By Michael Sieber
Melancholy Falls doesn’t sound like a nice place to visit, and I wouldn’t want to live there.
Because there’s a lot of weird stuff going on there.
How about the mayor turning into a rat and having to govern while in that state for a start?
And that’s just the beginning — literally.
Interludes from Melancholy Falls Vol. 1 by Jeff Heimbuch is a book of short stories and vignettes about the odd happenings and weird people in the town of Melancholy Falls.
In this book, you get to know some of the residents of this town, and while you can read this book as a standalone and come away with something, it’s meant to be a companion piece to the podcast Return Home also by Heimbuch.
Return Home plays much like the old radio dramas from a long time ago. Interludes from Melancholy Falls Vol. 1 according to Heimbuch is a way to flesh out some of the characters listeners hear during the show. While it’s a companion piece to the podcast, Heimbuch says one doesn’t need to be a listener to the show to enjoy the book, and I agree.
The book reads as if you stumbled upon files that an investigator keeps as they’re investigating a mystery. Some stories are transcripts from recordings, some are confessions, and others read like poems. At first, the book seems like it’s just weird for weirdness sake, but reading through these pieces, one gets a sense that there’s an odd thread like a rancid connecting tissue loosely tying everything together.
Once you get to the end of that thread, though, you’re left with more questions, as if the investigation stopped, or picks up later, which it does on the podcast.
While the book isn’t about any one character or event, I do get a sense of sadness (melancholy) that runs through each story, and while I wouldn’t classify the book as straight horror, there are horrific elements to be found.
You have the mayor mentioned above who turned into a rat only to be replaced in a special election by a candidate who’s incorporeal.
Then there’s the case of a man whose wife died because of some weird religion called Bileth.
And there’s the mysterious and murderous Woman of the Falls, for whom the town was named.
While I can’t say it’s a merry romp through Melancholy Falls — that pit you get in your stomach when you start stays with you when you’re finished — I can say fans of the weird will be entertained. It’s a quick read with most stories being two to five pages.
Heimbuch says that Volume 2 may come out at the beginning of their fourth or fifth season of the podcast; they’re in season three at the time of this writing.
If you’re a fan of the bizarre, Interludes from Melancholy Falls Vol. 1 satisfied, but you’ll likely want more.
Strange and suspicious, this; following from the less-than-successful Scarlet Gospels, a prequel to Barker's closure of the Hellraiser franchise came out of nowhere and seems to have been surreptitiously slipped into the market without much fanfare or celebration.
No longer marketed as being written by Barker himself, this instalment is purportedly written by Mark Miller, one of the ghost-writers of The Scarlet Gospels and one who has worked with Barker on various comic book projects before now.
An expensive curiosity, following the overall disappointment of The Scarlet Gospels, I was reluctant to lay down the asking price for this book, out of sincere dread of being soured further on the franchise.
But, curiosity and a -perhaps misplaced- loyalty to the franchise led me to pre-order it, devouring it in its entirety on the day it arrived.
First thing's first: whilst extremely small (the book barely warrants being called a novella), it is beautifully produced, with a lush and exquisite jacket, excellent quality paper and binding; a physical product of quality one would expect, given the asking price.
It is also very, very, very small. I was certainly not expecting something of the length of The Scarlet Gospels, but maybe at least half that.
A matter which is of little significance, if the story itself is of sufficient quality (Barker's Tortured Souls: Tales of Primordium is of similar size, but a fantastic read).
For my part, this marks the end of my association with this franchise. I don't think anyone currently operating with reference to it, in film or written fiction, grasps what made it so successful in the first place; where the core of its appeal lies. Furthermore, I do not believe that anyone involved with it harbours any genuine enthusiasm on their own part for it.
The book purports to follow Kirsty Cotton, protagonist of the original Hellraiser (most certainly the film incarnation, not the Hellbound Heart novella) in the decades following her experiences with The Lament Configuration, the Cenobites etc, in which she finds herself constantly on the run, having to change lives and identities so as to avoid the forces and agents of Hell, who are consistently interested in her.
Unfortunately, the book simply isn't long or fulsome enough to make anything of this. Like Harry D'Amour in The Scarlet Gospels, Kirsty feels truncated and breathless and “hurried along,” as though the writer wants to get the domestic details out of the way and get down to the weirdness and horror of it all.
This is particularly problematic when you consider that there was a Hellraiser comic book series not too long ago which told exactly the same story, but did so with far more nuance, intrigue and respect for the original mythology, that portrayed both Kirsty and “Pinhead” (here more often refered to as “The Cold Man”) in a more complex and engaging light.
There's just nothing here; nothing to immerse or anchor the reader; it relies far, far too much on fan-association and brand loyalty, hoping that the inclusion of characters familiar to the reader will make up for a lack of depth or detail in the writing.
Kirsty Cotton, protagonist of the first two Hellraiser films makes a return as a harassed and hunted woman, perpetually forced to abandon the lives she manages to scavenge together in the aftermath of her experiences with the uncanny for fear of its agents discovering her.
This, in itself, might have been the basis for something interesting; it would have leant the book some much needed depth and detail to explore who Kirsty was, is and has been throughout her myriad incarnations, what encounters she has had with the agents of Hell and other forces. A fascinating format is inherent to the idea: the book would have had so much more raw intrigue and engagement were we introduced to Kirsty not as Kirsty, but maybe one of the myriad roles and masks she has occupied in her time since Hellbound.
Instead, all we have are allusions to her past and current condition; very little that anchors or makes the character interesting beyond the too-heavily-relied-upon context of the films. She is very much just a cypher for the story in this instance, which is extremely thin and provides little in the way of illumination or elaboration on the events of The Scarlet Gospels.
The book is somewhat flaccid, but not terribly offensive, until the point that “The Cold Man” makes his appearance.
Given the book's brevity (it barely constitutes a novella; many of Lovecraft's “short stories” are far longer), there isn't enough time to build up the threat or ethos of Hell; Kirsty's few encounters with the outre or bizarre are pleasing enough, in their own surreal ways, but more like paintings than parts of an on-going narrative: images that exist for their own sakes, with little weight or context to lend them relevance.
As such, “The Cold Man” and Hell itself lack impact, when they finally occur:
Introduced far too early, this is very, very much the Cenobite we know from The Scarlet Gospels and the latter films, lacking any and all of the majesty, ambiguity and poetry that leant him intrigue in his original incarnations.
There is something powerfully off about this particular rendition of the Cenobites: they are far too limited, too physical and verbose; far too emotional to maintain any weight or dignity: “The Cold Man” is brought low by nothing more than a claw hammer and responds to physical violence as though he is a far more fragile and mortal entity than the one portrayed in films, the original novella and the extended universe. He suffers pain, he experienes wounds, he is moved to anger and expressions of violent petulance.
It's almost as though the writer(s) hate this character, hate this mythology, and want the readers to hate them, too, so go out of their ways to undo anything ambiguous, complex or engaging about them:
Hell is Hell, and it is a place where demons and bad people reside. “The Cold Man” is a demon who could be swapped out for any such entity from any vaguely metaphysical work of horror you might name: there is nothing to distinguish him here or make him a half way engaging character. Kirsty is just another in a long line of plucky potential victims that ends up turning the tables (in a manner that does not work; it feels strained, as though the writer didn't know how to manoeuvre her out of the situation he placed her in).
The encounter between “The Cold Man” and Kirsty could have been one for the ages: something that fans have been clamouring for arguably since Hellbound (yes, I know they meet again in one of the latter bits of “straight to DVD” dreck, and no, it doesn't count). Instead, it's awkward, fumbling and, most notable of all, insincere. It doesn't feel as though the writer believes in this story; it feels like something that has been cobbled together, possibly from portions excised from the final draft of The Scarlet Gospels, and sold as a complete work (for a HEFTY price tag, I might add).
Furthermore, this story has already been told: as previously mentioned, a recent series of Hellraiser comics does this exact concept far deeper justice, in which the mythology of Leviathan's Hell is maintained (and elaborated), in which core characters from the franchise get to have some exposure (and even resolution), in which “The Cold Man” is not only intriguing, but marvellously complex: swapping out his place in the hierarchy of Hell for a return to his mortal life as Elliot Spencer, with Kirsty Cotton taking on his mantle and the panoply of pins. It's a fascinating role-reversal, and is far more consistent with the original mythology and its ethos, far better written and more diverting than this.
It's all very hum drum; simultaneously pandering and entirely ignorant of what has sustained this franchise through corporate shit and shennanigans that should have buried it long, long ago.
For my part, in context with the undoubtedly hideous Hellraiser: Judgment (read our review if it here) , this marks my termination point with a series I have adored since I was a child. The original films, The Hellbound Heart novella, will always be significant to me; they will always be powerful influences on my imagination and the subject matter it produces.
But, as for anything that occurs from this point on, I will make a deliberate point of not purchasing it, not consuming it, for fear that it taints my affection even for those artefacts.
I’ve got a bit of a King backlog. I’m not one of those late period naysayers, either - I adored Mr. Mercedes and Under The Dome, and flat out loved Finders Keepers. But Dr. Sleep and 11/22/63 sit on my shelf from last but one birthday, spines uncracked, and the above collection, End Of Watch, and Gwendy and Sleeping Beauties have all been added to the pile this Christmas.
2017 was not a great year for reading, for me, and I’ve resolved that 2018 will be better - largely because I’m going to read only the things I seek out, rather than ‘duty reading’, which I think slowed me down last year. It’s already working, and I’m happy with how much I’ve read in January, and how much I’ve enjoyed it. Hopefully, it’ll generate a few more of these, too :)
With all that in mind, I was long overdue a trip to the Bazaar, King’s most recent short story collection. I’m a huge fan of King’s short work. I enjoy his doorstop volumes as well, of course, but I think that his short work is never less than compulsively readable, and often outright sublime. So I was very keen to see how the latest collection panned out.
There’s a beautiful introduction, where King discusses the short form in general (and interestingly confesses he doesn’t much like to write it, as a rule). Further, in a break with prior collections, there’s a short piece at the beginning of each tale, talking a bit about the inspiration and origins, should he be able to recall them. As a long term fan I enjoy these anecdotes almost as much as the stories themselves - occasionally, if I’m honest, perhaps a little more - but I think, on reflection, that I prefer them collected at the end of the book rather than preceding each story. They gave too much away, for me, that’s all - either by preparing me for the voice or broad themes, or in some cases by basically presenting the premise of the tale. This is a classic mileage may vary thing, of course, but I found myself wishing I’d skipped the prefaces and just plunged into the stories, taking in the notes afterwards. Again, they are lovely, and often very illuminating pieces in their own right - but yeah, could have done without them as lead ins.
The collection itself I found to be a very mixed bag - more mixed than prior collections, and with a more variation of voice, style, and quality that I’m used to. Mile 81, the opener, is a good example - there’s a lot of classic King elements, especially the child characters, who are drawn note perfectly. At the same time, the central premise is… well, goofy. Not bad - just goofy. And it’s King, and he sells it as well as he can, and you know how good that is, but still… Despite some beautiful character work, this one just didn’t quite land, for me.
Premium Harmony I liked a good deal more - it’s almost a vignette rather than a narrative, but the exquisite character work is perfectly sympatico with a sparse voice, and while the whole thing is intentionally dry, I felt the story really hummed. It’s atypical King, for sure, but really well crafted.
Batman and Robin Have An Altercation is another character study, and the first of a few ruminations on the aging process. The slow fade goodbye of Alzheimer's - always far rougher on the family than on the sufferer - is unflinchingly presented, but I felt the climactic incident of the story, though well described and portrayed, felt a bit rushed and perfunctory. Or maybe it just felt to me like the heart of the piece was elsewhere. I also felt this one suffered particularly from the front note, as it not only gave away a large part of the ending, but also led to a sense of anticipation that was ultimately underwhelming - or at least, it was for me.
The Dune features another aging protagonist, this one with all his marbles, and a secret obsession. Again, the front note blunted some of the enjoyment for me, which was irritating, but the story itself is a beautiful little slice of sinister whimsy.
Bad Little Kid is a stonker - Death Row, with the condemned finally opening up about the real reason he’s there, this is a classic King short - nasty, disturbing, and with that crucial unexplained quality that I really enjoy in tales of this length. Nothing earth-shattering or life changing, but a lovely Genus of the species.
A Death is a curious story. I enjoyed the western setting, and again, there’s King’s trademark exquisite character work firmly on display - but the ending, novel as it was, didn’t quite land for me - perhaps because it didn’t feel like it had the revelatory quality a really good last page or so can have in tales like this. That said, I don’t think it’s been done before - though there may be a reason for that.
The Bone Church I flat out loved. Though it’s written clearly in an American vernacular, for me, the voice was pure Long John Silver, complete with cries for rum and wonderfully acid asides. A recreation of a long lost long form poem King wrote in college, it’s a wild ride narrative with touches of Conrad and Stephenson, with just a dash of the old Lovecraft obsession with the ancient. An unexpected treat, and all the more welcome for its incongruity in the collection as a whole.
Morality picks up another thread that runs through many of these stories - the financial pressure of not-quite-getting-by America (also featured in Premium Harmony and some of the later tales in the collection). It’s fertile ground for horror, and here King comes up with a classic hellish bargain - albeit one without any overt supernatural angle, and for my money all the more powerful as a result. King’s also not afraid to make uncomfortable observations about human sexuality, and how people sometimes respond to violence and regret. I wasn’t super bowled over by the ending, but there’s a fevered darkness at the heart of this one that whispers some very uncomfortable things. I’m glad King heard those whispers, and wrote them down for us.
Afterlife felt to me to have some echos of Everything’s Eventual’s story ‘That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French’ though it posits a different afterlife and our protagonist has more options - or at least appears to. I enjoyed this one a great deal, though it’s slight in terms of incident. It’s fun to watch one of my favourite writers gnawing on this particular bone, I suppose.
Ur just knocked my socks off. A classic, classic King premise, with an equally classic King protagonist - unworthy motivations, but not bad, let alone evil, and understandable if far from admirable - come together just how you hope they will. With tie-ins to the Dark Tower mythos that serve as a treat for fans, but I don’t think will detract from those unfamiliar, Ur felt to me like top drawer, classic King, and frankly, it made my black little heart sing.
Herman Wouk Is Still Alive is vastly different tonally, but is for my money another stone classic. The duel narrative is deftly chosen and beautifully told, and the characters! This is an aspect of King’s work that I think is often criminally underlooked. For all the talk of his (admittedly often brilliant) ideas, one of his stand out skills for me has always been the ability to see his characters so clearly that we see them too. Shorn of many of his other typical tricks of the trade, this short pushes that ability front and centre, as the entire narrative fails or succeeds on the strength of King’s ability to sell you on these people as real. For my money, it doesn't merely succeed but is in point of fact a fucking triumph. A genuinely haunting tale, with not a ghost, goblin, axe murderer or devil in sight. THIS is horror. Superb.
Under The Weather I think I’d read before, and I’m damned glad, because for my money, this one was the most damaged by the preface, which all but ruined the reading experience, for me. That said, the tale itself is lovely - melancholic, and with just a lovely sense of creeping dread - unless you read the introduction and understand the premise almost from the opening line, that is.
Blockade Billy proves a contention I’ve long held, which is that if you’re passionate enough about a subject, and a good enough writer, you can make anything interesting. There are, I am sure, topics in the world about which I know and care even less than I do baseball, but I’m honestly struggling to think what they could be. But King clearly loves the game, and that love shines out through every sentence. He cares, he is thrilled, and therefore so was I, for the duration of this tale, at least. The 1957 setting helped, also - the era of the kids sections of IT, and King’s own childhood, that he seems to be able to evoke on a whin, with the deftness of a master illusionist's favorite trick. King’s own appearance in the story likewise works flawlessly, and adds an additional light dusting of fun to proceedings.
Mister Yummy is another tale of old age and mortality, but I think both themes are handled with more sureness of purpose than in Batman and Robin… . for a story about last days in a retirement home, I found it to be both humorous and uplifting, as well as touching. It may not be the main reason we come to King, but when he does occasionally stray into this kind of territory, I think he usually acquits himself well, and this is no exception.
Tommy is the second poem of the collection - somewhere between elegy and dirge. It’s probably mainly my own over-signification with the 60’s counterculture talking, but I found this one to be extraordinarily moving and melancholy.
The Little Green God Of Agony feels like more vintage King, with a brilliant set-up, a nifty core idea, a twist i found to be genuinely surprising and wrong footing, and a killer closing line. This is the essence of what I love about short horror, and the kind of thing King does as well as anyone - and, let's face it, way better than most.
Cookie Jar - We’re back to mortality again, and childhood and parenthood, as an old man in a home tells a grandkid about the stories his mother told. Reflecting on this one at a few week’s distance, I suppose it could be accused of over sentimentality, maybe, but to me it spoke strongly of old age in conversation with youth about the power and wonder and terror of imagination and story and love. So, I mean, how am I supposed to do anything less than love it, at that point?
That Bus Is Another World - Another tale for my money weakened considerably by the preface, to the degree that it didn’t quite land, as I’d basically been prepped for the central image already. Yes, it was cool to see how King took a day to day occurence and what his imagination did with it, but I’d far rather have read that after the story, so I didn’t spend the whole thing lying in wait for that moment to come. That said, some lovely character work, as always.
Obits is another belter, and another why-didn’t-I-think-of-that premise. This one’s got it all, morally suspect but not evil protagonist, similarly ambiguous co-worker, and a brilliant central premise that provides an awful dilemma. This is what we came here for.
Drunken Fireworks - I’ve been a bit down on some of King’s experiments with voice elsewhere in this collection, but in Drunken Fireworks, he absolutely nails it - a first person narrative told in a thick country voice that ran true to this fan of Justified. I loved every damn last thing about this one, from set up to glorious conclusion and coda. It even had a sneaky thing or two to say about race relations, I thought, but please don’t let that put you off, it’s very light touch and background, and the foreground is technicolour brilliance.
Summer Thunder is a gut punch of a closer - melancholic doesn’t begin to cover it, this one’s outright miserable. An end of the world scenario that’s sadly become slightly more plausible again recently, thanks to key personnel changes in the US government, it’s a real comedown after the sugar rush of Drunken Fireworks, and a frankly devastating way to end a short story collection with so many tales of mortality. Needless to say, I thought it was brilliant.
Overall, I didn’t find Bazaar Of Bad Dreams to be a particularly brilliant King collection - it’s uneven, especially in the first half, where a few of the stories didn’t quite click for me, and as you’ll have gathered, I think the decision to put the notes on each tale’s origin before the relevant piece was a bad one. That said, there’s some absolute gems in the second half of the book, with a real gamut of ideas, styles, and moods to keep you awake nights.
And if, in a final analysis, this particular collection is no Skeleton Crew (or even no Everything’s Eventual) there's still isn’t really such a thing as a bad King collection, I don’t think. He’s just one of those writers that will always hold my attention, and who even in his weaker work will provide elements that suprise or amuse, some turn of phrase or observation that’ll leave me shaking my head in admiration.
He really is - still - one of the very best in the business, and his beloved status is well deserved and earned. And as he says in the introduction “we’re both still here. Cool, isn’t it?”
Yes, sir. It sure is.
Matthew M. Bartlett has risen to become one of my very favorite writers, one that I will gladly read anything and everything that is available. His dark and signature style is, plainly put, brilliant. This short collection is no exception. The limited edition hardcover from Dunham's Manor is gorgeous, featuring an unforgettable cover by Dave Felton.
After a short but no less important introduction by the wonderful Scott Nicolay (you ought be reading him as well!) we get started with the opening tale, "Carnomancer." After a bizarre incident at the local grocery store, a manager discovers that the meat department lead holds keys to a mirror world, a horrific landscape made of meat, raw, bloody and unflinchingly horrific. The next tale, "Spettrini" follows the dark journey of a magician, slowly swirling the drain of his career who finds his former mentor offering a new act in a small venue.
"Follow You Home" trails a fellow who leaves a party early and finds himself dogged by a strange and terrifying creature. "No Abiding Place On Earth" gives us the invasion of a neighborhood, an invasion of bizarre flying creatures that you'll not soon forget. "Kuklalar" is an office-set tale of the horrors of management and all of its tiers, made even more frightening by the odd pains taken to make the place better and the nightmare that unfolds because of that move.
The next-to-the-last story is the titular one and follows a disc jockey as he embarks on a promotional stunt, the 24 hour broadcast and the small cracks that bloom to full shatter in his sanity with every passing minute. And for the wrap-up, Bartlett gives us one of the most heart-wrenching tales I've read in a long, long time, "The Beginning Of The World" is just a gut-punch. A father and daughter stare down the end of it all, that's really all you get as you must read this one. Savor it as a bite of seared meat or a savory treat. It will sting and burn and you'll feel it long after.
Bartlett is a genius. I say that not as some lofty empty phrase. Not a shitty crown made from the foil of empty gum-wrappers. I say it because it is the damned truth. No one mines horror like he does. From the freshness of ideas to the diabolical turns of phrase, he never leaves me anything less than awestruck. You need to be reading him. All of him. Every single word of him.
The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities is available in limited edition from Dunham's Manor Press. Click here to pre-order a copy
By Tony Jones
“Blanky” will have you throwing away your kid’s favourite blanket for good!
“Blanky” is a tremendously effective novella you’ll devour in and around two to three hours. Maybe even one sitting, that’s a Ginger Nuts of Horror guarantee. After reading a couple of excellent reviews on other sites I had high hopes that this introduction to the work of Kealan Patrick Burke who has published many novels and novellas since 2005 would be worthwhile. Those other reviews were bang on the money and I will most definitely be dipping into his back-catalogue again soon. Do post some tips if you’re a fan of this author.
“You say you can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child. Let me
make it easy for you. It’s the beginning of the end of your world.”
The novella opens with a brutal few pages, charged with emotion including the fantastic sentence quoted directly above. This opening sequence will totally suck you in and keep you totally enthralled until the equally brutal and very clever ending. Narrated by Stephen, he reveals that he and his wife are recovering from the cot-death of their baby girl Robin. In the aftermath of their loss Lexi has since left him and returned to live with her parents, no longer able to live in a house full of memories of where she lost her nine-month-old child.
First up I’m going to give minimal details on the plot, as I don’t want to spoil what is a real beauty. The death of the child is handled so powerfully, Stephen’s pain soaks into your psyche as he constantly reflects upon his daughter’s brief nine-month life. Picking up the plot several months after the death Stephen is struggling to return to his job as a teacher, drowns himself nightly in the bottle, reliving happier moments with his family, and hopes his estranged wife will return to him. Although he narrates the story it is clear he is in a very bad way.
After another night of drowning his sorrows he goes into Robin’s room, most of the baby’s stuff is gone, boxed up and stored away and it is a room he rarely visits. The couple emptying the room is another powerful flashback scene. However, after hearing a weird thumping noise coming from her upstairs bedroom, he finds himself in her room and sees a blanket lying on the ground near the window. Not knowing how it got there, he initially thinks squirrels must have dragged it out of storage or it has been blown out of a cupboard or overlooked in some other way. Realising it was Robin’s blanket, her favourite blanket, in his drunken stupor it gives him an excuse to phone his wife. He tells her he has found “blanky” which she thought was lost. She recognises the blanket straight away and comes to his house to pick it up and a lost connection to her daughter. And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot.
I’ve read so many fantastic horror novellas in the last couple of years, and “Blanky” is right up there with the best of them. Stephen is such a brilliant and convincing narrator he’ll quickly suck you into his family tragedy which escalates beautifully as he collapses. There are some terrific scenes of dread, some of which are particularly cinematic and recalled great J-Horror films “Ring” and in particular “Dark Water” and that’s a major compliment. Once “Blanky” has set the scene, it really picks up pace and starts to rock and roll quickly, with terrific tension, set pieces, developing into a powerful character driven story motivated by grief. Be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster and don’t forget that ending. Fabulous.
In the wake of his infant daughter's tragic death, Steve Brannigan is struggling to keep himself together. Estranged from his wife, who refuses to be inside the house where the unthinkable happened, and unable to work, he seeks solace in an endless parade of old sitcoms and a bottle of bourbon.
Until one night he hears a sound from his daughter's old room, a room now stripped bare of anything that identified it as hers...except for her security blanket, affectionately known as Blanky.
Blanky, old and frayed, with its antiquated patchwork of badly sewn rabbits with black button eyes, who appear to be staring at the viewer...
Blanky, purchased from a strange old man at an antique stall selling "BABY CLOSE" at a discount.
The presence of Blanky in his dead daughter's room heralds nothing short of an unspeakable nightmare that threatens to take away what little light remains in Steve's shattered world.
Because his daughter loved Blanky so much, he buried her with it.
A new novella from the Bram Stoker Award-Winning author of SOUR CANDY and KIN.
Single-author small-press horror collections are often rooted in consistency more so than variety. Sure, any good horror writer will switch things up in terms of setting, character, theme, and monster, but more often than not there is one unifying tone throughout, an obvious and distinct flavor that could usually be summed up as simply “elegant,” or “trashy,” or “ultraviolent,” or “bleak,” or some other handy one-word descriptor.
However, if pressed to succinctly summarize the overarching style of Lee Widener’s collection, Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales (out now from Strangehouse Books), one could hardly think of an adjective more apt than “chaotic.”
Of course, as any good anarchist will tell you, chaos can be a wonderful thing.
The collection opens with the title story, a 60-page novelette originally published as a limited-edition chapbook from Dunhams Manor Press. A straight-faced Lovecraftian horror yarn, “Under the Shanghai Tunnels” sees an antiquarian book-collector and his jazz-musician BFF delving into The Old Portland Underground while searching for clues as to whatever became of mysteriously vanished ancestor. The fate they discover turns out to involve a tragic descent into madness, a slow and agonizing death, and the discovery of an ancient race of sinister subterranean creatures with apocalyptic ambitions.
Reading this story, one might assume Widener’s subsequent tales will offer more of the same: namely, deathly serious pulp-horror with a heavy focus on freaky-deaky beasties. Instead, Widener follows up “Under the Shanghai Tunnels” with “At the Shoe Shop of Madness,” which any reader could be forgiven for assuming was written by someone else entirely. In it, a poor, talentless shoemaker makes a deal with a magic elf to help him turn his failing business around. Though it starts out as a classic Rumpelstiltskin-esque children’s fable, it soon mutates into something far more twisted, obscene, and altogether hilarious.
Before story’s end, our kindly shoemaker has become a greedy opportunist with zero qualms about taking his fellow villagers’ lives, so long as he can also take their coin. The magic elf reveals himself to be a foul-mouthed, alcoholic occultist. And, best of all, there is an invasion of “repellent crawling shoe-things,” which might well be the best line in the book. At the very least, it’s neck-and-neck with the drunken elf’s unholy chant of “That is not bread which can eternal fry, and with strange onions even cooks may cry.” Suffice to say, this vulgar, cartoonish, Bizarro fairy tale is about as far from “serious” and “straight-faced” as one could get.
And yet Widener is not done throwing readers for a loop. The story which immediately follows “At the Shoe Shop of Madness” once again feels like it could have been written by a whole different writer. “Eternal Beauty” is, as its title implies, beautiful. Here, a man finds himself becoming obsessed with an unbelievably perfect pale rose, but the flower turns out to be the property of an old man who lives alone in an empty house and who claims he literally pulled it out of his dreams. Haunting and hypnotic, “Eternal Beauty” reads like a story by the so-called “Polish Poe,” Stefan Grabinski. In other words, not at all the kind of thing one would expect to follow in the wake of “repellent crawling shoe-things.”
Sandwiched between the elegiac “Eternal Beauty” and the outrageous “KONG-Tiki” (we’ll get to that one in a minute) “The Thing That Came to Haunt Adamski” unfortunately feels somewhat forgettable, though it does serve as another showcase for Widener’s impressive range. A short, fast-paced skit of a tale, full of quirky characters (including a gullible Houdini collector, a paranoid conspiracy-theorist in monster make-up, pair of twins who can smell and taste psychic disturbances, and a telepathic space-locust from Venus), this one has plenty of absurd humor and charm, but it ends so quickly that nothing much gets a chance to leave a mark.
Then again, the fact that it’s followed by the aforementioned “KONG-Tiki” does “Adamski” no favors. “Memorable” doesn’t do this one justice. Relating the strange circumstances surrounding the titular tiki-lounge’s grand opening as it is beset by spectral gangsters, “KONG-Tiki” could almost pass for a traditional ghost story, albeit with a swingin’ 1950s club setting. Almost, that is, if it weren’t for the show-stopping throwdown between a giant lime-green gorilla and a lumbering, ambulatory tiki statue. “KONG-Tiki” is like a Golden Age poverty-row monster-mash, but with the go-for-broke attitude of an 80s b-movie.
Finally, in a surprising bit of universe-building, the collection’s closing story, “Sleeper Under the Sea,” turns out to be a quasi-sequel to “KONG-Tiki,” featuring the same lead character and a similar tropical setting: this time a Hawaiian resort which is situated a bit too close to the same waters in which the U.S. military is conducting off-shore bomb tests. When one of those tests awakens some ageless, gargantuan consciousness dwelling deep beneath the sea, it unleashes a torrential storm that threaten to rip the island apart. Good thing one of the resort’s top acts is a psychic medium who may well be able to make contact (and hopefully make peace) with the entity responsible. More restrained than “KONG-Tiki,” but with a more ominous ending, “Sleeper Under the Sea” sees Widener return to the pulpy Lovecraftian horror which kicked off the collection.
Though each of Widener’s tales could hardly be more different from the one preceding it, observant readers will nevertheless find some commonalities throughout, both good and bad. On the good side of the scale, Widener imbues even his most grim tales with a sense of genuine enthusiasm and energy, and his apparent fascination with ‘50s west-coast American pop culture and history gives the stories wherein he gives this aspect carte blanche a very definite, very unique character. Though not everything he writes could be described as “Lovecraftian horror,” Widener certainly takes plenty of influence from ol’ H.P.L. as well, which he filters through a Bizarro sensibility that is most evident in the way he lingers on gross, graphic details.
Which brings us to the bad side of the scale. The images Widener lingers on are not gory ones, but slimy ones: acidic growing slugs and tentacle-headed men with crab-claw hands, gigantic ectoplasmic jellyfish and soul-sucking extradimensional leeches. The imagery and imagination he displays in these sequences is often exciting, but Widener sometimes lingers too much, to the point where he’ll stop story’s pace dead in its tracks so he can point out every last icky, nitty-gritty detail. At times, this results in densely-packed, too-long paragraphs that practically beg a reader to skim them instead of really read. That said, the issue seems to become less prominent as the collection goes on.
Aside from that, and the occasional awkward phrasing or bit of unnecessary padding, there isn’t much to not like about Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales. This collection is, in the end, a colorful, kaleidoscopic portrait of a writer experimenting with a wide range of styles and stories, and it proves just as fun to read as one suspects it was to write. Unwilling to restrain itself to a single approach to horror or Bizarro, what Widener whips up can certainly be called chaos. But it is chaos in the best way possible.
Chad A. Clark's Winter Holiday is the latest entry in the excellent Dark Minds novella series. Since the debut publication of Benedict Jones' Slaughter Beach, it has never failed to provide an entertaining and at times thought-provoking reading experience from such luminaries as Rich Hawkins, Gary Fry, Laura Mauro, the Ben above Jones and now Dark Minds Press goes international with their latest release from Iowa's very own master of horror Chad A. Clark.
Winter Holiday has a simple premise; world-famous author has an annual tradition of taking time away from it all in a holiday home deep in the winter wilderness. Cut off from all forms of distraction Peter goes there to detox, but this year something is waiting for him, something that wants to rend him limb from limb.
Winter Holiday is an explosive novella that wastes no time in getting to the heart of the action. This rip-roaring man versus monster tale strips away almost all characterisation and backstory to allow the action and sense of adventure to take centre stage. Chad doesn't waste time creating screeds of backstory or subtle character nuances, which in a novella length story can get in the way of the story developing. Instead Chad presents us with Peter, with just enough flesh to hang the tale onto and a couple of incidental characters from which to give the story some sense of reality, to focus on the struggle between author and beast.
When a writer strips so much away from a story there is a risk that the story doesn't ring true, but Chad's handling of the action and his ability to pile on the tension more than compensates for this. Winter Holiday is a deeply satisfying adventure horror tale filled with exciting set pieces, heart-stopping pearls and enough blood and offal covered snow to make this another winner from Dark Minds Press.
My only issue with the book is the rather abrupt ending; the story would have benefited from an extension of why and how the monster came to be, and just who the mysterious next-door neighbour was. I can see where Chad was trying to go with these points, and forgive the vagueness of this part of the review as it is best if you discover these things for yourself, and they almost work perfectly, but they did feel a little bit underdeveloped. However, as a whole Winter Holiday delivers everything it sets out to do, and who knows maybe we will fortunate to have further adventures of Peter if we do this reviewer will most certainly be picking up a copy based on the strength of this chilling novella.