(or “How I managed to write over 2000 words about an 11,000 word chapbook in one post, without talking about the mating habits of any animal species… again)
It’s not everyday that you get a chance to check out a chapbook that slaps together three of horror’s “old standards” (I hope I don’t catch hell for using the word “old” here), and three newcomers to the genre in one piece, but that’s exactly what Cemetery Dance has offered up with one of their latest releases.
Sold as a double-chapbook, Bad Dreams, New Screams serves as a buffet of delights readers assume they are bound like, and a few new dishes thrown in the mix for a first-time tasting. Whether or not these newbies stack up to the pro’s is for the readers to decide. As for my opinion, I’m not really finding myself torn between the two sides at all, as you’ll soon read.
And trust me, I was blown away by how I felt at the end of this one. Gat-damn, son!
This special “double” chapbook includes classic tales of terror by three modern nasters of horror, original fiction by the three winners of our Cemetery Dance Forum’s short fiction contest, and original cover artwork my Ken Cain and Edward Bourelle that were chosen by the members of our forum. Featuring more than 11,000 words of horror fiction, this is one of the biggest chapbooks we’ve ever published!
From the Cemetery Dance website
I don’t usually go on about the way a product is put together, but there’s an interesting “thing” to the concept behind the construction of this chapbook. When I received it, I thought I might be reading one of those “one old, one new, one old” and so on type of formats. Buuuut… that’s not the case with this little thing.
If you take a look-see up there at the cover image, you’ll notice that there are actually two covers. One on the front, and one on the back. This is literally one of those “read three stories and flllllll-IP thebookover” gimmicks that I used to love as a kid, and absolutely hate in instruction manuals. Luckily for me, this thing isn’t written in Spanish or made by those damned furniture tricksters at Ikea, so I was bound to succeed in reading it… unlike in building those goddamn Swedes’ confusing-ass furniture. Grrrrr. Shut-up. I suck at building Ikea furniture. So what?
Anyway, after checking out that fun little design surprise, it became apparent that this chapbook serves as two different chapbooks in one, with Bad Dreams showcasing the works of genre heavyweights Ray Garton, Douglas Clegg, and Brian Keene; and New Screams throwing down new fiction by the likes of C.W. LaSart, M. Louis Dixon, and Nikki McKenzie (who, if you follow Brian Keene and/or Kelli Owen’s blogs/twitter accounts, the name should be familiar to you, albeit in passing, as they tend to speak highly of her.)
Of course, seeing the names “Garton”, “Clegg”, and “Keene” together in one piece is any seasoned horror-lit fan’s dream, so I started with them. Looking back, it’s a little weird that I’d take that route. I’m usually the type to read the people I haven’t heard of first and, if it’s hard to swallow, I’d go ahead and wash the bitterness down with the likes of the modern masters. I have no idea why I went this way, but I did, and now you have to deal with it because I can’t possibly write this review in any other order than that. Call me a control freak. I call it organization.
*puts pencils in a line on desk, obsessively*
You know who all of these folks are, so I’m going to skip with the grandiose introductions and get straight to the meat of their stories.
Garton starts off this chapbook with A Date With Maggie – a short story about a blind date straight out of the Twilight Zone. Flo Realz, people. This is one twisted little ditty that is definitely deserving of Rod Serling narrating the whole damned thing, but lacks the “crazy” that I’m so used to getting from this author.
Written in a distinctly matter-of-fact way, Garton speeds through the story like a linebacker on steroids, not even bothering to leave room for guessing what’s going to happen. The climax of the story is apparent from the get-go, but that doesn’t ruin the author’s work in the least. Garton is always fun to read, and this is no exception. I just wish it had been a little longer, and not so damned predictable. Ribbit. I mean, where’s the blasphemy and nutso-crazy-fucking-shit that I’m used to? Ribbit.
Next up is Douglas Clegg’s The American, which takes a long hard look at an American traveler (duh) in a foreign land, enjoying a peaceful conversation that eventually alludes to some seriously dark subject matter. Clegg has the most powerful story of the three here, making use of more drama and mystery than the previous story, and delivering a solid, well crafted tale that meanders and takes its time, unlike the story that follows it.
It’s virtually impossible to tell you anything about these tales without ruining them, so I’ll just say that Clegg pounds this one out in the vein of the early 80s powerhouse haunted-horror writers most of us were bred on. This man is a genuine wordsmith. The American makes this chap worth the price of admission alone. It’s like reading Straub’s Pork Pie Hat. I just fell into the story and enjoyed it. *sigh*
Rounding out (for lack of a better term) this odd-numbered fright-fest is Brian Keene with The Ghost of Monsters. Now, I don’t know what the plan for this little anthology was entirely, but goddamn if Mr. Keene didn’t follow Garton’s example with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am style of tale as well. This one just gets up and moves like a Laymon story on crack. I mean, when Keene wants to blast one out, he can. If you’ve read his short, Burying Betsy, you’ll know what I mean. This is Scoutmaster Keene at the campfire, kids. Gather ’round.
Playing a little with his own stories, Keene sets the stage in LeHorn’s hollow, and makes reference to Dark Hollow and Ghost Walk‘s Adam Senft. The ending, which is pulled off in a very “Keene” way – if you’ll allow me to make a new literary label here – as the conclusion just sort of… happens, leaving the reader split down the middle and either satisfied from a quick fix or, like me, wishing the story was (again) a little bit more fleshed out.
Overall, I’d go with Clegg for the win on this one. The American saves the day for these three heavyweights, and leaves a good taste in your mouth after Garton and Keene’s McNugget meal stories.
Now all that’s left are the newbies. And honestly, I was pleasantly surprised.
After what I thought to be a bit of a phone-in from the top dogs, it felt like the following folks brought some bite and fight along with a fresh look at the art of the short story.
C.W. LaSart, whom I unfairly assumed was a guy (because apparently I’m a clueless idiot who thinks all names with initials mean it’s either some dude writing words in his mother’s basement, or a French person… which makes no sense at all but is a great example of my obvious lack of logic skills), is an emerging author hailing from the Midwest. According to her website, she’s been published in all manner of short story markets since 2010 and, if it’s all up to date, is sitting pretty with 15 publications under her belt. Her offering here, Dr. Johnson’s Patient, made me feel like I should have started here, primarily because it had all of the trappings I absolutely love in a short piece.
What we have here is, much like Garton’s tale, is a Twilight Zone-infused story that begs the question – is the crazy guy really all that crazy, or are we all just assholes for assuming so? Well, Dr. Johnson finds out the hard way, and LaSart proves that sometimes it’s a fresh look at an old style thats needed to show the world who’s boss.
I look forward to seeing if this author can pull off a novel or novella with this much panache. Hell, I’m game. Bring it, LaSart.
The Wings of a Fly follows that stellar introduction with big shoes to fill. Now… I’m not sure, but I think M. Louis Dixon might actually be Michael Louis Dixon – artist – whose work you can see in Dark Recesses Magazine (and at www.mlouisdixon.com). I really couldn’t find that much information on this author, and you all know how great of a stalker I am. Putting aside his ninja-like expertise in hiding from my internet researchismo, this story was a bit of a toss up for me.
Regular readers know I tend to rag on first-person narrative. Shit. It’s my site, and you know what? I hate first-person narrative. I don’t want to think about myself when I’m reading a story, it’s rarely done well, is completely overused, and if someone makes the statement “you get to be someone else for a little while blah blah blah” one more time, Imma break a foot off in dey ass.
Luckily for Dixon, the poetic prowess of this tale caught me off guard enough that I was able to appreciate the Lovecraftian echoes at play, and was held hostage by a very dynamic mind-movie, if you will. This author has, like I said, a poetic swagger to his flow that did feel nice to the touch but, in the end, just doesn’t overcome the narrative. It’s hard for me, folks. I’m trying.
Artistically, this is a killer piece written by someone who is obviously in love with the English language. But structurally, it’s not my cup of tea.
And last, but certainly not least, comes the sweaty, gag inducing Meat Socks.
Let. me. tell. you. I like having my feet anything other than dry, but the thought of someone else’s sweaty feet makes me all icky. And not only did Nicky McKenzie succeed in getting me to shudder (which is a hard feat do accomplish with fiction these days), but she made me visualize things I cannot un-see. Part of me hates you, Ms. McKenzie (that part is my gag reflex), but the rest of me thinks you’re all sorts of awesome for pulling this off. See, Meat Socks could have been a train wreck of a story, but it wasn’t. Here’s the deal:
Layla is waiting for a bus when a nice stranger-boy starts a conversation. He quickly sees that she’s wearing fucking MEAT SOCKS, and gets a little wigged out. Things get stranger from there. Naturally.
Now, for those of you who can’t get the stinky picture in their head here, let me paint it for you with a quote from the book. Ready?
“If the boy at the bus stop know Layla was wearing a second set of human feet over her own, he never let on”
Come ON, people! That’s the first line! Can I have a hip-hip-hooray for a fucking disgusting, yet funny little piece that is surely one of the most unique things I’ve read in a long while? Not only does McKenzie win points for sheer grossitude, but goddamn can this little lady write! I love coming across new authors who jive with my likes and dislikes when it comes to horror, so I’m damn-well satisfied with this being the last thing I choked down.
If I had started the other was around and finished with Keene’s piece, I might have had to go back and re-read this one just for that last bit of UMPH I expect to get when I’m done with something. Innuendo innutended. (New word! Yay!)
So what you’re looking at here is pretty much a done deal when it comes to must-haves for all of the chapbook collectors out there. I don’t know how other readers feel, but chapbooks and novellas are my favorite things to read because they’re short, sweet, and usually have a really great idea condensed into one action packed little book. This chapbook ebbs and flows, for sure, but is generally not something I’d lay on the table in the laundry room for someone else to pick up. I’ll pop this one on the shelf with my Burning Effigy chaps, and my teeny-tiny Thunderstorm Press novellas.
If I ever get to own a bookcase again… *sniff*
With that said, I think it’s been a good year or two for Cemetery Dance – who have put out some pretty killer content as of late. Between works from Ketchum, Skipp, these ladies and gents, and Freeman’s recent fare, I say they’re on their way to recovering the little bits of the genre they’ve had a hard time holding on to through unfortunately delayed releases and erratic/limited magazine runs.
But then again, I never doubted CD & co., so why the hell would you?
Right. It’s settled, then. Cemetery Dance is awesome.