Tag Archives: Jeremy C. Shipp

Darkness Dwells in Harlan County

Darkness dwells in Harlan County, since the dawn of time and through the end of days. The people are wonderfully strong of will, insular, and prone to insanity or possession. The mountains and mines are shadowy monoliths, their presence always felt even when not actually seen. Harlan County Horrors is a collection of twelve stories, delving into the rich horrific literary tradition of the isolated mining community.

The anthology starts with “Harlan County,” by TL Trevaskis, which features some beautiful poetic descriptions of the town, and an entertaining ride through adventure and madness. Two superb examples of dark faerie tales and modern folklore follow in Alethea Kontis’s “The Witch of Black Mountain,” where a girl in an unfortunate circumstance meets a dark power on the mountain, and Debbie Kuhn’s “The Power of Moonlight,” a tale of magic and love and the price of their misuse.

We then go to the distant future with the seriously sci-fi “Hiding Mountain: Our Future in Apples,” by Earl P. Dean, where despite the changes in tech and society, the hard life of the Harlan miner stays the same. The book begins to hit its stride with Geoffrey Girard’s “Psychomachia,” an apocalyptic story of Harlan’s past and evil beneath the earth. The prose gets a little heavy at times, but it’s appropriate for the scale of human devastation depicted. I read this story a few times, and enjoyed it more with each read.

“Yellow Warbler” by Jason Sizemore is my favorite of this collection. It’s an excellent sci-fi tale about age and wisdom versus xenophobic ignorance. Preacher Jeremiah and his world captured my interest and left me hungry for more.

Another story of future Harlan comes in the form of Jeremy C. Shipp’s “Kingdom Come,” which tells of an authoritarian dystopia that would give nightmares to Orwell. “Trouble Among the Yearlings,” by Maurice Broaddus, returns us to the unforgotten mines with his story of kin, vengeance, and coming of age in blood and darkness.

Story number nine is “Spirit Fire.” Robby Sparks spins a classically entertaining adventure about a small-town cop standing against ancient evil. Strong characters, exciting climax, solid story. Ronald Kelly presents an awesomely hilarious splatter-fest in the name of “The Thing at the Side of the Road.” Good monster, cool phrasings, it put a psychotic smirk on my face the whole way through. Excellent.

The Chiang-shih comes to Harlan in “Inheritance,” by Stephanie Lenz. It has intrigue and gore, a multi-cultural concept while keeping the small town vibe, and some disturbingly incestuous threads, all woven together to create quite the memorable tale. The last story is Steven L. Shrewsbury’s “Greater of Two Evils,” a fun and strong ending to the book; it is a Call of Cthulu-esque adventure, an outsider’s look at the county’s pre-history.

I always expect excellence from Apex Publications, and was not disappointed with Harlan County Horrors. I had some minor issues with some of the stories—some monologuing here, too weird or confusing there, an occasional lame character name or a strain on disbelief—but all of the stories had wonderful concepts and some great lines, good impact and humor. Over half the stories are very strong and positively memorable, classic ideas with unique twists. Harlan County Horrors is another quality product from Apex, exactly what I look for from a small-press anthology.

Originally appeared in Shock Totem #1, July 2009.

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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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