New York, New Psalm

Dark Faith, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, is one of the newer anthologies put out by Apex Publications. It features 26 short stories and five poems that attempt to tackle the intricacies of faith. I haven’t read much of it, and as it is with most anthologies, I won’t finish it all at once; but I look forward to slowly picking its bones clean.

The first story in Dark Faith is “Ghosts of New York,” by Jennifer Pelland. I will sing praise for this woman until its borderline creepy. (I’m harmless, I assure you.) Her anthology Unwelcome Bodies is one of the best I’ve ever read. Sure, some stories didn’t blow me away, but many floored me. Read “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man,” and you’ll understand. “Ghosts of New York” is not equal to that tale, but it is quite good.

The story revolves around the World Trade Center tragedy, particularly the ghosts of the jumpers, those victims that chose not to perish in fire or the collapse of either tower. The ghosts are forced to relive the terrifying free fall and final impact over and over again. It’s a heart-wrenching tale, one of horror, tragedy, and discovery. And its beautifully written.

Since originally writing this for my blog some months ago, “Ghosts of New York” has been chosen as a Nebula finalist. In celebration of this, Apex has put the story online for free. You can read the haunting tale here.

Next up in Dark Faith is Brian Keene’s “I Sing a New Psalm.” My first experience with Keene’s writing was his short story collection Fear of Gravity. I wasn’t blown away. I loved the final story, “The Garden Where My Rain Grows,” it more than lived up to the praise bestowed upon him, but the other stories just didn’t have the same impact with me. Decent, but maybe my expectations were too high. “I Sing a New Psalm,” however, is a very good tale if a bit obvious.

The story is told in 44 short bursts and follows a man of uncertain faith through his ultimate acceptance and subsequent denial of God. It’s a story that explores the puzzling contradiction of cruelty and selfishness from a so-called loving, omniscient god. Something we’ve all questioned. Keene does it justice.

Though I haven’t read it completely, Dark Faith is worth buying. Anything Apex puts out is worth buying. Dig it!

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The Graveyard Door

Though Dean Koontz was a fairly prolific short-story writer in his younger years, his output dipped drastically once his popularity as a novelist began to rise, and at one point, between 1975 and 1985, was nonexistent. He had a bit of a resurgence between 1986 and 1987, publishing nine shorts during those two years. After that, however, his output all but disappeared; in the twenty-three years since he has published just seven short stories (possibly eight, if Wikipedia can be believed).

First published in Tropical Chills way back in 1988, “Graveyard Highway” remains one of the most recently published shorts by Koontz. (It was also reprinted in the UK magazine The Horror Express, issue #4, in 2005.)

The tale begins ominously as, on his way to work, Mason Sondheim passes a strange highway sign: DEATH 2 MILES. He assumes he simply misread it, until he sees another sign. DEATH 1 MILE. The signs count down to the inevitable, and eventually Mason’s car tops a rise and he views a sprawling graveyard—and a shadowy figure, flagging him down. Problem is, the graveyard shouldn’t be there. Weeks pass, but the vision continues to haunt Mason, until he pulls off the highway and follows the man clad in shadows.

“Graveyard Highway” is a story of revelation, of a man being lead back to his destiny and celebrating in that rediscovery. It’s a wonderful story for the most part, but unfortunately, it falls apart toward the end. For me, anyway. Dean takes the supernatural elements and spins a fine yarn for most of the story—then dumps politics and morality on the reader in the last few pages. It’s like Dean realized he was late for dinner and hastily added the ending to avoid an ass kicking from his wife, Gerda—or Gerula, as she was mistakenly named by The Horror Express; a far more frightening name for a woman, to be sure.

Celebrate life. Follow your true destiny. Great advice, really, but “Graveyard Highway” could have taken a few more pages to get that message across.

UK author R. Chetwynd-Hayes is from the old guard of writers that dabbled in multiple genres—science fiction, horror, fantasy—and though you’ll hear him praised for such works as And Love Survived and his Clavering Grange series, the average fan—American fan, at least—probably has never heard of him. Which is a shame, really.

Though he produced a number of novels in his time, Chetwynd-Hayes was most prolific with short fiction, with nearly thirty collections to his name. He also edited an almost obscene amount of anthologies, doing so right up until his death in 2001, at the age of 82.

Cold Terror was originally published in 1973, and it contains fourteen tales of “unearthly possession and ghostly horror.” This is just the second collection I own of the man’s work—the other being “Tales from Beyond.” I found it at a Salvation Army store some months ago (along with The Face of Fear, by Brian “Dean Koontz” Coffey, which was a cool little find, though not all that rare, unfortunately).

The first story in Cold Terror, is “The Door,” a twisted tale of a salvaged antique door that bridges the gap between reality and horror. William, a writer, has plans to use this massive centuries-old door as the access point to a recessed stationary cupboard in his study. After the builders remodel the room and install the door over the cupboard, William and his wife, Rosemary, opine upon what the grand door may have once guarded, and later, Williams finds, through visions, that his wife’s guesswork was far more accurate than it should have been. And then William is in the room, walking its length, staring beyond its windows. As the days wear on, the room haunts him. And there’s a book, which he eventually reads from. It’s in what he reads that brings the story—or nightmare—to life.

“The Door” is a fun little read. It’s a classic kind of horror telling; the kind of stuff the greats of our generation cut their teeth on. The story has been told countless times since, whether the supernatural portal between this world and some other is a door, a picture, or the trunk of a Buick 8. But there’s a reason for that, right?

And for those with time to spare, here’s is the film adaptation of “The Door,” from From Beyond the Grave, an anthology film based on five of Chetwynd-Hayes’s stories.

“The Door” begins at 2:40 of the first clip and plays through 4:30 of part 10.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Remember the name.

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Soft Come the Balloon Girl Dragons

A few years ago, I was introduced to this little publication by a friend who at the time worked with the publishers, a husband-wife team. I thought it looked cool, so I gave it a shot. I was impressed. Very impressed, actually.

Quick Fiction is a literary publication that features flash fiction tales—so dubbed “precious little fictions”—of 500 words or less. It’s published bi-annually in a non-traditional 6×6 paperback, about 50 pages long. And it’s quality stuff.

Being that it’s literary fiction, some stories don’t quite move me. They’re just kind of there, describing a moment in time that doesn’t seem to have anything to say beyond “Here I am, all shiny and pointless.” Then again, maybe I just don’t get it. Who knows. Probably the latter. The stories that work for me are usually of the more fantastical pedigree, magical realism, if you will. And being that each story is so short, I often find myself grabbing an issue off the shelf while I’m cooking, or watching TV…or, you know, flying to some exotic locale in Azeroth, hell-bent on kicking ass.

And so it was, yesterday, that I found myself reacquainted with Angela Jane Fountas and her brilliant story “Balloon Girl” from Quick Fiction 11.

The story is about a girl who lives happily inside a balloon, with red birds nesting on her head, and a selfish prince who wants to know what’s inside. She is summoned to the castle, but the young prince does not get the answer he is looking for. And then, many years later, he becomes King. He ruins the land, drains it of life, and all the starving birds flock to Balloon Girl’s head. The prince who had become king sends forth a message, with a promise to feed the birds, if Balloon Girl will come to him. And he fulfills that promise—at the expense of Balloon Girl’s happiness.

Now, that may sound like some fairy tale schlock, but it is quite profound, to be honest. A tale of the curse of one’s selfish desires over his need, no matter whose world it affects, or destroys. “Balloon Girl” is fantastic.

Yeah, more Dean Koontz.

A while back I picked up a copy of an old Ace Double, one of five Koontz contributed to in his early career, but the only one that features him back-to-back. It has Koontz’s first short story collection, Soft Come the Dragons and the short novel Dark of the Woods.

“Soft Come the Dragons” is the first story in this collection of eight tales; it was Dean’s first published story in the field of science fiction—published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, no less! The story is about the balance between myth and science, fantasy and reality. Without science, we do not advance; without fantasy, we’re soulless. We must embrace both. A great message, and a very good story if a bit predictable. The cover depicts the not-so-traditional dragons from the story.

One thing about Dean’s early work that amazes me, is how bright his potential shines. It’s almost blinding. I hope someday he’ll put these old tales into a new collection.

(And I originally wrote Dead Koontz above, so if Dean dies today…I’m really sorry.)

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The Hun on the Left Screamed with Us

Lee Thompson is a cool-cool dude. He’s also a fantastic writer who is making some serious waves in the small press. Forthcoming this year, he has a novel (Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children) and novella (Iron Butterflies Rust) coming out through Delirium Books; and another novella, As I Embrace My Jagged Edges, is currently available in digital format through Sideshow Press, with a hardcover version coming soon.

And in July, his story “Beneath the Weeping Willow” will be published in Shock Totem #4.

If I remember correctly, it all started with “Daddy Screamed With Us”, a short story released through Darkside Digital last year. Naturally I wanted to support his writing, which is why Lee took my digital virginity. No pain, a little blood, and it was a good time.

“Daddy Screamed With Us” is a story about choices, or maybe one of necessary evil. Or both. When Jeremy’s release from prison is up for review, it’s up to Doctor Kerr to determine if the killer is fit for release into society or a continued life behind bars. But there’s more to it than that; it’s not up to Doctor Kerr to make that decision. Jeremy has to make his own choice.

Jeremy is in prison for killing Edward Singer, but he says he’s killed more than once, and Doctor Kerr wants to know about that. It’s in Jeremy’s telling that his past is revealed and his fate is sealed.

As an introduction to Lee’s work, “Daddy Screamed With Us” doesn’t disappoint. And at a cost of $1.49, really you can’t go wrong. Sure, it’s digital fiction, but if you purchase this story now maybe we’ll see it in print someday, in a nice glossy collection. Buy it!

I picked up this limited chapbook last year at Necon. It’s sat on my bookshelf since then, just a sliver of white, a mere fifty pages, practically invisible to me. I’d thought it was part of the spine of another book! Anyway, though limited, it’s still available at Horror Mall for five beans.

Right House on the Left is a triple shot of haunted-house—or in the case of the story I read, haunted disco (a weird disco)—parodies by L.L. Soares, Steve Vernon, and Mark McLaughlin.

The story I read this week was “The Blood-spattered Mirror Ball,” by L.L. Soares. The story is about those social misfit-types who were never invited to gatherings of the so-called social elite. While alive, anyway. See, because they’re dead, and now their ghosts are determined to have a damn good time, invited or not. Even if, for one of them, it means entering not through the velvet ropes but out of a horse’s ass. Yes, folks, a ghost emerges from a horse’s ass. I’ve read a lot of absurd stories in my day—I remember Fagula, the gay vampire who turned those he bit into homosexuals; and then there was the witch who selflessly fed her vampire lover during her menstrual cycles—but usually they make me cringe. This time I laughed.

Surprisingly, “The Blood-spattered Mirror Ball” is a lot more serious than I expected. Yes, there is a high level of absurdity here, but it was an enjoyable—dare I say, moral—tale that transcended its humor. Looking forward to reading the other two tales.

Been on a Dean Koontz kick lately, and it’s been a blast. Old Deany-poo is my favorite, you know. Soon I’ll be reviewing more of Koontz’s early, obscure work, but this week it’s back to Strange Highways. “Miss Attila the Hun,” to be precise.

This story seems to be something of a transition point for Dean. It’s a dark tale but still incorporates a bit of his early sci-fi mojo. In fact, it’s sort of cut from the same mold that Winter Moon (originally Invasion, released under the pseudonym Aaron Wolfe) was cut from. It involves an alien being, little more than a sentient mass, which takes over its hosts for the sole purpose of world domination and spreading chaos. But while this being has encountered love on other planets, it has never encountered the overpowering strength of human love.

“Miss Attila the Hun” is enjoyable if a bit hokey. And Dean seems to have forgotten the black alien stalks and tendrils that burst through people’s chests, because when it’s all over…there are no gaping, bleeding holes. Say what? Maybe I missed something. Either way, a fun read.

And that’s it for now. As I’ve said before, if you enjoy something, support the hell out of it! So click those links.

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The Twelfth Altarboy Baby Beyond Space

Dean Koontz, as I mentioned here, has published well over fifty short stories—and probably he’s written countless more—though for most fans—myself included, until now—there have been just eleven of them available, in Strange Highways. Much of his short work was written very early in his career and is largely science fiction. And that’s what we have here in Wondermakers 2, edited by Robert Hoskins.

As you can see by the image to the left, Dean was such an unknown at the time that his name along with just four others out of nineteen, including William F. Nolan, did not even grace the front cover. Crazy.

Dean’s story is called “The Twelfth Bed,” and according to the short bio preceding the story, it was (at the time, of course) his favorite of all his short stories. It was originally published in 1968, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, when Dean was but a wee lad of twenty-three.

“The Twelfth Bed” is a tale of sadness and hope, about the final days and months and years of the elderly in some far-off future. Essentially a futuristic look at a nursing home; this particular home being the Old Folks Without Supporting Children Home. Its residents, twelve to a sealed-off-from-society room, haven’t much to look forward to. They’re just waiting to die. That is, until Gabe Detrick shows up.

Gabe is too young to be in the home; he’s there by way of some mix-up with his dying elderly neighbor. Unfortunately for Gabe, the home is manned solely by robotnurses—there are no humans but for the patients and no way to contact the outside world if there arises a grievance, such as being twenty-seven and trapped in a temporary home for the soon to be dead. Despite his predicament, Gabe is something of a light in the dark for the dying patients—mediator, entertainer, confidant, friend. But eventually Gabe concocts a plan to escape the room, and things don’t go quite as smoothly as he’d planned.

I can understand why Dean called “The Twelfth Bed” his favorite. It’s a fantastic little tale, one that shows glimpses of what would become Dean’s signature dark-but-hopeful storytelling style. It’s all in the final paragraph. I’m not sure why Dean refuses to publish more of his early work, but it’s unfortunate any way you slice it, especially for the fans. You don’t get to be a writer of Koontz’s stature without having talent, and while his early work may not be up to his standards of today, there’s no doubt it would bring pleasure to many a fan. And in the case of “The Twelfth Bed,” that pleasure would be very justified.

I’m actually curious to know how he feels about it today, if still he considers it his favorite.

I read a few other stories in this anthology. Ward Moore’s “Dominions Beyond” is an absurd tale of a ridiculously-named Englishman, Humphrey Howard Clarence Beachy-Cumberland, who accidentally becomes the first Man to land on Mars, unbeknown to all but Humphrey and the man who built the ship that propelled him to there at a million miles an hour. Humphrey comes right out of a Monty Python skit. (He was John Cleese in my mind.) He is greeted by an alien race of savage beings intent on killing him, but Humphrey’s indignant, aristocratic personality catches the aliens off guard and they’re not quite sure what to do with him. In the end, Humphrey helps create society, civilization, political systems, religion. And eighty-five years later, when the “first” manned ship lands on Martian soil, the crew is in for a fairly unexpected surprise.

See? Absurd! But “Dominions Beyond” is an extremely enjoyable—and very tongue-in-cheek—tale. Moore died in 1978, but I’d love to read more of his work.

Though one of the most prolific writers of science fiction, this was my first experience reading work by Isaac Asimov. (Yes, that’s insane. I know.) His story, “Living Space,” is about the greed and shortsightedness of Man. Far into the future, Earth’s population has reached a trillion—far too many people to inhabit just one Earth. The solution is a simple one: With an infinite number of parallel Earths out there, people rent their own uninhabited Earth, like an apartment. Hundreds of billions of Earths, each occupied by a single family.

This works, until Clarence Rimbo and his wife hear loud noises and rumblings on their planet. Rimbo complains that his planet is inhabited and pompously demands an investigation. During the investigation it is discovered that indeed Rimbo’s planet does have visitors—Germans, in fact, from a parallel Earth where history played out in a very different way. It is only then that the consequence of such encounters—with people from Earth and beyond—is pondered. But by then it may be too late.

The very end is a bit hokey, but despite that, “Living Space” is a great story.

Another early Dean Koontz story is found in Infinity Three, also edited by Robert Hoskins. This time, though it came out before Wondermakers 2, Dean’s name made the front cover. His story, here, is “Altarboy.”

“Altarboy” is rather political, about Consensus government. In this future, people are often required to vote, and in the instance of this story, for or against war. Those voting against are considered Dissenters; but luckily they are given three chances to change their vote. These chances are of the persuasive type—mind control, essentially. Those that still vote against after three attempts are arrested as Dissenters and given a fourth, more invasive brain probe. Those poor souls that continue to vote against are considered incurable, Absolute Dissenters. They’re then turned over to the Executioners.

Executioners are an elite group of citizens capable of stealing the immortal souls of beings and keeping them trapped within their own minds, a sort of purgatory. The souls are denied an afterlife so long as the Executioner lives. However, the protagonist Executioner in “Altarboy” is having problems containing one of his taken souls. To combat this, espers whisk him away to a time long past to steal the soul of a near-mad—and suicidal—American Nazi Party member (who, oddly, is named Weissner for a page or so, then becomes Weisserman). Weissner-Weisserman’s soul is taken for the purpose of keeping the other souls within the Executioner in line. But Weissner-Weisserman isn’t interested in just controlling souls; having his own soul ripped from his body has pushed him over the edge and into the depths of insanity, and his brand of insanity demands more.

“Altarboy” is a decent story, but strangely mistitled. An altarboy is one that removes the corpse of the soul-taken; they’re mentioned one time, in a single short line (“Special altarboys removed the corpses on gravity sledges”), and are entirely inconsequential to the story. Unless I’m missing something. The prose is a bit flowery at times, especially when Dean is describing how the souls react within the Executioner’s mind, but when it works it’s solid Koontz all the way. Probably not the best example of his early work, but the concept is good enough that I’m surprised he never reworked it. Possibly it’s too political.

Jeremy C. Shipp has one hell of an imagination. Sheep and Wolves is his first collection of short fiction, and if you like it bizarre, then look no further. Bizarro is not my favorite kind of fiction, but I can appreciate the beauty of it even if, maybe, I can’t figure out what the hell a story is about.

“Baby Edward” is one such story.

Shipp is a fantastic writer; let’s get that right out of the way. The man can write! But it is strange. “Baby Edward” is about Ed, a man struggling with the demands of fatherhood—metaphorical or literal? is the question—and a baby’s hunger to be fed, even if its on those Ed loves, or at least needs, maybe a mother-figure. For me, the story is about a man reconciling his years of anger borne from a childhood he’s been trying to keep locked away.

Then again, this is Bizarro fiction, so it’s probably about the Volkswagen Bus declining in popularity due to pervasive breast-feeding in public. But it was a damn good read. Highly recommended.

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Black Grandpa Gone Forever

Back in 2009 I did a Q&A for D.L. Snell’s Market Scoops. There was a question that asked what do I find horrifying, in fiction and in life. My answer for the latter: Humanity.

Jack Ketchum understands that well, I think. His horror is of the human variety. I’ve read a short of his that had zombies, but they were secondary to everything else. Ketchum’s stories are brutal in their honesty.

I’ve been reading his collection Peaceable Kingdom for a few months now—which is generally how I read short-story collections, snatching bits between longer works—and this past week I read the stories “Forever” and “Gone.”

“Forever” is something of a love story between a husband and his wife who’s dying of cancer. It’s a sad tale, and a good one…right until the last line, which I thought sort of ruined it, went for the shock ending. Good, though.

“Gone” is another sad one, about a mother struggling with the guilt of possibly being responsible for her then three-year-old daughter’s abduction (she left her in the car as she ran into a convenience store). This one fares better in its ending, which retains the same sort of melancholy felt throughout the tale without opting for a surprise ending.

Both quality stories in an already excellent collection.

I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read every Dean Koontz book I own—at least the early novels. Whether I’ll find that time or not remains to be seen. But I can definitely fit in some short stories. So I started with Strange Highways, his one and only collection of shorts despite having written over fifty short stories in his career. And the book has just eleven of those plus two novellas. (I think it’s time for a new collection, Deany-poo.)

I jumped right past the first novella, “Strange Highways,” and read “The Black Pumpkin.” It’s a rather traditional kind of spooky tale about a young boy that tries to stop his older—and meaner, crueler—brother from buying a evilly-carved and black-painted pumpkin from a creepy pumpkin carver. The pumpkin costs whatever he wishes to pay, but it comes with a cryptic caveat: You get what you give.

And later that night, they all do. Good stuff.

I’m a Kurt Newton fan. He’s a good dude and an equally good writer. Sadly, I haven’t read most of his work as it’s not available. I missed the damn boat! Good thing he’s still writing.

One of his more recent stories is “The Wooden Grandpa,” which is available in the fourth issue (spring 2010) of the very cool A Cappella Zoo. You can order the print version (always recommended), or read the story by clicking here.

“The Wooden Grandpa” is a tale of a family coming to terms with and finding strength, even companionship, in the extraordinary passing of their grandfather. It’s a sweet and sad and bizarre story. Excellent, too. Read it!

Read them all.

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