Welcome to the Graveyard and Other Stories

I have long enjoyed the short fiction of Mark Allan Gunnells. I like his longer stuff as well, but I think the short story is where he shines. And why it shines is his attention to detail in character, in his taking everyday situations and incorporating a sense of oddness or unease and, at times, whimsy.

Welcome to the Graveyard is his newest collection and it’s pretty damn good. After a glowing introduction by John R. Little, “Dancing in the Dark” leads off with a sure foot. Named for one of Bruce Springsteen’s most annoying songs, this story follows a young man who feels that song is his bad luck theme and tries to avoid hearing it at all costs. “After” would be a humorous little tidbit were it not for the dark bitterness of the finale, a great smack to the face. “The Napkins” is a story that is so much deeper and nastier than it seems, and it takes the final paragraph to burn it into your brain.

“What Little Boys Are Made Of” reminds me a bit of the classic Charles Beaumont story “Miss Gentilbelle,” a version yanked violently by the hair through the last forty years and screaming and plant it firmly in the now. And it’s just as jarring when we get to the final punch. This one will stick with you.

Many of these tales are quite short, flash pieces. I was lucky enough to see a number of them as entries in flash contests and I love that he’s polished them up and served them here. One of the best is “A Midnight Errand.” Running about a page and half, this thing packs more emotion into its leanness than most novels.

The collection finishes with the title story, a tremendous tale of youth and the painful transition to adulthood, wading through the rapids of peer pressure, bullies, and self-loathing. It’s about finding the ghosts and standing up to them even when one of them is you. A great story.

Gunnells can always be relied upon to deliver the goods. His stories are sharp and I can say it’s been fun to watch him grow as a writer over the years. His prose is smooth and easy and his characters are believable. He wears his influences proudly and yet has his own identity showing through.

Welcome To The Graveyard is available through Evil Jester Press.

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By Bizarre Hands

If you’re looking for tales of unflinching tension, grisly violence, and/or deeply disturbing horror, all told in a mesmerizing voice, then you need to pick up a copy of Joe R. Lansdale’s first short story collection, By Bizarre Hands. Originally published in 1989 by Avon, most of the sixteen stories in this collection were previously published in various anthologies and magazines, although two of them are exclusive to this book. That same year, it would go on to be nominated for a Stoker for Best Fiction Collection.

There are a number of nasty, gritty tales contained in these pages. “The Pit” and “The Steel Valentine” contain suspense and violence that swiftly escalates into action-packed finales that, upon finishing them, you’d think you’d just read novels. The title story, along with “Boys Will Be Boys” (later absorbed into Lansdale’s 1987 novel The Nightrunners) and “I Tell You It’s Love,” spend so much intimate time in the depraved minds of their deeply disturbed characters that you need to give your soul a shower afterwards. And “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” a 1988 winner for the since-discontinued Stoker Award for Best Short Fiction category, is such an unrelentingly grim story that it might just obliterate one’s faith in humanity.

Not all of these stories are dark reflections of twisted souls. A pioneer in the bizarro subgenre, Lansdale pens a few tales here that furrow the brow and raise the WTF? meter to the max. “Fish Night” is every bit as mythical in feeling as the tale that one of its characters tells. “The Fat Man and the Elephant” is a straight-faced story of a man seeking a sort of god in the confines of a dying elephant’s stench. And “Tight Little Stitches In a Dead Man’s Back,” besides arguably having one of the best short story titles EVER, is a disturbing recollection of the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse and the journey that a couple take as they mourn the loss of their daughter. If I said any more, I would be spoiling it. Just make sure you have memory bleach ready, because you won’t be able to un-see some of this tale’s squirm-inducing images.

Also worth noting are two period pieces. “The Windstorm Passes” is a Dustbowl-era tale that is a spiritual precursor to his 2000 novel, The Bottoms (reviewed here). And “Trains Not Taken” is perhaps the most unusual story in the whole collection, being a bittersweet alternate history tale of unhappy love and unfulfilled dreams set against the backdrop of a Japanese-colonized Wild West.

Landsale’s particularly American prose is less of a product of his background than it is a key element of his style. It’s often quick, to-the-point and on-the-nose storytelling, yet he knows how to incorporate and build suspense. He doesn’t ever shy from describing anything grim or nasty; he doesn’t just “go there” in his stories—he’s practically built his home “there.”

Although the printed editions of this book are long discontinued, they’re fortunately not too hard to find; and, for those so inclined, By Bizarre Hands is also available as an e-book. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy now—and just know that after you read its dark tales, you will never be the same.

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Thank You, Brian Keene!

Brian Keene, bestselling horror author of such titles as The Rising, Ghoul, Earthworm Gods, and The Lost Level, recently listed his top 10 favorite books published in 2014 on his podcast, The Horror Show.

In the fifth episode of The Horror Show, Keene listed Dominoes, written by our own John Boden and illustrated by Yannick Bouchard, at #8!


Click for full-size images.

Mr. Keene was taken by the “really interesting production” of the book, in particular its deceptively Little Golden Book-inspired layout and illustrations. “It’s a really cool little thing!” he said.

We here at Shock Totem thank you very much for the shout-out, Mr. Keene!

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Gateways to Abomination

You’re listening to 89.7, WXXT, the Black Heart of the Pioneer Valley. Next up, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways To Abomination

Although this book is billed as “collected short fiction,” it reads more like an epistolary novel than a collection of stories; as such, one should read these thirty-odd tales from cover to cover, and not just by random selection.

In the course of these tales and vignettes, several very real towns in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, dark forces are gathering: monsters, ghosts, and strange metamorphoses are creeping forth from the shadows to claim thrall upon humankind, and with a growing number of insanity-driven people volunteering to help see the plot come to fruition. Ominously playing in the background are diabolical messages and hypnotic tunes from a local radio station—WXXT.

Even with all of their connections, the stories at work in this collection are significantly unique from one another. In pieces such as “The Last Hike” and the “Ballad(s) of Ben Stockton,” unsuspecting people naïvely wander into the rising darkness. “Interview with Emily Lavallee” is a transcript of a hysterical woman recalling the bizarre horrors she’d witnessed earlier that night. “Notice – 1802” reads like a private club’s newsletter.

Most of the stories are contemporary, but a few take place in the early 1900’s, and even earlier. Some of the stories are as short as a single paragraph, whereas others stretch to several-page length. The one thing that they have in common is that they all share a hallucinatory narrative, casting fever dreams of vivid descriptions that are sometimes enough to make the reader squirm. And although the larger plot against which all of these stories are told isn’t particularly clear, that hardly matters. Behind these morbid tales, the big, twisted picture grins wickedly out at the reader.

Finally, the format of the book itself must be applauded. Entirely self-published, the format is professionally done, with the front cover featuring a lovingly pulpy sketch of a small town dwarfed by a radio tower, with a looming goat floating in the background. (There’s even a bogus publisher’s logo, “OCCULT,” printed in the bottom corner.) This cover is a thoughtful aesthetic, and one that makes the experience of reading all the more fun.

So tune in to 89.7, WXXT, and take a step into these Gateways to Abomination.

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The Last Projector

David James Keaton has delivered a literal smorgasbord of a novel here. Loaded with grease and fat and enough madness to choke a goat. If pop cultural references were dimes, The Last Projector would be A LOT of money. The music references alone would have garnered about eighty dollars. But enough about that…

Larry is a director of pornography and he hates it. He used to be an EMT named Jack, and through a series of unfortunate events—events that haunt him almost daily—he is now Larry, a third-rate director of smut. He hates his actors and their seemingly contagious tattoos. He hates a lot about his life…and himself, honestly. While Larry films the fuck films, he secretly films his “real” movie with a woman and her daughter, only they have no clue they’re being filmed.

We also follow a young couple, maybe lovers, definitely almost terrorists—hey, they’re working on it! They unite in their quest to “scare” or kill a cop and maybe kidnap a police dog. At the very least they just want to fuck over as many law enforcement officers as they can. Their thread through the novel is richly braided with dialogue and so many cultural zingers it should be registered as a weapon.

This book is long, a little too long, in my opinion. I found portions hard to slog through but I stuck with it and was entertained overall. The characters are insane and well drawn, their antics all believable given the folks acting them out. From the opening incident of a man getting nose-punched for spitting mouthwash on a statue of the Virgin Mary to the ridiculous discussions of watching drive-in movies without sound from a neighboring house, this book seems to have it all.

Sense of humor as a bludgeoning object seems to work for Keaton. In nearly everything I’ve read from him, he wields that weapon proudly and with no apologies. He writes a mean story but sucker-punches you into not realizing how fucking dark it is until you’ve come out the other side. The one-liners and jokes keep you numb to the horror that creeps and scurries at your feet.

The Last Projector is available from Broken River Books.

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Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine

The Horror Zine’s latest short story anthology, Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine, edited by Jeani Rector and printed by Post Mortem Press, is allegedly also their final one. Listed as “the scariest book that [they have] ever produced” on the Zine’s website, there are some big-name authors to be found here, including Elizabeth Massie, P.D. Cacek, Tom Piccirilli, Ray Garton, and Joe McKinney, alongside many other, newer and lesser-known authors.

There were stories in this anthology that particularly stood out. Martin Rose’s opener, “Tapeworm,” had me squirming with its subdued, suggested-but-not-seen horrors. Eric J. Guignard’s “One Last Tweet” was a delightfully disorienting second-person story-cum-postmodern social commentary about our Internet age. Elizabeth Massie’s “Squatters” was a solid, old-fashioned tale of a vile man getting his just desserts. P.D. Cacek’s “Somniphobia” was a fun, hallucinatory ride through night (and day) terrors. At first glance, Nathan Robinson’s “Old Haunts” was a typically gory zombie apocalypse tale, until it cleverly asks the reader to wonder just who is narrating the story. And let’s just say that Ray Garton’s “Parasites” is NOT a story to be read in the bathroom.

I have to admit that going into this anthology I was fairly stoked, but ultimately, I was a bit disappointed. A number of the stories just didn’t groove with me, often suffering from the common storytelling problem of “too much tell, not enough show.” Others were too heavy-handed with their horror delivery. Now, every multiple-author story anthology runs the risk of having some stories that don’t work for every reader; it’s a given evil in any art field. In this case, however, the sheer number of weaker stories hurt my overall opinion of the anthology.

Bentley Little’s introduction, in which he all but literally admits that he’s only included for cosmetic purposes, didn’t help. “I haven’t read any of the stories in this anthology,” he states in his opening paragraph. “I don’t even know the names of the authors contributing to this volume.” His admission left me desiring a more dedicated introduction, be it by Little or someone else. His lack of enthusiasm didn’t help my overall opinion of the stories and my feelings of their quality.

Furthermore, the book’s early inclusion of an essay by John Russo, co-scribe of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), was another touch that didn’t quite work. Russo rambles about zombies, and how they’ve changed over the years, yet not once does he mention the following stories, nor Jeani Rector, nor anything else to do with this anthology. Beyond being another big name, its inclusion is not clearly justified.

For all of its content (over 30 stories in all), Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine felt like it was assembled with quantity in mind, rather than a strong sense of overall quality. Here’s to hoping that it isn’t truly The Horror Zine’s final anthology, if nothing else than for the hopes of a more proper send-off.

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The Green Kangaroos

The idea of drug addiction is terrifying to me. That terror goes up a notch when the drugs in question involve needles. Now add the idea of sticking a needle full of poison into your testicles. Yeah, that hammer blow made the puck fly high and ring the bell, didn’t it?

The Green Kangaroos, by Jessica McHugh, is junkie fiction wrapped in sci-fi and enough seedy Gummo ick that it qualifies as some sort of horror. We follow our “hero,” Perry, through a drug-drowned world in the year 2099, a world where people literally pay for dope with lumps of flesh and vaginal meat. Breasts seem to fetch top dollar. Perry has a family that wants him clean, but he just wants to stay high. Every scenario in which he finds himself should have him screaming for sobriety, yet he clings to his agenda of chemical impairment. When the world as he knows it turns out to be nothing like it seems, then things get really strange.

In The Green Kangaroos, Jessica McHugh gives us the bastard love-baby of William Burroughs and The Matrix, thankfully devoid of Keanu Reeves. It’s needle-sickness-meets-dopesick Blade Runner world is horrifying. Even the likeable characters are shitbags, but they are so richly drawn and the story is so wonkily brilliant you just keep your hands and feet inside the car and enjoy the ride.

I had no idea what to expect with this book. To that point, I can say I enjoyed it. McHugh gives us a very detailed and sordid chronicle of an unapologetic junkie in a world that doesn’t really care about much of anything. The writing is  sharp and cuts deep. The layers and nuances that slither and snake around the prose are unsettling.

The Green Kangaroos is available through Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.

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Devourer Of Souls

Late last year, Kevin Lucia delivered a wonderful collection called Things Slip Through, a great gathering of tales presented in a wholly unique way. The voice of Lucia’s writing is old school—think early King or later Bradbury. So obviously, I was quite anxious to read this novella, Devourer of Souls, which is actually a pair of longer stories which are stitched together by a similar framing device as those in Things Slip Through.

You know the old saying: “If it ain’t broke…”

Devourer of Souls starts with two men meeting in a diner. They are members of a sort of coalition in the Clifton Heights area, a group of men who meet once in a while to keep one another apprised of the weird shit that seems to be bubbling under the Rockwellian surface of their town.

The first half is a great tale called “Sophan.” A group of boys and an outcast dying to be drawn into a strange and ancient game of chance called Sophan, a tile game offered to one of the boys at a rummage sale. During the last breaths of summer, one boy is consumed by hatred and bigotry while his friend is called to fix things. A father is haunted by the ghosts of war and another by his good fortune to have returned and moved on. Lucia does a great job of bringing these characters to life. The emotions are realistically rendered and easily relatable, he keeps them simple but something that we can all recognize, honestly written and stronger for it.

“The Man in Yellow” is the second feature, and it is just a good as the opening act. Set in another flyspeck town that neighbors Clifton Heights, this story involves a young man on the cusp of adulthood, angry at the world and the God he isn’t sure is out there. He and his friend discover that faith can be a monster when a new minister arrives in town. A charismatic stranger in a bright yellow suit and an ancient agenda. This one has a decidedly darker tone than “Sophan,” and given the brooding cloud of faith and/or lack thereof that hangs over it, it isn’t surprising. .

Lucia’s strong characters and smartly simple and realistic dialogue are one of the many things that propel his writing along the rails. His pacing is good and he knows how to tell a good story without a lot of fat. Too many times writer’s bog down their stories with unnecessary jewelry and gloss when a simple story—simply told—is what is needed. Lucia gives us a refreshing old-school style—not that he can’t throw down the words, but he understands that the story needs to be the star.

Devourer of Souls is available through Ragnarok Publications.

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Sugar Skull

The concluding volume in a haunting graphic novel trilogy, Sugar Skull concludes the hallucinatory, heartbreaking, hilarious, and mysterious odyssey begun in X’ed Out and continued in The Hive.

Like all of Charles Burns’s works, including the acclaimed graphic novel Black Hole, the Xe’d Out trilogy features the same starkly-penned, startlingly-detailed drawings, but with one major difference: it’s all rendered in full color, adding a whole other dimension of dark beauty.

I could get more into some of the specifics of Sugar Skull, but the thing is, the X’ed Out trilogy doesn’t unfold in a traditional linear narrative. With each volume, Mr. Burns presents bits and pieces of a mosaic of five different storylines, and it’s up to the reader to figure out how they all add up.

Over the course of those different storylines, we get to know Doug, a lonely nebbish who’s just trying to get a good break in life. In one of the storylines, Doug is in his teens, living with his overbearing father and occasionally performing spoken-word songs from behind a mask at punk rock shows; at one point, he befriends and starts to date a moody and mysterious girl named Sarah. In another timeline, there are scenes of Doug and Sarah living together, while still learning more about each other—often through Sarah’s photographs of darkly erotic self-portraits. Then there’s Doug’s life after Sarah, where he wastes his days in his father’s house, recovering from a (mostly) unexplained accident. Later still, we see Doug, now seeing someone else, trying to come to terms with all his problems. Finally, there’s Doug, several years later, having recovered from an addiction and trying to move on with his life with his ultimate lover, Sally.

Woven throughout Doug’s story, there are glimpses of the strange saga of “Nit Nit,” a character that’s at once a surreal caricature of Doug and a bizarro parody of the famous comic character Tintin, created by Belgian artist Hergé. The darkly humorous adventures of Nit Nit take place in a strange dystopian world full of odd creatures, including a foul-mouthed, porcine-featured midget of a man wearing a diaper, who in showing Nit Nit around, becomes almost like a friend. Nit Nit where he is put to work by (and alongside) lizard-like creatures in office suits, slaving away at “the Hive,” where…well, let’s just say that’s where it starts to get really weird. Is this all a dream, drug-induced or otherwise, of Doug’s? Maybe. Is it a surreal summary of different passages of Doug’s life? Maybe. Is it an alternate reality from Doug’s altogether? Maybe. Does it really matter what this storyline means? Probably not.

Ultimately, I spent a lot of time reading these books with my brow furrowed, because honestly, the fractured narrative was more than a little puzzling. I even re-read the previous volumes before each new one came out, just to make sure everything was as fresh as possible, but that didn’t always help. I suppose, if one was to cut out all the pieces of the comic and arrange them into a somewhat linear storyline, one might be able to discern the big, weird picture—but what would be the fun of that? Although the X’ed Out trilogy thumbs its nose at the reader with one hand, its other is pointing the reader to travel even deeper down the rabbit-hole of its strange story. Like all of his previous books, this is a tale that only Charles Burns could tell.

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Equilibrium Overturned

Most anthologies carry a theme, sometimes heavily. A concrete yoke of hackneyed premise across sagging shoulders. I always like the “whatever” sort of collections, which is exactly what Equilibrium Overturned is. Sort of. Most of these tales deal with a bleak sense of survival, the settings change and the details and characters, but every one involves a tenacious attempt to hold the fuck on in a world uncontrolled.

John Everson’s “Amnion” gives us a well-meaning physician and his experiment in regaining youth. Factor in some bad decisions and a haughty wench and we have the makings of a nightmare. JG Faherty shows us a unique sort of zombie apocalypse in “Martial Law.” Rose Blackthorn’s “Through the Ghostlands” is one of my favorites, a stark and sad tale of siblings making their way through a haunted landscape.

“Perfect Soldiers,” by S.G. Larner, shows us a different kind of terror war going on and Martin Slag’s “Wombie” is a surrealist bizarro tale about a veterinarian and the world scale conspiracy of oddity that he uncovers. “No Man’s Land,” by Roger Jackson, gives us a war-nightmare where the dead aren’t lucky enough to remain that way.

Sean Eads’ historical horror show, “The Alamo Incident: From The Chronicles of Timaeus Shields,” must be read to comprehend. Tim Waggoner delivers a gory slice of brutal bizarro in “This Is Not a Horror Story.”

The collection closes with a tale of sadness and loss simply titled “Sunrise.” In this tale by Tony Knighton, we follow a desperate father as he tries to save his ailing son in an unforgiving world. All in all, the stories in Equilibrium Overturned are solid and the thread of desperation and survival is present in almost all of them.

Available through Grey Matter Press.

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