Review: Detroit 2020 by Jeffrey Conolly and B.L. Daniels

Buy it here

Synopsis:

“Sharknado” meets “Sin City” in this high-octane adventure that explodes off the page in an alternate future where Motor City has become a mutant-filled urban nightmare. Prepare for a book with a body count!

Praise for Detroit 2020:

“DETROIT 2020 is a pitch-perfect sendup of a “boobs and ‘splosions” style actioner.”

“If you enjoy graphic novels, zombies, one-liners and uncomplicated plots, then this is probably exactly what you need”

“Moves at a very brisk pace and the action is relentless”

Dr. Julia Blaze recruits mercenary Dagger Estevez to escort her across the ruins of Free Detroit. He kills mutants on sight, but as long as she takes her pills, he’ll never know she’s changing. Will Julia find a cure for her mutation before time runs out, or will she be captured by the maniacal cyborg mayor RoboKwame and his murderous thugs?

Review:

I love stories about the future that were written in the past and the future is nothing like how it was written. From 1984 to Back to the Future II to  The Class of 1999 to Children of Men (which takes place later this year), I love how far the predictions are off. Having said this, Detroit 2020 was published four years ago, and the writers did not even try to predict the future but make Detroit a city overrun by mutants and police, headed up by Mayor RoboKwame. The story is about Julie Blaze trying to get out of Free Detroit with the help of Dagger Estevez. It is short. It reads fast, and it is exactly what you think it is. A ridiculous amount of action, death, and gore. I loved every minute of it, and the only thing that I wish was done better is a better sense of the decay that the city has endured. There is talk about Ford Field, but I would’ve also liked to heard more about what happened to other landmarks in the town. I would have loved more about Woodward Avenue and the Cass Corridor and even the overrunning of Bloomfield Hills. They are trying to get to Canada, and the way to Canada is through downtown, toward the large Joe Lewis fist sculpture and bridge into Windsor. The only thing that could have made this better is more landmarks.

I was drawn to this as soon as I saw the word “RoboKwame.” Kwame Kilpatrick was Detroit’s mayor who is now in federal prison for a slew of charges. His mayoral years were amazingly filled with corruption, sexting scandals, embezzlement, drama, and even a fight when his wife came home to catch him with a stripper. I love that RoboKwame is the mayor and that he is running the police state he promised in his State of the City speech in 2008. If I could think of any person who is an amazing villain, it would be a robot version of this guy. His years as mayor of Detroit are fascinating, and if there is anyone worth the time to read all about, it would be him.

Detroit 2020 is a great little novella, and I would love to see more Detroit inspired bizarro and horror fiction. 

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Review: Hybrid Moments A Literary Tribute to the Misfits Edited by Sam Richard and MP Johnson

Buy it at the publisher here

Synopsis

You know the songs. They’re etched into every punk’s brain. Not just because they’re catchy, but because there’s something else there. Glenn Danzig’s lyrics evoke intense imagery. Beautiful, dark, monstery imagery. There’s poetry between the whoa-oh-ohs. There are stories in those songs. They just need to be told.

Now, underground fiction’s most talented fiends have created a series of tales inspired by the Misfits. In these pages, an astro zombie contemplates the life she left behind as she goes into flesh-ripping battle. A team of organ harvesters shows just how violent the world can be. A wannabe true crime reporter goes on a grisly road trip that takes him a little too close to his subject matter. A mysterious set of skulls pushes a young woman to create a collection of her very own. A teenager from mars excavates the fetid product of his earthly lust.

These new twists on the songs you love are sure to surprise, startle, sicken and force you to see this timeless horror punk in a completely different light.

Review:

Of the top five most coveted anthology subjects I have come across, Weirdpunk Books has published three of them. “The New Flesh” is themed around David Cronenberg, “Blood For you” is themed for G.G. Allin, and “Hybrid Moments,“ is themed around the songs of the Misfits. (The other two are the Wu-Tang Clan one from Clash Books and the C.H.U.D. one from Crystal Lake Publishing). When I found out that this is the aesthetic of everything Weirdpunk Books publishes, I knew that I had to read everything. “Hybrid Moments” is only the first in the catalog that I plan to read this year.

“Hybrid Moments” is a literary tribute to the Misfits. Many of us have been fans of the Misfits for years and years. I have been a fan since my friend gave me a (now long gone) bootleg cassette tape of their songs for my birthday one year. (It was a copy of a bootleg show from ‘88 so the quality was piss garbage, I couldn’t understand many of the garbled lyrics, but I liked the way the sound made me feel.) Being someone who was into horror and a lot of weird cinema, I knew they were one of the groups for me. However, I was not a die hard fan outside of that tape. I had actually not listened to them for a decade before I started reading “Hybrid Moments,” so reading the stories and listening to the music again really brought me back to a younger version. 

“Hybrid Moments” is a great collection, but like any anthology, there are stories that I really enjoyed and others took me some time to get through. With the themes of the Misfits songs varying, the stories vary as well. It is just common sense that some of them are more enjoyable than others, and my favorites might be your least favorites. 

My top three:

“American Gods, American Monsters” by Jose Cruz. 

Maybe this is because this is one of the first stories in the anthology, this is my favorite. The story surrounds a man who is trying to find a killer, Marylin Prescott Ford, a beauty queen that is also going around Florida murdering. This was a great cat and mouse story, and the payoff was satisfying. Now that I think about the way that it unfolds and the subject, this might be one of my favorite short stories I have read in awhile.

“Slice-and-Grab” by Mark Zirbel

Stealing body parts has become so lucrative that it is now a business. The narrator, an old-timer in the business, is breaking in a new employee, Kyle. This is a clash between the old school and new school, the story is quick and fun with a great ending.

“Helena Drive” Glen Damien Campbell

A man goes on a first date and tries to hide that he is a superfan of a TV show, “Helena Drive.” He feels embarrassed by his date learning, but the date goes well. When he follows her back to her home, he learns why the date went so well. 

Bonus Favorite:

I am learning quickly that anything Sam Richard writes is amazing. His contribution, as editor and lifelong Misfits fan, “The Verdant Holocaust” is another story right up my alley about a secluded cult. Everything I have read of his seems to be a story that I would want to write myself. 

As I go through this collection, looking for my top three, I realize that there are so many that I could have chosen, and my top three could be different depending on the day. There were a few I did not care for, but as a whole, this is a great collection and a great tribute to an awesome band from one of the most exciting publishers.

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Review: Elephant Vice by Chris Meekings

Buy it Here

Synopsis:

He’s the master of post impressionism. He’s the Hindu Remover of Obstacles. They’re cops.

Vincent Van Gogh is a cop with a dark past. He painted some of the greatest artistic masterpieces of our time. He cut off his ear out of love for a prostitute. He was a great painter. He isn’t anymore. He’s a tough as nails loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules. When a drug called **** hits the streets, it starts turning people into the object their essence most resembles. Van Gogh is put on the case. But this hard case has a new partner. His methods are unusual, his attitude incompatible and he has the head of an elephant. He’s the Hindu God Ganesha. Can these two put aside their differences and learn to work together? Probably. It’s a buddy cop thing.

Review:

Elephant Vice is Chris Meekings contribution to Eraserhead Press’s New Bizarro Author Series. Several of these books come out a year and most of them do not get much traction. They go out of print, the publishing rights return to the authors. The authors sometimes revamp them and re-release them (see “Rock ‘N’ Roll Head Case”) or they disappear into the ether. I like these books and it is fun to try to find them. Some of them are really expensive on eBay and Amazon and other used book sites, and some of them cannot be found at all. I don’t have many of them yet, but I have been reading them as I find them. They are all short, they are entertaining, and most importantly, they are satisfying.

Stop me if you have read anything like this before. Elephant Vice is a hardboiled crime story. The mayor’s son is found overdosed on a street drug called, ****, and it is up to two renegade cops, post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh and Ganesha the Hindu god with the elephant head to solve the crime. They are thrown together (they are reluctant partners like in most buddy cop stories) and have to learn to work together to solve this case. 

I’m not going to lie. The writing of Elephant Vice is impressive and sometimes brilliant. Meekings sets up each chapter alternating between Van Gogh and Ganesha with two obviously unique voices, with sections written in Hindi, Dutch, and French and well as English. I don’t know if these sections translate, but really sets up the difference between the characters. Also the Van Gogh chapters feel like it has captured some of the essence of how he saw the world, seeing colors and swirls everywhere. These are not a distraction as much as a dimension that makes the writing of this novella pretty impressive. 

I loved Elephant Vice because of the way the story is told. At the most basic layer, it is a simple cops find drug ring story, but the characters and the writing make it so much more, so entertaining and wonderful. The paperback is out of print but the kindle edition is still available. The story feels familiar but totally unique, and I will be looking for Meekings’s name attached to other projects in the future. He should not be one of the bizarro writers that just disappears. 

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Q&A with Lee Widener, Author of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Head Case

Earlier this week I reviewed Lee Widener’s fantastically bizarre novella, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Head Case.” I reached out to him, and he was gracious enough to do a little question and answer session with me. Buy his book here and here.

Check it out.

Rock and Roll Head Case was first released in 2015 and is now being re-released with new content and revisions. Can you tell me a little bit about the journey you have had with this book and why you think it’s important now to get a new version of it into the reader’s hands?

In 2015 I was offered a chance to participate in the New Bizarro Authors Showcase, a yearly series that presented original novellas by emerging writers in the Bizarro Fiction scene. The catch- I had to turn in the finished manuscript in four weeks. I’m a terribly slow writer, so the proposal was a bit frightening, but the offer was too good to pass up, so I buckled up and accepted. But what story would I tell? The upcoming presidential election was heating up, and this was a topic that concerned me. I’m old enough to remember a lot of shitty presidents in my lifetime, and they kept getting worse- Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Bush lite… and this absolute CLOWN was making traction in the Republican party. This honestly frightened me. I HAD to say something. I had to make some kind of difference. In my first few chapters of my first draft the evil candidate was a thinly disguised simulacrum of Trump called “Dump.” But my editor didn’t like it. It was too spot on. It wasn’t a metaphor. I was skeptical. I really wanted to warn people about the looming disaster I saw. But my editor said, “In a year nobody’s going to even remember who Trump is. Your book will have longer legs if you change it to something else.” I was still leery but on his advice, I changed the candidate in my book to a literal monster. Ultimately, I think the decision was right, and it made the book better, but holy hell, Trump has turned out to be more of a monster than I even imagined. I’m reminded of something Robert Anton Wilson said in his book “The Cosmic Trigger.” That book was a non-fiction account of his experiences writing the infamous “Illuminatus Trilogy” with Robert Shea. He said every night they would write the most bizarre, crazy scenarios they could think of, and then the next day they’d read the news and it was even stranger than they were able to dream.

Somehow, Trump got elected, and life got weird really fast, and hasn’t stopped. Now, Eraserhead Press, who published the original edition of ROCK N ROLL HEAD CASE publishes a lot of books. That’s one way they stay afloat in this day when small presses are created and fail daily, so their back catalog doesn’t get a lot of attention. I asked for the rights back so I could update the book, give it a bit of polish, fix the typos, and re-release the book. It’s even more important right now to make sure the scariest clown to ever hold office doesn’t get reelected. Will this publication have any real effect on the situation? Who knows. Probably not as much as the brave souls risking their lives in protest right now, but it’s what I’m able to do. If my tale can give someone the strength to resist, to carry on the fight, can inspire someone to make a difference in the world, then it’s worth it.


The main character finds the head of Alice Cooper at the bottom of a fryer, wrapped in a trash bag. I have loved Alice Cooper since I was a teenager, and I caught some of the Alice Cooper puns throughout the novella. I love that you used Alice Cooper in this role instead of Gene Simmons or Glenn Danzig or Mama Cass. Is there a certain reason why you use Alice Cooper as an extension of the main character?

I had previously released a story called DAVID BOWIE IS TRYING TO KILL ME that got a lot good feedback. I chose Bowie for that story because he was an artist who spanned several generations in popularity. I’m not a musician, but I love music deeply. I listen to music constantly. It’s what keeps me going. So for my next work I wanted to include another musical artist. I needed somebody who had a long career- who was still around, still going strong. And I knew this artist would be acting as a mentor in my story, so I asked myself, who would be the world’s worst life coach? Alice Cooper was the template for a lot of what’s been termed “shock rock,” with songs like “Dead Babies.” His image is like a grade B horror movie- live snakes, decapitations on stage and such, but the real Alice Cooper is nothing like that. So I knew that I wanted to play with that image, use that dichotomy. 


The Frankenstein Party is a political party running a presidential candidate that is the amalgamation of several different celebrity body parts. They are running on the platform that seems cruel but at the core is a great deal of the things that we are pushing for now in this country, particularly with housing and feeding the homeless. Was this coincidental or is this something that you personally have been pushing for during your own protests? Are you really the Frankenstein Party? 

The issues in every presidential election are always the same – the economy, jobs, homelessness, but nothing ever really gets done. The solutions the Frankenstein Party offers in the book are not real solutions. They are dismissions. They are just talking points to placate the populace long enough to get the party elected, and then forgotten. The people who are running the country, who have the ability to make real changes, but instead take the opportunity to make themselves richer, and turn a blind eye to the amount of real suffering going on, are really, truly monsters. We need to stop electing monsters to govern. We need to fight monsters. This book is for everyone who fights the monsters.


Your website is filled with your interesting drawings, art, and just things you enjoy. If you are not writing, what creative things can we find you doing?

In addition to writing, I like to draw weird pictures, and make weird collages. You can find this stuff at:

http://www.welcometoweirdsville.com/

Any day now I’ll have a new book out that combines my writing and art. TEENY TINY STORIES FROM THE MARINATED JUNGLE will feature ten weird animal fables and ten photocollages. Freaky fables for these crazy times.

The final question. Is there really no forever?

It’s true. There’s no forever. There is only now.

Thank you to Lee Widener to take the time to answer these questions.

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Review: Rock ‘N’ Roll Headcase by Lee Widener

Buy it at Amazon or support independent bookstores by ordering the paperback here

Synopsis

When Alice Cooper’s head starts telling you what to do, you probably shouldn’t listen. Chaino Durante did. And this is his story.

Chaino Durante works at the worst fast food restaurant ever. He has the worst job in this fast food restaurant. And the worst life he possibly can. When he discovers a mysterious bag in the fryer, he takes it home. The bag contains the head of rock and roll icon Alice Cooper. This is unfortunate. What’s more unfortunate is that Chaino gets the gun he’s going to use to rob his workplace stuck in the head and the head stuck on his hand. A new weapon is formed. A weapon that lets Chaino rob his workplace and subvert the order of the world around him. A weapon that blasts holes in reality itself, which does not come without consequence. A no holds barred psychedelic cartoon in the tradition of Bill Plympton and Ralph Bakshi, with Pink Floyd’s The Wall thrown in for good measure, Rock’n’Roll Headcase explores the ins and outs of expanding consciousness with a madness that never lets up. 

Review

I had the pleasure of getting this novella from the author in exchange for an honest review. When I received the request, I was prepared to pass, but when I read the synopsis I knew that I could not pass up the opportunity. 

The opening scene is our hero, Chaino Durante is working a dead end job at the Nuclear Burger when he finds something in a bag at the bottom of the deep fryer he is cleaning. The bag holds the head of Alice Cooper. From there, the novel turns into a road trip, at first with the purpose of running from the police and later with a purpose. They run into many different characters along the way, some real people, some fictitious, some dead, some alive. The truth is that time and life are flexible throughout Widener’s novella, and this makes for a story where absolutely anything can happen. 

If anyone were to ask me what the Bizarro genre is all about, I could give them Rock ‘N’ Roll Headcase and one of the more strange examples. It has all of the elements that I would say sum up a great deal of my favorite parts of the genre. A celebrity as part of the main characters, a great deal of grisly, oddball deaths, a fluid plot, and of course existential thought. The book is one of the more absurd examples, but it is also short, moves fast, and is filled with humor and gore. There cannot be enough of these books for us to read. Rock ‘N’ Roll Headcase is a wonderful example. It is really a shame that it did not get the readership it deserved when Eraserhead Press initially released it in 2015.  

I love that Alice Cooper is a character in this novel. I have been listening to him since I was a teenager, and i think that if anyone can be in any bizarro novel, it could be him. I would love to see more stories with him, maybe make an Alice Cooper subgenre. In this story, he is the voice of advice, not always sound, not always wrong, but advice nonetheless. I like him as the sage in the story, and his head is really the reason why this novella is going so stick out. I loved every sentence in this book and would recommend it to anyone. 

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Review: The Blade Between by Sam J Miller

  • ISBN: 9780062969828
  • ISBN 10: 006296982X
  • Imprint: Ecco
  • On Sale: 12/01/2020
  • Trimsize: 6.00 in (w) x 9.00 in (h) x 1.21 in (d)
  • Pages: 384

Preorder here: Amazon or Bookshop

Synopsis:

From Nebula Award winner Sam J. Miller comes a frightening and uncanny ghost story about a rapidly changing city in upstate New York and the mysterious forces that threaten it.

Ronan Szepessy promised himself he’d never return to Hudson. The sleepy upstate town was no place for a restless gay photographer. But his father is ill and New York City’s distractions have become too much for him. He hopes that a quick visit will help him recharge. 

Ronan reconnects with two friends from high school: Dom, his first love, and Dom’s wife, Attalah. The three former misfits mourn what their town has become—overrun by gentrifiers and corporate interests. With friends and neighbors getting evicted en masse and a mayoral election coming up, Ronan and Attalah craft a plan to rattle the newcomers and expose their true motives. But in doing so, they unleash something far more mysterious and uncontainable. 

Hudson has a rich, proud history and, it turns out, the real-state developers aren’t the only forces threatening its well-being: the spirits undergirding this once-thriving industrial town are enraged. Ronan’s hijinks have overlapped with a bubbling up of hate and violence among friends and neighbors, and everything is spiraling out of control. Ronan must summon the very best of himself to shed his own demons and save the city he once loathed.

Review:

I was excited to see a new novel being released by the author of “Blackfish City,” a novel I bought when it came out, always had intentions to read, but did not crack the spine. This means that I requested the ARC of “The Blade Between” on my excitement over the intentions of reading Sam J. Miller’s previous, acclaimed work. 

“The Blade Between” is about Hudson, a city with a rich history. This history fills the town with ghosts of people, of whales, and of the things that it used to be. Ronan fled Hudson as soon as he was old enough to leave, but now that his father is ill, he has come back to take care of him and his legal affairs. What he discovers is a Hudson that he does not recognize. The city with the local businesses have all turned into antique shops, art dealers, and hipsters. He meets up with his old friend and lover, Dom, and his new wife, and he hatches a plan to get the town back from the outsiders. “The Blade Between” starts as one man’s crusade to get his town back, but after a short time, the town has plans of it’s own. There is a supernatural force in this town, and for a story that could be a simple, city politics story, there is a second element to it that makes it engrossing. I can say that this supernatural force is all of the ghosts of the past, but this does not seem to be a fair assessment. There are just things that the town does that some of the citizens are not even aware of. The radio station is an example, playing whatever song is perfect for whatever listener at the particular time. So much of the city has it’s own agenda, and the characters are just merely the pawns. 

For the first half, I did not think that I liked this novel that much. There was something about the way that Ronan conducted himself that made him rough and unlikable. The novel never really shifts away from him much, but there are other characters and focused actions that kind of made me forget that Ronan is kind of a jerk. For not really liking it much, I did not realize that the novel was almost 400 pages long until the end. It did not seem that long. It reads fast and the story really was interesting and well structured. This might not be enjoyable for everyone, but there are some people that I will recommend this novel to. I just know that I now have to go back and read “Blackfish City.’

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

Buy it now: Kindle

Preorder the paperback here

Synopsis:

When an unprecedented hurricane devastates the city of Houston, Noah Mishner finds shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. Though he finds community among other queer refugees, Noah fears his trans and Jewish identities put him at risk with certain capital-T Texans. His fears take form when he starts seeing visions of his great-grandfather Abe, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy. As the climate crisis intensifies and conditions in the shelter deteriorate, Abe’s ghost grows more powerful. Ultimately, Noah must decide whether he can trust his ancestor ⁠- and whether he’s willing to sacrifice his identity and community in order to survive.

Depart, Depart! grapples with intersections of social justice and climate change, asking readers to consider how they’ll react when the world changes in an instant. Who will we turn to? What will we take with us, and what will we have to leave behind? In our rapidly changing world, these are questions we grapple with. Focusing on finding and supporting community after disaster, Depart, Depart! is a story for these uncertain times.

Review:

I have the pleasure of reading and reviewing “Depart, Depart!” by Sim Kern. I phrase it this way because there is so much of this novella that is out of my scope of reality that I feel like it is an honor to be exposed to themes and lives that I do not know enough about. I mean I have never steered away from LGBTQ+ literature, movies, or the community, but “Depart, Depart!” feels different. This feels like a story that needs to be told, needs to be shouted, needs to be required. 

Noah is in the middle of a fight for his life. When a hurricane floods Houston, he is bused to Dallas to stay in a makeshift shelter for the Dallas Mavericks. He only escapes the flood because the young ghost of his great-grandfather Abe tells him that he has to leave and leave now. This premise is one that lured me into the novella, but the writing, characters, and themes are what allowed me to sit and read the entire story in one setting. There are so many things in this novella that can be talked about, can be explored, from LGBTQ+ issues and disrespect, from police arrogance and the way they interact differently with certain groups, from immigration and the treatment of refugees (even though in this case they are citizens from a neighboring city), from the fears of the uncertain future, this is a frightening book. There is tension and fear on every page, and this is the scariest kind of horror, one that explores how we treat one another.

I loved every moment of this, every thread and theme, every statement about humanity and politics. I’m sure that this is not a novella that everyone will enjoy, but nobody can diminish the importance and timeliness of the work. I can also say that I started to follow Sim Kern on Twitter after reading this, and they have the most accurate and thought provoking tweets. I recommend following them. I recommend “Depart, Depart!”, especially for someone like me who will never know as much as he needs to know about the world around him. This is a thought provoking and haunting book. Every praise I can give it pales in the amount of praise it should receive. 

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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Review: Come Back to the Swamp by Laura Morrison

Paperback, 111 pages

Published August 2018 by Black Spot Books

ISBN0999742345 (ISBN13: 9780999742341)

Buy it at Amazon or Bookshop

Synopsis:

Working on completing her ecology graduate degree, Bernice is doing invasive species research in Cleary Swamp when she is confronted by a mysterious hag who says she is the swamp’s caretaker. When Bernice discovers that the hag is actually a woman named Rebecca Hallett who disappeared in the swamp decades before she attempts to remove the strange old woman from Cleary Swamp, but little does Bernice know that Rebecca has a mystical bond to the area—one that possesses a human host and bonds them to it. One magical hallucinogenic powder cocktail and a space opera spirit journey later, Bernice’s life has changed forever. The swamp wants her for its new caretaker, and it won’t take no for an answer. 

Review:

Come Back to the Swamp by Laura Morrison is one of those novella that you can just imagine on the screen. The story is simple. Bernice, a graduate student is in the swamp trying to help clear out non-native plants when she runs into an old woman who claims she is the swamp. Using superhuman strength and speed, she drives Bernice out of the swamp. This starts a chain of events that really does feel like an episode of the new Creepshow or Twilight Zone TV series.. There are so many classic elements of suspense and horror that there is no denying the skills that Morrison possesses to make this story strong and keep the reader’s interest. There are many ways that this story could have been told in a way that makes it impossible to get into, but in this case, the writing and the pace feel just right. The way that this feels slow and deliberate throughout builds the tension and the ending is satisfying. Overall the entire story is entertaining, and I loved the way that it progressed. There is not much else to say about this novella. I enjoyed the time I spent reading it, and I will be excited if I learned that it is being adapted into a movie or TV show. I will definitely be recommending this to my horror reading friends. 

I received this as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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Review: “If It Bleeds” by Stephen King

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Synopsis:

From #1 New York Times bestselling author, legendary storyteller, and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary collection of four new and compelling novellas —Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, Rat, and the title story If It Bleeds— each pulling readers into intriguing and frightening places.

A collection of four uniquely wonderful long stories, including a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestseller The Outsider.

News people have a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. And a bomb at Albert Macready Middle School is guaranteed to lead any bulletin.

Holly Gibney of the Finders Keepers detective agency is working on the case of a missing dog – and on her own need to be more assertive – when she sees the footage on TV. But when she tunes in again, to the late-night report, she realizes there is something not quite right about the correspondent who was first on the scene. So begins ‘If It Bleeds’ , a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestselling The Outsider featuring the incomparable Holly on her first solo case – and also the riveting title story in Stephen King’s brilliant new collection.

Dancing alongside are three more wonderful long stories from this ‘formidably versatile author’ (The Sunday Times) – ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’, ‘The Life of Chuck’ and ‘Rat’ . All four display the richness of King’s storytelling with grace, humor, horror and breathtaking suspense. A fascinating Author’s Note gives us a wonderful insight into the origin of each story and the writer’s unparalleled imagination.

The novella is a form King has returned to over and over again in the course of his amazing career, and many have been made into iconic films, If It Bleeds is a uniquely satisfying collection of longer short fiction by an incomparably gifted writer.

Review:

People love Stephen King. They love the older stuff because he was such a good storyteller and he can scare the pants off of the readers. They love the middle of his career because it shows that not everything that you do will be perfect but you have to believe in your craft. They love the newer stuff because it is familiar and comforting. The four novellas in If It Bleeds do not reinvent the wheel, do not bring many new ideas to Stephen King’s realm, and they really don’t hit very hard. But there is something about them, something soothing that is like your grandma’s peach cobbler or a late night radio DJs silky voice. We follow him because he is now the age of many of his readers’ fathers or grandfathers, and he writes like they would tell tales. This comfort in an unsettling time has brought many people back to King and many people that have never left to praise his works even more.

“Mr Harrigan’s Phone”

In the opening story, a boy befriends the eccentric old man down the street, helping him around his house and becoming his friend. There is an innocence to the friendship, which turns a little more deviant once the boy buys Mr. Harrigan a phone. This friendship between a boy and an older man has been done by King quite a few times (Apt Pupil, ‘Salem’s Lot, Needful Things and Hearts in Atlantis come to mind immediately), but it’s still a good dynamic, still a good trope. This is a strong opening story, and maybe the one I enjoyed the most. 

“The Life of Chuck”

This is broken into three different sections. The first section is a climate-horror story where the entire world is falling apart, yet these billboards start popping up that say, “39 Great Years! Thanks Chuck!” with a photo of a guy nobody recognizes. This is probably the strongest section in the entire book. I was sucked into the story so the next two parts were kind of a let down. This is King where a story that he is writing becomes too much. The ending is sloppy and unsatisfying. The first part is fantastic though. 

“If It Bleeds” 

The biggest novella in the group, this follows Holly Gibney, the Finder’s Keepers detective, with her own stand alone case. If you have not read the Bill Hodges Trilogy or The Outsider, be prepared to have all of them spoiled for you. King spends a great deal of time going through all of the cases that he has written her into as ways for her to have information on the current case, like the four King novels that she is in previously are the limit of her knowledge on how to be a detective. I think this is a pretty good sequel to The Outsider and I would almost bet money that this was written as a second season of The Outsider series on HBO. There is the same mystery and the same vibe between the two works. 

“Rat”

A man wants to finally write his Great American Novel so he goes up to a cabin, gets a severe fever, and has a rat tell him that he’ll strike him a deal if he wants help finishing his novel. This whole writer in a cabin story has been done by King a few times, and this lands squarely in a fairy tale kind of realm more than a horror story. 

All of the stories are decent, but they all also seem like there is not much effort being placed. These plots have been used, sometimes repeatedly, in King’s work, and this makes these novellas feel familiar and comfortable. I listened to someone talking about King’s writing, and the person said that King has this style of writing, kind of a folksy, down-home, grandpa spinning a yarn kind of quality to his writing, and now I notice it in every paragraph. I don’t feel like I will stop reading King in the future, but this collection is proof that many of his new stories are the same as his old stories and that there are other horror writers that are telling newer, more interesting horror stories.

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Q&A with Jessica Guess, author of “Cirque Berserk”

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After I read Cirque Berserk, I reached out to Jessica Guess on Twitter and asked if she would be interested in a little bit of a Q&A for my blog. I cannot recommend Cirque Berserk enough. She has been more than gracious, and it has been a pleasure to talk to her more in depth about her novella and her website, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. Check it out.

 

Me: Cirque Berserk starts out as nine teenagers going to an old circus/amusement park that is supposed to be haunted. You mention a few times that this is a bad horror movie trope and [the main character] Rochelle’s least favorite trope. What is your least favorite horror trope? Like what novels or movies will you skip completely because you’re sick of it?

JG: I really hate the “black person dies first or needlessly” trope. It’s ridiculous that that one is still being used. Like the 2020 movie, Underwater? Sorry for the spoiler, but that happens in there and it took me out of it. I was kind of over it once I saw that. Also, I love The Shining, but in Kubrick’s version, when Dick Hallorann dies in that stupid and needless way, it felt insulting.

Me: This is one of those stories that is definitely a slasher, with a pretty high body count, but can also be seen as a sweet love story. There are also many instances of important social commentary (including diversity in horror, male entitlement, and the truths of long term partnerships). If you could pick how every reader sees “Cirque Berserk”, what would you choose? 

JG: Is there such a thing as a horror-romance? Not erotic horror like Anne Rice, but just like a genre that is as romantic as it is horrifying? I think Danny sums it up pretty well in the first chapter when he says he wants to bask in the blood and the love. It’s what I did while writing it. I loved the carnage, but love was just as important. That’s what I want people to take from it. And not just romantic love, but familial love, love between friends, and all of that. I know that those two things seem like they’re so far away from each other, love and horror, but not to me. That is, they don’t have to be.

Me: One of my favorite parts is the relationship between Rochelle and Brian, particularly the fact that Brian’s advances are thwarted, and he is frustrated about it. At one point, toward the end, Rochelle says, 

“You thought you deserved me. A person isn’t something you deserve. That’s just what guys tell themselves when they think they’re doing something to earn a girl’s attention but getting nowhere.” Rochelle puffed out her chest and deepened her voice. “Hey, I tell her she’s pretty and buy her Coca-Cola! She should give me a chance even though she explicitly told me no because I’m nice and I deserve it.” (p.144)

This is a very honest and blaming the other person for not being into you is a staple of our culture. I appreciate you writing this commentary into your book. Do you have any thoughts on why we have this belief that rejections can be reversed with tokens and flattering words? 

 

JG: I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, it probably comes from this archaic belief that women are prizes to be won and that sex is something that is owed. Like, if I do this, this, and this then I deserve the girl, or I deserve sex. That’s not how any of it works but yet that’s how we get these weird notions about nice guys finishing last and friend zones. There is this sense of entitlement that some men have when it comes to women they desire and it’s pretty scary that a lot of them don’t even realize the insanity of it. It’s just drilled in. The truth is that a person does not owe you any kind of relationship be it romantic or otherwise.

 Me: I notice that the title of the novel changed from “Cirque Berzerk” on your Twitter account header to “Cirque Berserk” on the final product. Was the original title with a Z instead of an S? 

JG: I love this question. So, early on when I was drafting Cirque Berserk, I needed a name for the carnival and the first thing I thought of was my favorite anime/manga, Berserk. It’s super bloody and a really fucked up (can I curse? If not “messed”) story. It was perfect for a working title and I thought I would come up with something better, but then the title just seemed right when it was all done, so I kept it. Then when the publisher sent me a draft of the cover art, he spelled it with a “Z” instead of an “S” and I didn’t notice until he caught it and fixed it. When I realized, I was like, “Oh man, I kinda like the Z better.” It looked cooler to me. Z’s are cool, right? That’s probably why I didn’t think of it. Anyway, it was too late to change everything, and it was such a minor detail that I didn’t bother even bringing it up, but I still liked the Z, so I kept it as my header art. It feels like the Z version is just for me.

Me: You have a website, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. The website points out the lack of diversity in horror. Do you think we are starting to do better with recognizing this gap or do you think that it is more of the same? And also do you have any recommendations of authors and filmmakers of color that we should be paying attention to? 

JG: I think it’s a little better. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it seems like it’s opening up a bit. There are more people noticing the absence of people of color from this genre whereas, for a long time, I don’t think too many people questioned it. People of color are asking more questions, or maybe it’s just that these questions are finally being seen/heard because of social media. Where are the black final girls? Where are the Latino vampires? Are there any Asian shapeshifters? We want to see ourselves in the genre we love.

For authors I recommend, I’d say, V. Castro (she has a Rewind or Die book out too), Tananarive Due, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Stephen Graham Jones. All of them have amazing stuff and if you want to talk about prolific, Stephen Graham Jones has like, 20-something novels and a bunch of short stories. For filmmakers, I think we all know to pay attention to Jordan Peele, but there’s also Issa López, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Nia DaCosta, and J.D Dillard. I wrote about Dillard’s movie, Sweetheart, for the website. I loved that movie a lot.

Me: One more question. What are you working on for your next project? 

JG: I’m working on a screenplay about a haunted childhood home. It’s in the really early stages. I’m still plotting.

 

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Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and MusedBellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. Check out my review here.

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