Click-Clack The Rattlebag by Neil Gaiman

Happy Hallowe’en!

It’s also All Hallows’ Read, a festival that Neil Gaiman thought up 2 years ago, which proposes that on Hallowe’en, or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books.  In the spirit of such a fun literary holiday, and also in an effort to suck up to my beloved Gaiman by doing everything he tells me to, I have listened to my very first audio book.

I know, I know.  Some people LOVE audio books; they save time, and they’re portable, and blah blah blah.  But they’ve just never been my thing.  I like to feel and smell and see the words, even as they paint a picture in my mind.  It took me ages to come around to e-books, and even then it was only to allow more room in my suitcase for shoes when I travel.  But my main problem with audio books is the voices.  If the narrator has a particular way of speaking (i.e. annoying), or a strange accent, or even if they just have too much POW! BANG! SLAM! during the exciting parts, it completely distracts me from the story.

All that being said, if anyone could have made me listen to (read?) an audio book, it was Neil Gaiman.  He is my absolute favourite author, whether it be novels, graphic novels, short stories or kids books. So, when Neil announced on his blog that he had teamed up with Audible to release a new, unpublished short story, (for free!), I was willing to give it a shot.  Especially considering it’s also narrated by Neil Gaiman, so I can’t be mad about the voice.  As an added incentive, Audible will donate $1 for every download through Halloween to the education charity DonorsChoose.

 “‘What kind of story would you like me to tell you?’ ‘Well,’ he said, thoughtfully, ‘I don’t think it should be too scary, because then when I go up to bed, I will just be thinking about monsters the whole time. But if it isn’t just a little bit scary, then I won’t be interested. And you make up scary stories, don’t you?'” So begins this sweet, witty, deceptive little tale from master storyteller Neil Gaiman. Lock the doors, turn off the lights, and enjoy. (Audible)

As mentioned, this is a short story, which Neil read at the George Mason Award evening, and it will be published in a forthcoming anthology.  The whole thing is only about 12 minutes long, and starts off with a brief introduction about All Hallows’ Read and the charitable donations.  Around the 2 minute mark, we get into the story, which is being told from the point of view of a guy taking care of his girlfriend’s little brother.  The boy requests a bedtime story, one that’s just the right amount of scary, while they walk through the big, old, and very dark house.  The boy specifically asks for a story about Click-Clack the Rattle Bag, because those are the best kinds of stories, and “Click-Clacks are the best monsters ever”.  They’re even scarier than vampires.

As always, Gaiman does an excellent job of setting up the story, and detailing the surroundings in a way that put a vivid picture in your head.  The use of the first person narration, as well as the language and phrasing used by the little boy, manage to inject you into the conversation.  There are a bare minimum of sound effects here, but they are used wisely to mimic a creaky old house.  The story is obviously a more family-friendly kind of scary, but the description of what Click-Clacks “do to people” is icky enough to give kids pause.

All in all, this is a great little story, and a perfect Hallowe’en treat (to go with the mountain of candy I am currently devouring).  I am intrigued by how different it is to hear a story, as opposed to reading it; it was kinda like listening to a spooky story being told around a campfire.

So, in the words of Neil Gaiman: “Go to www.Audible.com/ScareUs to download it if you’re in the US or the rest of the world except the UK and www.Audible.co.uk/ScareUs to download it if you’re in the UK/Commonwealth. And then download the story. As I may have told you already, it’s free — absolutely, utterly, perfectly free.

Rust and Blood by Ed Kurtz

Why is it that sometimes when you come across a name, no matter where you turn, they’re always there seemingly laughing at you from the cabbage bin? Seriously. The past two pieces I’ve reviewed have had something to do with Ed Kurtz, Abattoir Press, or something else that I can’t remember but wanted to add because I like to work my descriptions in groups of three.

This offering, this splendidly varied cornucopia of horrific horror, is Kurtz’s first collection of short stories. Albeit one of the shorter collections I’ve recently read… thankfully… it still packs a wallop of a punch, and fills time without making me wish I’d have YouTubed past glories from So You Think You Can Dance. I will warn you, though, Kurtz does throw out a few pieces you just can’t un-see, but they’re sell worth it. Well, everything but Pearls. That one’s just fucking gross and I really never want to read it again.

From Amazon:

Love and cannibalism, retribution and madness, the horrors people commit in the name of goodness and the abominations that await behind closed doors. RUST & BLOOD collects nine stories of horror and crime where the tables are always turned and no one ever gets out unscathed.

Kurtz opens up this collection with Hunger, and immediately makes a reference to Arsenic and Old Lace. This, in turn, garners him many points in my book, and thus indemnifies him from a negative review. That said, go buy this book.

From here on out, we’ll talk about the mating rituals of the Alaskan Deer Whale-Prawn… uh… what?

Oh. Sorry, Meli.

Okay folks, it seems that I missed something during my absence from DT over the last few months. I’m just receiving word from the powers that be about a memo that went around? Apparently I actually have to review the book before I go on about anybody or anything’s mating habits.

(Ah, a segue in poor taste, Colum… as usual… *groan*)

Hunger starts off with by introducing Matthew, a young man that was morbidly obese as a child who, through the marvels of biology, grows into his fleshy self, and finds newly awesome opportunities with the opposite sex. After several relationships and a desperate addiction to “the next lay”, he finds himself unemployed, disaffected, and eating like it’s going out of style.

Fast forward a bunch of years and a few thousand snack-cakes later, and we see Matthew working at a motel and eventually into the bed of a “professional” named Carla. I won’t give up the rest of it, but look at the title, the set-up of the main character, and you can hopefully see where this is going. And here’s about the point in the review where I’ll put the little idea about mating habits on the table, and leave you to lose your appetite and feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Yep. The reader is fortunate that Kurtz does a wonderful job playing with the story here, and makes this a great opener for what is promising to be a fun little collection of stories. Even if I’ve just put some things in your head that you wish weren’t there.

And then came Sinners – a story that opens with a bit of mystery and grows to become what the reader understands is a sort-of after school special on a bender with Satan. Well, that may be a little excessive, but we’re on a ride in the Kurtz-mobile, so it’s pretty damned on target, if you ask me.

As the story unravels, Kurtz lays out the story of a young man who, upon witnessing or acting in, a brutal experience, is let out of the hospital after a 14 year visit, only to return to the scene of the crime – his home town. But Dean and Lee have it in mind to fix the sitch by finishing what they think should have been finished all those years ago. They mean to kill Billy Thorpe in a sort of small town justice.

Kurtz then takes all of the readers’ expectations and turns them on their head, crafting a deliriously creepy climactic scene, and ensuring a wicked quick page turning end. This is a keeper, for sure. It’s fast, it’s twisting, and it’s chock full of the author’s now trademark style. If you weren’t a fan of Kurtz before, you’re sure to be won over by this one right here.

Slowpoke is up next, making this animal loving reader question the author for a moment, and then deciding to just give the guy a chance to lay out his tale.

Okay… hold on. “Animal loving reader”, as in: I think animals are awesome and should be treated well… not the other way. Carry on.

Two drunkards, and apparently gamblers from the sounds of it, are deep in the sauce when one decides it’s time to kill himself a horsie. Why? A losing bet, I’m supposing. Regardless, they kick off the stools and get to the driving in search of vengeance and a weapon. What they get instead is a pain in the ass from “cousin Ike”, and a great scene full of hilarity that Kurtz pulls off expertly.

Fast forward to the ending, and what we have here is a wicked little ditty that teaches folks about the whole “what goes up must come down” mantra, and when it comes down, it’s probably going to ruin your t-shirt and kill your best friend. But the story isn’t finished yet, as Arnold, one of the two guys who tried to kill Mr. Ed, is put away, eventually gets out, and has to serve community service in a very embarrassing manner. And yes, there’s a great big LOL over here, and a LOL over there. When Kurtz wants to play with his characters and exhibit his wit, he does it well. Kurtz ends this story with a breezy, Tales from the Crypt feel, and again wins this reader’s continued attention.

So then we come to Family Bible, a tale that sees a sort of backwoods Romeo and Juliet, but not, thing going on. You know how these things go. One family is wicked strange, the other is… wicked strange. And two of these folks fall in love. This is a Kurtzified R&J version. So yeah… thar be blood.

Basically, what we see is a young Ezra falling in love with Annabelle, but their love is forbidden as per the Family Bible. Ezra is made to do a ridiculous amount of work in order to prove himself a man, as well as copy out, by hand, and entire bible’s worth of teachings. Ezra’s brother, Jonah, is a hard-case, and totally to the letter when it comes to his religion. When he finds out that Ezra and Annabelle have a thing going on, he goes nutso and makes with the biblical craziness, locking his brother in a room and reeking a sort of justice that is just… crazy. What happens after that is Kurtz proving that sometimes things don’t need to be tied up in a Hollywood kind of way. And goddamnit if he doesn’t do it with a kick in the teeth.

Next up comes the über fucked up W4M, that just had me howling with a wicked sense of “did he seriously just go there?” And yes, he went there.

Kurtz has a way of taking a conventional plot and making it all twisty and turny, ending way off in the cornfield and totally away from where you thought it would go. W4M is definitely not just that. It’s the extreme case of that. It’s a point in literature where you say “This writer fellow really does know a good story, chaps” in a fake English accent that your friends immediately make fun of you for because you actually sound like you came from New Delhi. At which point, someone pokes you and asks you to stay on topic, and you continue by saying that this story takes a tried and true serial stalker/killer idea and eats it up with a faba beans and a nice chianti.

Where Kurtz goes oh-so-very-right with this story is with his style and description. The delivery is sometimes stilted, but the description is just so juicy. Gorehounds will appreciate the delectably disgusting pieces offered up for the meal, and will shudder with delight as the main characters gets more than he bargains for. Beyond that, it’s like Kurtz channeled a wee bit of the old W.J. White nastiness, and created a creature I would love to see make an appearance in a longer work (hint, hint, Kurtz). This is a story that is disgusting, wrong, and twisted in every way. All the right ways.

Now Pearls, my dear friends, is another story altogether. It’s disgusting. I had a hard time reading it, have a hard time thinking about it, and seriously want to gag every time it pops into my head. And yeah… pun intended there. It’s gross-out fare, for sure.

I don’t even want to get into this one very deeply, but let’s just say that the main character suddenly gets a weird skin condition and has the unquenchable need to do something very, very gross. Ugh, my god.

Kurtz’s description is in overdrive here, making sure to remind people that horror isn’t just all about ghosts and goblins and monsters galore. Sometimes the horror is visceral, and sometimes it’s the strangest biological oddities that can make us cringe. Yeah, this is body horror, kids. A lá Ed Lee and all the nice folks outta Necro. Hell, I haven’t read something this gross since Night Shade Books’ Excitable Boys – a rarity that should appeal to anyone who enjoys puking in their mouth. Way to go, Kurtz. You owe me several drinks, dude. Yuck.

Roadbeds is a small pulp tale that first showed its wonderful face on Shotgun Honey’s website as a mystery short. I loved it there, and I still love it here. Kurtz is obviously able to jump around in several different genres, and this collection shows that fluidly. This tale, in particular, shows a side of the man that hasn’t really been seen before. His less visceral, and more straightforward style.

Maury and crew are working on a dig when two bruisers show up. Things get all Mob-like, and one thing definitely leads to another. This story is so short and has such a great formulaic ending that I can’t even describe it here. It kicks ass for a little 3-4 pager. You’ll have to check it out for yourself.

Kurtz decides to go a different route with the next story, Earworm. This one sees the man playing in a land of musical torture, making life very difficult for his main character, and pretty much anyone who happens to be infected by this deadly little ditty from hell. Shit, we’ve all been there. Just thankfully not in Kurtz’s world… cause then we’d be dead.

Going from a great premise that plays with the idea of songs kicking your ass, Kurtz waltzes back into a land of pain pain pain, deciding that his story puppets going crazy isn’t enough to satisfy his lust for death, and all probably because he’s had a bad day at work and wants someone to suffer for it. Okay, that last bit may be stretching the truth, but I wouldn’t put it past any horror writer to kill the ever loving hell out of anyone who pisses them off on a Monday. Well… except for John R. Little. He’s just always so happy when I meet him.

Kurtz has all the time in the world to drag you through what you think is going to be a fairly straightforward story, but obviously hasn’t the patience to put up with your constant jabbering for such a long car trip. Once he’s set the tone for this story, it’s GO!GO!GO! with no letting up. This, my good readers, is a Kurtz trademark. He ensnares you, beats you about the head with everything he’s got, and once you think it’s all over…

…he kills you in a story called Krampus. Well, not you… Me.

Yeah. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Let’s just look through the DT posts here… won’t be a minute…

Doot doo-doo doo dooooooo….

Um… nope. Haven’t told you folks about this one yet, have I?

Okay. Well, here goes.

Krampus is a nice little Christmas tale about a young boy who hasn’t been very good this year. He’s made to spend the holiday with his Oma, and with the help of her friend Nicholas, she intends to show the boy what bad kids get for Christmas. Oh yeah, and she’s going to have me completely destroyed in a gory festival of awesome!

I was ridiculously stoked when I read this one. No joke. I’d checked it out back in December of 2011, when the skies were dark and my life wasn’t filled with so much… who the hell am I kidding. With four million kids running around and an empty bank account, this was pretty much the best thing that happened that whole holiday season, apart from seeing the kid’s faces on Christmas morning. So you can pretty much understand where I’m coming from if my whole review of this story consists of “buy this book… read this book… love this boooooook.”

In fact, you can go snag yourself a copy of Krampus for free if you’re diligent enough and know how to use google like the naughty little thing that it is.

Anyways, what we’re looking at here is a tried and true Kurtz tale, but with a holiday twist. Couple that with a scary, thick accented beast of a woman, a weird old man, a little Canadian jerk (me) and a boy who just doesn’t know when it’s time to throw in the towel and will yourself to die, and you’ve got the best story this side of Scrooged. The gore is a-plenty, the hilarity is as black as my soul, and the pace is set at a break-neck speed and refuses to stop. Until it stops. At which point… shit… I’m dead anyways, so it just stops.

And now that you’ve slogged through 2400+ words of insanity, you might as well go pony up the couple bucks and get a taste of someone who I’m sure is going to kick the genre’s ass in the coming years. Hell, I know he has a story or two out there waiting for publication. I think maybe it’s just a matter of time before Kurtz takes Control of the situation and brings this genre to new heights. And me, I’ll be sitting right here waiting. Bring it on, Kurtz.

C.

Give Chase by Shana Hammaker

Shana Hammaker had a goal in 2011 to create twelve short horror stories, one for each month. Give Chase was her offering for August and she delivered the goods. Sitting right around 8100 words, this one’s a quick and dirty read.

There’s a killer new reality show on prime time TV: THE CHASE. 

The rules are simple: two contestants—Cat and Bear, each carrying a mysterious box-shaped baton—race across America with nothing but their wits to guide them. Whichever contestant is the first to deliver his/her baton to contest headquarters in San Francisco wins. 

But it seems that there is more going on beneath the surface. For example, why were the contestants recruited from prison? And what exactly are they carrying in their supposedly tamper-evident batons? 

The nation is riveted as the two ex-cons race westward, wreaking havoc every step of the way. It makes for great television. But no one can predict the show’s explosive ending.

The premise might seem a bit familiar based on that synopsis, but I assure you it does not succumb to the cliches that you’d expect. Firstly, Cat is portrayed as a human, not some jailbird monster whose only motivation is malice. Cat has feelings, insecurities, strengths and weaknesses, all which play an important role in her story. Bear is a monster, but he’s more of a secondary character so the unidimensional aspect to him isn’t frustrating, and he gets the best gore scene in the story.

Setting is an integral part to the flow of the story, and flows from scene to scene rather effortlessly. Cat begins in Miami, while Bear begins in New York State. It may seem as though Cat has the straight-line advantage based on the final destination, but there are enough roadblocks (both real and mental) that make the race detrimental to both participants.

The batons are crucial, otherwise it would just be two convicts running around the States. The contents of the batons are revealed, but I’m not going to give that away here. Just know that the contents are a major factor in deciding the outcome of both the race, and the greater subplot Hammaker transitions to.

Give Chase was my first introduction to Shana Hammaker, and I strongly suggest that you make it yours. Shana is most active on Twitter, and you can buy all of her books at Amazon.

Anything Can Be Dangerous – Matt Hults

Books of the Dead Press is all about quality horror, so you can imagine my joy when founder/editor James Roy Daley handed me a copy of Anything Can Be Dangerous at a gathering this past August, all while mentioning that Matt Hults is an author to watch. Can anything be dangerous, or is this just a husk of a collection?

Anything Can be Dangerous contains four amazing stories, plus a preview to the highly praised novel Husk, by Matt Hults. The stories include:

Anything can be Dangerous ~ the simple things in life can kill.
Through the Valley of Death ~ a dark vampire story that will make you remember fear.
The Finger ~ zombie literature has never been so extraordinary.
Feeding Frenzy ~ lunchtime in a place called Hell.

We begin with the titular piece, Anything Can Be Dangerous. Greg’s life is going very well, having just met a wonderful woman, yet superstitions passed to him by his mother seem to haunt him at every turn. I got the sense that the reader is supposed to fear for Greg’s sanity, as it’s not often that plastic bags attack humanity. Hults creates a frenetic pace for his character, at times perhaps a bit too frenetic as there isn’t much time for suspension of disbelief. A very enjoyable story, yet there are better in this collection.

Feeding Frenzy is next, and offers up a very unique spin on Hell. Two friends conspire to reopen an abandoned roadside restaurant, but their first walk through inspection ends up being their last. This story straddles a line between haunted house and zombie eat-pocalypse quite nicely. The logic used by the protagonists is very solid, and the interactions between protagonists and antagonists are very natural. It’s a quick read, but a very good one.

Hults then takes the reader on a walk Through The Valley Of Death as a family is stranded roadside in the dead of winter, with a snowstorm imminent. The family trudges through the woods with all characters acting as the reader would expect, and Hults takes special care to make the 3 year-old daughter an incredibly sympathetic figure. The antagonists are based on real folklore, and truly had this reader expecting the worst for the antagonists. The final plot twist is enough to make the reader ask for more. A thoroughly enjoyable tale.

Hults saves arguably the best for last, and gives us all The Finger. Jimmy is either a genius or incredibly stupid, depending on the reader’s perspective. What begins as a not-so-simple get rich quick scheme ends up with Jimmy being hunted down by both the law, and the undead. Hults truly lets his creativity flow with this piece, but thankfully not at the expense of plot and believability. A fine end to the completed works contained herein.

The reader is treated to a very (too) short preview of Matt Hults’ debut novel, Husk. Again, my only complaint is that it’s a preview and not the whole book. Wow.

Matt Hults indeed proves that Anything Can Be Dangerous, and that he is a new force in the horror literature world. To pick up your copy of the book, visit the Books of the Dead Store. For more information on Matt Hults, please contact Books of the Dead.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Seven (1961-1970)

Sorry for the delay, folks. Pressing issues meant delaying this week’s post, but it’s here now, and so are you. So let’s get going with the historical fun!

Unfortunately, due to Wikipedia’s SOPA blackout and a wicked hang nail, I will be unable to bring you any funny information about the 1960s.

So let’s make it up as we go along.

From what I can tell through the writing in this decade that John Pelan chose to showcase, the 1960s started off looking rather timid, and then, mid story, flew around like a ton of bricks sprouting wings and calling for the death of wrecking-balls everywhere. There were ups, and there were downs. Highs and lows. Someone invented something I would probably be able to make fun of, and I’m pretty sure Kevin Bacon was born. (Ed. – He was born in 1958, dummy) 

The 60s also witnessed things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the close of the Algerian War, and the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. We saw the Cultural Revolution is China, he Troubles in Northern Ireland (a topic close to home, as part of my family is from West Belfast), The Cuban Missile Crisis, and no doubt saw a rise in the popularity of Aspirin and Tylenol. Look at all the stress going on here!

There were no less than ten assassinations, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and JFK. The Valdivia earthquake (the most powerful earthquake ever recorded); the fire on the Cuyahoga River (a river so polluted that it was said one does not drown, rather someone instead decays… ewww); and hurricane Camille smoked everything in its path (the strongest hurricane ever recorded at landfall, reaching sustained winds of 190mph… no thanks).

Wow… the 60s were a really screwed up time…

But wait… there’s something we’re all missing here! The most important single event in all of music history (as far as I’m concerned). No, it wasn’t the Beatles and their strange musical-insect invasion. Pssshhhh. And it wasn’t the Rolling Stones having a number one hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (I think it was the dancing, Mick). It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, or The Who.

In May of 1968, Johnny Cash released his live album “At Folsom Prison”, an album that was not only ground breaking, it was fun. Who else could have thrown down a whole live album at a state prison, sung “A Boy Named Sue” to a rouse of cheers and laughter, and still managed to not sweat the fact that they were in a room with a few hundred convicted felons who would just as likely shank you as they would sing along to and old country song. Johnny Cash – that’s who. Eat that Ringo!

But alas, we’re not here to talk about the amount of awesome Johnny Cash was capable of pulling off, or even how much I detest the Beatles. We’re here to talk about horror…

So let’s do this.

 Ray Russell’s Sardonicus started off in a weird way. The general pace was very slow, and almost boring. In fact, I have to say that I honestly almost skipped this one about half way through, but my dedication to the art of self-abuse kept me going like a trooper. And wow, am I happy I did! Closing in on the end, the tale did a total flip and turned the awesome up to 11. Full distortion. And fireworks, if you follow.

The narrator, a young doctor named Sir Robert Cargrave, receives a letter from an old friend, one Maude Randall, who we later learn Robert used to pine after. She graciously invites him to spend a few weeks in her company at her dwelling – a castle owned by her husband Mr. Sardonicus. Robert accepts the invitations, and soon after finds out the real reason that Maude has invited him there – for Mr. Sardonicus to employ his medical expertise to cure his affliction, an ailment that leaves his face in a permanent and terrifying sneer. Is Sardonicus as much a monster on the inside as he looks without?

Where this story leads the reader is absolutely brilliant, and something I would categorize as simply the best example of what a horror story should be. It’s quiet, unassuming, and then BAM! it hits you like a load of hell shoveled in your face without a moment’s notice. And what’s better is the fact that the story evolves into something terrifying, and then just keeps going for the throat, never relenting. Russell definitely owns the top story for this decade, and outshines everyone else without a doubt.

 The Aquarium by Carl Jacobi is a curious tale. I always find it awkward when a male writer tackles an all female cast, as you can almost never tell where the fables created by man start, and when the real female reaction should be placed. To me, it tends to be an exercise in stereotype, but this is one of those exceptions that slips by, but just barely. Jacobi obviously knows his stuff when it comes to atmosphere and setting, but the delicate emotional balance feels a bit too… delicate.

Miss Emily Rhodes is in the market to buy a new house and upon finding a huge one with more rooms than she can possibly fill, she invites her friend Edith Halbin to join her in residence. A curious Aquarium rests in the middle of the library, filled with a strange and viscous liquid. The general consensus is that this is where the previous inhabitant of the house kept his conches for study, but when Emily tries to drain the piece and find out what’s really inside, she’s met with much resistance. After Edith becomes increasingly obsessed with the literature in the library, and falls into a strange spell, Emily tries to break her out of it. She succeeds, but only for a moment. Edith is eventually drawn to the library one fateful night, and the result is something that Emily’s mind can’t handle.

See, I loved this one for two reasons. One, it skirted the possible failure that I set out above, especially with the ending, and two, it was brutal in its execution. We’re talking full-out Amityville Horror kind of creeps here. But keep in mind, this story does have its faults. Emily and Edith feel incredibly stereotypical, and only end up redeeming themselves near the end of the story. But when they do, this thing blasts along like a train with a rocket engine strapped to the back-end. What a trip. And bloody as all hell!

 There’s something about mirrors that’ve always creeped me out something fierce. Take into account the whole idea of Bloody Mary, of Clive Barker’s short story, The Forbidden, which spawned the Candyman series of films. Those are both extremely effective horror stories and legends that center around mirrors and the evil that they hide. Enter Robert Arthur’s The Mirror of Cagliostro, a story that immediately feels like an Italian Giallo film, and works its way into a whirlwind ride of brutality and offensive content. This was, indeed, a favorite of mine in this decade, as I’m almost always drawn towards the more brutal fare. And oh how brutal it is.

Harry Langham is writing a thesis on the famed Count Alexander Cagliostro, a miracle worker and magician known mostly for his heinous crimes and strange death. Most people regard the man as a fraud, but Harry is certain that there is more to the story than originally published. He holds conference with the only known authority on the subject, and is made aware of the last piece of Cagliostro’s belingings being sold in an antique store in London. After finding and purchasing the mirror, he finds that it is painted over with a thick black substance. Becoming obsessed with the piece, he cleans it and unleashes an evil on the world that will take his very soul to a place of no return.

WOW is this story nasty. This is a Ketchum/Lee kind of brutal that you don’t tend to see in literary horror too often. Where Arthur takes the character of Cagliostro is further than the reader would expect, making the shocks that much more shocking, and the terror organic and psychological at the same as physically uncomfortable. I honestly haven’t seen something of this quality since reading Ketchum’s Joyride, a story that house a character so merciless that I’m surprised it was re-printed without heavy editing. This is a shining example of horror at a primal level. Something that’s just plain mean. Just the way I like it.

 This is the year that Charles Birkin released the phenomenally unsettling short story, A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and it’s also the hardest for me to write about. Not only does this story stir some incredibly heavy emotions in me, as it would in any reader with a sense of compassion, but the title also makes it impossible for me to think of anything but Merv Griffin singing with jazz hands. A juxtaposition that is absolutely terrifying. It just so happens that this story is even more terrifying.

Try taking this story seriously now (or getting this image out of your head...)

David Cohn and four other prisoners currently housed in a German forced labor camp are sent for and brought to the presence of a spate of sadistic commanders of the SS. They are told that four of them will be given the chance to “win” extra food and scraps for their loved ones if they would partake in a simple game. All they have to do is hit one of five coconuts as may times as possible with a set of tarnished metal balls. They have 20 chances. Four of them will be given upgraded duties in the nazi kitchen, cleaning up after the soldiers mess, and thus given the chance to bring food to help their loved ones survive. The one who comes last will be returned to his duty with nothing. When the prisoners enter the game and complete the tasks, they find that their judges have a wicked, evil surprise for them in the end. A surprise so brutal, it throws their minds into a dark place they will never return from.

This story was mean. There’s not much not to like in the execution, but the subject is just so sad and terrible that it ruins whatever joy I could take in the telling. Birkin is obviously a master of his craft, and has the ability to destroy even the heartiest of readers with a single stroke of the pen. I wanted to love this story, I really did. But I can’t. It’s just too damned heavy. But make no mistake, this is a brilliantly told story of the ultimate suffering of man. The atrocities of the Holocaust aren’t something that could ever be made light reading, in my opinion.

 The Shadowy Street by Jean Ray is another one of those stories that started off with a great deal of promise, but ended up disappointing me in the end. It was, by all means, a great story, but it was just lackluster compared to what I imagine is available for this particular year. Hell, if the story had ended at the first act, I would be singing its praises. Unfortunately, Pelan doesn’t mention any other authors for 1965, but I know there must have been something out that there might have been more compelling. Again, it’s not that this story wasn’t good, it’s just that it rode high and strong, and ended up a confused specter of itself.

While walking in the quayside in the harbour of Rottedam, the Narrator finds two books written in both French and German. Upon translating them, he is made privy to a world that houses more secrets and terrors than man has ever seen. Over time he finds that the world spoken of in these texts actually exists, and finds the last living relatives of the characters mentioned within. He also finds that they are doomed for all eternity because of their greed and inability to let go of the past that their family has foisted upon them.

Like a few others in this collection, I really tried to like this story. The fact that it borders on Fantasy makes it all the more easy to dismiss it as a blip in the history of horror, but it’s the commingling of the two books, the bland repetition of the two stories, and the painfully dull ending that really killed it for me. I want more action is my horror stories, but fans of slow-burning tales may find this up their alley. For me, it wouldn’t even come close to my top choices for an anthology like this.

 Again with the mirrors, man! As I said above, I hate mirrors. The show you the ugly truth of what you are when you don’t want to know, allow for the imagination to play tricks on you, and flip one’s perception without apologies. The Mirror by Arthur Porges doesn’t really do all of those things, but what it does do is shock. I can’t remember the last time I read a story of this caliber that dealt with the subject matter in such a wickedly evil way. Porges goes the distance with his ending, eliciting a well-earned “he did not just go there!” that assures you that “Yes. He did.”

Mr. Avery, father of 5 children, finds the perfect house for his family to live in. It’s spacious, roomy, open, and more than enough for his large breed to play around unhindered. The most curious piece in the house is a giant mirror that overlooks the fireplace, a mirror painted black by someone who had lived there before. There are stories about the house, and about the mirror in particular, that spell danger and doom to those inhabiting the place. But Avery doesn’t let that deter him, and he proceeds to clean the paint from the mirror’s surface. Once the job is complete, he gathers his family around the fireplace to tell a story in the style of Lewis Carroll – a story of another world beyond the mirror. Little does he know, when he and his wife leave the children alone in the house one night, that the creature he invents for the purpose of the tale, a vile and nasty little thing, may actually exist beyond the glass, and may hunger for a snack.

Now think about it. Father buys house. Has 5 children. He tells story about a nasty little thing that lives on the other side of the glass. The kids all “oooh” and “ahhhh” and get all creeped out. One of them see’s a “thing” in the mirror. You can guess what’s coming next. And oh yes, Porges brings the story there. Brilliantly. I honestly can’t help but laugh maniacally every time I read this one.

 Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad. That’s all I should have to say about this one. You should have already read this. If you haven’t, I must insist that you go out and find a copy. Now. If you’ve read stories like Greg Lamberson’s Carnage Road, or any Hunter S. Thompson story that centers around psychedelia and adventure, you’re going to dig the hell out this story. Like the two above mentioned tales, Spinrad’s story is all about the go-go-go and refuses to wait for the reader to catch up. It’s on a mission, and you’ve got no damned choice but to come along for the ride.

(Note – Pelan assumes, in the preamble, that there might be an argument in place to opine that this, in fact, isn’t a horror story, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Anything dealing with Cancer is always a tale of terror, and this one is no different. It’s just presented in an entertaining manner. There’s no mistake that this is a brutal subject. It’s just that Spinrad has a way of making it easier to digest, while also making us question the character’s motives. You may carry on now.)

From the time that he was a child, Harrison Wintergreen was able to do phenomenal things in order to make his life better. He orchestrates a plan to gain the best collection of the finest baseball cards on his street, he figures out a way to be the most wanted man on campus, becomes filthy rich, does good things for charitable organizations, helps the wealthy shelter their taxes, and many more ingenious things. But now he has an advanced state of Cancer, an internal enemy that he cannot slay. Harrison holes himself up in a desert compound and sets about finding a cure for his illness, and eventually stumbles upon a way to fight the battle from within. But the fate he designs for himself means that he may never be able to escape.

This is a story that just flies by. It’s almost told in a point-form style, but with a more creative way and with much pizzazz. The eventual end runs more like an adventure/Sci-Fi story than horror, but the subject matter is assuredly of the latter. Cancer is a killer, plain and simple. When Harrison goes up against the comically described, but no less evil Cancer cells, it’s a match fit for Mad Max, with the style and swagger of Lamberson’s Carnage Road. Killer stuff. And so much fun.

 Anna Hunger’s Come is another one of those stories than I’m not too sure about. The setup was great, but the execution leaves more to be desired, and it’s mostly the fault of the narrative and its more-complex-than-most style of storytelling. Hunger has the chops to write on a level with folks like Bradbury, Lovecraft, and their ilk, but I just didn’t feel this story as much as I would have wanted to.

Adam Stark, the eternal playboy and con-man, is coming down with a cold. The people around him are noticing that something is wrong with him. He looks sullen and lost in thought, as well as expressing the physical tells of being ill. Most importantly, the woman with whom is in his most recent relationship is starting to wonder about him. Adam has been remembering his brother, a man who set out to sea and never returned. His last request was that Adam come out and find him if he should be out past a certain date. Adam was never able to find his brother, and his thoughts are now being taken over by the sound of a distant siren – a call to the sea.

Again, I really can’t look at this as a story that I could find myself getting lost in. The narrative is disjointed, there are mentions to certain seemingly important plot points throughout that end up being trivial, and the whole feel is completely off the mark. Like a few others before it, I really tried to like it. Ultimately, though, I found it bland.

 The Last Work of Pietro Apono by Steffan Aletti, on the other hand, was a phenomenal and spooky little read. The story tells like something one would want to find in a biography of Aleister Crowley of Anton Zsandor LaVey, but never do. Like The Mirror of Cagliostro, this story is set around a man who is trying to write the definitive piece on a man so evil, history has branded him a heretic and fraud. In this case, Aletti absolutely kills it with his brutal depiction of the barbaric and nasty things that could happen if the words spoken in a certain occult tale were to come true. This is fantastic Satanic Panic type of story. More fun that a barrel of dead things.

The narrator, in search of information in order to complete his doctorate in Italian Renaissance studies, travels to the home country of Pietro of Apono – the subject of his thesis. He learns that, after being killed while under the eye of the Inquisition, Pietro of Apono was buried with the last piece that he was transcribing – a book that is said to be so evil, it devoured his very soul. The narrator finds the tomb, takes the scroll, and experiences firsthand the terror that Pietro faced right before he was taken into custody. They very thing that claimed his soul forever.

What started out to be a sort-of adventure story ended up with a quick succession of sucker-punches right to the jaw of any reader’s spiritual jaw. This is one of the best examples of what I mentioned above – the Satanic Panic – but far before its time. The tone is dark, the feeling is heavy, but the whole of the story encompasses a more entertaining aspect of the genre than one would imagine. Think about it, if Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration had an evil twin in the form of words, I’m pretty sure this would be it.

 The Lurkers in the Abyss by David A. Riley is the last, and most modern feeling of all the stories this decade. Set in a London town, Riley succeeds in making every drop of rain, breath of air, and pump of muscle feel real enough to make the reader blast through the story in a single shot. I really dug how it finally felt like we were coming out of a particular style of writing with this one, and maybe making our way towards the more modern style of storytelling that I’m used to.

Ian Redfern, in a hurry to get home from the Library, walks the streets as fast as he can. He has heard of bands of teenagers and thugs making trouble, beating up, and even killing folks late at night. He doesn’t want to run into any of these gangs, but soon hears the all too familiar sounds of a group of young people shouting and making all-too-much noise. He skirts around the group in an effort to stay concealed, is seen, and is eventually chased towards a cemetery where he finds his fate awaiting him – a fate with claws and an insatiable hunger for his flesh.

Yes, friends, Romans, country-men… Ghouls. Finally we’ve run across a story about Ghouls. It’s been a long wait, and while Sardonicus (1961) mentioned them in passing, this one says nothing, and then spits ‘em out right at the end. Brilliantly. They’re gross, they’re hungry, and they’re brilliantly described by Riley’s masterful prose. Personally, I was more than a little creeped-out at the end of the story, and thoroughly satisfied with the paths that all of the characters took. This is one for the best-of hall of fame, for sure.

We’ve reached the end of the decade, and we’ve only got three more of these things to go before we catch up with the century and move on to other things. Things like… well… I guess I have three more weeks to figure that out, don’t I?

If you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see on the site, feel free to drop me a line. I’m all ears, and more than willing to lose lots of sleep for your entertainment.

Join me again next week while we check out the likes of Gary Brandner, David Drake, Eddy C. Bertin, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, and a few more. And we’ll find out if 1977‘s story by Barry N. Malzberg, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, had anything to do with the birth of modern horror author Ronald Malfi, and his incredible gift for writing quiet horror.

C.