirely possible that the problem is with my dumb brain. All I can say is that I think the story could have been stronger if we had known a little more concrete information about not just this universe but also the narrator. It’s a tough challenge here because while using the first person cuts us off from a lot of potentially useful information that a third-person narrative voice could provide, being able to hear the character’s train of thought is really important. Perhaps a hybrid between the two would have worked.
In all, an interesting story that I found compelling for what it seemed to be offering. I just would have liked it to have been executed slightly differently.
A CLEAR DAY IN A SEASON OF STORMS, by SIMON AVERY
This was a cool story with a premise that really rattled around in my brain pan for some time after reading it. And sadly, there is very little I can say about it without spoiling the details of the plot. I shall do the best I can.
The story is centered around a married couple who have clearly seen better times in terms of their relationship. As we open, we see them having seemingly reached the realization that even their fairly extreme ideas to try and improve their marriage have failed and as the reader, my immediate assumption was that they were likely finished with each other.
The table is upturned by the introduction of a stranger (I know, cue Ms. Agatha Christie with the sudden thunderstorm and a dark visitor in the rain slicker). If you can look past the superficial, you will find a story that is unique in its scope and execution. I was fascinated by this new character and with how quickly he took on a tone of familiarity with this couple. I’m a sucker for any kinds of stories about the sea and as with the previous tale in this volume, the atmosphere and setting of this is phenomenal.
Great characterization, plot and description. And a great reminder that just because a story has supernatural elements, it doesn’t necessarily have to be horrific.
THE HANGING BOY, by GARY MCMAHON
This was a fun story. I really enjoy it when an author allows a narrative to thrive on a surrealistic landscape and doesn’t make a ton of effort to explain away or justify it. This tale is definitely an example of that, a normal, average day that quickly transitions to anything but. It was a situation for a character of which I had no understanding but was definitely engaged in wanting to know more. Some of the language and dialogue really reinforced the idea with me that this was a kind of modern day fable.
I think it casts an interesting light on the subject of perspective and how our mind can sometimes allow us to see the world in times of stress. In other words, maybe we can’t always trust our own senses if, on a subconscious level we are trying to shield ourselves from what’s really happening.
Plenty of stories will take the tactic of shifting and changing your perspective on everything but I found this one to be particularly clever about it. An interesting and enjoyable read.
MAM’S GIRL, by J.L. GEORGE
I’ll be completely honest and admit that this one went past me a little. But I definitely enjoyed the intrigue of the tale and in trying to unravel what was going on. And perhaps more importantly, the story got me thinking.
It made me ponder the experience of getting old and how we can end up retreating into our own consciousness, to the point where maybe we interact with our own memories. Could those memories actually be self-aware as they swirl around us in the ether? Is it possible that the moment of our death is that in which all those disparate elements are finally brought back together?
Not to do with the story. But it’s the mental journey I was sent on.
TEARS OF HONEY, by JOHN MCNEE
With an opening line like, “For what is pleasure, but an evolution of pain?”, it’s hard for me to not go in with my brain in a Clive Barker kind of mindset. And this is a completely unfair standard to set for a story but unfortunately, that was what was colored expectations from the start.
I was thrilled to find that the story completely delivers on this implied expectation that I had created for myself. l loved the notion of this group of individuals coming together for the purposes of exploring paranormal phenomenon. It isn’t clear at first what they are going to be doing but the tone of the piece kept me engaged throughout.
And for me, what sets Clive Barker aside is how he weaves his dramatic visual canvas on which to draw. This carries over nicely as McNee delivers some imagery that is profoundly disturbing.
if I had any critical note, I would say that the story at the start steps aside from the main narrative to offer up backstory. It provides some insight into the characters that I didn’t think was necessary. I wasn’t really sure where things were going at that point and I thought that section could have been condensed quite a bit.
DECIPHER, by DANIEL MARC CHANT
I think what I found really cool about this was the shifting in time and perspective and how, while narrative modes like this could have created more confusion around the mystery of the plot, Chant manages to layer everything perfectly. I loved the interaction between this couple and seeing how the relationship became so fractured.
Chant does a good job getting into the minds of the characters and using them to craft an engaging story. He did a good job showing the increasing obsession of the wife and demonstrating how this leads to her revelation about her husband that drives the drama underlying in the piece. It all works up to a brilliant ending, one of the stronger ones in the collection, in my opinion. The questions aren’t all necessarily answered and maybe we aren’t left really knowing which one of the couple is more of the monster but I kind of like how that is left open-ended. While some stories leave making me feel like there needs to be more filler to the core of the plot, this moves quickly and is compelling enough to make me really love it in the form it is in.
TAP, TAP, by MARIE O’REGAN
This one had a beautifully creepy atmosphere to it. While dolls aren’t exactly new when it comes to the content of horror fiction, there always exists the possibility of taking something routine and making it great. I think that is what O’Regan has done here, in brilliant form.
The pacing of was near perfect as I had no desire to put it down at any point while I read it. The tension is real and palpable as the story moves along, which isn’t easy in any kind of story length. I don’t want to give too much away but the experiences of this woman and her mother quickly escalate from curious to simply terrifying. I’m not generally bothered by horror fiction but some of the imagery in my head at the end of this piece definitely had me feeling unsettled. It’s a perfect example of a creative drive that we should all aspire to. It’s a fantastic idea, delivered with tremendously talented writing. This was one of my favorites from the collection.
BLACK SILK, by BENEDICT J. JONES
Benedict Jones has long since demonstrated his abilities as a great storyteller and he brought his full game to bear in this finale for the Black Room Manuscripts. After a quick start, Jones does a superb job developing tension in this with a great sense of movement to the plot, foreshadowing something terrible yet to come.
I loved the mystery behind this character as she learns more about herself and her past. And the situation she has to live with is pretty sympathetic, a sympathy which Jones will challenge as the story goes on. Everything winds down to a turn at the end that I didn’t see coming and I thought worked extremely well.
This story is a perfect example of how things aren’t always what they seem and before you pass judgment on anyone, it’s important to work your way through, all the way to the end.
DRAGGED DOWN, by RAMSEY CAMPBELL
This was a cool little tale that seemed to be going for a number of different angles at the same time. On one hand, I liked the creepy vibe around the nature of a local tunnel and the various stories that the characters come up with, surrounding it. Is this just a case of characters being asked to mine their own imaginations and making something more than it really is? Or does the tunnel in question actually bear some darker aspects that we can’t really understand?
I have seen a number of stories over the years about the phenomenon of tunnels that have the power where you can be affected somehow if you dare to venture through to the other side. Doing great horror is often about taking something mundane and making it into something unsettling and I think Campbell does this well.
I also appreciated how the dynamics between classmates was represented here. I think it takes a bit more work and guts to portray children as the bullies they can be and demonstrating how a hostile environment can swell into something horrifically worse.
In all, very entertaining and I’m glad I got the chance to read this.
PLACE OF THE DAMNED, by C.L. RAVEN
This was a fun story that managed to pack a lot of action into a short amount of time and space. The premise of exploring a long vacant castle is certainly nothing new, responsible for so much of the gothic imagery we associate with horror anymore. The vibe I felt in this was really similar to what I got from Dusk ‘til Dawn in which there is a definitive line that separates two starkly different aspects of the story. To start out, we have a fairly light-hearted sort of ghost story but this quickly descends into something much more serious. Once the action kicks in, it doesn’t let go.
If I had any complaint it would probably be that I didn’t think the whole ghost hunters angle was needed for the story. It didn’t really add anything crucial to the overall vibe of the piece and if anything, it felt slightly more like ground I have walked a few too many times. Still, while these aspects may have been present, I still found the execution of the story to be top rate, a good, fun read.
BROOKS POND, by MARK WEST
I’m always grateful for anthologies like this for opening my experience to new authors but obviously I also like seeing what work the names I’m familiar with have laid down. I have been a fan of Mark West for several years now and I think he excels at crafting beautiful atmosphere and characters. His work on Brooks Pond is no exception.
We have come to expect it anymore that in stories like this, our expectations will be played on a little and that by the end of the story, we get to see how misled we had been throughout. West does a great job in spinning the tables around and giving all the characters a grim turn in terms of how we see them. And after all of that, he manages somehow to give one character in particular an even darker turn than he had already. Not really a double twist but certainly a clarification of just how dark and depraved some characters can be.
PLANNING PERMISSION, by HANNAH KATE
Write a horror story involving urban planning.
I feel a bit ridiculous even writing that out but somehow this is what Hannah Kate managed to accomplish with this one. And I think it’s a great example of how you can take narrative devices that have been used often and freshen them by putting them into a new context.
Despite being fairly heavy-handed with the exposition at times, I found the mystery to be engaging and interesting. And even though I had an inkling of where things were going, the quality of the prose and skill in the crafting kept me hanging on to the last paragraph.
SHRIVELED TONGUES OF DEAD HORSES, by ERIK HOFSTATTER
I really loved this one, despite the fact that for the first half or so I hadn’t a clue what the hell was going on. Still, the imagery was incredibly vivid so I hung tight. Then, about halfway through, the story came together and began to actually make sense. And then with the final line, we get the rug pulled out and we are once again floundering without a tether. I suspect I could read this six times and come away with six different interpretations.
DEATH WISH, by MARGARÉT HELGADÓTTIR
Mixed feelings somewhat on this. On one hand, I love that we are dropped right into the middle of things and the heart of the story is almost immediately present. On the other, I also would have liked to have had a little more information on the universe this takes place in, of traumas experienced by the protagonist that seem to weigh heavily but are maybe sketched a bit lightly.
Beyond this minor issue, the execution of the story works really well. I liked the sense of confused familiarity between the narrator and the girl he chooses to help. From the start you have a sense that something beyond the obvious is going on and the story does a good job layering the plot out ahead of you.
I kind of wanted more at the end but it closes with a solid last line and some creepy imagery to go along with it.
SIZE ISNT EVERYTHING, by JAMES EVERINGTON
I enjoyed this story, mostly for the atmosphere and the description. I felt like I was sitting in that car for most of the time, the writing was so vivid and evocative. I also would have liked a little more clarity at the ending, just tilting the narrative cards down a little bit more so we can get a better look at them.
That aside, the atmosphere and creeping dread that is present throughout the story is brilliantly done. There’s an intriguing pace to the story as the protagonist finds himself exploring the confines of an abandoned apartment.
Tons of dark foreshadowing, which I am a fan of. And also an incredibly inventive monster, if you want to call it that. Quite Lovecraftian in its design but with maybe even more sci-fi kind of aspects.
PAIN HAS A VOICE, by STEPHEN BACON
Really brilliant. A great examination of the emotional struggles of a child who has to come to terms with the death of a parent as well as the introduction of a new parental figure who may be quite a bit less suited as a parent.
As a writer and a lover of books who also has kids, I appreciated the notion of books being used as a conduit that can connect kids to their parents.
And although the story is pretty grim in the details of the plot, I also found it a nice way of demonstrating a child’s development of inner strength, possibly to the point of standing up to his abusive step-father. Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing the origin story for a psychopath. And the ultimate irony here is that both of those statements could easily be true.
The reality of great fiction is that just because a character is sympathetic, it doesn’t inherently make them a good person. This story really hammered home that point for me.
SWIMMING OUT TO SEA, by PENNY JONES
This one spoke to me as it took place in an environment that felt comfortable to me. It reminded me of summers at Lake Michigan and wading out into deeper waters than we probably should have been allowed. I’ve felt the uncertain pressure under my feet and around my ankles as they are sucked into the sand, always wondering about the fabled rip-tide that could drag you out to sea.
This story is pretty bonkers as it unfolds and it’s a brilliant examination of a persons state of mind and how perceptions can be warped or misled. Jones does a great job leading the reader along, right there with the protagonist, only to have the floor yanked out in due course.
This was a cool sequence of events as this character’s peril just seems to increase with each passing moment. And it leaves you in a powerful moment at the ending.
REANIMATION CHANNEL, by MARK CASSEL
Probably another one of my favorites from the book. The premise of this is incredibly inventive and crafted out to a high degree. And just when I thought I couldn’t get more impressed with the concept behind the plot, it just went and got even crazier and more creative. Somehow, he has managed to take a fairly grizzly monster story and fused it with a kind of tech-y, almost science-fiction feel to it. The mystery is effective and the plot is laid out perfectly to create just the right level of action, mystery and suspense.
It all builds up to an ending that is probably one of the more emotionally satisfying ending points I’ve seen in a story. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as the concept for this was worked out because I was really impressed with the level of skill that went into crafting a story such as this. Give it a read. And keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go online to do some serious gaming.
CRAFT AIL, by DUNCAN BRADSHAW
This was an incredibly fun and entertaining story. I have read a number of Bradshaw’s works, from his books to his shorter stories and I am always impressed with the breadth of content in his writing. By no means is this a writer who takes on the same subject matter time and time again. And yet, despite the difference in subject, the style always seems to be uniquely his. It’s hard to strike a totally unique tone in your writing but I think Duncan Bradshaw has done quite a bit in this regard.
This story is bonkers, right out of the gate and with very little exclamation you are dumped into the middle of the craziest situation you could probably imagine in a story. And somehow, without giving a ton of backstory, he still manages to make all of this craziness seemed completely normal. I had a lot of fun trying to disentangle what was going on and what direction the story was going in.
Bradshaw exercises a deft slide in perspective in this, moving from one character to a completely new one at about the midpoint of the story. And while, by all rights this shouldn’t have worked, it serves to function in the story perfectly. The dark and violent notes of the opening are only smoothed over by the humor and absurdity of the second half.
Definitely one of the high points of the collection for me.
ZWIGLI’S LAST PAPER, by ELIZABETH DAVIS
I’m feeling a fair amount of guilt when it comes to this one and it is for this story that I think I have had the most difficult time phrasing how I feel about it. Because I think it’s clear how much time and attention and craft that went into the construction of this story. This is not some paper-thin narrative that someone threw together and patched up with some packing tape. I can only imagine the Herculean effort it would have taken to both conceive of and execute this
It just isn’t for me.
Ultimately, I just feel like there isn’t enough context for the story, told in a mostly epistolary fashion. The mode of the narrative made me think quite a bit about Lovecraft’s At The Mountain Of Madness, or even Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The problem for me was that I didn’t understand what was happening around the existence of these writings. I didn’t really know why I was reading it or what this person had done to warrant the collection of her writings. Ultimately, there was just too much work for me to engage with this and I was not successful. And I take full responsibility for this. The failing here is mine, not the author.
I would strongly encourage you to give the story a go. Plenty of people will be able to find a connection here that I have not.
LAUREL, by TERRY GRIMWOOD
This was a well paced and written piece of historical fiction. It’s a skill set I have never had and I’m always impressed with writers who can do such a good job putting a narrative so authentically into an era lost to all of us. It’s easy to just say that a story is set in the past, it’s another entirely to avoid the anachronistic and make a piece feel like it’s oozing the time period it’s set in. It was an exciting read.
It’s also an example of what I have said of the book overall, that this was one that I would have liked to have seen with a slightly more firm ending to it. The frame story in this felt less successful to me and I’m not really sure why, other than it seemed to not function as well as a part of a coalesced work of fiction.
Still, a fantastically layered story. Kind of a mashup of Lovecraft and the Great Escape.
TIDE WILL TELL, by V.H. LESLIE
This is a beautifully written piece with a lot of great descriptions. I felt like the tactile descriptions of the environment of the story was done to near perfection and this river sounded like one that I might be walking or jogging along. I also liked the glimpses we got at the relationship of the married couple in this story as I know first-hand how stressful it can become in a relationship when going through the process of trying to have a child. I don’t know if this was something intended by the author. I kind of doubt it but this is one aspect I took away from it.
Centered around a man who comes across a sack floating in the river, sure for a moment that he sees something moving in there. Or did he? I’m not really sure. I would have liked to have seen a little more context for these characters. But even though I suspect the heart of the story went over my head a little, the reading was quite pleasurable, in a fictional landscape that felt familiar and comfortable.
THE LAST HORROR, by JR PARK
Great tale to close out the collection. The layering of the story was a joy to try and read through, with perspectives shifting and dropping out brilliantly. In this, we have a writer trying to figure out a story about a writer who is also trying to write a story. And while on the surface, this may seem destined for disaster, the vibe of the story is brilliant. At times I found myself wondering if any of this was real or if the narratives I was seeing merely existed in the middle layers of a sort of literary nesting doll. How many more layers are there, both above and below? To take that even further into the rabbit hole, in some higher level universe is there someone reading a book about me reading a book about a writer writing about a writer?
Like a great Lynch film, this is a story best experienced driving through without a roadmap. Setting your preconceptions too firmly would likely only serve to detract from the experience. It was a narrative that had me thinking for long after I got to the final lines and for much longer after.
And that’s a wrap on both this review as well as this series of fantastic anthologies. I would like to extend my thanks to the folks at Sinister Horror for the outstanding work they continue to put out and for being a bright and tragically underappreciated light in this industry. This has been a great series and the world of horror fiction has only served to benefit from them, all four volumes.
Do yourself a favor and give some of your time for a deep and heavy book that will entertain and open your mind to narrative possibilities you may have never considered before.
This past year seems to have a common theme of me finally getting around to Robert McCammon books that I should have read in high school. Last year I finally cracked the cover on Swan Song and loved it. Now, this year the choice appears to have been Usher’s Passing. And again the result is me wanting to reach back through time and give the teenage version of myself a good slap.
To start, I’ll admit that I haven’t read Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher, another error I should probably correct. My point in bringing it up is that I can’t really speak to the relevance of McCammon’s book to Poe’s work.
This is a stunning book. There is so much history and depth to the narrative, much more than anything I have read in a long time. I would probably place this up there with some of the massive tomes like Swan Song, The Stand, IT, stories that just seem to keep getting larger and at no point do you feel like any of it is excessive. McCammon makes this massive book feel digestible by making the characters completely dynamic and compelling. These are people who I am interested to learn more about and to see where the currents of the story will take them. This is a real family with real history and all I wanted was just more pages.
What’s more, McCammon brilliantly lays out the tension between his main character and his family, after turning his back on their legacy of arms development. A decision that has cost him the massive amounts of money he would likely inherit otherwise, had he not been a cog in the wheel. I loved the emotionally antagonistic father who finds himself in the position of having to reach out for help from a son who has turned on him. Also, the sniveling brother who clearly thinks highly of himself, much more than most of the family. Add a further complication with a sister who is frequently traveling abroad and you have a recipe for perfect levels of conflict that can fester in a family.
Description and atmosphere are also outstanding in this book. Reading this is like sitting down to a really great meal that you don’t want to end. The chef might be going off in all different directions that interest them but every turn seems like the perfect decision.
There’s a lot going on at the same time but McCammon doesn’t seem to have any difficulty keeping so much in the air. He executes the story on many different levels and he clearly put in the necessary groundwork that was needed to write this. There is the history of the family but also the history of the area and the people who live on the mountain around the family estate. It’s a massive amount of work that he managed to make accessible and organized.
The drama is done well and not at all cliché. The tension is real and the elements of horror that work their way into the book are disturbing. There are some frightening monsters in this as well as an abandoned house that raises some chills as well. There were some brilliantly creepy moments throughout, all delivered with the McCammon level of intensity and power.
And I suppose the best possible compliment I can give to a book is that it made me feel inspired to go read another book. I should probably stop hedging and follow through on my so-called “interest” in reading Poe’s story. If nothing else, it could only serve to enhance the context of McCammon’s book. And then, of course, once I read Poe’s story it would give me a convenient excuse to go back once more through the doors of the house of Usher.