And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe By Gwendolyn Kiste

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe By Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste has a wonderful way with words. In her hands they are beautiful and savage, comforting and terrifying, heart-wrenching and healing.

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe contains some true gems, tales thick with atmosphere and murky mood. “Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky” and later, “the air tastes of nicotine and abandoned dreams.

These stories are about dysfunctional families, twisted sisters, and haunted mothers and fathers.  “The Clawfoot Requiem” is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” while “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” reads like a nightmarish fairy tale about forgotten princesses.

“My father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.”

and

Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.”

and

“Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.”

Stories like “The Man in the Ambry”, and “Ten Things To Know About The Ten Questions” showcase Kiste’s powerful prose and unique take on familiar horror tropes, while the title tale, about an old film star brought to life by a fan’s love, is fueled by poetry and romance.

“The way you hold me,” you said, your gaze bright as wildfire, “it’s like I’m falling, but you’ve already caught me.”

And the final line:

“And in the final frame, as the universe fades to black, you’ll save each other.”

Indeed, if only we could all save each other. And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe is a brilliant, lyrical, and moving collection of tales.

Brain Dead Blues by Matt Hayward

Irish author/musician Matt Hayward puts his impressive writing chops on display in his short story collection, Brain Dead Blues.

The lead story, “God Is In The Radio,” owes much to H.P. Lovecraft’sThe Music Of Eric Zahn,” only it’s more coherent and satisfying than the original. An aging rock star finds an inter-dimensional doorway hidden inside the notes of his latest tune.

Those little off notes in a Blues lick. The ones that make you think of sex and sin… Those blue notes and the tritone are where the secrets lie.

Music and melody drips from every page of Brain Dead Blues, and Hayward sets a colorful scene will a handful of well-chosen words.

The place smelled of sawdust and stale beer, but to him, it smelled like the raw stench of live music.

The intersection of melody and monsters is where Hayward shines brightest.

Something about the melody got under his skin, wriggled about like a maggot, infecting him. He vomited three times.

At times, Hayward uses his tales to portray the sad path modern music has taken.

Honestly, no one gives a shit! We’ve devalued music so damn much that people just expect you to bleed for free.

The real artists, the real musicians, they’re left working in coffee shops and garages across the globe for next to nothing…

A love of Lovecraft is evident in Haywards prose, from panicked, unreliable narrators, to creepy, cosmic creatures.

Other worlds. Worlds that would make you lose your mind even if you only gave them a glance.

Their faces did look eerily similar to an angler fish, lower lip eating the upper.

Hayward’s other literary strength is weaving fairy tales, folklore, and traditional horror tropes into something wholly original. “The Faery Tree” draws inspiration from “The Monkey’s Paw” while turning the “Tinkerbelle”-notion of fairies on its head. “Cordyceps” turns people into exploding seed spores, while “Critter” blends the best parts of ET and When Animals Attack! Even something as innocuous as a will-o’-the-wisp becomes a unearthly nightmare in Hayward’s hands (“An Angel And A Reaper”).

There are vampire and werewolf stories in Brain Dead Blues, but neither are what you’d expect. The vampire tale—“You Get What You Pay For”—is more of a rumination on eternal life and endless loss, while tipping its hat to the “creepy curio shop” trope. The werewolves in “King Of The Gypsies” belong to a kind of monstrous Fight Club that holds love and family sacred.

As an accomplished musician, there is a palpable rhythm and pacing to Brain Dead Blues. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it…until one of Hayward’s strange creations pops up and scares the shit out of you. 

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The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron
Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron

Laird Barron writes weird.

Barron is a good writer, but the stories contained in his collection, The Imago Sequence  and Other Stories, are sometimes hard to figure. You’ll need a dictionary, good map skills, and a working knowledge of mythology, world religions, philosophy, horror fiction, and crime pulps to make heads or tails of these tales.

Don’t get me wrong; just because Barron’s style is strange doesn’t mean his fiction isn’t enjoyable. The stories in The Imago Sequence are rich with interesting characters and concepts, and practically drip with atmosphere.

Barron is a skilled writer and you can see his toil on every page. He blends Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, in ways both good and bad. Tough guys stumble through the underworld of crime and the Old West against a backdrop of ancient horrors, cosmic interference, and unreliable narrators. At its best, Barron’s gritty prose conjures Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, gut-punching like a trench-coated henchman in an old black-and-white film. Check out these savory one-liners:

“Somebody slapped a bottle of whiskey in my hand and lost the cork…I tumbled off the wagon and got crushed under its wheels.”

“If the best revenge is living well, second best has to be watching your enemy shrivel like a worm on the end of a hook.”

“Underdog and Popeye couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag until they’d had their fix.”

“Karma, brothers and sisters, has a mouth as big as the world.”

Occasionally Barron’s work is undone by his word choice. Just because you’ve got a big vocabulary is no reason to use phrases like, “great chthonian depths,” “uxoricidal brute,” or “compensation for your temerity.”

The title story is the best in the collection. “The Imago Sequence” follows the pursuit of an ultra-rare trio of photographs that drive viewers insane and/or reveal the secrets of existence, perhaps even the very face of God Hisownself. The crime noir vibe builds to a climax that’s equal parts Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and John Carpenter’s The Thing, imbued with meaty philosophical musings:

“Enlightenment isn’t necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.”

Barron’s reoccurring themes include religion, philosophy, and the meaning of existence, all of which are rendered masterfully in “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”

“Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil , just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It’s too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs , and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech’s anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.”

Damn, Laird! That’s the kind of writing that can “turn your bowels to soup!”

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Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines by Richard Laymon

Short Stories: The Mystery and Men's Magazines by Richard Laymon
Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines by Richard Laymon

These stories are a throwback to a simpler time; a time when people drove around in faux wood panel station wagons, wore bell bottoms, and read fiction magazines for entertainment.

That’s right. People used to read. Fiction. For fun! In magazines!

The first Richard Laymon story I ever encountered was “The Champion” published in an early issue of Cemetery Dance magazine. Here was a story filled with grit, unpredictable characters, non-stop action, and a twist ending that would make O. Henry jealous.

I discovered more of Laymon’s signature work in the pages of Cemetery Dance and other small press publications. All of his short fiction was low-down, dirty, and twisted. “Desert Pick-up,” “Oscar’s Audition.” “The Grab.” Each was a gem shinier than the next, all of which are collected in Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines. Why couldn’t I find Laymon’s novels in bookstores? I finally got my hands on a used paperback copy of The Cellar, which turned me into a full-fledged Laymon disciple.

You can see Laymon’s favorite themes in their infancy in this collection. A camping trip interrupted by a knife-wielding maniac is the setting for “Out Of The Woods,” which also displays Laymon’s economic-yet-effective prose.

He grinned as if a glimpse of his big crooked teeth would help me understand better. It did.

Sure, some Richard Laymon short fiction isn’t very original — he riffs on everything from folk tales, to urban legends, to noir detective fiction — but the stories are well crafted, elegant in their simplicity, like Amish furniture.

Some of the stories in Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines seem particularly rudimentary. Laymon used to write Easy Reader-style mystery and suspense fiction for both adults and juveniles, and that style comes through in a few of the stories here.

But Laymon had style! Nobody — except perhaps Elmore Leonard or James M. Cain — used dialogue better to advance plot and define characters. Why Richard Laymon was never a big Hollywood screenwriter is a mystery to me.

Miss you, Dick!

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20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew good.

Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.

“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.

“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.

“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”

“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”

Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.

The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.

The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.

Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.

“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.

“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”

Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.

If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:

  • It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
  • It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
  • It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.

Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.

Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.

Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.

Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff

Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff
Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff

 Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff is a strong collection of creepy tales, served up in a variety of literary styles. Taff experiments with different storytelling techniques, sometimes cribbing prose styles and themes from grand masters of the genre. In lesser hands this work would be hack, but Taff puts his own unique spin these horror genre tropes.

Taff summons a cool Lovecraft vibe in “The Closed Eye Of A Dead World,” and plays with Poe’s prose in “But For a Moment … Motionless.” “Helping Hands” is Taff’s self-admitted attempt at a moody “ye olde Englande” piece.

Other references are more contemporary. “Child of Dirt” pays homage to the 1970s cult horror film, It’s Alive. “The Mellified Man” riffs on a couple of lines from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

“Here” is a touching —and, at times, terrifying — goodbye to a faithful friend. “Snapback” is an excellent example of a modern epistolary tale. In Mary Shelly’s day, epistolary novels were told as an exchange of letters. Taff uses email exchanges to illustrate this time-bending tale of Armageddon.

Speaking of Shelly, the best tale in this collection — “Bolts” — pays homage to Frankenstein. Taff’s take on codependent relationships and self denial is chilling and sharp.

Little Deaths showcases Taff’s writing skill and knowledge of the horror genre. No matter how dark things get, Taff has fun with these tales, and that feeling comes across as you read them.