The Circle by Bentley Little

From Cemetery Dance:

“The shrine. How does it operate? Do you just pray to it or do you have to bring it something or what?”

In this unsettling novella by Bentley Little, many strange occurrences unsettle the inhabitants of William Tell Circle:

For Helen, a knock on the door brings an unexpected visitor along with lavish gifts, and it seems all her wishes have been granted…but at what cost?

For young Frank and his friends, a fabled neighborhood shrine may answer their prayers for a girlfriend, just as their older brothers hope the same source will grant them money. But the older boys’ improvised ritual turns into something horrible…

For Gil Marotta, a rescue mission to the shrine leads him into a chilling confrontation with the local witch…

The Circle tells the story of a normally quiet community, plunged into the kind of surreal nightmare only Bentley Little can deliver.

Simply stated, The Circle is not Bentley Little’s best work.  I originally read the story about 10 years ago when it was part of the FOUR DARK NIGHTS collection and remember being entertained by it.  After all of these years my opinion of the story has lessened quite a bit.  If you were to take the story apart and examine each of its “components” it works but unfortunately as a whole the thing just comes off as disjointed and confusing.

The story takes place on a typical cul-de-sac in a mundane suburban neighborhood where the residents are as cookie cutter as they come.  Unfortunately for the residents of the circle, there also happens to be a modern day witch living in their midst and they have just pissed her off.  What follows is a series of horrific scenarios as the witch looks to bring retribution on her unsuspecting neighbors.  The actual story was fresh, fun and surprisingly believable.  Things just fell apart in the execution.

Little usually reaches the line where most authors would stop and he crosses it with a grin on his face.  Nothing seems too violent or graphic for Little. This wasn’t the case in The Circle.  On more than one occasion I was waiting for a huge payoff but was left complete blue balled.  Even in the opening (arguably the best part of the story) the premise is absolutely disgusting but it didn’t hit on an emotional level the way Little’s other “gross out” scenes play out. I guess this is what happens when you grow up with an author and then go back and re-read some of their earlier work.  It also explains why I may have enjoyed the story a bit more when a read it a decade ago.

I’m sure most Little fans will scoop this up immediately and I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from doing so. As usual Cemetery Dance has done a bang up job with the presentation here and this will look beautiful on any collectors shelf.  Now for those who are not necessarily Little fans or those new to his work, this may not be the best read for you.

The Haunted by Bentley Little

It seems that once an author achieves any type of success in this genre, there are a group of “critics” who are quick to knock them down.  The critical attacks cite everything from their lack of literary prowess to the narcissistic love of their own style.  Hell, there are people who begrudge authors because they feel that certain authors have already enjoyed enough success, as if we are only allowed a set amount of praise and celebration.  When it comes to Bentley Little, this crowd loves to say that Little does not know how to properly close a story.  Well, Little’s new haunted house story, cleverly titled THE HAUNTED, is out and as the old internet meme goes “haters gonna hate”.

From Amazon:

The Perry family’s new house is perfect-except for the weird behavior of the neighbors, and that odd smell coming from a dark corner in the basement. Pity no one warned the family about the house. Now it’s too late. Because the darkness at the bottom of the basement stairs is rising.

THE HAUNTED is absolutely heartbreaking in its dissection familial relationships.  Don’t be mistaken, this is a haunted house tale but it is also a study of the power and beauty of family and sacrifice.  The Perry’s have had their fair share of pain in their past but have moved on and established themselves as a “normal” family.  Of course, the Perry’s have to endure the struggles that most families face when they have two teenage children, financial uncertainty and disapproving in-laws but they meet these obstacles and work through them. That is why the actual haunting seems so frightening.  Little creates rich characters that the reader can relate to and when we see them tormented, it hurts just a little bit more.  As evidenced by his book titles, this is what Little does best.  He creates characters and worlds that are eerily similar to the places his readers call “home”, then he incorporates chilling elements spawned from the mundane to throw our precious lives into a tailspin.

The story is slightly flawed as certain plotlines are never fully hashed out and often end up going nowhere, making the middle of the novel slightly frustrating.  There were elements of the story that were incorporated out of convenience instead of necessity.  For example, a local teacher who specializes in local history is brought into the story for no other reason than to create a bridge to flashbacks of the town.  His story was never fully resolved and to say that his character was one-dimensional still wouldn’t begin to describe how flat he was.  These complaints are trivial but they certainly detracted from the overall experience and are uncommon in Little’s work.

The fact that THE HAUNTED is so frightening makes it easy to forget about minor flaws.  Little crafted an ancient evil that had me waking up at night, hearing things creaking about the house.  Little uses modern technology like cell phones and computers, mixing in the classic haunting staples to create a truly inventive tale.  By having the Perry family receive lewd text messages and faces appearing on computer screens, Little walked a very fine line between silly and scary but I am happy to report that there is nothing lighthearted here.  The terror is cranked up at an agonizing pace until the reader is too frightened to keep reading but too engaged to put the book down.  It leaves the reader with a special reading experience that when firing on all cylinders, Little does better than anyone in the genre.

Now, it is time to talk about the ending.  As I said in the intro, there are a lot of people who love to hate Little’s endings.  As you may have guessed, I don’t really share that opinion.  For years the same thing has been said about King, yet I’ve never experienced it myself. The initial buzz surrounding THE HAUNTED was more of the same.  As usual, I thought Little wrapped the story up beautifully.  I am not too much of man to admit that I wept openly as I worked through the final chapters of the story.  Little often takes a more human approach to his endings and THE HAUNTED was no different.  Despite a book full of supernatural evil, Bentley is able to find powerful ending in the normal, not the supernatural.  The personal take on the ending was Little at his most literary as his prose achieved maximum emotional impact.

THE HAUNTED isn’t Little’s best but it is far from his worst.  The characters are very strong and the story is a solid haunted house tale that will frighten and titillate exactly where it should.  Little’s pacing is fast as ever which makes THE HAUNTED one of the quickest, most entertaining books you’re likely to encounter this year.

The Mailman by Bentley Little

I was at the post office the other day when an overwhelming sense of impending dread crept over me.  The unexpected feeling didn’t initially register with me but on a subconscious level I knew it was there.  As I got in line to purchase some stamps, I noticed that my palms where sweating. This was starting to get weird because I’m not a nervous type of guy and I certainly don’t get anxious very often.  Then the unthinkable happened.  I looked toward the counter and made direct eye contact with the kindly old gentleman donning the uniform of a postal worker.  My bowels clenched and my heart started beating out of my chest.  All thoughts of buying stamps left me as I made my way to the door in hurried fashion.  When I finally arrived home safely, I gave this bizarre event some thought.  I was looking for a possible reason for the extreme reaction to this pretty common situation and then it hit me.

 

The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Bentley Little and his yarn, The Mailman.  Now for those don’t know, Bentley Little writes some of the best modern pulp stories that you are likely to find.  Sure, his books proclaim him as the next Stephen King and other such nonsense but make no mistake my friends, Bentley Little is the master of crafting a pulp story.  His tales do what pulp was meant to do- take everyday occurrences and sensationalize them to the point of being entertaining.  As a point of reference, pick up any of the old Gold Medal Pulp titles and they are nothing more than everyday events which happen to spiral into a series of extraordinary events.  That’s what made those stories so damn fun and that is what makes Little such a special talent.  The Mailman represents Little wearing his pulp influences on his sleeve and completely terrorizing the reader in the process.

 

The story obviously hits home for anyone with a mailing address.  The mailman can be an angel or a devil depending on the day.  We get elated when he walks to our doorstep with that package we have been waiting for but tend to cower behind the curtains when we catch him dropping off that past due bill. Little masterfully exploits the emotions associated with the latter and crafts a frightening tale around it.  In The Mailman, the town of Willis has been assigned a new mailman after the bizarre suicide of their previous package handler.  The new mailman, John Smith, appears gleefully distant with his pale skin and red hair.  Everything starts off swimmingly as the residents of Willis discover that there is no more junk mail and many of their long-lost acquaintances are now sending them letters.  How odd. The good vibes slowly fade as a rash of lost payments result in utility outages and eventually the mail takes a much more sinister turn when letters from dead relatives start arriving in the mailboxes around town.  All of this is directly linked to the new mailman as the residents notice some peculiar changes at and around the Post Office. Things begin spiral out of control quickly as one horrifying event after another assault the reader with Little ratcheting up the tension at an excruciating pace. The story quickly leaves the realm of reality and takes the reader to a very dark place filled secrets and shadows. All of this culminates with some real life horrors that were reminiscent of the worst bits in Laymon’s The Cellar. It is a brutal way to bring the reader back down to earth and make them realize that even the most fantastic events are possible.

 

The Mailman is so good at delivering the terror that I never really saw it coming.  Sure, I cringed a few times during the reading but I was never truly terrified.  Well, I wasn’t scared until I went to the post office and all of Little’s brilliance manifested itself in my heart.  That is the power of pulp writing.  It is so approachable and entertaining that the reader never realizes how much it is influencing them. I can’t even count the amount of times that I’ve read a hardboiled detective story and picked up a bottle of Jack on the way home. These stories are just so simple, yet so effective. On the surface, many of these books may be considered silly (Little’s titles included) but that is where their power lies.  Their unsuspecting nature allows us to welcome them into our lives, only to find that these stories are really ticking time bombs just waiting for the right moment to explode.

 

The Mailman is no different. There are some genuinely silly moments in the story that keep your gurad down.  I’ve heard people site the “dancing mailman” scene as too silly to be taken seriously.  Little knew what he was doing when he wrote that.  He is lulling you into a sense of security. As with many things in our beloved genre, too many readers dismiss him because they don’t understand the subgenre in which his writing is steeped.

 

The Mailman is a brilliant tale that I encourage all of the Dreadful Tales readers to check out.  Also, if you’re looking for some good pulp stories to familiarize yourself with the genre, check out the public domain titles over at Munsey’s.