2017 Graphic Miscellany #6

Now for something completely different, as it’s my birthday and horror is most definitely not on the menu.

Sunstone Volume 1

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

Fifty Shades of Grey for the graphic novel demographic. Ally is a born dominatrix, but her only experience in real life is with friend Alan, who was also of a domme persuasion, and so that didn’t work out. Financially independent and with a vivid imagination, she’s looking for someone to help take her dreams to the next level. Lisa is a complete ingénue, someone whose fantasies usually involve getting tied up, and who would like to see if that works for her in the real world. Two lonely people, they hook up online and after tentatively sounding each other out decide to meet in real life. The experience turns out to be a revelation and the start of something special. I enjoyed this book a lot more than I did E. L. James’ work. The artwork is superb, with echoes of Chris Achilleos in Sejic’s paintings, with a vibrancy, warmth, and colour that is all his own. The pages seem to glow, so that there is nothing sleazy here, no hint of the perverse. It is sexually explicit, up to a point, but at the same time the S&M stuff is only part of a fully rounded relationship. Ally and Lisa go through all the things that other couples experience – shyness attendant on that first encounter, getting to know each other, and the supporting cast in their lives, wondering if it is just lust or something more substantial taking root. These are engaging and appealing characters, women who know what they want and who are prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve happiness on their own terms, regardless of society’s expectations and judgements. And underpinning it all is a delicious sense of humour, the feeling that the creator is having every bit as much fun as his characters. This sense of fun is seen especially in the bonus material, which pokes fun at sexual stereotypes, but at the same time Sejic is aware of the potential for prurience and has his tongue firmly in cheek. When she thinks the story is getting a bit heavy Ally shouts at the readers ‘Wait! Don’t leave yet! This book has lots of hot lesbian bondage sex!’ And indeed it does, but that’s only the most obvious part of the package.

Sunstone Volume 2

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

Not as much nudity in this second volume, and that makes sense in a way as the relationship moves on and sexual gratification doesn’t loom quite as large. And Sejic’s art doesn’t seem as generous, with panels that feel a lot more restrained and cramped than in the previous book, with a little less invention going into the layout (in the previous volume there were sections where Ally and Lisa’s stories were told on facing pages, a mirroring effect that worked very well in showing their relationship develop). Here the emphasis is on Ally’s friends, with Lisa being accepted into the group and bonding, but at the same time in accepting this widening of their shared social circle Ally puts the relationship at risk through the exposure of her past misdemeanours. Once again it’s an engaging story, one that deepens the reader’s appreciation of S&M lifestyles, while at the same showing that, sexual tastes aside, Ally and Lisa need love, have trust issues, share confidences, want to be happy and secure in their lives – in short, go through all the stuff that other couples do.

Sunstone Volume 3

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

This volume takes the story further along, with our introduction to some more of Lisa and Ally’s friends and other people in their overlapping circles. We learn more about Alan’s talents as a designer of fetish wear. We meet Lisa’s brother, whose relationship is in trouble. Most significantly we hook up with tattoo artist Anne who is puzzled by all this BDSM stuff, though she has a piercing or two and so perhaps shouldn’t be quite as judgemental. Through her BDSM-curious eyes we learn more of the ins and outs of being ‘in the life’, both as regards physical needs and emotional issues. The book ends with our two leads deciding to move in together, Ally having plenty of room in her big old house, but simmering away in the background is the reluctance they both have to admit their feelings for each other, while Lisa’s fictionalisation of their relationship brings problems too. Woven into the story are the inevitable and engaging sexual interludes, all portrayed in the best possible taste (in fact probably a bit idealised – beautiful bodies, soft lighting, etc.) and accompanying everything else there is some witty and ribald dialogue. All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Sunstone Volume 4

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

And this time around it all goes pear shaped for our heroines, as the reticence that has cursed their relationship comes bubbling to a head. Alan is around to raise doubts about Lisa in Ally’s mind, and Lisa’s incorporation of friend Anne into the BDSM fiction she posts online adds yet further complications. All of the virtues of the previous books are evident, with fully rounded characters, sparkling dialogue, and relationship problems that have the feel of authenticity to them. Sejic is especially canny in the way in which he merges fact and Lisa’s fiction to misdirect the reader. It ends on a cliffhanger note, one which makes it certain I’ll keep an eye out for Volume 5 next time I visit the library.

I’m not sure if these books qualify as erotica (probably), but they are a lot of fun and at the same time rather moving as you can’t help but relate to these women and care what happens to them. The Sunstone (it’s the couple’s safe word, if anyone was wondering) books offer a pleasant change from super heroics and horror, though I expect to soon get back to those staples of the graphic medium.

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Trailer Trash – Suburbicon

Home invasion meets Happy Days.

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Filler content with room to grow

A review that originally appeared in Interzone #270:-

YOU WILL GROW INTO THEM
Malcolm Devlin
Unsung Stories pb, 344pp, £9.99

Five of his stories have appeared in the magazine, so the odds are that Malcolm Devlin will be a familiar name to Interzone readers, and three of those stories appear in his first collection, along with two that previously appeared in Black Static.

It was in January 2014 in the pages of BS that Devlin was first published with ‘Passion Play’, and it is fitting his collection leads off with that story. The spine of the story concerns a police reconstruction of the last known movements of disappeared girl Cathy McCullough, with her never named friend taking the lead role and also that of our narrator. Intercut with this are cameos of various people and what they were doing on the day Cathy went missing, and flashbacks to the past relationship of the two girls. Prompted by the story’s title we draw comparisons between this reconstruction and the last walk of Christ, commemorated by a series of stained glass panels in a local church that fascinated Cathy and where she discovered images of the cross-hatched man that came to obsess her. There’s a lot going on in this story. On the surface it has all the trappings of a Jamesian ghost story set in the modern world of social media and police reconstructions, with hints of the outré deftly inserted into the text. Bubbling away beneath all this are unspoken tensions between the two girls and also suggestions of something wrong in the McCullough family, so that while the supernatural elements are dominant there are also more mundane options open for the reader. Further enhancing the story and making it credible, is Devlin’s carefully phrased prose that brings to life the mentality of the young girl who is his protagonist. It is an impressive first outing, for what is not said as much as for what the author reveals.

‘Two Brothers’ has an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe going on, with William expecting to resume their old camaraderie and games when Stephen returns from his first term away at Greyhurst private school. The brother who comes back though is a stranger in all but name. It’s possible to take the story at face value, but at the same time what happens could be a metaphor for childhood anxiety and the process of change, the disconnect between the boy and the man. At the heart of the story is the idea of maturation, of how those we know and love can come to seem alien to us. Ellie makes up stories about her life in ‘Breadcrumbs’, but when the city is overgrown by vegetation she finds herself living in a fairy story and transformed into an archetypal character. It’s a story that is lush with invention and wit, with scintillating dialogue and lovingly crafted imagery. Central to the piece is the idea that fictions control our reality, our dreams shaping the everyday world. For Ellie her transformation is a form of liberation, though to others it seems like the ultimate imprisonment. She is as free as her mind will allow her to wander.

Nina in ‘Her First Harvest’ is a debutante of sorts on an alien world where people’s bodies are used to grow fungus to supplement the food supply. It reads rather like something out of Jane Austen given a fantastical twist, the whole totally absorbing and the strange central conceit adhered to rigorously and developed with a compelling logic. ‘Dogsbody’ reinvents the werewolf archetype as a victim of Lunar Proximity Syndrome. On a day in 2010 large numbers of people were briefly transformed into werewolves. Told from the viewpoint of survivor Gil, whose life was shattered by the event and who has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since, it offers a fascinating view of outsider perception. Gil thinks that employers are prejudiced against him because of LPS, while those like him form their own groups, so that there is an LPS community with its own social gatherings and codes of behaviour. At a push you can use the story as a metaphor for the ways in which society is splintering into various special interest groups, with emphasis placed on our differences rather than the things we have in common. Written with keen insight into what it feels like to be different, some cracking dialogue and a protagonist who is rather too prone to feeling sorry for himself, this was a splendidly entertaining story, taking an old idea and dragging it off in a new and unexpected direction.

There’s a similar feel to ‘We All Need Somewhere To Hide’ which presents us with a world where a secret agency battles against supernatural incursions, but for exorcist Alce the real danger lies at home, with an attack on her sense of self, one that makes Alce question her mission and the things she has been told by others. Beautifully written and with some lurid invention woven into the plot, this is a story about what it means to be the one who has to slay the monsters, who takes on that responsibility and needs to live with doing the right thing when she is not really sure exactly what that is. Tom Kavanagh, the protagonist of ‘Songs Like They Used To Play’, is the former child star of a reality TV show in which his family lived in different decades of the twentieth century. It’s a clever story, one that asks about the effects on impressionable minds of such programmes, but at the same time captures the media circus that surrounds them, so that every act takes place in the public eye. Tom’s chance for happiness was sacrificed to the all-seeing eye of the camera, and in trying to get back some of that he falls into yet another time warp, and in doing so “dooming” somebody he cares about. At the same time there is a subtext about how people cling on to their glory days, even though it leaves them stranded in a past that was probably never as good as they remember it.

In ‘The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him’ the widow who murdered the General is sentenced to re-enact the events leading up to the act several times a day for the benefit of a public needing to feel good about itself. With its air of political will made manifest and suggestions of a populace conditioned to respond as its masters’ wish, this is a story that focuses very clearly on the human damage done by such systematisation. At the same time the story gives us, in the figure of conniving Dominik, a low level apparatchik looking to milk the situation for advancement, someone who initially seems appealing but soon shows his true colours and in doing so reveals the type of people who will flourish in such a climate of fear and correctness. ‘The Bridge’ has a couple moving into a new house and finding a model of their town in the attic, but the differences between the model and reality provide clues as to the fate of the previous owner. It’s a bittersweet piece, at times very moving and with a feel for human frailty.

Finally we have ‘The End of Hope Street’, which originally appeared in Interzone #266 and is currently shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association Award, and to my mind is the best story in this collection. It painstakingly details the process by which a community falls apart, each of the houses on the street becoming unliveable, the people driven from their homes or dying inside them. You can, if so inclined, take this as a metaphor for the way in which many people are being driven out of the housing market through spiralling prices, and if you do take that approach then the personality of the last man standing on Hope Street is especially revealing. Regardless, this is a story that, while it shows us the end of hope, also gives us reason to hope by emphasising the idea that a community is more than bricks and mortar, that it is the people who live there and how they act with regard to each other. With a large cast of characters, each of whom is deftly drawn, this is a quiet and carefully calibrated version of the apocalypse, the sort of story Ballard would have been proud of.

You Will Grow Into Them is a compendium of strange tales that reveal much about our own world through a form of osmosis, stories in which psychological and spiritual states are made physically manifest. It marks the arrival of a potentially major new talent.

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Song for a Saturday – Everybody Hurts

Cover version of the REM song.

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Filler content with dark stuff – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on the work of Richard Chizmar that originally appeared in Black Static #58:-

DARK SHADOWS AND DIRTY CORNERS: RICHARD CHIZMAR (continued)

As careful readers of the above will have noted, collaboration seems to be a regular thing in Chizmar’s career. The novella DARKNESS WHISPERS (Scarlet Galleon Publications limited edition hc, 160pp, $35), co-written with Brian James Freeman is another case in point. Benjamin Logan, the Sheriff of Windbrook, a rural community in western Pennsylvania, has an intuition that something is not right with his world, and it turns out he is not wrong. Heading towards Windbrook is an elderly man dressed in a black suit, with a fedora on his head and an ornate walking stick in his hand, though he doesn’t have a limp. The old man will offer the people of Windbrook the thing they most desire, but at a price. As law and order falls by the wayside, as chaos reigns and violence erupts on the streets, with fire raging all around, Ben Logan is faced with the hardest choice he will ever have to make.

This is a story that put me very much in mind of Stephen King’s oeuvre, with echoes of Needful Things and The Dead Zone in the workings. As a picture of a community in crisis, it works rather well, with the authors cranking up the tension at every twist and turn, and everything going to hell in a handcart at Mach One. I could have done with a bit more by way of introduction to the people of Windbrook – we learn a fair bit about Ben Logan and his immediate family, but the rest of the dramatis personae are thumbnail sketches at best, which undermines slightly our ability to care what happens to them. Of course the focus of the book is rightly on Logan – ultimately this is a tale not of a community undone but of a single man faced with a hard choice, with all the rest simply the machinery that gets him to that moment. An Iraq War veteran, Logan comes across as a decent, honourable man, one who is trying to do his best for everyone, someone who loves his wife and cares deeply about what happens to his children. Another thing that comes across very clearly, is the sheer banality and anonymity of evil. While he is the prime mover in all that takes place, the man in the black suit is unremarkable, his sinister qualities rooted in his actions rather than any outward show of the monstrous. He is, in a sense, simply the embodiment of a process. As somebody else remarked, for evil to triumph it only remains for good men to do nothing. The choice for Ben Logan is in somewhat starker terms, but it is a choice all the same. While not a classic, this was a fine story, one that holds the interest and offers the reader some insight into his or her own character as we consider how we would have acted in Ben Logan’s shoes.

Although I’ve only seen a proof copy, my impressions are that this is going to be a very nice book. There’s an evocative cover by Tomislav Tikulin and some impressive black and white interior illustrations by Jill Baumann, all of which make for a very pleasing and no doubt eminently collectable product. By way of a bonus, we get separate stories from each of the authors. Chizmar’s ‘The Meek Shall Inherit…’ has a Fright Night vibe going on, with two young boys convinced their neighbour is a serial killer, but the truth is actually somewhat worse than that. It’s a good piece, well written and with the young boys brought to convincing life on the page, and with a neat end twist. Freeman’s ‘What They Left Behind’ concerns a haunted factory, the scene of a tragedy in the past, and is entertaining enough for what it is, but treads familiar ground and doesn’t really do anything you won’t have seen before.

I’ve mentioned Stephen King several times in commenting on Chizmar’s work, and it feels like he is a huge influence. The two writers seems to be coming from the same place, with an emphasis on small town settings and family values, a homespun prose style that treats the reader like an old friend and confidant. Given all that it should come as no surprise that their collaboration on GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX (Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 168pp, $25) is a pure pleasure to read.

With Chizmar as his travelling companion, King returns to the Maine town of Castle Rock, the setting for so many of his previous works. The year is 1974 and every day twelve year old Gwendy climbs the Suicide Stairs up to Castle View as part of her weight loss regimen. One day there is a man dressed in black waiting for her, and although she has been warned not to speak to strangers Gwendy can’t help but get drawn into a conversation with him. The man gives her a box with levers on the side and various coloured buttons on top, and instructs her in their proper usage. Gwendy has been gifted the means to make her dreams come true, but also the power to cause much hurt, both in the lives of those around her and on a global scale. And so we follow Gwendy’s life down the years, watch as she grows into a fine young woman, bear witness to the triumphs and tragedies in her life, and just like her we are always aware of those buttons and the possibilities for good and evil that they control. And we wonder what any of it means.

In essence this is a modern reinvention of the Pandora myth, with Gwendy as the one challenged not to open the box and unleash all the woes of mankind. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the main thrust of Darkness Whispers. As with Ben Logan, Gwendy has to make a choice about what she will do, whether or not to give in to temptation, but the man in black nemesis here is simply a catalyst, one who provides an opportunity for evil rather than positively promoting it. In many ways he is an impersonal force of nature, or perhaps even an agent of redemption.

Beyond that, strip away the supernatural aspects, and you have a compelling rite of passage story, one in which a girl grows into a young woman, with all that entails. Gwendy’s life is eventful, but not surprisingly so aside from the matter of the box, and the authors have the skill to make the details of her day to day existence compulsive reading. She is an eminently likable protagonist and the people in her life and the things that happen to her all engage the reader’s attention, because we know that she could so easily represent any one of us. We follow all her struggles to lose weight, to become popular, to take advantage of all the opportunities that come her way. And such is the ability of the writers that we come to be invested in her future, root for her to succeed and take an almost paternal delight in her achievements. And overriding everything else, we wonder if she will give in to temptation regarding the box, and what will happen when/if she ever does, that threat implicit in every page of the narrative and adding an underlying tension and feel of the portentous to the events that take place.

King and Chizmar have gifted us a novella that ultimately is about character, about trying to do the right thing no matter the cost and to resist the temptation to do wrong, even when it offers short term gain. Though I’ve no idea if it was the authors’ intention or not, it’s easy to find a metaphor here for technology, with its power to enrich our lives or destroy, and with Gwendy as representative of the human race, choosing which course to take. Beguiling and almost effortlessly readable, with short chapters that skip by in a heartbeat, this is a deceptively simple book, one in which there are no heroes as such, just people doing the best and worst that they can. And, to inject a topical note, in the current political climate we must all be hoping that unnamed others can resist temptation when it comes down to the matter of pressing buttons and suffering the consequences.

Ben Baldwin provides the cover art and Keith Minnion the interior illustrations (not present in the proof copy I read for the purposes of this review, but I’m sure they’ll be of as high a quality as everything else here).

First and foremost, whether in tandem with another talent or flying solo, as these three books ably attest, Chizmar is a storyteller, someone who identifies glitches in the human psyche, our propensity for good and evil, and constructs fables out of those potentialities. His work is filled with compassion and quiet understanding, written in an engaging prose that gets at the truth of his characters, giving them a heart and a voice, a unique identity. Chances are you are going to enjoy anything he writes, even though on occasion the experience will of necessity be a bittersweet one and raise questions that make us feel uncomfortable. It’s all part of the deal, the author’s artistry, and ultimately it all serves its purpose.

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Trailer Trash – Justice League

DC’s answer to The Avengers, and released just in time to be my birthday treat.

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Filler content with dark stuff – Part 1

The first part of a feature on the work of Richard Chizmar that originally appeared in Black Static #58:-

DARK SHADOWS AND DIRTY CORNERS: RICHARD CHIZMAR

To most UK readers, Richard Chizmar will be familiar as head honcho of Cemetery Dance Publications and editor of their flagship magazine Cemetery Dance. His work as a writer is probably not as well-known, but I suspect all that is about to change with the May 16 release of Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella written in collaboration with Stephen King, which is pretty much guaranteed to raise anyone’s profile.

For those who can’t wait, Chizmar’s collection A LONG DECEMBER (SST Publications pb, 520pp, £18.95) contains thirty five stories, two of which are previously unpublished, including the title novella. It could easily be pitched as a career retrospective, the work spanning some thirty years of Chizmar’s writing life and containing his very first story (though not the first published), which aptly enough is titled ‘Cemetery Dance’. Originally published in a hardcover limited edition by Subterranean Press and sold out, the book is now available in a paperback edition (and also digital format) from the UK’s Short, Scary Tales Publications.

As a token of the high esteem Chizmar is held in by those in the know, this volume opens with several pages of author blurbs, and the list of contributors reads like the ToC of some Platonic ideal of the horror anthology – King, McCammon, Matheson, Bloch, Keene, Straub, O’Nan, Armstrong, and so on and so forth. It’s impressive, but does the work justify the praise?

Kicking off is ‘Blood Brothers’, the story of Hank and younger brother Billy, who once saved his life when they were children but then turned rotten. After several years out of state, Billy returns to ask for money and is unwilling to take no for an answer, presenting Hank with a problem. This is the story that sets the tone for much of what follows, a leisurely tale, one where Chizmar takes his time drawing his characters, giving them a back story and the motivation for what happens, and then pulls the rug out from under our feet with a surprise ending that seems perfectly credible in the circumstances. ‘The Man with X-Ray Eyes’ is the confession of a serial killer, one who seems entirely amiable and friendly, with his matter of fact narration, and who has an entirely logical justification for the crimes he is accused of committing. For the reader though, the trick in the tale lies in our not knowing, having only the words of this possibly unreliable narrator to go on. At the end there is the suggestion of something terrible having taken place, something more than murder, but at the same time we have no idea if he is telling the truth, or simply so convinced of what he is saying that he feels his reality must be shared by everyone. In many ways the story brings to mind the film Frailty.

Many of these stories focus on family dynamics, with a parent or child learning that a loved one is not precisely the person they believed them to be, and ‘The Box’ falls into that category. Chizmar deftly lays out the life choices of a regular and loving suburban mum, one who wants to believe that her children are good people, even as she is confronted with a revelation of the most horrible thing imaginable, the story offering a contrast between the business as usual air of family life and dread at the thought of what might be found behind the door of the locked garden shed. ‘Heroes’ touches on one of the horror genre’s most cherished tropes, but only as the catalyst in a story about the relationship between a father and son. I’ll admit that I wasn’t really convinced by the back story, with details that all felt a little too pat, but to be fair it’s not really necessary for those details to be convincing as they are simply the means to an end. The polished and urbane tone of the piece and the picture of a love that will do anything for the object of that admiration was compelling, making this a memorable piece, one that dares to do something different with familiar material.

One of the two stories original to this collection, ‘Ditch Treasures’ draws the reader in through the unusual device of a list of found objects, then seguing into an account of the life of a roadside clean-up crew, ending in the revelation of their latest discovery, one with horrific implications. The picture of blue collar work and its idiosyncrasies is cleverly and engagingly done, with the final twist coming as something of a shock, a bolt from the blue, one that will leave the reader cogitating as to its rightness. A man makes a terrible discovery in ‘The Silence of Sorrow’ when clearing out the house of his deceased son, one that forces him to completely re-evaluate his ideas about his progeny. Like ‘The Box’ it’s a story that centres on a moment of revelation, one that is a game changer, and Chizmar gets the tone of the piece just right and scores with the open ending, which underlines the fact that for Frank things will never be the same again.

Society ‘After the Bombs’ is the subject of the next story, with an elderly man who lived through many years of conflict telling the story of the past to a young man. It’s a piece that beguiles, Chizmar’s fluent and liquid prose, his ear for dialogue, capturing perfectly the feel of nostalgia, regret for things lost and never to come round again, but at the same time marking the sense of hope that underlies the narrative, the realisation that even if the world has changed irrevocably there are still good people in it and good times to be had, that simple companionship and fellow feeling can replace all that has been lost. It’s a story about true colours and true values. ‘Night Call’ deftly interweaves the personal problems and professional challenges faced by two homicide detectives on New Year’s Eve, the story having about it something of the bromance and offering an open end in lieu of any real closure. The subtext of the story relates to the contrast between the madness and mayhem of their daily grind and the far more toxic and harmful things that happen in the real life they hope to have.

‘The Lake is Life’ gives us an account of the incidents leading up to a late night game of hide and seek in the woods intercut with text from a police interview, so we know that something has gone terribly wrong, have only to discover exactly what. Similar in some ways to King’s Carrie it’s the tale of a damaged personality and how ill-intentioned attempts at reaching out result in feelings of betrayal and bloody revenge, though Chizmar is too canny to give it all to us on a plate, leaving readers to fill in the missing pieces. In ‘Grand Finale’ a young playboy with a penchant for surreptitiously taping his sexual encounters finds that they have all been transformed into snuff movies, with himself as the victim. This is the type of story where you take a vicarious pleasure in seeing a nasty piece of work get his just desserts, with the delivery method the original note that pulls it away from the formulaic, and as a story it is well told and certainly entertaining, even if somewhat slight.

Presented as a found document, ‘The Artist’ tells of the last moments of an infantry squad facing extinction in WW2, and how each of them developed a creative ability. It’s a moving piece, one that effectively captures the mood of men desperate for a reason to hope, made all the more so by the way in which Chizmar cleverly incorporates text from an earlier story into the narrative. Co-written with Barry Hoffman, ‘Family Ties’ reprises the material of ‘Blood Brothers’, with another brother gone bad, his behaviour threatening the family unit. It’s a powerful story, catching the reader up in its depiction of an idyllic sibling relationship, one that will ring bells with many, and then showing how easily it can all get torn down with happiness transformed into meanness and misery, demanding sacrifices for some nebulous greater good and asking the reader to agree or not. Once again there are echoes of King’s oeuvre in ‘The Tower’, with a small town the setting for a series of murders and the story’s narrator, who knows more than he is letting on, connecting them with the evil influence of the eponymous water tower. Beautifully paced and told, with a slant away from the obvious and veering into territory where the nature of evil itself is the story’s subject matter.

One of the longer pieces and co-written with Ed Gorman, ‘Brothers’ tells of Chet and the way in which he looks out for younger brother Michael, finding him a job on the police force and helping keep him on the straight and narrow after the wild years of his youth. But at what point does a helping hand become interference? In his efforts to control how Michael acts, Chet becomes his brother’s gaol-keeper. It’s an absorbing tale, eloquently told and getting under the skin of the character, so that we sympathise with Chet even as we realise that he has lost the plot. The moral of the story, if it needs one, is that you can only do so much to help people, and if you go too far then you create more problems than you solve, and the writers have a ball showing how that could play out in this scenario. I should mention that this novelette was published as a standalone book by Short, Scary Tales Publications back in 2015.

‘Blue’ was raised in an abusive environment and her mother murdered her father to protect her, but she sees the same patterns recurring in her own life and takes the appropriate action to protect her children, only reading between the lines we wonder if she is in fact misinterpreting things entirely. It’s a story in which those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, except in this case those very lessons that Blue learned are the reason she can never feel truly happy, the story underlining that there are many victims in abusive homes, not just those who are the obvious candidates. ‘A Crime of Passion’ sees the author of a controversial book and even more controversial film, become the target of a gang of fanatics who want to make an example of him. As Drake fights for survival against the members of Mother Earth we sit on the edge of our seat, Chizmar coincidentally raising questions about authorial culpability and how responsible we are for what we write, the philosophical speculation underpinning the more thriller oriented aspects of the plot, and at the same time showing that evil things can be done for the best of reasons, at least from the perspective of those committing such atrocities.

‘Devil’s Night’ is the night before Halloween and in this story a high school teacher witnesses a body dump and gets drawn into a teenage love triangle. It’s a well told story, even if much of the plot hinges on the teacher not calling the police as any right thinking person would do, but what makes it stand out is the self-doubt the character has about what he has done, the misgivings that will taint his life forever after. In ‘The Season of Giving’, co-written with Norman Partridge, a department store Santa Claus responds to a young girl’s plea for a new father, in doing so making amends for the mistakes in his own past. It’s another heartfelt story, one that solicits our sympathy for this poor girl and all she has gone through, and makes us applaud the protagonist’s decision to take matters into his own hands even as we realise that in doing so he is crossing all sorts of lines.

A journalist steals the Holy Grail from a cult’s compound in ‘The Sinner King’, but the stranger who shelters him in the woods has an agenda of his own. There’s a lot of back story to this, and overall I found it rather stretched credibility though some of the detail was fascinating and the writing held my attention all the way. It ended on a weak note, as if the story simply ran out of steam rather than reaching a conclusion. ‘Midnight Promises’ is another story that tugs hard on the heartstrings, the account of a woman bearing witness to the death from cancer of the man she has loved, each step in his decline meticulously recorded. Intensely moving and reminiscent of King’s ‘The Woman in the Room’, it was a story that makes the case for euthanasia far more eloquently than any expert or talking head could possibly manage. Two homicide detectives encounter an unusual crime in ‘The Night Shift’, Chizmar telling the story obliquely, with only dialogue and hints for the reader to go on, so that our interpretation of the action is probably more unnerving than anything he could commit to paper. It’s a clever piece and well executed.

In ‘Only the Strong Survive’, co-written with Barry Hoffman, Thera is one of the do-gooders who feed homeless people living in the subways under the city, but she has motives for her actions that are far from altruistic. Written with an almost cinematic feel to it, this is an intriguing story with an original monster, one that is memorable for the way in which it preys on its victims, which coincidentally has echoes of horror fiction itself in the method, introducing something akin to a metafictional element into the mix. A police detective conducts ‘The Interview’, solving the case of who murdered the young boy who has gone missing from the neighbourhood. The real mystery though is why, and that may or may not be revealed in a final piece of dialogue. Again, as with many of these, it’s a clever piece of storytelling, with masterly misdirection and a slow drawing in of the reader. ‘The Poetry of Life’ is a story working by suggestion, the first person account of a music teacher in love with the sound of children’s laughter, but the story ends on a dark note, leaving us to guess exactly what has gone wrong in this man’s life. It is an almost pitch perfect example of flash fiction, one in which not a single word is wasted or unnecessary, each adding to the whole and bringing to life on the page a feeling of quiet desperation, giving us a protagonist who would have been an asset to society if he had only been left alone.

Finally we have the longest piece in the collection, titular novella ‘A Long December’, which takes a different approach to the subject of the serial killer, looking at the effects on the life of the killer’s best friend and neighbours when his crimes come to light, with at first the certainty that somebody has made a mistake, and then disbelief turning to horror and the idea that he must have known, the wondering and second guessing as to whether there were clues they should have picked up on. Gripping as this all is, Chizmar has another twist in the story, with the revelation as to why the killer befriended our protagonist. It was quite simply a tour de force of storytelling and invention, the ideal end to this substantial collection. Except it isn’t quite the end as Chizmar then delivers nearly thirty pages of Story Notes, giving us crucial information about how each story came to be and the intentions he had when putting pen to paper, the kind of insights and nuggets of inspiration that many readers, and certainly those readers with literary aspirations of their own, will find as invaluable as they are fascinating.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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