Tag Archives: Short Stories

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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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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Cellar Door: Words Of Beauty, Tales Of Terror

Cellar Door is an anthology of poetry, flash fiction, short stories, and visual art that all revolves around one common theme; the cellar door. Not just any cellar door, but the cellar door that we all knew as kids growing up. The one that always made you feel a little uncomfortable but that held such terrifying intrigue. The one where you made sure to watch over your shoulder as you turned your back to it. It’s the archetype of the cellar door that is seemingly so engrained in our minds and imaginations that has come to inspire each and every piece in this collection.

Edited by Shawna L. Bernard and published by James Ward Kirk Publishing, this anthology is one of huge volume and contains dozens and dozens of pieces to get lost in, and at first glance upon the subject matter it may seem as though the theme may become a little redundant, but rest assured, this is certainly not the case.

Poems and short fiction that are included vary so much in voice, style, aesthetic, and even the use of the theme of the cellar door are so well implemented, that time and time again you are pleasantly surprised at the creativity and pure originality of each piece and each author. Influences ranging from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King are all present and it is really neat to compare and contrast each piece.

Flipping to any random entry will surely draw you in and soon enough, you yourself will be conjuring up your own ideas and stories about cellar doors. Each story will harken you back to a time where that aging frame and rustic door handle sent chills down spine. The diversity that can be found in Cellar Door is great and it is so easy to just get lost in a quick story or two when you may not have enough time to fully lose yourself in a novel.

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A Conversation with Author Todd Keisling

In his Goodreads profile, author Todd Keisling admits that he is “awkward and weird” and that if you were his neighbor, you’d probably die. Mercedes M. Yardley recently sat down with Todd to get the details on his latest projects and jot down pointers on how to dispose of cranky men who steal things off your lawn.

Mercedes M. Yardley: Todd, you started out with A Life Transparent. Its sequel, The Liminal Man, was a 2013 Indie Book Award finalist in the Horror/Suspense category. Congratulations. Are you currently working on the third book of the trilogy? Did you plot the trilogy out start to finish before you began?

Todd Keisling: Thank you! Being a finalist for the award was a big surprise and an even bigger honor. Initially, I didn’t plot the trilogy from start to finish. A Life Transparent (or ALT) was originally intended as a standalone story, but about a year after its initial publication I had an idea for what became its sequel, The Liminal Man.

That second book was a monster and went through many iterations (I think the final version was draft #5). When my editor finally got her hands on it, she gave me a choice: either add another 150 pages to make the existing ending work, or change the ending and complete the story with a third novel. I took some time to think it over, wrote a broad outline for what a third book would look like, and decided to move ahead in that direction. So to answer your question, no, it wasn’t a planned trilogy.

I spent most of this year working on some shorter fiction since TLM took so long (almost four years) to complete. I really just needed a break from that storyline. That being said, I’m in the early stages of the final Monochrome novel, and while I have the high points of the novel already plotted, I’m still trying to keep the process as organic as possible.

MMY: What’s the draw to writing a series vs. a standalone work? Do you do standalone as well? How do you keep the series fresh?

TK: That’s a good question and I don’t have a straight answer for you. I’ve written standalone novels before, but the Monochrome books are my first real series. I find it’s interesting to watch a character develop over the course of multiple titles rather than a single work. It’s liberating in some ways, and constraining in others: liberating in that I don’t have to tie up loose ends right away (which leaves a sense of mystery, keeping things fresh for the reader), but constraining in that some minor plot detail written in the first book can come back to bite me on the ass in the final book (which makes me cry). Those loose ends that were left untied in the first book always have a way of becoming tangled up in your plot later on, and fixing them always makes for a fun exercise in problem-solving.

It’s just a lot to juggle at one time, and for the third book I’ve started keeping track of extensive notes and details in Scrivener. You know, so minor character names don’t change halfway through, or so one person’s eyes don’t suddenly change from blue to brown.

Overall, I’m enjoying the experience, but I’m also looking forward to being done with the series so I can work on other ideas. Honestly, I think I prefer writing standalone fiction, and I don’t see myself doing another series any time soon—not without planning it, first.

MMY: I know you’re working on a collection of short stories. There seems to be a resurgence of the short story, lately. Would you consider yourself more of a novelist, a short story guy, or both? What are the pros and cons of each form?

TK: I’d like to believe I’m both. I used to write a lot of short fiction, but I turned away from it for a while after writing ALT. After TLM’s publication, I realized I had a number of ideas for stories that had accumulated over the last few years. I wanted to try my hand at shorter fiction again, and I quickly discovered that particular art form is even more difficult than I remembered. Two of the stories in the collection (titled Ugly Little Things) aren’t even “short” by today’s standards; at 14k and 17k words, they’re more novella than short story.

I think novels are fun because they allow for so much development and exploration. The canvas of a novel can stretch as far and wide as you want it to. The danger, of course, is that it can become overwhelming at times, and something complex can require years of commitment. Short stories are harder to execute, but more rewarding if you manage to pull it off. The usual word count restrictions that come with the typical short story markets are also fun to work with, but can be a thorn in your side if you have an idea that begins to take off and grow beyond your original scope.

Ultimately, I believe in letting the story be what it wants to be, which works well in the realm of novels; with short stories, you have to be a lot more hands on, directing the story where it needs to go.

MMY: Musical inspiration. You have it. Tell me how the process works when you’re writing. Do you have something playing at the time? Do you purposely seek out soundtracks for each piece you’re working on, or does it happen to be whatever you’re listening to at the time?

TK: I always write to music. Whenever I sit down to work, I’ll try to find a piece of music that fits the mood or theme of what I’m writing. Doesn’t matter if it’s lyrical or if it’s an instrumental piece—if it fits, I’ll listen to it on repeat until I’m finished working.

I got the idea from Chuck Palahniuk. Several years ago I read an interview in which he talked about listening to the same song over and over while writing. The idea is to listen to something so much that it puts you in a kind of meditative state. Doesn’t matter what kind of music—if you listen to it enough times, you’ll eventually tune it out. I have no idea what the science is behind it; I just know it works for me.

MMY: I met you a bit earlier, but we really started to talk after being in the Exquisite Death audiobook together. Was that your first audiobook? What was the experience like for you? Would you turn your other pieces into audiobooks as well?

TK: As a matter of fact, Exquisite Death was my first audiobook and my first anthology. I had a great time working with In Ear’s Mark Chatterley, and I hope to submit one of my longer stories to him in the near future. I love audiobooks (otherwise I never would’ve made it through Atlas Shrugged) and podcasts (Pseudopod, NoSleep, Welcome to Night Vale, et al), and I intend to pursue having my other work adapted for audio.

MMY: You’re an analytical guy as well as a creative. Does this grounded side help you as a writer?

TK: I think it’s a blessing and a curse. The creative side always wants to rush ahead; the analytical side throws up its hand and says, “Wait a minute. Let’s think about this.” It’s sort of like the classic angel/devil dynamic, with one on each shoulder, keeping one another in check. I’ll have an idea that seems really cool and great, but I always have to think through the logistics—even if I’m completely making it up, I still have to make sure that what I’m writing works within the universe I’ve created.

Something my editor, Amelia, has always done is ask my why or how things work. Even if it doesn’t end up in the story, she asks me those questions as a way of reinforcing my understanding of the plot, scene, whatever is under scrutiny. If I can’t give her a straight answer, that’s usually a sign that I need to a better grasp of what I’m writing about. Sometimes I do have a clear answer; other times I don’t, which has led to several scene rewrites.

I’m trying to approach the final Monochrome book in a more analytical manner, creating a working document filled with questions that a reader (or Amelia) might have. The questions can be about anything, from character motivation to the repercussions of certain actions if they come to pass within that narrative’s universe. Once I answer them, I try to poke as many holes into them as I can, and if they don’t hold up, I try to think of a different solution.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this, but as I head into the final book of an unplanned trilogy, I feel it’s a necessity. Yeah, it’s a little grueling and painful, but I think it will make for a much tighter narrative a year down the line.

MMY: You write horror that easily crosses over into thriller territory. Does the ability to straddle both genres help or hinder your marketing?

TK: In some ways it helps; in others, it hinders. Writing a book that can be classified as a number of genres works well from the angle of appealing to as many people as possible. People who normally don’t read horror or suspense have emailed to say they loved my books, and I think that’s because the stories defy genre.

Unfortunately, the flip-side of that coin means that it may also put off people who stick to a particular genre. My books are speculative fiction, but you’ll find them in the Horror category even though they aren’t 100% straight horror. Some diehard horror fans probably don’t like that; the same goes for the folks who like thrillers or suspense stories—they want serial killers, not weird supernatural creatures. I have both, and they go out for drinks at the end of the day when the work is done.

This defiance of genre is my “brand,” I guess, and it makes the marketing aspect much more difficult. I’ve thought about compromising, sticking to one particular genre to make things easier for myself, but I don’t think I’d be happy doing that. The stories are what they want to be; it’s my job to record them as accurately as possible, and if they happen to deal with parallel realities, monsters, murderers, and noir-like atmosphere, then so be it. I’ll write them down. Maybe people will want to read them.

***

If you’d like to get in contact with Todd or check out any of his work, you can contact him through his website, Facebook, Twitter or his author profile on Goodreads.

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Shades of Lovecraft

Shades of Lovecraft collects eight tales that are competent and thoughtful tributes to one of the genres founding fathers, heavy on influence and tentacles.

We begin with “Dead City.” After a flood, a town resident refuses to evacuate with most of the populace, he bonds with a strange old man as they realize this flood is merely a doorway to bigger, beastlier things.

“Ensnared” finds the crew of a fishing vessel in haunted waters, hauling in a catch they would have done better to have cut loose.

“The Shimmering” is a wonderful old-school adventure into the more science fiction side of Lovecraftian tributes. A man is the sole heir of his missing uncle’s estate. Upon moving in he makes odd discoveries through reading the volumes in the library. Then he notices bizarre lights in the woods, and upon exploring them finds that there are things much stranger than the lights out there.

All the stories in this collection are strong and well-written. But as it is with a lot of Lovecraft’s original work, they can get a little tedious. Rather, they don’t all resonate. The stories that left an impression, I singled out above; and while I didn’t mention the rest, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them.

With Shades of Lovecraft, Paul Melniczek delivers a lovingly rendered homage to one of the true masters of modern horror literature. Recommended.

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The Smell of Cherries

The Smell of Cherries, by Jeffrey Goddin, is a short collection of horror tales. The ideas within are great, but they all seem to suffer from the same malady: They could have used some extra fleshing out.

Starting off with the titular tale, “The Smell Of Cherries,” we have the time-tested “new security guard on the night beat seeing weird shit” plot, mixed with a bit of the “government experiment gone wrong” trope. It ends abruptly and with little luster.

“Year of the Serpent” finds a truck driver reconnecting with an old buddy and his new girlfriend…who reminds him of a past lover. One long dead.

The third story and my favorite of the bunch is “Night Shoot.” A pair of cops respond to the report of a body being found down by the docks. They find a lot of strange things that don’t quite add up and soon wish they had ignored the call. Even though this story is a bit of a mess—plot points are flirted with and then not ever really expanded on—the vagueness sort of works. It’s more like an episode of a cheesy horror-anthology series than a story.

“The Pacific Club” is the final and strongest story in the book. A nice mystery, but one that reads a little too compacted.

As I said at the start, I think the main issue with this collection would be the cramped feel of the stories; they all hint to larger aspirations that went unrealized.

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What Happened Here?

Sometimes in one’s life, you run across an author whose vision you see clearly, as if your minds are somehow connected across the vast expanse of the universe. The author’s voice resonates in your mind, the words he or she places upon the written page are the entirety of your hopes and dreams, your nightmares, your fears, your sorrows, your ideals, and perhaps the longing for a happy ending that you know your own life may not have in store.

For myself, that author is Ben Duiverman. The man has captured my soul, has given to me a mirror through which I can gaze and see the humanity that lies within with startling clarity. His writing is that of a fever dream, a never-ending kaleidoscope of terror, introspection, and eventual acquiescence that permeates my own thoughts each and every day.

What Happened Here? is a collection of seventeen stories, each of which ponder the universal questions that we all ask daily. Be it a question of duty, as in “The Sweeper” or “Lost Over Tokyo,” or the issue of culpability and its price, be it historical or otherwise, and its grip over our hearts, like “The Gathering Place” (the greatest story in the entire book), “The Battle of the Bulge,” “Never Late for Work,” or “An Unnatural Death,” each story resonating, building upon the next, constructing a wall of emotional bricks that, by the time you are done reading, is destined to be torn down.

There are inquiries into the depths of darkness that reside in the hearts and minds of each of us, such as “Trick or Treat,” “The Circus Is in Town,” “A Family Portrait,” and “My Domain.” And there are even those that cast a critical eye on society itself, like the deliciously haunting “Dining with Sharks.” And with “Bogeymen,” perhaps the most frightening of all the stories, the author paints (literally and figuratively) the image of the fate which may await us all, and illustrates with startling ambiguity how we very well may be the unwitting authors of our own demise. As in “A Two-Way Street” and “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” selfishness leads to self-wrought destruction, the bane of man since the beginning of the human race.

This volume, published by the author himself, is truly a great and worthwhile read. It is a paragon of creation and subsequent deconstruction, a masterful work of art using the written word to tear down what we know of reality and to then build it once more in ways we may not have thought of before. Duiverman is a master storyteller, an author with something to say, whose own inner turmoil is laid out for the whole world to see, if we should be brave enough to take that leap along with him. Reading this was a unique and wholly rewarding experience for this reviewer, and it is my hope that any who stumble across this review will take the plunge as well.

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