Sunday, September 30, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#6

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#6. "Firedance"

With "Firedance" (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom), Jack Ketchum ventures straight into the heart of King Country.  The story is set in Maine, and is populated with small-town, common-folk type characters, including protagonist Frisco Hans (an ex-merchant seaman who one morning had "jumped off a lifeboat made fast high over the leeward rail onto the deck of the Curfew, hit the deck too hard and lost his sense of taste") and his drinking buddy Homer Devins (whose wife "had run away with the Chinese dry-cleaner last winter while Devins was out hunting rabbits).  Like Stephen King before him, Ketchum offsets the mundane and the incredible, as seen when the characters Ray Fogarty and Dot Hardcuff, amidst an adulterous tryst up on Zeigler's Notch, make a mind-boggling discovery: of a multi-species group of animals (mice, snakes, a cardinal, a wolf, and a lynx) sitting closely and calmly circled around a campfire.

The promptly-summoned townspeople of Dead River at first feel like they are viewing something "miraculous and awe-inspiring," but an intimation of the ominous quickly sets in: "It was as though the natural way of things had reversed itself.  Humans in the shadows, wild things in the light."  The humans tear off "running like kids from the bogeyman"; when curiosity returns them to the same woodland spot the next night, the inexplicably peaceful circle has grown, and now the animals are observed moving (dancing?) around the fire.  Such bizarre choreography scares the watchers, and riddles them with existential angst: "a feeling passed through the crowd that felt like a kind of collective shame or guilt or something, as though the animals had made them smaller somehow, humbled, a damned sight less significant."  So it's no surprise when the heavily-armed humans start grousing about how just "plain unnatural" the scene is.  Frisco Hans, though, suddenly isn't quite so sure:
How do we know? he thought? Who in the hell knows what's natural in a world up to its butt in poisoned lakes and streams, with poisoned air for chrissake, with normal-looking guys not a lot different from Homer here walking into a K-Mart and shooting up the customers with some fancy thousand-dollar automatic weapon, guys who like to kidnap and murder little children, a world where you get a doll for Christmas and it eats your hair, a world so crazy and nonsensical that you can jump off a goddamn lifeboat and lose your sense of taste forever?  Who says what's natural and what's not?
By the third night, "the sheer size of the damn thing" has the folk of Dead River utterly spooked: it "looked like the entire forest was there," and "there were even plenty of farm animals this time."  Only Hans seems filled with wonder, the sense that he is privy to some evolutionary leap, "the dawn of a whole new time, a whole new nature": "They're like us, he thought.  Like what we must have been thousands and thousands of years ago.  We must have crawled out of caves on nights like this and done just the same."  Yet profound worry accompanies Hans's wonderment.  As the dancers whirl
"around the flames in some bright joyous rapture of celebration that was impervious to danger, oblivious to harm," Hans stands
"frozen in a fundamental horror at what his species was capable of doing here tonight."  Hearing "a shotgun pump a cartridge, triggers cocked all around," Hans knows "a goddamn bloodbath" is about to unfold.

Massacre is averted when little Patty Schilling breaks free from her mother's arms and runs and joins the dancing animals.  Other children and women (man appears to have no place within this peaceable kingdom) soon follow the innocent's lead.  At story's end, Hans sees "Dot Hardcuff dancing around with a big brown bear and not even her husband or Ray Fogarty was going to argue with that choice of partner."  Nor can the reader argue with the choice of this atmospheric masterpiece of magic realism as one of Jack Ketchum's all-time-best works of short fiction.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#7

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#7. "The Cow"

Co-author Lucky McKee might have had a hand in this novella sequel to 2011's The Woman, but "The Cow" is quintessential Ketchum.  The plot follows the blueprint established by the earlier novels in the series concerning latter-day cannibals terrorizing coastal Maine.  There are unflinching scenes of sudden, savage attack ("she simultaneously reached up and dug her fingers into his eyes and bit down into the crotch of his white cargo Bermudas") and utterly gruesome meal prep ("the gutting, the removal of the arms, the removal of the backbone, the halving and quartering, the removal of the ribs.  The deep cuts along the calves and thighs and rump.").  But what truly distinguishes "The Cow" is not its formula, but its formatting.

The narrative is presented as "The Journal of Donald Fischer," the lone survivor of a beachfront assault on his rehearsing theater group by the Woman and her cannibalistic sidekicks.   Fischer is penning his on-going account in "a filthy battered spiral notebook" while being held prisoner by his attackers.  The framing of the story this way is significant in that furnishes an overt example of something I would argue Ketchum has been doing all-along in the series: scripting variations on the Indian captivity narrative (a literary genre dating back centuries and most classically exemplified by the memoir The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson).

Ketchum has hinted at such a context previously (in the series' second novel, Offspring) by giving the cannibal clan suggestively Native American names such as Rabbit, and Eartheater, and Second Stolen.  Here in "The Cow," the anachronistic primitives living close to nature in the remaining uncivilized spaces of the modern world dry strips of slaughtered meat "over some kind of teepee-style rack."  The Woman's cannibalism is even described at one point as "a spiritual thing": "the best food understands its own death, its sacrifice.  And the deeper the understanding the more that supports the living."  Finally, while historical abductees such as Mary Rowlandson had to contend with the threat of heathen sexual aggression, Ketchum's narrative shows that a male captive like Fischer is not exempt from rape.  To his horror, Fischer has been kept alive not as a future meal but rather for the purposes of stud service.  Because the Woman seeks to rebuild her carnivorous tribe, Fischer is reduced to the status of a profane cow, something
"to be milked and milked again."

Fischer's closing journal entry is composed about four months after his climactic escape attempt: "The events I've written about took place in July.  Now, by my reckoning, it's October, somewhere around Halloween.  But there won't be any trick-or-treaters coming around here."  If there were any kiddies in the vicinity, they'd probably be scared off by Fischer's appearance.  The narrator's closing revelation is of his having been subjected to a series of body piercings, the inserted slivers of bone strategically placed not just to help keep Fischer tethered in captivity but also to increase his productivity ("It's true what they say about genital piercings," the hapless Fischer shares.  "It makes me a more efficient cow.").  Fischer nonetheless vows to "tear these bones out of me with my bare hands if given the slightest chance at rescue," an act that sounds so excruciatingly painful, the (cringing male) reader almost can't help but hope that Fischer remains gotten by the balls. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dare Me (Book Review)

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books, 2012)

Don't be fooled by the cover image, or the fact that Abbott's sixth novel is set in the world of high school cheerleading.  Dare Me isn't some saccharine teen romance but rather a dark and sophisticated roman noir.  To start with, the cast of high school girls here engage in some decidedly adult behavior (Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol! seems to be their decadent mantra).  As cheerleaders they are not vapid, bubble-blowing gym-bimbos; more like "gladiators" who train gruelingly and perform extraordinary physical feats.  This is bloodsport, both in terms of the terrible injuries suffered (bones snap and tendons pop "like a New Year's champagne cork") and all the infighting/backbiting as the girls vie to be Top Girl on the squad and in the eyes of the coach they idolize.

The novel traces the tremendous, transformative effect new young coach Colette French has on her squad, and the trouble this brings to the long-standing friendship between sixteen-year-old narrator Addy Hanlon and alpha-female Beth Cassidy (a jealous Beth resents Addy's closeness with the coach).  Addy's problems, though, are far from typical high-school fare.  When a character is found dead under suspicious circumstances, Addy finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secrets and deceptions--to the point where she doesn't know whether she can trust either her old friend or her new mentor.  With its dire plot complications, and its concerns with the limits/complexities of narrative viewpoint, Dare Me reads like a masterful mix of James M. Cain and Henry James.

Abbot's prose has the precision and resonance of poetry ("Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning [down the shower drain].  Like a mermaid shedding her scales.").  The writing is highly sensuous, yet never descends into luridness, as seen, for instance, in the following description of a deep-tissue massage administered by Beth: "Her thumb slides up the diamond shaped middle of the calf, and notches there, working slowly, achingly, pressing down to the hardest place then sliding her thumb up, the two muscle heads forking.  It's like her thumb is a hot wand, that's how I always used to think of it."

Again, though, this is ultimately a dark and gritty story that Abbott's narrator Addy is telling.  There are strong overtones of American Gothic, with the novel's central death taking place in a sparsely-occupied apartment complex called the The Towers ("it's like a castle").  Drawn to the scene of possible crime (suicide or homicide? is the question at the heart of the mystery), Addy is forced to navigate the "gloomy dark" corridors, stepping along the way on the victim's shotgun-scattered teeth.

Yet scariest of all in Dare Me is "witchy" and "vampiric" Beth, a pint-sized tyrant who seems to harbor more mean spirit than team spirit ("There's something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls," Addy warns us early on, anticipating the menace Beth will exude).  She's devious, manipulative, vindictive, but can hardly be reduced to a bitchy-it-girl stereotype.  For all her brashness and razor wit, she is also a sad and wounded figure.  There's not a doubt in my mind that Beth stands as Abbott's most memorable character creation to date.

Dare Me is an engrossing novel that will transport readers back to their own teenage years while simultaneously reminding them just how different the high school scene is for kids today, with all the fresh temptations and modern technologies at hand (the illicit sexual content of teens' cell phones is integral to the novel's plot).  Abbott continues to break new ground, boldly setting her noir storylines in original milieus, and for those willing to dare the unfamiliar (rather than settle for the safely formulaic), an immensely rewarding reading experience awaits.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#8

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#8. "Megan's Law"

"Well, what the hell would you do?" confrontational narrator Albert Walker asks in the opening line of "Megan's Law" (1999; collected in Peaceable Kingdom).  This arresting hook generates instant suspense, as the reader can't help but wonder what Albert actually has gone and done.

Albert relates an encounter with police officer legally required to inform that a "tier-three high risk sex criminal," Philip Knott, has moved in two doors down from his home.  Hearing this, Albert is immediately concerned for the safety of his twelve-year-old daughter Michele (whom he has previously protected from her "crazy rumdrum [and now deceased] miserable excuse of a mother"). He grows even more distraught over--and obsessed with--his new neighbor after learning the horrid details (from a gossiping bartender) of the child-raping Knott's crimes.  It soon becomes apparent that the officer's initial warning to Albert "against vigilantism" has been given in vain.

The brilliance of Ketchum's story lies in its manipulation of readerly sympathy.  Alternating Albert's narrative with passages of Knott's italicized thoughts, "Megan's Law" juxtaposes an extremely devoted father and an ostensibly rehabilitated sex criminal.  Knott (whose surname suggests both negation and entanglement) emerges as a vulnerable figure when he considers the dark side of the titular piece of legislation:
This Megan's Law thing.  It fucks you up! Out in California they firebombed this guy's car, torched the poor bastard, burnt him to death.  In Connecticut they got this other guy, about twenty-five of them, beat the shit out of him, somebody they thought did stuff but it was a case of mistaken identity, they fucked up, they got the wrong guy.  It'd be funny if it wasn't so fucking scary.  What people are capable of.
Knott, though, is no innocent, and is still struggling with some highly illicit urges: "I want to fuck something silly. I want to fuck something till it screams," the man admits at the end of one passage.  But then (as Albert meantime plots to put a "stop" to this "running sore") Knott begins his next section of the narrative by amending: "I want to fuck something till it screams but I won't.  Not in the immediate future anyway.  That I'm pretty sure of.  I think I maybe can actually do this thing.  Maybe.  Maybe it's the meds or maybe it's just being free now not in Rahway anymore and not obsessing all the time."  Knott thinks he stands a chance of assuming a normal life, not realizing that Albert is about to mete out a violent death. 

Albert steals a jeep, dons a ski mask, then runs over Knott twice as the man crosses his own front lawn en route to his driveway.  When Albert backs up the vehicle a second time, he remorselessly observes "that my left front tire had rolled over his neck, that the Wagoneer's weight had pretty much disconnected his head from his body and had flattened his neck like roadkill which in fact was exactly what the little fucker was now."  The threat-eliminating father enjoys "a busy and productive day at work," but his daughter Michele is shaken up that night after learning of Knott's murder.  "So I did what I usually do," Albert admits:
I took her to bed.
I comforted her.
What would you do? 
A signature Ketchum twist, belatedly revealing the true reason Albert was so bent on keeping Knott away from Michele.  Albert's interrogative refrain takes an abruptly alienating turn in the closing line, as no sane reader is likely to agree with such a course of incestuous solace.  Nevertheless, by closing with a question the story throws down a moral gauntlet, forces each one of us to consider what we are really capable of when it comes to sheltering our loved ones from the world's various harms.  The honest answer here could prove as shocking and unsettling as "Megan's Law" itself.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#9

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#9. "Luck"

Jack Ketchum established himself as a master of the macabre Western with his 2003 novella The Crossings, but he made his first foray into such territory in the 2000 short story "Luck" (collected in Peaceable Kingdom).  Notice how skillfully Ketchum establishes the genre through details of character and setting in the story's opening paragraph:
The night was moonless and quiet save for the crackling of the fire and the liquid tiltback of the Tangleleg whiskey which they passed between them and Faro Bill Brody drawing hard on his Bull Durham and the moans and heavy breathing from Chunk Herbert and the snort and paw of horses and the voices of the men.  Their talk had turned to luck, good and bad.  The men were of the opinion that theirs had taken a far turn for the worse this day for who could have guessed at Turner's Crossing that the stage would be filled with lawmen and citizens with guns drawn and ready and a posse just out of sight behind them.  They had robbed the same stage at the same place at the same time of day three weeks running and never known a problem.
"Luck" instantly immerses the reader in its world, but a second reading reveals also just how carefully plotted the story is.  As the outlaws huddle around and trade tales about luck, Chunk Herbert (who now lies dying after being shot in the head during the botched stagecoach robbery) groans and mumbles incoherently in the
background.  "Sounded like 'Lily' or 'Liddy'," Faro Bill observes at one point.  "Sounded like 'I-ill," Canary Joe Hallihan later offers when Chunk pipes up during his story about Little Dick West, "the unluckiest man who ever walked the Lord's green earth."  Canary Joe recounts personally witnessing West's shooting death on multiple occasions in disparate parts of the country.  Even more uncanny than West's repeated reincarnations is the dire fate that befalls his respective killers.  One gunman's farmhouse burns down about a month later with him and his whole family inside; another hapless assassin trips and breaks his neck while carrying West's corpse down a three-stepped staircase.  Most gruesome of all, a seemingly victorious duelist blows off his own genitalia while holstering his pistol.

Canary Joe's eerie narration creates a hush amongst the band of bandits.  All except Chunk, desperate to confess, and whose last words are terribly clear to his doomed cohorts: "not I-ill or Lily but Li'l Dick West, I shot Li'l Dick West in Dodge City, Kansas, and the fusillade seemed to come from everywhere at once and ended Chunk's luck and their own along with it for good and ever."

A campfire spook story with a wicked twist, "Luck" is a tale that every Ketchum fan will consider himself/herself fortunate to have come across.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short fiction--#10

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#10. "Hotline"

Don't let the title fool you: "Hotline" (first published in 2007 in Closing Time and Other Stories) isn't some phone-sex-themed tale of erotic horror but rather an exercise in coal-black humor.

Joe Fitzpatrick has gotten a job working the Crisis Center Hotline at the local YMCA.  Today's his first solo shift, and should anyone find out about his behavior, likely his last.  Joe is no stickler for protocol (at one point, he abandons his post to go sneak a cigarette in the bathroom), and worse, he shows zero sympathy for the
"goddamn whiners" who call him because they are contemplating suicide.  During one extended phone conversation, Joe's half of the dialogue transforms from rote responses into an infuriated rant.  The hotline-manning hothead, an ex-cop who worked highway patrol for twenty-four years, reveals that he is precisely the wrong guy for this job as he launches a verbal barrage at his caller:
Because over twenty-four years you see things.  A lot of things you don't necessarily want to see.  You know in some states attempted suicide's still against the law?  It is.  And there's a reason for that.  Do you know what you goddamn people put us through?  You jump off a bridge, we find you gray and blue and bloated in the water.  We pick you up, good chance you're gonna explode in our faces or fall the hell apart in our hands.  Blow your head off and we pick pieces of you out of the carpet or the grass or scraps of what passes for your brains off the goddamn walls.  Take a dive off a building you maybe kill a pedestrian, whoops, sorry! we got to figure out who the fuck's who.  We pack you in bags, wipe away your vomit and shit and your piss. You miserable sonovabitch.  You make somebody else pick up your cold dead guts and you think you're worth the trouble.  You want to die? You piece of shit I ought to kill you! I'd at least be cleaning up my own mess!  My mess! Oh you're such a nice guy, you're hurting, my fucking heart goes out to you!
Not since Robert DeNiro's character attempted to undergo psycho-therapy in Analyze This has there been a more hysterical diatribe delivered.

Most authors would have been content to orchestrate one surprising turnabout in a short story, but not Jack Ketchum.  The narrative is given another terrific twist when a subsequent figure phones in ominously promising that he is going to "eat [his]
weapon," and Joe recognizes the voice as that of his ex-partner on the force.  The despondent caller Ralph, in turn, recognizes the irony of the situation: "Aw, shit, Joe.  It fucking figures, you know?  I call to tell some anonymous fuck he can shove life up his asshole and I get you of all people."  Ralph further marvels that Joe has taken up such a line of work: "What the fuck are you doing manning a crisis center.  You fucking hate people!"

But misanthropic Joe doesn't hate Ralph, as he quickly reminds his friend, and pleads with him not to kill himself.  And here's where one begins to see what a fiendish little tale "Hotline" really is.  Joe actually "figured he was doing a lot of good" by berating his previous callers, but now his genuine concern for Ralph pushes the man even closer to suicide.  "Amazing," Ralph sardonically remarks.  "Good old Joe Fitzpatrick, model compassionate citizen.  Now I seen everything.  Now I can fucking die happy."

Ketchum clinches his narrative with a couple of amazing lines, which I won't cite here (I want to leave at least some surprise for those yet to read the piece).  Once you do track down the story and encounter its ending, you'll be sure to agree: when it comes to mordant wit, "Hotline" is searingly brilliant.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

It's time to start littering your home with bones, body parts, black candles.  Oh, and you might want to start decorating for Halloween, too.
--5:22 A.M., September 19th

Devil with a Blue Dress On?  Only if he's had way too much to drink at the annual holiday party.
--11:01 P.M., September 16th

How many miscarriages is it going to take, Justice, before you quit trying to conceive?
--2:37 P.M., September 12th

Open a vein, devote yourself to a worthy cause: we're holding a pledge drive Down Below.  Operators are standing by to answer your call.
--10:49 A.M., September 10th

My motto: never settle on the lesser of two evils. (Cuz where's the fun in that?)
--7:06 P.M., September 6th

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#11

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#11. "The Visitor"

As we've already seen on the Countdown, in Jack Ketchum's writerly hands a ghost story is never just a ghost story, and a vampire story never just a vampire story.  So it should be no surprise that the author offers more than the usual blood and guts when turning his focus to zombies.

"The Turning" (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) details the trials of Florida retiree Will and his wife Beatrice.  The elderly couple misses the evening news on "the night the dead started walking," and so are taken by surprise the following morning when their neighbor John Blount "climbed the stairs to the front door of their mobile home unit to visit over a cup of coffee as was his custom three or four days a week and bit Beatrice on the collarbone, which was not his custom at all."  Blount's attack is described in prosaic terms, but that doesn't mean the story is devoid of grisly horrors, as Will witnesses "some terrible things that first day":
He saw a man with his nose bitten off--the nosebleed to end all nosebleeds--and a woman wheeled in on a gurney whose breasts had been gnawed away.  He saw a black girl not more than six who had lost an arm.  Saw the dead and mutilated body of an infant child sit up and scream.
Still, Ketchum's narrative does not dwell on the undead pandemic scourging through the streets of Florida but rather situates itself within the "relatively quiet" interior of the local hospital.  Will makes daily visits to see his wounded wife, and following Beatrice's passing (and the lethal injection of her risen form by the swift-acting yet humane hospital staff) he continues to visit the subsequent occupants of Beatrice's room.  He brings the comatose patients flowers, sits with them and regales them with personal anecdotes.  Sadly, though, Will is less a good Samaritan than a man plagued by severe grief.  When a woman closely resembling Beatrice is "put down" by the doctors in Will's presence, Will's bottled emotions bubble over.  He's still crying when he returns to the hospital the next day, and is suddenly grabbed by the now-zombified guard. 

When his bicep is bitten, Will feels "a kind of snapping as though someone had snapped a twig inside him," and the widower wonders if the sensation isn't metaphysical: "Heartbreak?"  Will calmly navigates the desolate hospital, enters his wife's old room, and climbs right into the empty bed.  Lying there infected, Will is more pensive than apprehensive: "He thought how everything was the same, really.  How nothing much had changed whether the dead were walking or not.  There were those who lived inside of life and those who for whatever reason did not or could not.  Dead or no dead."  As the waning Will waxes philosophical at story's end, Ketchum manages to inject a strong dose of thoughtfulness into the traditional tale of mindless, shambling hordes. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Magazine Review: Cemetery Dance #67

I'll structure my review the same way Cemetery Dance: The Magazine of Horror and Suspense organizes its table of contents...


The new issue contains some terrific stories.  Peter Ullian's "Ribbons and Tin" is a gripping hard-boiled tale in which a down and out ex-Army Ranger keeps falling for the same femme fatale.  Blake Crouch's "Unconditional" might be short in terms of word count, but it's long on emotion, capturing a loving father's attempt to connect with his murderous and about-to-be-executed son.  For me, though,
the most entertaining piece was Will Ludwigsen's "Leverage," the darkly humorous story of a morbidly obese and monumentally lazy Norwegian hitman (who won't even lift a finger to type his own narrative).

My only real gripe with the fiction here is that I wish there was more of it.  The magazine cover promises "Chilling Fiction" by Douglas Clegg, Crouch, Ludwigsen, "and many others," but "many" proves to be just three more.  Can we say "hyperbole"?


Lisa Morton's interview with Al Sarrantonio delivers exciting news for fans of the author's Orangefield cycle: a new story is on its way.  For a "feature review," Hang Wagner's discussion of Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury is surprisingly brief in its discussion of the anthology's entries and how they riff on/pay homage to the master storyteller.  Wagner also seems to damn the book with some faint praise:
While some tales are more successful than others, they all exhibit a certain degree of enthusiasm, and a desire to please the man who inspired them, at a minimum successfully fulfilling the editors' (Bradbury biographer Sam Weller and writer/teacher Mort Castle) stated goal of providing stories that "through image, theme, or concept are either ever-so-obviously, or ever-so-subtly, 'Bradbury informed.'"
 The issue's supreme Feature is Neil Gaiman's "The King and I," an anecdotal essay liberally sprinkled with quotes from Stephen King.  King addresses such topics as his daily writing routine and his persistent labeling as a horror writer, and reveals his plans to delete a certain "character" from the next draft (wait, next draft?) of the Dark Tower series.  Perhaps most noteworthy of all are King's comments on his son, author Joe Hill.


As usual, Michael Marano's genre-film reviews brim with acerbic wit.  My favorite quote from this issue's edition of "Mediadrome" is drawn from Marano's rant on the various shortcomings of The Thing prequel: "I could mention the incompetent editing that makes old episodes of TJ Hooker look as finely crafted as the climax of The Wild Bunch."

Two other standout columns in the issue are written by Don D'Auria and Mark Seiber.  The former cleverly employs the Beatles' song "Paperback Writer" as part of a lesson on what and what not to do when submitting a cover letter to a fiction editor.  The piece is required reading for aspiring novelists, as is Seiber's for all horror lovers.  The recent divorcé recounts his foray into the world of online dating and his subsequent trials of revealing his passion for the horror genre to his dates ("At some point I have to bring up the H-word.  I'm not talking about Herpes.  I'm talking about Horror.  I sometimes think I'd have better luck with a sexually transmitted disease.").

Overall, CD#67 is a thoroughly enjoyable issue.  And best of all, it follows close on the heels of #66 (the news and reviews are growing steadily less outdated with the return to a more regular publication schedule).  Here's hoping we'll be treated to the next edition of Cemetery Dance just in time for Halloween.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#12

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#12. "Brave Girl"

A quieter--but not necessarily gentler--Jack Ketchum story...

The premise of "Brave Girl" (2002; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) is simple: four-year-old Suzy comes to the rescue when her mother suffers a household accident (Liza Jackson slips getting into the bathtub, cracking her head off the ceramic soap dish [ouch!] and knocking herself unconscious.  Suzy has the wherewithal to turn off the tap, drain the tub, then dial 9-1-1 and calmly explain the situation.  In short, this "brave, exceptional little girl" demonstrates a maturity well beyond her years.  She isn't even fazed (hint, hint) by the blood-spattered scene she finds in the bathroom.

Suzy's grace under pressure makes for a great human interest piece, and the girl is quickly tabbed for a local TV news spot.  But the reporter's (and Ketchum's) feel-good story takes a dark turn mid-interview.  As Suzy bends over to retrieve her dropped doll, the camera captures a startling detail: "the long wide angry welts along the back of both thighs just below the pantyline that told [the reporter] that this was not only a smart, brave little girl but perhaps a sad and foolish one too" for saving her abusive mother's life.

The reporter, Carole Belliver (a firm "believer" in truth and justice?) is outraged and orders her cameraman to "Dupe the tape.  Phone the police and child welfare and get copies to them.  I want us to do what her daughter evidently couldn't bring herself to do.  I want us to do our best to drown the bitch."  With such forceful closing words, "Brave Girl" transforms into a different type of feel-good story, one in which the reader revels in the notion of a domestic monster receiving a much-deserved punishment.

The accidental discovery of Suzy's victim status forces Belliver to "kill the [news] story," yet brings Ketchum's story to life as a work of American Gothic.  Forget supernatural bogeys and remote locales; the worst horrors, Ketchum reminds us, can be found hidden behind the closed doors of home.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#13

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#13. "Bully"

Since readers might not be familiar with this 2010 tale (published in the UK anthology Postscripts #22/23 - The Company He Keeps), I won't go into too-specific detail regarding its plot.  But I do want to make note of some of the story's strengths:

First and foremost, "Bully" is a fine slice of American Gothic.  The horrors hidden behind closed doors, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown, U.S.A.: Ketchum captures these perfectly in this narrative concerning a drunkard father with a penchant not just for mean-spirited antics (e.g. knuckle-crushing  handshakes) but also vicious physical abuse of his wife.  Dishing the dirt on his despicable old man, exposing him for the monster he really was, the protagonist Jeff McFee reveals a childhood marked by incidents of terrible violence and emotional scarring (there's a reason Jeff "can't ride a horse to this day").  These events transpired on a family farm in rural Sussex County, New Jersey, leading to some harrowing discoveries both under the front porch and at the bottom of a well.

The story is expertly structured so as to build suspense.  An
unnamed female narrator, Jeff's "third cousin once removed," has the visited the man (now an NYU law professor) in his New York City apartment because she's determined to learn the full story of a family tragedy that none of her closest relatives seem to want to discuss.  Her curiosity is soon coupled by the reader's, as key
elements are hinted at but their full explanation is held in abeyance until later in Jeff's account.  By looking to bring long-past events to light, the narrator also unwittingly sets the adult Jeff down a dark path.

"Bully" features a zinger of a closing line, but this tale of "belated revenge" (to borrow Ketchum's own phrase in the author's note attached to the story) does not present a neat, facilely moralistic wrap-up.  Yes, tables are turned and comeuppance is transacted, but there's less a sense of closure for Jeff's character than an uneasy feeling that this is a truly haunted figure.  Jeff's psychological well-being is called into question by his admitted hearkening to a ghostly voice.  Downing drink after drink in the course of the story, Jeff also appears to be transforming into the very person he has abhorred most.  And perhaps worst of all, based on Jeff's final revelation, the titular pejorative technically applies to him just as well.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Call for Submissions: American Epitaphs

Grave Marker Macabre: the new feature “American Epitaphs” seeks to collect imagined tombstone inscriptions (written from a pseudo-posthumous viewpoint).  The epitaphs can range from the solemn to the sardonic (think of the oft-cited line found in Key West Cemetery: “I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK”).  I want to be impressed by your creativity and ingenuity, your wit and wordplay.  Reminder: you’re composing the epitaph of an anonymous, fictitious figure (i.e. not your own prospective epitaph or that of any real/historical person).


LENGTH: Your submitted epitaph should not be longer than a tweet (140 characters or less).  Remember the context: space would be limited on the ostensible headstone engraved with this sentiment.  So think of it as writing micro-poetry, and make those words count!


PUBLICATION SCHEDULE: I aim to publish a handful of epitaphs within each American Epigraphs post here at Macabre Republic.  The more quality submissions I receive, the more often the feature will run.  I would love to build up to the point of a regular weekly schedule (comparable to the Sunday offerings at PostSecret).


PAYMENT: Publication and link.  The byline will appear in the form of “—submitted by First and Last Name, from City, State,” with your name serving as a hyperlink to your blog or website.


HOW TO SUBMIT: Email me at minimonkjoe[at]aol[dot]com.  Subject line should read “SUBMISSION: AMERICAN EPITAPHS.”  No cover letter necessary; just place your submission (epitaph and byline) in the body of the email.  Multiple submissions are fine, but a writer can only have one accepted epitaph appear per post.


RESPONSE TIME: An acceptance or rejection email will be sent within one week.  Upon acceptance, I will ask you to provide the URL for your blog/website (you don’t have to worry about including it with your original submission).


To get a better idea of what I am looking for, consider this list of imaginary epitaphs that I have composed:


































Friday, September 7, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#14


[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#14. "The Best"

This short piece (first published in 2000, and subsequently collected in Peaceable Kingdom) is a premiere example of another typical Ketchum tale-type: the hot-blooded narrative of erotic horror.

Thirty-five-year-old Shelia convinces her great-in-the-sack-but-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Tommy (who has told her he is leaving her for another woman) to join her for one last bout of break-up sex.  This proves to be no mere farewell frolic, though, but rather the first act in the diabolical scheme of a woman scorned.

Shelia shows up afterwards at the door of Tommy's new flame Janine, feigning amiability.  But the moment Janine lets her guard down, Shelia knocks her cold with a sucker punch.  She then proceeds to choke Janine to death with a belt taken from the woman's bedroom closet.  She tears off the corpse's nightgown and panties, then takes "a few minutes to give the body a good beating, concentrating on the ribs and head."  What at first appears to be gross overkill is only stage-setting for the really "nasty part" to follow.

A Ziploc bag in Shelia's purse holds the semen-filled condom saved from Shelia's earlier coitus with Tommy.  Shelia places it over her latex-gloved index finger, pricks the Trojan's tip with a pin, and goes to work filling Janine with incriminating DNA.  The victim's lifeless womb needs to be lubricated with blood, and it occurs to Shelia that the police are going to think that Tommy engaged in some Dahmer-esque necrophilia.  "The idea made her giggle," and this singularly chilling reaction indicates just how unhinged Shelia has become.

Her sick mission accomplished, Shelia returns home and slips into bed beside the oblivious Tommy.  Feeling his familiar body heat, Shelia can't help but think "for a moment how sad it was, really, that he'd be leaving anyway.  Not where he wanted to go but somewhere."

"The Best" haunts the reader with its realistic horror, as Shelia's fake-rape frame job seems frightfully plausible.  Ketchum's story also casts a dark shadow over the notion of male prowess.  Because as Tommy is about to discover, being the best lover someone ever had can ultimately turn into your own worst nightmare.

Thursday, September 6, 2012



[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds, or are you going to choke?


__  H  __          __  __  __  I  __          __  __  N  __

__  __  __  N          __  __          __  __  __  R  __  I  __

__  Y

__  H  __          __  H  __  R  __  I  __

__  __  N  I  __  __  __          __  __  N  __


HINT: I told you once, you $%&^!...

Correct answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Michael Clarke Duncan, R.I.P.

Sadly, the actor passed away yesterday at the age of 54.  His cinematic immortality, though, had already been assured by his unforgettable turn as John Coffey in The Green Mile.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Countdown--The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#15


[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#15. "Returns"

This 2002 piece (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) reveals yet another side to the multifaceted Jack Ketchum: the animal lover.  The story's anonymous protagonist comes back from the beyond (four days after being mowed down by a New York City cab driver), "knowing there was something I had to do or try to do."  Upon returning to his apartment, though, he finds that his alcoholic wife Jill has been neglecting Zoey, his beloved cat.  Thinking that perhaps the purpose of his visitation is to help snap Jill out of her drunken funk, the narrator tries to rouse her to attend to Zoey (unlike the cat, Jill can't see her late husband's spectral self, but hears him inside her head).  And fails miserably.

That's largely because Jill already has different plans for Zoey.  The plurality of the story's title comes into play when a stranger bearing a cat-carrier rings the doorbell.  He is reluctant to carry out the deed he's been summoned for, telling Jill that the cat could be put up for adoption for a while rather than being sent straight to death by euthanasia. Cold and malicious, Jill lies that Zoey is a biter and a fighter, and thus unfit for domestic existence.

Jill's callous act is the ultimate betrayal for the narrator, who rages at the miserable widow with ghostly vitriol:
My wife continues to drink and for the next three hours or so I do nothing but scream at her, tear at her.  Oh, she can hear me, all right.  I'm putting her through every torment I can muster, reminding her of every evil she's ever done to me or anybody, reminding her over and over what she's done today and I think, so this is my purpose, this is why I'm back, the reason I'm here is to get this bitch to end herself, end her miserable fucking life and I think of my cat and how Jill never really cared for her, cared for her wine-stained furniture more than my cat and I urge her toward the scissors, I urge her toward the window and the seven-story drop, urge her toward the knives in the kitchen and she's crying, she's screaming, too bad the neighbors are all at work, they'd at least have her arrested.  And she's hardly able to walk or even stand and I think, heart attack maybe, maybe stroke and I stalk my wife and urge her to die, die until it's almost one o'clock and something begins to happen.
What's happening is that the narrator's "power" is fading, in tandem with the waning moments of Zoey's life.  Sensing his cat's death somewhere across the city, the narrator realizes the real purpose of his visitation.  Not to rescue Jill, or even torment her, but to have been there for Zoey one last time before she was carried off: "That last touch of comfort [given to her] inside the cage.  The nuzzle and purr.  Reminding us both of all those nights she'd comforted me and I her.  The fragile brush of souls."

Understanding delivers closure, both to the narrator and the narrative.  Announcing that the "last and best of me's gone now," the devoted pet owner promptly fades from consciousness.  The same cannot be said for this quietly haunting tale (based, the author shares in the appended story note, on his own experience of having to put down his housecat).  Short and bittersweet, "Returns" lingers long past its natural end point.