Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.

 

Big, Black, and Orange: A Review of The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories

The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories: Terrifying Tales Set on the Scariest Night of the Year! Edited by Stephen Jones. Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.

Featuring twenty-six stories (and one poem), and weighing in at over 500 pages, Jones’s anthology certainly fulfills its titular claims of prodigiousness. Some of the High Holiday highlights within:

From its baroque title to its weird and unsettling imagery, James Ebersole’s “The Phenakisticope of Decay” (concerning trick-or-treaters’ encounter with a sinister low-tech cartoon-viewing device) reads like a product of Thomas Ligotti’s Nightmare Factory. The story’s ending perhaps falls a bit short of the mark, but that doesn’t detract from the macabre magnificence that precedes it.

Storm Constantine’s “Bone Fire” burns bright as the author rekindles Halloween’s Celtic roots. This tale of demons, fairies, and pagan celebrations is both beautifully written and suffused with sharp plot twists.

I love science-fictional variations on the Halloween tale (e.g., Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve”; Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still”), and Lisa Morton’s “The Ultimate Halloween Party App” can now be added to that short list. Morton’s story of rampant terrorism and neurotechnological misdeed downloads a rollicking monster mash into readers’ imaginations.

Set in Finland, Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Scariest Thing in the World” invokes Halloween in a more philosophical manner, and the referent of its title is not some facile frightener. The narrative simmers and simmers…until it reaches its explosive final line.

Thana Niveau’s “White Mare” presents Americans abroad and accosted by an angry mob of villagers on Halloween night. The strange customs maintained here in the English countryside are enough to make the festivities in The Wicker Man seem like a gathering around a cozy campfire.

These are all original pieces, but the strongest entries in the anthology (which opens with Neil Gaiman’s classic Bradbury homage, “October in the Chair”) are its reprints. Angela Slatter’s “The October Widow” combines an intimate tale of love and loss with hints of an autumnal apocalypse. Renowned for his darkly comedic voice, Joe R. Lansdale reminds us what a harrowing raconteur he also is in “The Folding Man”–a supernatural take on the “black car” legend. Ramsey Campbell establishes himself once again as the master of the creepy detail in “Her Face,” and Christopher Fowler’s narrator “Lantern Jack” regales listeners with the history of a haunted (especially on Halloween) London pub built on an ancient, ignis-fatuus-producing peat bog.

As is the case with most Jones anthologies, non-American authors dominate the table of contents here. So for those residing in our macabre republic, this collection might prove not quite what was expected (there’s rare display of U.S. settings/holiday observances). But while The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories ultimately does not stack up to last year’s Ellen-Datlow-and-Lisa-Morton-edited anthology Haunted Nights (reviewed here), it still warrants top-shelf slotting in the Halloween fiction lover’s library.

 

Trick or Treat (Book Review)

One more import from the Macabre Republic blog, this time of a review that I posted in 2012.

 

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton (Reaktion Books, 2012)

The latest nonfiction study of the October holiday by Morton (author of The Halloween Encyclopedia) can be summed up in two words: impressively comprehensive.

Trick or Treat takes a “look at both the history of the festival and its growth around the world in the twenty-first century.” The book traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, its evolution in the British Isles, its transportation to America and subsequent proliferation worldwide. Along the way, readers learn about every Halloween custom and ritual imaginable.

The book works more as a survey than a critical analysis (when Morton operates in the latter mode, she has a penchant for employing the waffling phrasing “It’s probably no coincidence that…”). Chapters focusing on Great Britain and the global variations of the holiday will probably be of less interest to the average American reader, but the long final chapter covering Halloween’s manifold manifestations in pop culture is worth the price of purchase alone. Overall, Trick or Treat brims with informational goodness; the volume promises to serve as a valuable reference tool for folklorists, fiction writers, and Halloween aficionados alike.

 

Halloween Nation (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a book review that appeared on the Macabre blog during the 2011 Halloween season.

 

Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (Pelican Publishing Company, 2011)

America’s leading black-and-orange journalist returns to investigate and celebrate the October holiday season. In Halloween Nation, Bannatyne poses the key questions (the most overarching one being: “What does Halloween mean right now and what purpose does it serve?”) and considers all the relevant elements (witches, ghosts, zombies, pumpkins, pranksters, etc.). Her study is at once fascinatingly informative (in particular the chapter tracing the origin of the jack-o’-lantern) and endlessly entertaining. Bannatyne writes with a sense of humor, a prose style reminiscent of Mary Roach (whose work she cites). For instance, when learning of the amazing growth rate of giant-sized pumpkins, the author observes: “Forty pounds a day? That’s like growing a six-year-old over the weekend.” Describing a weigh-off of such gargantuan gourds, Bannatyne offers: “When a 1,180-pounder knocks the rest out of the competition, the crowd roars, and the pumpkin glides through the arena on the forklift like a plus-sized beauty queen on a parade float.”

All this is not to suggest that the author has taken a flippant attitude toward her subject matter, or that she didn’t work hard to produce this book. Like a Charles Kuralt for our macabre republic, Bannatyne spent two years on the road interviewing haunters, performers, and other holiday celebrants across the country. Halloween Nation is an undeniably democratic tome: Bannatyne doesn’t just forward her own ideas but gives voice to the perspectives of countless others. The book seems as populous throughout as the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (which Bannatyne covers in Chapter Seven).

Brimming with brilliant color photos and illustrations, Halloween Nation is a perfect coffee table book to engross visitors to your home this October. The book’s written content (not to mention its extensive “Resources” appendix) is guaranteed to send you surfing the Internet to learn more about the people, places, and events Bannatyne discusses. Such extra-textual forays, though, will not keep you from delving eagerly back into Bannatyne’s pages again and again. I’m not waxing hyperbolic when I state that this insightful and delightful book is an absolute must-read for every unabashed Halloween-ophile.

 

Johnny Halloween (Book Review)

The review of this story collection first appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog in October 2010.

 

Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

This slim yet bountiful volume collects Partridge’s Halloween-based short fiction written over the past two decades. The stories, though, are unified by more than the holiday at month’s end, as signaled by the two nonfiction pieces included here. In his Introduction, Partridge recounts growing up in the sixties as a “card-carrying monsterkid.” The Universal Monsters served as formative influences, and naturally Halloween constituted the most beloved night of the year. But there was another, non-cherished experience that imprinted Partridge’s childhood: in October 1969, Partridge was an eleven-year-old boy living in Vallejo, California, a town that the serial killer known as the Zodiac had chosen as his personal hunting ground. Chillingly, Partridge was forced to realize “that the scariest monsters wore human skin.” The author-to-be received an early lesson in American Gothic, as hinted at in his reaction to the police artist’s sketch of the Zodiac printed in the local newspaper: “His face was like the faces of a half-dozen fathers who lived in my very own neighborhood, right down to the horn-rim glasses. He could have been sitting at a breakfast table down the block, eating Corn Flakes while I stared at his picture on the front page.”

Partridge, in the autobiographical essay “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” elaborates on the shadow cast over his hometown by the Zodiac, noting that the killings were “like an urban legend come to life.” As suggested by the essay’s title, the Zodiac’s reign of terror also marked a loss of American innocence—neither Vallejo nor Halloween ever seemed to be the same again. The essay can shed only so much light on the still-unsolved mystery regarding the Zodiac, but it does provide the reader a much better understanding of why the adult Partridge’s fiction features Halloween masks as recurrent props and duplicitous human monsters as central characters.

The title story (originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine) is vintage Partridge: a bit of Halloween noir involving liquor store hold-ups (past and present), small-town intrigue, and an anti-heroic sheriff (indeed, there’s enough story packed into the pages of “Johnny Halloween” to make for a rousing feature-length film). In keeping with the theme of human monstrosity, the eponymous robber disguises himself with a pumpkin face—a mask that eventually (and symbolically) is taken possession of by the narrating sheriff. But I’ll let you find out for yourself what ol’ Dutch decides to do with it…

“Satan’s Army,” meanwhile, is comprised of an itinerant evangelist (who’s not content to merely preach about the evils of Halloween) and his fervent minions. The tale is pure American Gothic, even including an elderly “Mother” and “Dad” couple who appear to be the perfect neighbors but are actually busy splicing razorblades into apples. And surprise, surprise, a Halloween mask (in this case, the burlap hood of a scarecrow) proves central to the story.

“Treats” has long been a personal favorite Partridge story of mine. The brief tale opens with a mother named Maddie shopping for Halloween candy in the supermarket, and then gets progressively creepier as we learn why she is so harried. Her tyrannical monster of a son “Jimmy was at home with them. He’d said that they were preparing for Operation Trojan Horse.” Fans of golden-age horror/sci-fi cinema will have no trouble identifying the inhuman “them” that Jimmy commands.

In his Introduction to the book, Partridge notes the prevalence of cemeteries (inhabited by “some pretty disturbing monsters,” human and otherwise) in his fiction. “Black Leather Kites” forms a perfect instance of this. The story, tracing the dark machinations of devil-cultist werebats on Halloween night, is enjoyable not just for its wonderfully weird plot but for the humorous banter between the deputy protagonist and his brother-in-law.

Like “Black Leather Kites,” “Three Doors” climaxes in a cemetery. The tale involves a physically- and psychologically-wounded veteran who paints his prosthetic hand black for Halloween in the hopes of gaining magical powers (that will in turn help effect his elopement with the girl he loves). Plot-wise, this is probably the least effective entry in the book; I suspect that some readers will be disappointed by the conclusion of this highly self-conscious story. Nonetheless, Partridge’s hard-boiled voice resounds like the brusque knocks of the protagonist’s fist.

The one piece original to the collection, “The Jack O’ Lantern,” makes Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season a must-have even if you are already familiar with the other selections. This volume-concluding novelette serves as a prequel to Partridge’s incredible Halloween novel Dark Harvest. The narrative is at once action-packed and contemplative, reflecting upon what it’s like to grow up living in a strictly dead-end town.

If you want to treat yourself to some fine reading this Halloween season, trek on over to Cemetery Dance and drop a copy of Johnny Halloween into your goody bag.

 

Halloween: New Poems (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a review that appeared on the Macabre blog way back in 2010.

Halloween: New Poems, Edited by Al Sarrantonio (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2010)

The Halloween Season is fast approaching, and what better way to ready for it than to read this delightful anthology put together by renowned October scribe Al Sarrantonio (HorrorweenHallows EveHalloweenland). Halloween: New Poems collects 41 (i.e. 10 + 31) pieces of original work by 19 different luminaries in the horror genre (and also features stellar artwork by Alan Clark and Keith Minion). Some of the standout poems are Steve Rasnic Tem’s “How to Play Dead,” which kicks off the book with an eerie narrative about a glutinous doorstep beggar, and Elizabeth Massie’s “Spider’s Night Out,” which  presents the holiday from the titular insect’s point of view. Tom Piccirilli’s “Phantom Pains” is a haunting tale of tragedy and remorse, and James A. Moore’s “Autumn” wonderfully matches the bereft mood of the speaker to the season’s dying landscape. Sarrantonio himself weighs in with a trio of amusing poems whose concise lines read like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Emily Dickinson. Perhaps the highlight of the book, though, is the inclusion of the first-ever published verse by Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale’s distinctive style and darkly comedic worldview are on display in a half-dozen entries, including the gloriously grisly “Observing Nature on Halloween Night.”

Halloween: New Poems features a surprising number of pieces that employ quick-fire rhymes, which at times give the contents of the book a sing-song quality. But Bradley Denton, whose “Cap’n Hook (A Tale of the Prairie)” forms the longest (and most visceral) selection in the anthology, seems wryly self-aware of the limerick-like quality of its stanzas. Take, for example, the following excerpt, in which a group of teenage farmhands lust after the boss’s daughter:

Now wait just a minute,”
piped up both of the Bobs.
“I saw her this morning
“when we came for the job.

“She was there by the barn
“as we got in the truck.
She was watchin’ and grinnin’
“like she wanted to–”

“Hold on now!” snapped Jimmy.
“Y’all can just stop it!
“We’re here to throw bales,
“not to spread lies and gossip!”

At $40, the price of the trade hardcover will no doubt be steep for the non-collector–especially considering that the slim volume can be read in about an hour. At the same time, though, this is the type of book that you’ll eagerly pull off your shelf year after year; such assured treasuring makes Halloween: New Poems a worthy investment in October festiveness.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre (Book Review)

The following is a re-post of a review that appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2013.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre. Edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013).

Guran’s previous high-holiday effort, 2011’s Halloween, was an indisputable October treasury; perhaps its only drawback was that it consisted strictly of reprints, meaning that ardent fans of Halloween fiction were likely to have encountered many of the selections before. But Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre poses no such problem, presenting readers with eighteen (highly) original stories. Some of the standouts:

• “Thirteen” by Stephen Graham Jones. A tale (the best of its kind since Joe Hill’s “Twentieth Century Ghost”) that takes the haunted theater motif in a startlingly different direction. Jones effortlessly blends small-town reality with supernatural sinisterness.

• “The Mummy’s Heart” by Norman Partridge. This one features a monster kid run amok, a psycho who’s seen one too many Karloff movies. The real fun, though, starts when dark crime shades over into dark fantasy. Lovers of the Universal monster movies will be enthralled by Partridge’s re-bandaging of the mummy mythos.

• “Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story” by Jonathan Maberry. A quietly haunting piece in its own right, this narrative is also noteworthy for its depiction of Pine Deep several years after the cataclysmic events of the novel trilogy (cf. Stephen King’s “One for the Road”). “Long Way Home” excitingly suggests that Maberry is a long way from done with mining the Most Haunted Town in America for story material.

• “The Halloween Men” by Maria V. Snyder. The most Bradbury-esque entry in the anthology, but the Bradbury of the dystopian “Usher II” more than Something Wicked This Way Comes. Snyder’s alternate-Venice setting is captivating, and her carnivalesque reworking of the idea of the Halloween mask is terribly clever.

• “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. A work that transports readers to a colonized Mars in the far future, yet hearkens back to the ancient Celtic roots of Halloween. Kiernan’s story is to be cherished both for its diligent world-building and its mesmerizing prose.

• “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge. The best treat in the whole goody bag.  I’ll have more to say about this piece in a subsequent post.

As its subtitle heralds, Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre offers a variety of genre approaches to the October holiday. The anthology furnishes ample proof that new tricks can be wrung from old tropes, so here’s hoping that Guran (who bookends the contents with an entertaining intro and editor bio) continues to solicit groundbreaking stories and produces additional all-new Halloween ensembles in the coming autumns.

 

Apocalypse Not/Now: A Review of Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World

In his recent string of hit horror novels (A Head Full of GhostsDisappearance at Devil’s Rock), Paul Tremblay has made a name for himself as someone who can cleverly rework well-worn genre conventions. The author’s latest effort, The Cabin at the End of the World, operates in a similar manner, adopting and adapting the elements of the home-invasion narrative. At the start of the novel, a quartet of intruders wielding homemade, quasi-medieval weapons force their way inside the New Hampshire vacation cabin of a gay couple (Andrew and Eric) and their seven-year-old adopted daughter (the Chinese orphan Wen). These aren’t your typical invaders, though; the mysterious foursome aren’t mute sadists, mere thrill-killing Strangers in masks (actually, the masks aren’t donned until after the break-in, and for a most unexpected reason). Rather than forming stock villains, the intruders act from allegedly heroic impulses: these ultimate humanitarians have specifically sought out Andrew, Eric, and Wen to help stave off an impending global apocalypse.

Tremblay has also established himself as a master of ambiguous horror, and Cabin proves a darkly shining example of unsettling uncertainty. Are the intruders the acting hand of a higher power or just touched in the head? The divine-inspiration-vs.-devastating-delusion debate rages throughout, fueling the book’s narrative drive. Tremblay deftly blurs the line between causation and coincidence, and further heightens the ambiguity by playing with viewpoint (e.g. the reliability of one character’s observations is called into question after he suffers a serious concussion).

Written in the present tense, Cabin is marked by an incredible sense of immediacy and urgency (Tremblay brings readers up-close-and-personal with his protagonists, to the point of practically sharing the disorientation of head trauma or the pain of a knee-wrecking bludgeoning). The novel’s unity of setting (much of the action unfolds in a single room, a la Wait Until Dark) gives it the feel of a stage play. Like a work of drama, the novel is heavy on dialogue; this is only realistic, though, since the terrible decision that the intruders ask the protagonists to make necessitates considerable convincing. The verbal back-and-forth never grows tedious, thanks in large measure to Tremblay’s ability to build believable characters.

I don’t think it’s much of a plot spoiler to write that Cabin‘s plot doesn’t resolve with an overt revelation or deliver definitive answers. End matters here can be interpreted in multiple ways, which only renders the situation more disconcerting. This also enables Tremblay to avoid a somewhat trite twist, a climactic redux of the similarly-themed film Take Shelter. My one real complaint with Cabin‘s conclusion is that its resort to third-person-plural viewpoint in its final section is a bit jarring, creating a syntax that can distract the reader from the situation presented.

In any event, Cabin is best appreciated not for its plot but for its prose: Tremblay crafts exquisite sentences,evincing both a clarity of vision and profundity of thought (e.g. “Bullets, those shiny brass threats, are seeds spilled and spread over the black-as-spotting soil trunk interior. Andrew ghosts over the evidence of his earlier struggle with Sabrina and those leavings now read like tea leaves, a forecasting of the events in the cabin that followed.”). As the author of the World’s Longest Dissertation on Cyberpunk, I can’t help but love a book that includes a line like “The gray sky is a smear, a Neuromancer sky, dead and anachronistic.”

Tremblay no doubt aims big in this novel, which deals with the fate of the world and humanity’s relation to the deity (not necessarily Judeo-Christian). While not quite the pulse-pounding instant classic of psychological/supernatural horror it has been hailed as (I would classify the book as more disturbing than outright terrifying), the novel is nothing less than impressive. A binge-read that resonates, The Cabin at the End of the World is the perfect place to start for those who have yet to encounter this abundantly gifted writer.

Blood’s a Winner

Vic and Blood…together at last. Blood’s a Rover presents the complete adventures of the wild boy and his telepathic dog. Their tales–in the form of two stories, a dialogue, a novella, and a teleplay (not to mention the epigraphic “Wit and Wisdom of Blood” interspersed throughout)–are gathered here for the first time in a rewarding volume that reads like an episodic novel.

Back in 1969, Harlan Ellison published “A Boy and His Dog,” the proto-cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic classic that stands as arguably his most popular and revered work. The novella depicts a bombed-out America roamed by teenage scavengers, who exist as “solos” or gang up into “roverpacks.” Ragged individualist Vic falls into the former camp, but he does have his canine companion (more partner than pet, as the ongoing struggle for survival draws Blood together with Vic in a symbiotic, if not always simpatico, relationship). Just as the story itself is set both along and below the surface of the ravaged earth, “A Boy and His Dog,” works on multiple levels. On the most primitive, it splashes glorious amounts of graphic sex and violence across its pages. It offers some good-old, anti-heroic bad-assery (with Vic emerging as a literary sibling of Huck Finn and Alex the Droog alike). The story features both sophisticated wit and raucous banter; the climax adds a twist of dark-as-the-grave black humor. Ellison’s transgressive narrative is also a masterpiece of carnivalesque inversion, starting with the fact that Blood is more erudite and morally-advanced than his impulsive, animalistic human “master.” Similarly, the Middle-American idyll created by the subterranean dwellers proves an artificial construct, its stultifying civility hardly preferable to the chaos and constant danger Vic has faced above ground. Indeed, the spuriousness of the suburban splendor of the Topeka “downunder” is exposed when the folksy villagers are last seen having devolved into an angry mob.

While the prequel (“Eggsucker”) and sequel (“Run, Spot, Run”) stories to “A Boy and His Dog” lack the virtuosity of Ellison’s lauded novella, they serve as much more here than mere filler. These further escapades across a devastated landscape expand upon the complexities of the Vic-Blood relationship–the arguments, betrayals, desertions, and ultimately-enduring camaraderie. The pair of stories also form an interesting counterpoint to “A Boy and His Dog” in terms of technique, as here it is Blood–not Vic–who supplies the first-person (“first-canine”?) narration.

Nearly half of the page-space in Blood’s a Rover is taken up by the titular teleplay (which Ellison scripted for a prospective late-1970’s series that was never developed). This sudden jump into a different literary medium isn’t as jarring as it sounds, as Ellison’s teleplay practically reads like narrative fiction (albeit with dialogue in altered form). “Blood’s a Rover” extends seamlessly from the preceding pieces, and brings the Vic and Blood adventures to a satisfying conclusion. Certain plot points are finally delineated: we get to see the long-awaited showdown between Vic and Fellini, the grotesque, despotic gang-leader (think a humanoid Jabba the Hutt) that Vic has run afoul of throughout the series of stories. There is also some neat thematic symmetry, as a new (not necessarily love-) triangle forms: the introduction of tough girl Spike disrupts the relationship between Vic and Blood, recalling the wedging effect of sexpot Quilla June in “A Boy and His Dog”.

Reading this posthumous volume is a bittersweet experience: the book is enormously entertaining, yet also a sad reminder that the world lost a literary genius with Ellison’s recent passing. Regrettably, there will be no further adventures recounted (in his foreword, editor Jason Davis notes that Ellison was debilitated by a stroke back in 2014 after just beginning to draft a new Vic and Blood story). But thankfully, we do have this terrific release from Subterranean Press to relish. Blood’s a Rover is well worth settling down with, whether in these dog days of summer or any other time of year.

The One Who Is Applauding

Glen Hirshberg has distinguished himself as an indisputable master of the American ghost story, but it is neither fair nor quite accurate to label him a writer of genre horror. The very subtitle running across the cover of The Ones Who Are Waving (Hirshberg’s fourth collection, following The Two SamsAmerican Morons, and The Janus Tree and Other Stories) establishes that there is more at stake than mere shiver-inducing. These are “Tales of the Strange, Sad, and Wondrous.” The classification just as easily could have read “Tales of Exquisite Craftsmanship.”

Hirshberg’s prose is marked by literary style; his plots are rich in nuance. To use a cinematic analogy, his stories are Oscar-season releases rather than summer blockbusters. A perfect illustration of this is the story “Shaken,” which centers on the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) that devastated Japan in 2011. Godzilla is referenced here, not to mention a native mythological beastie named Namazu, but Hirshberg doesn’t resort to some lumbering, Tokyo-stomping monstrosity for horrific effect. The title captures not just the literal earthquake but also the psychological aftershocks suffered by the elderly protagonist Thomas, who following his unsettling experience in Japan is now terrorized by the thought that terra firma isn’t firm at all (he also grows to shudder at modern American horrors such as 9/11 and the Columbine massacre). As the mentally-listing Thomas frets over the inevitable decimation of human civilization, “Shaken” strikes a haunting note of existential dread.

Admittedly, I was disappointed the first time I read “A Small Part of the Pantomime” (in the 2014 anthology Nightmare Carnival), in large part because this follow-up to Hirshberg’s Halloween classic “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” didn’t delve as directly into the legendary haunted attraction. My appreciation for the sequel, though, has increased exponentially upon rereading. “A Small Part of the Pantomime” creates incredible suspense as it slowly unfolds the story of what happened to David Roemer following the tragic events of “Mr. Dark’s Carnival.” The ghostly elements prove all the more unnerving for not being confined to a spook house, as Hirshberg transforms the grassy plains of eastern Montana into an expansive scene of supernatural menace. In retrospect, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” and “A Small Part of the Pantomime” form perfect complements to one another; these two stories would combine to make one hell of a movie (imagine a Mike Flanagan adaptation on Netflix!).

The volume also gathers three “Normal and Nadine Adventures”: “Pride,” “His Only Audience,” and “Hexenhaus.” In his introductory note to these works (in which the protagonists travel the country trying to track down esoteric items for clients, only to find themselves in uncanny territory), Hirshberg points out the difficulty of writing “occult detective” fiction: “The beats are different. […] Detective stories are, in the end, about resolution, however complicated or equivocal. and ghost stories are about mystery. […] My solution was to try to create stories that inhabit the chasm between those ideals, rather than bridge it.”  At this, Hirshberg succeeds brilliantly. The plots (to get into specifics here would spoil the fun of gradual discovery) don’t just resolve; they resonate. Also, Normal (better known as “The Collector”) and Nadine are not just a couple of Kolchak knock-offs, the Mulder and Scully of the private sector, episodically encountering the Monster of the Week. As a pair of characters, they are at once intriguing and endearing. While each piece is self-contained, there are intimations of a larger backstory (we have more to learn about Normal and Nadine individually, and as a couple). Here’s hoping that Hirshberg scripts further adventures, enough to fill a separate volume someday.

The closing, title story is a metafictional mindf**k that gives a dark fantastic twist to Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins’s own experiences with the Rolling Darkness Revue (their touring ghost story troupe). “The Ones Who Are Waving” offers a creepy curse, a surreal climactic reveal, and perhaps best of all, a glimpse behind the curtain of the Rolling Darkness Revue. Those (such as myself) who were always fascinated by the concept but, alas, lived far afield of where the tour stopped every October, get a chance at last to glimpse Hirshberg and Atkins…and then some.

Hirshberg’s narratives are never facile; they take their time to develop (which is not to say they are slow-moving–the reader is propelled by the urge to understand what is actually going on, to discover the wonder or wickedness lying ahead). Nor do they typically present neat moral wrap-up, instead requiring the reader to wrestle with the implications of what has just been recounted. But for anyone willing to put in the work, The Ones Who are Waving pays off as a treasure trove of fine storytelling.