As far as I can recall I’ve only ever read one book by Steve Vernon – Hard Roads, put out by Gray Friar Press back in the day and consisting of two novellas. It was a review copy received via Black Static, and if you’re interested in seeing what I thought of it, then go here. With an introduction by Cemetery Dance publisher and Stephen King collaborator Richard Chizmar, Do-Overs and Detours consists of horror fiction that, despite the description in the book’s full title, I would classify as surreally slanted or even at a stretch Rabelaisian, though eerie is definitely on the menu.
Opener “Hyperactive Cleaning Power” has a very simple idea at its heart, with a man at a launderette witnessing a miracle, the concept both striking for its novelty and at the same time entirely apposite, with a strong ending, a subtext that speaks of redemption for us all, and echoes of the act of baptism. There’s more than a suggestion of Shirley Jackson to be found in the grim “A Fine Sacrifice”, as a man is bullied by his neighbours into committing a horrendous act. The story is fascinating both for the larger than life characters and the obliqueness of what takes place, the lack of any explanation and matter of factness of the telling adding to the minatory atmosphere of the piece, while demonstrating that violence against women can be learned behaviour.
“I Know Why the Waters of the Sea Taste of Salt” merges kaiju monsters with WWII drama as a Japanese suicide bomber summons a sea monster to halt the American fleet. We don’t know if this is real or simply a death fantasy, but what comes across is the sombreness of the moment, the pain and futility of war and how lives are chewed up. One of my personal favourites, “The Takashi Miike Seal of Approval” has a contract killer inflicting poetic justice on his victim and giving the concept of the snuff movie a novel twist. There’s a subtext about the futility of revenge, but at the same time the trip to the surprise ending is an engaging one, making the story a fine example of the just desserts school of horror fiction.
“Rolling Stock” is the first story to feature recurring character Easter Noon, a vagrant with something of Jack Reacher about him, here taking on a monster that shifts from one body to another. It’s a clever diversion into the supernatural, entertaining and with an original creature as the feature in the menace of the piggyback man, while Easter’s laidback narration is eminently agreeable and slightly reminiscent of King at his most folksy. I can easily identify with Texas Jack Page, the protagonist of “The Last Stand of the Great Texas Packrat”, a book collector whose obsession ultimately costs him dearly. While the love of books shines through the text, there’s a codicil that love can be destructive, and a delicious irony in the final fate of TJP.
Easter Noon is back for “Gin Bottle Heaven” in which a drunken hobo’s heart’s desire is granted. Whether this is a happy ending for the character or not is debatable, but Easter has a killer line to end the story, one that makes us uneasy even as we appreciate the appositeness of it. “Do-overs and Detours, Somewhere North of Bigfoot” has another of life’s losers given a second chance courtesy of the biggest loser of all, the story a modern version of the Wandering Jew legend complete with a monster truck. It’s a piece with its heart in the right place, one that is inventive and ultimately satisfying.
“Tinseled Trailer-court Viscera” is probably the most complex of the stories on offer. The protagonist lives in a trailer park, but his trailer has a basement and it contains magical Mason jars that empower him to avenge some of life’s injustices. Intercut with this are scenes from the protagonist’s childhood that go some way to explaining his current situation, with a resolution that turns everything around. It’s a masterly story, compelling and totally convincing for all that the ideas it contains are so far over the top only astronauts can see them clearly, and at its heart is a moral about how childhood abuse can warp and twist a life out of true. The hilariously titled “Voodoo Trucker Clucker Futz-up” combines resurrection and revenge in a gleeful brew. The punchline to the story is almost a cliché, but the lively writing, black humour, and an interesting take on the zombie trope make it memorable.
Having dealt with the Japanese in WWII, Vernon turns his attention to the Germans in “Under the Skin, Under the Bones” with a unit on the Russian front discovering a hellish church and a red nun of supernatural origin. This is the most visceral story in the book, populated with images of slaughter that linger in the mind’s eye and show how if war is hell, then hell is a whole lot worse. The reader almost feels sorry for the Nazis, but then, nah! They’re Nazis, so fuck ’em. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, “Pray for the Clockwork Twister” has passengers trapped on a bus and finding hope of a kind, though one suspects it won’t last much beyond the story’s end. The appeal of the piece lies in the hints at the nature of this world and what has happened to it, and the depiction of the human spirit in adversity, reaching out even when matters seem hopeless.
“Death Rides a Quartered Horse” is a joke story with a laugh out loud punchline worthy of Pratchett, as the Grim Reaper has to match and mend to carry on with his daily grind. It appeals by virtue of the sheer silliness of the whole situation. “Once More Round the Block” is the story of a taxi driver who ends up chauffeuring a killer with an unusual method of dispatching his victims, and this method is the single grace note in a story that doesn’t have much else going for it. Bottom line, it’s more idea than story and the least satisfying tale in the collection.
A street performer with an unusual act deals harshly with a heckler in “Jugular”, and I guess you could diss this story in similar terms to the last one, but it’s executed at greater length and the nature of what is happening fascinates the reader just as easily as it does the observer/narrator of the piece. “The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope” is the most surreal story in the collection, solving the age old question of whether the chicken or egg came first through the medium of an unusual restaurant and a down on his luck customer. This whole thing is so absurd that it’s hard not to like it, as one unlikelihood is piled atop another, the whole structure teetering but never falling, and the reader left gobsmacked by the writer’s audacity. I’ll never think of chickens the same way again.
Revenge reaches out from beyond the grave in “Nail Gun Glissando” as a woman gets her own back on three construction workers. It’s a simple piece, another entry in the just desserts school of horror fiction, like an EC comic story with only the words, and a starkly horrific illustration of the cruelty people are capable of when they believe there will be no comeback, ultimately as satisfying as it is unsophisticated. And finally we have Easter Noon’s return for “Harry’s Mermaid”, in which he attempts to save a friend from a sea creature that takes the appearance of the person you most want to see and have back in your life. It’s an engaging tale, one that marks the border between reality and our desires, a variation of sorts on the theme of being careful what you wish for, with some excellent characterisation and a truly repulsive monster.
By way of a codicil we have Vernon giving out details of where the stories first appeared and writing about what lay behind some of them. It’s a fine end to an entertaining collection, and the Kindle edition is only 77p on Amazon at the time of writing, so get clicking.