Short Stories 365/256

“Ordinary Mayhem” by Victoria A. Brownworth from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This isn’t a short story, it’s a novella. It takes up one third of the entire volume.

This story blew me away. It’s incredibly complex but the details are added in careful layers, using repetition in a way that never feels repetitive. We’re introduced to Faye, a student at a Catholic elementary school for orphans. Her parents died in a car crash, hit by a drunk driver. She lived with her grandparents for a short while before becoming a resident at the school as well as a pupil. She’s a thoughtful, inquisitive, sensitive, reclusive, and traumatized child. Everything she encounters gets filed away in the compartments of her mind, to be brought out and studied later on, as part of a quest to figure out the puzzle that is life and death.

The chapters about her childhood are interspersed with ones from her life now, as an adult. Her artistic skill and unflinching ability to look at life’s most grisly aspects have made her a revered photojournalist. The story takes the reader across continents and through time, watching as she collects atrocities. Faye photographs and interviews the “living ghosts” left behind by human monsters.

It’s that fact: that the monsters are not supernatural, that makes this an absolutely bone-chilling tale. It’s hands down the most frightening piece of the entire collection because it’s so grounded in reality. These are the stories we see on the news, about serial killers and genocide and mass hysteria. And though a deep undercurrent of religion runs through the piece, nothing seems capable of stopping the violence.

I first read this story the day the news story surfaced about the grisly murder at the Sirhowy Arms Hotel in Argoed, South Wales. That fact might seem coincidental, but after you’ve read this, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

Every story in this collection is worth reading, but if this were the only one, it would be worth the price of admission. It’s one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and one hell of a way to wrap up this anthology.

Short Stories 365/255

“Crazy in the Night” by Greg Herren from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

Danny and Matthew have been dating for a year and on the surface things are great between them, but deeper down they have issues that aren’t being discussed. The main one is that Danny wants them to move in together but Matthew has given no indication he feels the same. When Danny’s tiny, cramped apartment is rendered uninhabitable by a tree smashing through the roof during a thunderstorm, Matthew’s feelings on the situation are made painfully clear. Sure, he lets Danny stay with him full time after that. He has nowhere else to go, short of a hotel. But when the check arrives from the insurance company, Matthew is quick to start giving Danny helpful tips about finding a new place. (At which point he should start looking for a new boyfriend, too, but you know how characters are. If they acted rationally there would be no stories.)

Danny finds a big, beautiful apartment at a ridiculously cheap price and spends time moving in and getting everything arranged. Matthew is understandably skeptical of the deal but Danny chalks up everything he says to sour grapes, and they continue to grow further apart.

Then strange things begin to happen in the new place. It’s mostly related to light, though not completely. I wanted the odd occurrences to be explained, but they never were. I was left wishing that we’d come into the story nearer to what turned out to be the end, and that it had continued past the point where it stopped. I want to know what was actually going on in the apartment. I have a theory, but the text doesn’t let me know if I’m correct. Overall, it’s a pleasant read, but it feels more like the start of a novel than a short story.

Short Stories 365/254

“Blackout” by Jeffrey Ricker from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the recurring evil in this anthology is the villain from the Scooby Doo cartoons. You know who I mean. “Why, it’s old man Caruthers! He was trying to run you off so he wouldn’t have to split the inheritance with you!”

To which old man Caruthers invariably would reply, “That’s right! I was here first! It’s my money, not yours! And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids!”

Well, kids, he’s at it again in this story. Jason is holed up in the creaky farmhouse he and his partner David purchased a little over a year earlier. Almost immediately we’re told that David died a year after they moved in, which tells us his death was very recent, and this is the story of a man in the depths of despair.

There’s a second recurring theme to this anthology, and that’s that some people live too long. Old man Caruthers—in this story Dan Richards, who owned Jason and David’s house before they did—cannot adapt, and so grows brittle and bitter as his world inevitably changes with time. He lived happily in the house for forty years until his wife Abby got cancer and died. Her death destroyed him. Which begs the question: Will David’s death destroy Jason?

He has a support group, notably David’s sister Katie, who is not nearby, and Jane and Mark, who are. They live down the lane and are very nice neighbors. The trouble is, they were nice neighbors to Dan Richards, too, and it didn’t make any difference. He pulled away from them. Eventually they called the authorities, who found Dan in the house, dead for approximately a week. The real beast of this story lies within.

The story artfully re-visits key moments from the past to show the reader that trouble (whether real or all in Jason’s mind) started right after they began renovating the kitchen. Jason kept running into unexplainable icy drafts David never felt. He became uncomfortable being alone in the house. He perceived that another presence did not want them in the house, but he hung in there, for David. Then David was killed in a freak accident, only Jason doesn’t believe it was an accident at all.

Once you have that piece of information, you’re all set. Jason’s just returned from the funeral, he’s alone in the house, and there’s a blizzard closing in. Will he listen to Katie, Jane and Mark and leave the house to re-start his life? Or will he be inflexible, hunker down in his grief, and, depending on your worldview, either succumb to depression or be killed by a ghost?

A final thought. One line from this jumped out at me: “Jason wanted to believe he could feel David’s presence, but in truth all he felt was chilled, and it dawned on him that the house had grown colder since he started his task.” Another of the author’s short stories, “Tea”, was about surviving the loss of a lover, his novel Detours dealt with the benevolent ghost of the main character’s mother, and similar themes run through his second novel, The Wanted. The emphasis in the above sentence caused me to recall a recent moment from the PBS series “Finding Your Roots”, in the episode about filmmaker Ken Burns. His mother was gravely ill during his childhood and died while he was still young, and he mentions to the show’s host that a friend of his once remarked, because he’s made it his life’s work to dig up the past and tell the stories of people long dead, “Who are you really trying to wake up?”

I wonder.

Short Stories 365/251

“Filth” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This review has vexed me for days, because this story caught me off guard. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I did. And it’s not because it’s a dark story, because most of ‘Nathan’s stories start from a pretty dark reality. I like that, actually. There’s still a lot of darkness in the world. The battle is far from won, and that should be acknowledged. It’s just that this story, probably because it’s a true horror tale, never seems to get much lighter.

Maybe it’s that in his novel and the other stories of his that I’ve read so far (Short Stories 97, 124, and 170, plus his contribution to “Touch of the Sea”, which is next on our hit parade) all deal with people who are adults. Those stories are about people who got away from their monsters and ultimately won by becoming happy. Noah still lives with his monster – his father, called “The Judge”. The Judge beats Noah for being gay and terrorizes him using the Bible. Noah tiptoes around him and manages to make contact with a local LGBT support group. In particular he’s drawn to Rory, but it isn’t as if anything can happen between them, because The Judge has a strangehold on Noah’s life.

Obviously, the reader wants the father to be stopped and Noah to be free. Thankfully, there’s a trademark ‘Nathan Burgoine bit of magic to accomplish that. I was glad for it, but not as relieved as I normally am at the end of one of his tales. Maybe I need that distance from the terrible events to prove that the protagonist is going to be, well, not truly okay, but better? With this the terror is still so fresh and raw at the finish that I’m just out and out worried for him. He’s so young and now he’s all alone. Will the support group really be enough to allow him to survive?

Maybe what really unsettles me is that the awful way The Judge characterized Noah seems to be borne out in the text. He contends that there is filth—evil—in Noah’s blood, and that turns out to be true. This isn’t beams of white light descending from heaven, being refracted by the main character’s aura into a beautiful rainbow, to save the planet from Satan’s minions masquerading as men of God. This is things rising up out of Noah’s blood for the purpose of revenge. Justified, yes, but still very dark.

All of that means, of course, that the story was successful. I was terrified for Noah, and am still upset about his prospects for a happy life.

Short Stories 365/249

“All The Pretty Boys” by Mike Rowe from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

I think this piece comes closest to what I was expecting when I started reading this anthology. Dale is a predator out on the prowl. He is not a nice person, and everyone he encounters is in danger because of it, only they don’t know it. They can’t see inside his head the way we can. They don’t realize he’s a monster.

There’s an allure to walking around in his skin, acting like the alpha male, and being unfettered by any rules at all. But it also unsettles, because the reader knows what his intentions are toward the homeless, desperate, possibly drug-addicted young man he meets. This is the car-crash-in-slow-motion phenomena. You can’t look away because, in spite of what you know is coming, you want to see.

I’m glad the story stopped when it did, unlike the novel Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite (for many, many years my favorite author). I’ve discussed that novel here before, the unpleasantness of having someone with the gift for vivid description tell such a gruesome tale. Again, I’m glad this story didn’t go further, but I would recommend it to anyone looking for good, contemporary short horror.

Short Stories 365/247

“Capturing Jove Lunge” by Steve Berman from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

After the reminiscence during the last entry about my love for the movie Fright Night, it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed this story very much.

There’s an over-the-top quality to the storytelling that establishes right off that this isn’t a realistic tale. It gives the reader license to enjoy what normally would be horrific.

The main character, Gus, is in a taxicab that reeks of stale cigar smoke; the driver is taking the turns too fast, making the tires squeal; and Gus’s arms are so muscular that he’s bursting the seams of his thrift store suit. Larger than life and slightly comical, it puts you at ease.

Gus is heading to the estate of a fine arts painter named Nestor Moiren because he thinks he might find a missing heiress there. His job is to bring her back home, which is a noble mission (provided she isn’t there of her own accord), but Gus isn’t doing it because he’s a concerned citizen. He’s a mercenary. His boss has a contract with the girl’s father, who wants her returned to him. It’s business, plain and simple.

Moiren thinks Gus is there as a life model for his latest artwork. He paints the covers for a series of books about a character called Jove Lunge, the Man of Daring. He’s brought in two other models for the session. There’s a kid named Carl, who’s there to play Jove Lunge’s pseudo-nephew Timmy. And of course there’s Samantha, the missing heiress, who may (or may not) fulfill the ingénue role.

That’s the basic setup. After that it’s just fun. The estate is wild and Moiren is even wilder. He makes his entrance on a scaffold in the greenhouse wearing a smoking jacket and a fez, for cryin’ out loud. It becomes clear by degrees that he’s just-this-side-of insane, but he’s also charming and successful, and has a great house and a faithful servant (who has one of the best lines in the piece). Plus, Moiren seems able to read Gus’ soul. He puts him into situations that cater to his deepest desires.

I did say Moiren’s insane, though, right? And just as with the last story, this isn’t a romance; you know it’s all going to go to hell in a hand basket. While it lasts, though, it’s a whole lot of fun.

Short Stories 365/245

“The Price” by J.M. Redmann from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

I’ve just realized something about myself. I need at least one aspect of a story to be redemptive. I need one of the characters to learn something from the experience, or I need to learn something from it. Neither of those things happened here.

The main character, Sister Mafalda, was a nun during the Spanish Inquisition. She did some terrible things and now she’s in Purgatory, though what is described seems much more like Hell. After being locked in a single, suffocating room for centuries she’s given a chance to be free, for a price. She must go out into the world and find other lost souls to bring back to her jailors.

I despised Mafalda and felt the same way about both of her captors. I also couldn’t stand the character she lures in and brings back. They’re all wretched, terrible beings. A final character is introduced who long ago suffered terribly because of Mafalda’s selfish, evil choices. I’m not sure about the theology of the piece because she seems to have been reincarnated.

There is a moral to this story, but I already knew it and it’s lost on the main character. (It also doesn’t seem to apply to one of the characters. Twice she acts admirably and twice she’s damned anyway.) Watching as the message sails over the main character’s head is gruesome, and the story as a whole is unrelenting. It’s like a nightmare where one awful, stomach-souring thing after another keeps happening, and you wake up shaky, thinking “What the hell was that?”

I don’t know. I’m going to have to check out one the author’s New Orleans-based mysteries soon. They sound delightful, and this was not really my cup of tea.