Tag Archives: Short Story Collection

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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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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In Search Of and Others

One of the great things about reviewing is the opportunity to read new authors. You can tell if you’ve just discovered someone special to keep an eye on.

Will Ludwigsen is someone to watch. This collection of short stories is nothing short of riveting. Called In Search Of and Others because of the author’s fascination with the TV series of the same name that ran from 1976 to 1982, the stories themselves also feature people searching for answers to the questions in their mundane lives.

From the foreword to the story notes, this collection will keep you turning the pages. And don’t skip the introduction by Jeffrey Ford; it’s a great read in itself.

The first story, “In Search Of,” questions are answered—maybe some of your own—in a very satisfying way. I found it fascinating, and hoping some of the answers were true.

“The Speed of Dreams” has a little girl questioning if you can gain more time in your life through dreams. It was a really interesting premise with a breathtaking ending.

“We Were Wonder Scouts” reminded me a bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Surreal and creepy, the story will leave you wondering just what went on. But you are left to draw your own conclusions.

One of my favorite stories, “Remembrance is Something Like a House,” creeped me out in a great way. A house desperately needs to tell its story to a former owner, and searches for years until it finds him. It sounds out there, but after reading this, you will believe that this house did what it needed to do.

All of the stories in this collection are well-written and I enjoyed them all very much. If you like short stories, you will absolutely love In Search Of and Others. Definitely not your typical horror stories, there is a depth to these tales you don’t usually find in the genre.

If you’re looking for something that will grab your emotions, then this is what you are looking for.

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You Shall Never Know When the Veil Drops

The thirteen tales collected in You Shall Never Know Security, by J.R. Hamantaschen, are strange. Dark and strange. I’d even go so far as to use the term “bizarro” for some of them. Not all, but a few.

At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, Hamantaschen has a deft hand when it comes to language, but sometimes the wordage grows unwieldy. Sometimes less is more, as they say. One of the few complaints I have with this collection is that some of his word usage made me feel stupid and wishing I had a dictionary close by.

But onto more important things, the stories.

We begin with a high school drama, a la Lovecraft, titled “A Lower Power.” This one is full of adolescent snark and otherworldly snarl. “Wonder” is one of my favorites from the collection and there is not much I can tell without spoiling the magic. “Endemic” is a high tech off-kilter tale of Internet popularity. The literal title of “A Parasite Inside Your Brain” tells you all you need to know about this one.

There is a great deal of black humor to these, none more evident than in “Jordan, When Are You Going to Settle Down, Get Married and Have Us Some Children?” where a very nervous man, saddled with a unique curse, rediscovers why he has remained alone. “College” is an exercise in humanity courses, taken to the Nth degree. “Nothing” is another fist to the forehead. And the volume closes with the darkly brilliant “There Must Be Lights Burning Brighter, Somewhere.” This novella-length tale is compelling and unique. Well worth the price of admission alone.

If you like your fiction unique and on the darker side, if you wonder what Robert Aickman would sound like had he written in the Now instead of the Then…your answer is here.

For When the Veil Drops is the second release from West Pigeon Press, the first being the Hamantaschen collection above. While the previous is a single-author collection, For When the Veil Drops is an anthology featuring work by fifteen authors, Hamantaschen included. It contains some brilliant work, as well as a few that left me shaking my head.

Christian A. Larsen’s “724” gives us a scenario we’ve read before but delivered in a very strong way. “The Chopping Block,” by Doug Murano, is a slightly surreal and brutally effective survival drill. Yarrow Paisley gives us a Lovecraftian plague in “The Persistence of Frondu.” One of the strongest pieces comes from Michael Wehunt, whose “A Coat That Fell” is haunting in its bleakness and raw power.

Another that I favored was Samuel Minier’s “The Third List,” wherein we find out that sometimes, in regards to Santa, two categories is never enough. J.R. Hamantaschen turns in a fantastic neo-noir revenge story with “Oh Abel, Oh Absalom.”

The stories that I didn’t mention were not exactly bad, they just failed to resonate with me for some reason…but trust me, the ones that did make it well worth your time and money. For a new press, and a table of contents full of mostly newer names, this is a strong anthology. I have feeling we’ll be seeing quite a few of these authors for some time to come.

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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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Die, You Badass Bubbles, Die!

Earlier this year, Jan Kozlowski delivered her debut novella, Die, You Bastard! Die, via Ravenous Shadows, an imprint where every book is handpicked by John Skipp. This fact alone should be enough for most horror fans to take note, but if it isn’t let me up the ante: This book is hardcore!

Claire is a paramedic, and a damn good one at that, one who has spent her adult life trying to make up for and forget her childhood.

The novella opens with her and her partner answering a disturbing call: A little girl trapped beneath the body of a naked man. This case, coupled with a phone call, drags Claire back to the horrific events of her childhood and a lifetime of dark and dastardly suffering at the hands of her father.

Her father has been hospitalized, and in answering the call Claire is drawn into a warped scenario of revenge and double-cross and some of the most disturbing tactics ever committed to the printed page.

Ravenous Shadows debuted with a lofty promise of nearly forty titles a year, but sadly hit the wall after only five. Other than Jan’s, I have only read Adam Cesare’s wonderful Tribesmen, although I intend to track down and read the remaining titles.

Maybe after this unspecified hiatus Ravenous can get all oars in the water again and keep the line flowing. I truly hope so, but if not I am already grateful for being turned on to a pair of great authors I hope to follow for quite some time.

Dybbuk Press dropped this little collection, edited by Michael Stone and Christopher J. Hall, way back in 2006. Consisting of seven stories, all poised to slap you in the face and hopefully knock out a few teeth. It was a promise I found sadly unfulfilled.

We open with the tale “Pool Sharks,” by Gerald Brennan. This is more or less hood-heavy, thug drama with a simple ghost-story twist ending. Not a bad story, but not anything a veteran watcher of Twilight Zone would not have seen coming. Next up is Garry Kilworth’s “The Stray,” a strange little number that is heavy with metaphor and satirical symbolism. Quite clever at times and a little silly at others, I rather enjoyed it. Michael Hemmingson’s “Hardboiled Stiff” is an overlong exercise in noir and the undead.

Ronald Malfi’s story, “All the Pretty Girls,” is my favorite. What we get is a darkly strange and spiritual tale of a man working to appease his god—in a very sinister fashion. Gord Rollo gives us a standard evil-tattoo tale in “Moving Pictures,” while Davin Ireland delivers “The Essences,” a story with an almost-dark-fantasy vibe. Closing out the collection is Michael Boatman’s gory “Bloodbath at Lansdale Towers,” a morality tale with a knifey twist.

While I did enjoy Badass Horror, only Malfi’s made me stand and say, “Wow!” Overall I couldn’t help but feel there was not enough “badass.” But I was entertained and could not call the evening spent reading this a disappointment.

Before reading Black Bubbles, released by Thunderstorm Books, earlier this year, I was familiar with Kelli Owen only by name, having never read her work. After reading Black Bubbles, I can say that Owen is a very good writer of dark fiction.

Reliant on character over shock and awe, I found this collection to be good, with several stories hanging on the cusp of “Holy shit, this is brilliant!” There was, however, one story that floored me. So much so that I have re-read it at least five times since the initial read, and given the amount of stories I read a year, that is saying something.

I won’t go over all of the tales, but will touch upon a few that I dug. “The Tin Box” is a familiar theme but the angle and delivery are what makes this a standout. The passing of a grandparent opens up an atmosphere of reminiscence and love…until they find evidence of family secrets best left hidden. “Shadows in a Bowl of Soup” is a wonderful prose piece. “Dig the Hole” is a fantastic slice of dark reality. A groovy little violent satire on therapy and sociopaths comes in the name of “How’s That Make You Feel?”

But “Spell” is the one. THE ONE! This story punched me in the face, wiped the blood from my lips, and then drew a big L on my forehead for not having expected it. Simply amazing story. I’m not even going to mention its plot as that would be a disservice to it.

Black Bubbles is a solid collection. While some stories were very strong, and others seemed like they could have been a bit more fleshed out, I liked every one. I hope to check out more of Kelli’s work in the future.

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The Crow’s Caw Reviews The Wicked…Plus an Essay and a Contest

The almighty Jassen Bailey has given The Wicked a great review over at The Crow’s Caw.

“This is one of the coolest paperback I’ve ever laid eyes on. This is the total package.”

You can read the review here.

More than that, however, Jassen has allowed James to guest blog about The Wicked, specifically the excellent characterization found within the book. It’s a wonderfully insightful read.

And if that’s not cool enough, they’re giving away two copies of The Wicked and one copy of James’s fantastic collection, People Are Strange. All you have to do is go to the comments section and post your top 10 favorite horror novels and movies from the 80s. Couldn’t be easier!

Again, you can find the review, essay, and contest here. Dig it!

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The Zombie Feed, Vol. 1

I love me a good zombie tale. Dawn of the Dead is my favorite movie of all time, Romero is a god to me, and my first book is about those meandering, rotting corpses. So when I was sent The Zombie Feed, the new compilation put out by Apex Publications and edited by Jason Sizemore, for review, I was more than pumped to dive right in.

Inside this volume are 17 tales of zombies in all of their various forms. At first I expected a grouping of run-of-the-mill apocalyptic, undead stories. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered how different the collection is, with how many various directions the authors took what very often are clichéd tropes and plot devices.

In order to adequately break down this fantastic collection, let’s look at The Zombie Feed story by story.

Not Dead by BJ Burrow: A woman wakes up on her deathbed, questioning if she’s still alive. A touching story of the nature of faith and what really defines humanity.

Tomorrow’s Precious Lambs by Monica Valentinelli: An original, if somewhat clunky, take on the origins of the outbreak and the privileged nature of the wealthy. It could’ve been spectacular given the original premise the author came up with, but it falls flat. A little too “Ah, gotcha!” for my taste.

Cold Comfort by Nathaniel Tapley: What is this? A zombie tale without a true zombie? A fantastic story dealing with the undead that only exist in the narrator’s head, as a Russian mortician whose wife is cheating on him communes with his recently-departed patients. Ironically enough, in this particular tale it isn’t the dead who should be considered zombies.

The Final December Day by Lee Thompson: This one follows more along the lines of a traditional zombie tale. A lone cop, searching for his long-lost partner on his last day on Earth, runs across a young photographer. An interesting take on the apocalypse where the zombies are simply drug-addicted, insane humans, and aliens roam the earth. I enjoyed the message, but it fell a little short. This is one short story that begged to be longer.

Broken Bough by Daniel I. Russell: A particularly heartbreaking tale of the end of the world, told from the point of view of a young family of three struggling with the ultimate decision. Truly sad, it makes you wonder what you might do should the unthinkable happen. Would you be able to take the actions necessary? Haunting.

The Sickness Unto Death by Brandon Alspaugh: A somewhat convoluted tale of the recently departed rising up, remembering their pasts and able to act as human, though they’re no longer living. A bit confusing, and written in a way that I think might seem like the author is trying to “put one over” on the reader. I’m all for an original, inventive story, but this one seemed too clever for its own good.

A Shepherd in the Valley by Maggie Slater: Now this one was creepy. A man, all alone and living in an old airport, has figured out a way to “tame” the dead. A heartening examination of a parent’s love and the sacrifices one must make in the face of absolute terror.

Twenty-Three Second Anomaly by Ray Wallace: Eh, I could give or take this one. The story of human experimentation and how exact science can be. Interesting, but the punch isn’t punchy enough and the emotions seems forced. Not bad, but could be better.

The Last Generation by Joe Nazare: Another very interesting and not-quite-zombie story. All people have fallen over and entered a state of non-death, and only a few wake up, albeit minus their memories and sense of self. An inventive story, but lacking in some important information (such as how do they remember pop culture references and not their names or pasts) that could have made the story much more affecting. Decent nonetheless.

Bitten by Eugene Johnson: One of the few standard zombie tales in the whole collection. A very short story of a bunch of folks trying to protect a house at the end of the world. It is what you’d expect.

Lifeboat by Simon McCaffery: A very entertaining story of a group of people surviving the apocalypse by sailing the ocean on a cruise ship. Intriguing and imaginative, the narrative takes twists and turns I never expected, coming out at the end in an intense, hell-bent-for-leather climax. One of the best in the bunch.

Rabid Raccoons by Kristen Dearborn: Now this is what I call taking a genre and flipping it on its head. A teen girl does her friend wrong, only to be assailed (possibly mystically) by zombie raccoons. A stupendous job of telling a story from the viewpoint of a young adult, this tale captures the sense of seclusion and fear beautifully. Great story.

Zombies on the Moon by Andrew Clark Porter: Another short tale, and while the imagery of a moon cluttered with zombies has stuck with me since I’ve read it, this is another example of a story that could use some fleshing out to be perfect.

The Fare by Lucian Soulban: The absolute best story of the bunch. A lonely man in the aftermath of the world’s end hires a mysterious cabbie to help him obtain closure for his past sins. A tremendous study of the human condition, of how guilt can guide our actions after a traumatic event, no matter if we were in the right or not.

What’s Next? by Elaine Blose: This is the only story that I don’t think belongs in this collection. It wants to be campy, describing a world where aliens bring about the zombie apocalypse, only to have monster after monster appear in their wake, but it comes off as amateurish. The rest of the stories in this collection are so strong and insightful, it seems entirely out of place.

Goddamn Electric by K. Allen Wood: Another ingenious story, imagining a “different” sort of zombie, when the skies open up during an apocalyptic storm and fry everyone who wasn’t smart enough to find shelter. High on anxiety and even (surprisingly) emotion, this story follows an old man who’s lived a long life and isn’t quite ready to give it up.

Hipsters in Love by Danger_Slater: This is the oddest story of the bunch. I absolutely hated it until I was a couple pages in, when I went back to the beginning and re-read the title. This is a complete farce of a tale, a satire poking fun at a certain segment of our modern culture, complete with kids and their ironic t-shirts worrying about obtaining some Pabst Blue Ribbon in the face of the undead. A highly funny romp, it’s the perfect choice to end this anthology.

So that’s it! In all, I’ll say this is well worth the read, and the best zombie anthology to come out in years. Congrats to Apex and to Jason Sizemore. You’ve collected something highly entertaining and even touching. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves this genre of story.

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