Friday, November 17, 2017

Too Late: Review

You never believe in us. You assume we are made up, to explain the nature of man. Child, we are the nature of man, because we have infiltrated humanity, time and time again. Every foul act you blame on your evolution, on your 'human nature' we take pride in under veils of delicious shadow, and hate, and psychic refuse. We bask in the glory of your undoing, one rape, one child murder, one genocide at a time. And you say 'God is dead.' You couldn't be more right. The battle for the world was lost long ago, and as your preachers thump the pulpit with bloody fists, we throw another body on the pyre.

Right out of the gate, Sean M. Thompson comes swinging with his debut collection of stories, Too Late. In just 62 pages, Thompson manages to violate and decimate you with tales of lust, betrayal, murder, urban legends, and demonic possession. Thompson's visceral, hardcore prose will bludgeon you until you are at the threshold, leaving you a whimpering, bloody pulp. And if you manage to survive, his stories will linger within you long after you are done reading them; trauma locked away deep down inside you.  

Thompson's collection technically contains five stories, but a sixth story is added as bonus material. While the stories are not related to one another, there is a sense of cohesion, as they all take place in various parts of Massachusetss; this makes the stories, I think, more intimate for the reader, thus having a stronger impact. Thompson's stories are about very real, very flawed people who find themselves in unreal situations that challenge their perceptions of reality. There are terrible, unfathomable things on the fringes that are hungry for both flesh and spirit. 

The first story in the collection is Fickle Mortality. A serial killer is on death row, and during her final 60 minutes of life, she reflects on her crimes and how much she enjoyed them; the thrill of the hunt, and taking pleasure in her victims' final moments of life. Our killer also hints at something greater at work, indicating that she will be reborn and live on. Is she telling the truth, or is she just insane? That's for you to decide. With some commentary on childhood abuse, and the celebrity status of serial killers, Thompson starts off nice and slow, tying you to a chair and giving you a small taste of what is coming for you.

The next story, and my favorite of the six, is Stranded in the Storm. Josh and Karen are driving in the middle of a snow storm, on their way to party. Their car spins out of control and crashes into a snowbank. Josh calls for a tow truck to get them out, but is told it'll take about an hour for it to arrive; in the meantime, Josh and Karen sit tight, but have no idea that something is out in the woods, something huge and unnatural, and it's stalking them. Thompson's detailed descriptions of the snow, cold, and the menace that is looming over Josh and Karen, really help to dial up the dread, making you anxious and shaky. This is high-octane horror with a hint of tragedy at the end that is enough to make you shed a tear or two. 

Jumpin' Jack is tale about how you can never truly know someone. Our narrator reveals that Jack Brentweather, his co-worker, massacred fifteen girls in one night, and reflects on how no one could've known that Jack was capable of something so horrible, but also reflects on the self-guilt that ravages his mind. The narrator plays back over and over about how he should've been more aware, more in tune with the fact that something was wrong with Jack. It's a great commentary on how we punish ourselves for not doing something, anything, that could've stopped a horrible tragedy from happening. And like in Fickle Mortality, there is some commentary about how killers are immortalized and glorified through songs, stories, the media, and any other medium. Thompson also leaves this one up to the reader to interpret if Jack was just insane, or if something greater was at work, something guiding him.

Dust is my second favorite story in the collection. It's a fine Weird Western, something that we don't have enough of, if you ask me. Clickin' Clarence and Red Robert are looking for a place to shack up in, after robbing some people who were passing by in their wagon. Not wanting to get caught in the sandstorm that is rapidly approaching, they find shelter in a town called "Dust," except that it's deserted. They soon discover, especially Clarence, that there's more to the town than they truly know. This tale is dripping with atmosphere; it's creepy, and nicely paced. The theme of betrayal is at the center of this tale, but I love how Thompson fleshes out the town of Dust and its ghostly residents, and even making the town a character itself, in the sense that it's always looking for people to visit, except they never leave. 

 The End of Humanity is a maniacal, apocalyptic tale about an author who is in a creative slump. He searches the web for some ideas and come across the site of a demonologist by the name of Henry Scatherty, who only lives a few towns over. Unbeknownst to the writer, Mr. Scatherty is not what he appears to be. The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of the writer, giving the read a palpable sense of the doom that is approaching, and the feeling of degeneration in the writer, as he loses more and more of his humanity, taken over by something malevolent. Reading it makes you feel like the apocalypse is really happening, or that it's almost at your doorstep; it's too late for you to do anything. There is no interpretation to be made here: there are things that exist in places that we only see in nightmares. They are real, and they want you. 

The bonus story is Those Damn College Kids. Four friends are on their way to cabin for a little getaway, but things slowly begin to fall apart for them. Tempers flare, motives are revealed, and a tale of folk horror turns out to be true. Thompson adds a sort of commentary within the commentary, as the friends talk about what would happen in a horror movie, but that those things wouldn't happen to them because they are in the real world. The story has the feel of a Friday the 13th movie; there's lust, sex, alcohol, running and tripping, woods, and killer on the loose. 

With his debut collection, Thompson brings to the table a nice mix of stories that range in tone, themes, emotion, power, humor, and varying levels of horror and madness. Above all, though, Thompson brings the reader a powder keg of entertainment. These stories are akin to a late night at the drive-in, so bring a friend or your significant other, get yourself a beverage, some popcorn, and sit back for a fun night of gore and terror!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Muscadines: Paperback Review (Spoilers)

All my life I've made arrangements for unwanted men. I thought, once upon a time, Mother was searching for one she could keep. But she wanted what they owned, whatever she could get. She chose the ones who were proud of the size of a wallet, or the gold of a tie clip. Most were liars. They flashed a dime store pinky ring, called it a diamond, and said there was a lot more where that came from. Card sharks with fake names. Vacuum cleaner salesmen, hundreds of miles from home. Lonely men. Nobody looking for them, nobody expecting them home. They weren't afraid to travel alone. They should have been afraid. 

Ever since I read S.P. Miskowski's Skillute Cycle, I have been a fan of her writing. She creates creepy, dreadful, oppressive atmospheres, along with engaging, flawed characters. She digs deep into these characters--with great skill, I might add--and reveals grisly portraits of broken homes, fractured child/parent relationships, poverty, family cycles, identity, self-preservation, past deeds, and much, much more. In her story, Muscadines, Miskowski does not disappoint, crafting a fine piece of Southern Gothic Horror literature that left me staggering. 

Muscadines is published by Dunhams Manor Press, with art by the great Dave Felton. Felton's cover is a truly accurate, ghostly and terrifying depiction of what awaits the reader. Honestly, I can't imagine anyone else doing the cover. Muscadines tells the story of Alma, Martha, and Louise, three sisters living in their family home in an unknown, rural part of Georgia. At first, it's just Martha and Louise living together, but after many years of living in various places, Alma returns to assume the role as head of the household, much to the consternation of Martha. Told through Martha's fragmented narrative, we are treated to a horror show of family secrets that involve abuse, their deceased mother, poison berries, morbid rituals and traditions, and murder. 

Miskowski immediately establishes the mood of her story by not telling us exactly where it takes place. We know it's in a rural part of Georgia because of other areas mentioned in passing, such as LaGrange, Stone Mountain, Warm Springs, and Chipley, but that's all we have to go by. What we are told is:

Down here, in our part of the state, the roads disappear in the dirt and weeds. Houses are half a mile or more apart, and some are deserted. Farming families that didn't lose husbands in the last World War lost sons in Korea. So there's nobody working the land now but a few old ladies. Their houses are like ours. No fancy driveways. No lawn jockeys. No estate names. We're not on any historic route. For that you're better off heading to Warm Springs or Stone Mountain. Even chicken farmers from Chipley think of this place as the sticks. 

Miskowski puts the location in a sort of weird state; she gives it a sense of otherness, something alien-like; it exists outside a state of normalcy. She writes that travelers usually pass on through, rarely stopping. And if they do stop, it's to take a picture of a cotton field, or some other site or object. To the travelers, the location is something different, something they don't normally see; or even something that's forgotten, or even hidden, like a kind of hidden poverty. In other instances, travelers find themselves lost while on their way to some other destination. This gives the story the feel of a twisted, dark fairy tale, something that's hazy and dream-like. By immediately setting this up , Miskowski is telling you that you are in for a brutal, deranged, and hallucinatory ride.

Muscadines is told in the first person, by Martha. The narrative is fragmented, in that some chapters are only one or two sentences, while others are anywhere from one paragraph, to multiple paragraphs. It makes you feel like you are reading a diary of sorts; something you'd find in an old abandoned farmhouse. It definitely makes the story feel more personal, adding heightened levels of emotion, rawness, and pain. Some of the things Martha says are enough to make you recoil in horror, causing you to put the book down and catch your breath. The story is perfectly paced, as Martha reveals more and more with each page turned, all the way until the very end.

At the heart of Muscadines is the theme of unbreakable family cycles, and abuse. We learn that Martha, Louise, and Alma's mother, Ruth, grew up in a fanatically religious, abusive household. Ruth's parents, Ophelia and Desmond Parker, attended church three times a week, and always asked for the congregation to pray for Ruth, who Desmond said had a demon in her. No one was to believe anything Ruth said. She would receive beatings from not only her parents, but Sunday school teachers, as well. Miskowski doesn't pull any punches in her descriptions:

Once Ruth was unconscious, or at least couldn't move, Desmond would put on his dentures and unbutton his collar. He'd take a flashlight down off a shelf in the hall, and go to search for signs of the demon on his daughter's body. Taking special care to check all the hidden spots where that crafty monster might leave his traces. After a thorough search Ophelia would bathe Ruth, change her nightgown, and put her back into bed. 

The family cycle of morbid rituals and traditions doesn't begin until Ruth is eighteen years old and inherits her house after her parents die. Since she was a kid, Ruth kept a berry plant hidden underneath the back steps of her home. With the discovery of what the berries could do, and the appearance of muscadines growing on her land, Ruth established a new vocation that would ensure her survival, and would be passed down to her children. She would ground up the berries to a fine powder and mix them with the muscadines to make wine that could render someone unable to move. Thus began the ritual of Ruth going out to find men to bring back to her home, sometimes having sex with them, drug them, tie them up, murder them, and take their possessions; and her children played a part in it, as well. And we later learn that all three girls have a different father that fell prey to Ruth.

When Ruth dies, and Alma leaves, Martha takes over the household and cares for her sister, Louise. Martha does everything she can to break the horrible cycle that her Mother started. But when Alma returns years later and assumes the role as head of the household, the cycle comes back, as Alma begins doing the same thing her mother did: bringing men back to the house to be drugged and murdered. At first, Martha fights it; she hates that Alma is back and wants her out, but as the story reaches its end, all three girls fully embrace the cycle, and vow to continue it. 

What's so great about Horror and Weird Fiction, is that strange, bizarre, and horrifying ordeals are effectively used to highlight numerous themes. In this case, Miskowski crafted a tale about an unbreakable family cycle, and that no matter how hard we try, we are destined--or doomed, which may be the more appropriate word--to fall into the those cycles, some of which began generations ago. We always talk about how we aren't going be like our parents, and our parents said they aren't going to be like their parents, and so on and so forth, but it's inevitable. Even the best of us maintain certain aspects of a cycle, despite our best efforts not to. Whether it's your father's temper, or your mother's gambling, something is going to stay with you. In the case of Alma, Martha, and Louise, it's their mother's ritual killings. 

Once again, S.P. Miskowski has shown us why we should be reading her work. It's her skill at writing evenly paced stories and smooth prose, coupled with her incomparable ability to dig deep down into peoples' souls and unearth all their complexities and layers. With Muscadines, Miskowski brought us a tale that's, brutal, raw, and unwavering in it's onslaught of the reader's being. If you haven't read Miskowki yet, now is the time to start doing so; she is taking literary Horror to new heights.