Dark Tides: A Charity Horror Anthology

Short Take: You should absolutely immerse yourself in this.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review. Also the link above goes to indiegogo, not amazon this time.*)

Good morning, my lovely nerdlings! I’m bringing you something a little extra-special today. You all know that I have a deep affinity for the twisty, the bump-in-the-night-y, the creepy and the kooky, the mysterious and spooky (ok, ok, I’ll stop), but this time, I’m reading my favorite stuff for a wonderful cause. In the Dark Tides anthology, a whole lot of my long-time favorite authors and a few marvelous up & comers contributed stories, with all proceeds going to the families and victims of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach (which happens to be one of my favorite places), with all of the stories having a watery-depths theme.

And oh my darlings, what an eclectic treasure chest this book is! There truly is something for everyone – Cthulu-ish cosmic horror, ghosts and zombies, serial killers and witches, mob hits, makeout sessions, the past, the future, children, the elderly, and of course, everything aquatic.

If you want a quick overview, as a whole, I can tell you that Dark Tides is one of the most solid anthologies I’ve ever read. I’m a salty (heh) old nerd, so generally, when I read a collection, about a quarter of the stories are fantastic, half are enjoyable enough, and the final 25% is a firm meh-to-bad. I’m thrilled to report that this one has no clunkers. I’m also concerned that I might be losing my famously impeccable taste. 

That said, there were a few stand-outs, and those ones have stars next to them in the list below. If I had a gun to my head & were forced to choose a favorite, I’d have to go with Hanson Oak’s “They Came From the Sea. They Went To the Stars.” because even though it didn’t feature water or the beach as much as the others, it was a mind-bending blend of horror, love story, mythology, and a lot of Alice In Wonderland hallucinogenic weirdness. 

Although it’s probably a tie between that one and Widow’s Point, because my heart is always in haunted houses, and that one is so freakin’ innovative. And legit creepy. 

Because Dark Tides is a leviathan-sized collection of 30 gems, I can only devote a few words to each of them.  Let’s dive in (heh), shall we?

Terror From the Briny Depths, by Elizabeth Massie – Say you’re a young bride-to-be in the 1950’s, on a beachfront vacation with your somewhat-overbearing fiance, when you happen to notice an enormous monster beneath the waves. And it knows your name. Wait, what??

Pockets Full of Rocks, by Justin M. Woodward – On the worst day of a young man’s life, he meets an old man on the beach who has some very strange things to say to him.

Old Bastards, by Tony Bertauski – Thomas wakes up on a deserted island with no memory of how he got there. Fortunately, there’s someone else in his head who can give him all kinds of helpful information – how to treat his wounds, what to eat, where to hide, and most importantly, how to sabotage what needs to be sabotaged.

** Flange Turner, by Gene O’Neill – Ian’s been let go from the waterfront factory where he worked for 20-odd years. But his job isn’t the only thing in his life that’s fading away. A creepy story that’s a brilliant portrayal of a dying rust belt town.

** NIGHTSWIMMING: A Creepy Little Bedtime Story, by William F. Aicher – A rebellious teenage girl convinces her boyfriend to go skinny-dipping in the pool of a closed-up mansion. Surely nothing terrible could happen. 

By the Seaside, by Kevin J. Kennedy – When it rains on their beachside vacation, little Sarah and her parents decide to spend an evening inside, telling scary stories. But no matter how creepy the story is, it’s just pretend, right?

The Burdens of the Father, by Mark Matthews – In a not-too-distant future America, air is rationed, and any citizens deemed not worthy of their share are eliminated. Everything is carefully controlled by the government, but Janis’s wife is secretly pregnant, and a strident street preacher seems to be openly flouting all the rules, with no consequences. And that’s just the start of the strangeness of his day.

Black Mill Cove, by Lisa Morton – When Jim kisses Maren and leaves their camper to hunt for abalone in the pre-dawn dark tidal pools, he finds something completely unexpected. And horrifying. And then things get REALLY bad.

** Down to a Sunless Sea, by Neil Gaiman – A mother’s heartbreaking lament, lyrical and haunting, a shocking amount of story in very few words. 

** Devourer, by Andrew Lennon – When Pete persuades his cousin’s grown-up boyfriend to take him on a jet-ski ride, he thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. Until it isn’t. Sidenote: I am never again swimming where I can’t see the bottom. No way.

A Quickee, by John Skipp – A moonlight tryst is not what it seems.

Dark Skies, by Jason Stokes – Trying to walk home in a hurricane is a bad idea. Getting lost in a hurricane is bad luck. Or maybe it’s something worse.

** Cycles, by Chad Lutzke – A young man decides to face his (well-deserved) fear of the ocean while on his date with the girl of his dreams. What could go wrong?

** They Came from the Sea. They Went to the Stars. By Hanson Oak – Oliver, nearly destroyed by the loss of his wife and sons, goes into the graveyard to mourn them and ends up somewhere entirely different. Beautiful and strange.

Night Surf, by Stephen King – A classic, moody piece in which the world ends not with a bang, but a sniffle.

** Anniversary, by John R. Little – Jimmy and Gail really love the ocean, and each other. My heart can’t take this one, y’all.

Beneath the Tides, by Kelli Owen – After a painful breakup, Trevor rents a beach house for a quiet weekend of reading & relaxing. And then the screaming starts.

Eternal Valley, by John Palisano – In 19th century Missouri, there’s no Medexpress. So when little Jesse becomes deathly ill, his father has to look elsewhere for a cure.

** Widow’s Point, by Richard Chizmar & Billy Chizmar – found footage (yes, I know it’s a book, just go with it) piece in which an author spends a weekend in a haunted lighthouse. I’m a sucker for haunted houses, and this one is superb

Messages, by Mark Allan Gunnells – A grief-stricken man who doesn’t really believe in anything finds and replies to a message in a bottle. Probably not the best idea.

Show Me Where the Waters Fill Your Grave, by Todd Keisling – It’s been four years since Glenda died, and something amazing and terrifying happened during the first big rainstorm afterward. Now, another massive rainstorm is due to hit and Jonathan is ready for it.

Come Tomorrow, by John Boden – A man mourning the loss of his wife and daughter decides that a quiet afternoon of fishing might help, but he’s not prepared for what he catches.

** A Night at the Lake with the Weird Girl, by Ray Garton – Tom’s new in town, and Mina is, well, weird. But Deepshadow Lake takes strange to new levels. Also, weird girls are the best and everyone should appreciate them more.

Alone, by Taylor Grant – Jess has lost everyone and everything she loved, and really just wants to be alone with her thoughts. But then she hears the voice from the water.

The Cerulean Tide, by Somer Canon – Ok, but hear me out: toilet bowl cleaner on a planetary scale. 

Night Dive, by F. Paul Wilson – Safety, schmafety. Sometimes a wealthy man just wants to go diving alone, is that so wrong?

The Abalone Thief, by Matthew V. Brockmeyer – Theodore is a marine biologist studying abalone populations off the coast of California. But when a large number of the shellfish disappear, his investigation turns up something much crazier than he expected.

In the Shadow of the Equine, by Kenneth W. Cain – A father & son duo, along with a couple of dozen others go camping on an island famous for its wild horse population. But instead of beautiful manes and shaggy coats, they get an old man ranting a bunch of religious-ish gibberish. It couldn’t get much worse than that, right?

Thicker Than Water, by Paul Kane – Naomi’s life has been sad and solitary, until she meets Gerry, The Perfect Guy. She just has to meet and win over his family. 

Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13, by Brian James Freeman – Visiting the place his brother always loved, Jeremy is haunted by more than memories.

So you see, this is one must-have collection. And if you’re on the fence about buying it just for the stories, (what kind of fan are you???), then you should absolutely consider picking up a copy to support the Virginia Beach Tragedy Fund. And if your shelves are as overstuffed as my Thanksgiving pants, you can donate to the victims directly here: 

https://unitedwayshr.org/vabeach/

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some abalone, because I’ve never tried it, but apparently, it’s really really good.)

Loved this book!!

Buried, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: This author is a sadist and I kind of love her.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

You guys. You. Guys. Something seriously major has happened here, possibly for the first time ever. Y’all might want to sit down, and if you’re one of my more faint-hearted nerdlings, you may want to put your head between your knees, or just stop reading right here, because I know you will find this shocking and upsetting.

*Deep Breath*

Ok, here goes…..

I was WRONG about a book. 

I know, I know, it’s impossible to believe, right? I will be the first to admit that I’m wrong about a lot of things in life but books are the One Thing that I can usually pontificate about with great certainty, at length. 

So when I first grabbed a copy of Buried, I braced myself for that most heinous of author maladies: the sophomore slump. There is no way, NO POSSIBLE WAY, I thought, that Ms. Cooper could match the brilliance that was Caged. And by that, I mean that Caged was fantastic, not that Ms. Cooper isn’t. But all of my preconceived notions went right on out the proverbial window, and I am happy to admit it one more time: I was SO WRONG.

(*Warning!! If you haven’t read Caged, ((and just why haven’t you??)), there may be spoilers here!!!*)

It’s been a few months since the events of Caged, and Special Agent Sayer Altair is mostly recovered from both the physical and mental wounds she suffered. Her shoulder and heart still ache at times, but her new ward Adi, goofy-puppy-turned-goofy-dog Vesper, and Zen Master/downstairs neighbor Tino have done her a world of good. Although she still has questions about the death of her fiance Jake from years before, she’s ready to get back to Real Work. I mean, studying psychopaths and dodging political punches from a desk is fun and all, but it can’t compare to chasing down an active serial killer.

So she’s in luck (sort of?) when Agent Max Cho, taking a hike on his day off, stumbles into a whole pile of dumped bodies, ranging from the skeletal to the relatively fresh and gooey. 

Cue a Getting The Band Back Together montage, in which some of my favorite characters from Caged (YAY EZRA!!!) and a couple of equally charismatic newbies join the hunt,. And oh my darling nerdlings, what a hunt it is! 

Ms. Cooper has a definite flair for contrasts: combining real-life cutting edge science with the myths of the ancients, or pitting the very personal struggles of Sayer and her group against the backdrop of a Congressional investigation that has implications for the safety of the entire nation, or flashes of humor brightening a story that isn’t afraid to go very, very dark. But most of all, I especially loved (read: hated) seeing the struggles of one particular character who suffered a devastating injury in Caged – their fight for recovery and some kind of normalcy had me simultaneously cheering and tearing up.

And even with that little part of me that missed that fun, getting-to-know-you buzz of first meeting Sayer, being able to skip the niceties and just zoom off on her Silver Hawk to kick some [censored] was great too. For all the personal and emotional elements of Buried, there are still plenty of twists, turns, fights, chases, and a bombshell or two. We even get a new dog friend, who’s Vesper’s opposite in every way, and is it weird that I’m looking forward to the two of them meeting? (Confession: I may have watched way too much Lady and the Tramp as a kid.)

Guys, I even liked the cliffhanger ending, and you all know how I feel about those. For real, just read it. After you read Caged, of course, because did I mention how much I love that one?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS! (and something sweet that isn’t lava cake. Because gooey is NOT good right now. Also, I need a hug. And maybe a puppy.)

Loved this book!!

The East End, by Jason Allen

Short Take: Wildly implausible, but I didn’t even care.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, my beloved nerdlings, spring is FINALLY in the air. Is it me, or did winter last about forty-seven years? Although I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not much for sports or camping, there are two things that make me crave this time of year: #1, I really, really hate being cold, and #2, I really REALLY love drinking cocktails while reading on the patio.

Speaking of debauched languor, let me introduce you all to The East End, and its fascinating look at two very different sides of the Hamptons (or any playground for the wealthy, I’d imagine).

First we meet Corey Halpern, whose single mom Gina has been working as a housekeeper for the billionaire Sheffields for a dozen years. Seventeen years old, Corey wants nothing more than to get away from the poverty, addiction, and abuse that plague his mother’s every waking moment. He’s a seething ball of resentment, but instead of following Gina’s path, he’s got his sights set on college and keeping his nose clean, as we say around here.

Except for one teensy little felonious habit: he likes to break into the houses of the super-rich, usually while the occupants are sound asleep inside. He doesn’t steal anything, or murder them, as tempting as that may be in some cases. No, Corey just likes to mess with the one percenters’ heads a bit – putting salt in the milk, rearranging paintings, that kind of thing.

It’s fairly harmless, and he’s never been caught, but when Corey decides to do his thing at the Sheffields’ house the night before they are scheduled to arrive for the summer, it all goes sideways.

First, the Sheffields’ rebellious daughter Tiffany (ugh, her name WOULD be Tiffany) arrives with her best friend for a night of drinking and movie-watching, trapping Corey on the property. And then Leo Sheffield, the billionaire himself, shows up with his Darkest Secret in tow.

My duckies, do I need to tell you that Everything Goes Horribly Wrong?

What follows is an absolutely gripping downward spiral, seen through the eyes of Cory, Gina, and Leo as each of them reckons with their own demons while simultaneously trying to outwit the others and save themselves.

As I raced to the end (of the End, heh), my poor oversugared brain was at war with itself. The characters are some of the best in recent memory, and even when I was appalled by their actions, I could understand their motivations and feel sympathy for their various situations (even the ones of their own making). But as plot twist after twist landed, I couldn’t help but think “This is INSANE!!!” more than a few times.

But by insane, I mean audacious. As much as I can’t imagine the final scenes in any real-life way, the story is so lean and tight that I also can’t find any specific point where Mr. Allen jumps the rails into “readers are stupid enough to believe this” territory. He manages to take us into the characters’ heads enough that their actions make sense, without over-explaining, hitting that sweet spot (mmmmm sweets) that many authors strive for and never attain.

And in the end (the End) (no I’m not tired of that joke yet), The East End is a breath-holding tightwire act, with more than one fall and also a couple of perfect landings. I’m willing to forgo a bit of realism for a story like this.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a lovely charcuterie platter.)

Loved this book!!

Stingy Jack And Other Tales, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: Even the tricks are delicious.
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Note: I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hello all you lovely internet people! I come bearing some seriously spookalicious stuff from one of my favorite masters of mayhem. If any of you have been following this site at all, you’re already familiar with my fan-girly squeals over Mr. Greene, and you may have already read my reviews of a couple of these stories, from other collections. Most of them, however, are new to me, and I can say without reservation that each one of them is exactly the ooey gooey (and slightly oozing?) Halloween treat you’ve all been jonesing for.

As most of you know, I am not super into short stories, but Mr. Greene’s shorts somehow manage to satisfy my craving for something big & meaty. (Did that sound dirty? I feel like that sounded dirty). The author manages to describe a decade of backstory in just a few sentences, and can make you see a complete character with just a brief snippet of dialogue. And as for the plots, well… Besides loads of good, old-fashioned, bloody terror in each and every one, there are also liberal doses of heartbreak, redemption, and humor.

I can hear all of you howling and gnashing your teeth, imploring me, “yes, Nerd, the stories are great, but what are they ABOUT??” So without further ado, here’s a brief overview of each one.

Stingy Jack, Ol’ Scratch, and a Head Full of Fire:  A medieval-era fire-phobic, self-pitying, manipulative, lecherous, turnip-loving drunk makes a deal with the devil (is this Nerd surprised that the devil is a fratboy? NOPE). A Halloween must-read.

Unto The Earth: A terribly toxic marriage is not what it appears to be.

Nightbound:  Breaking into an abandoned mansion and finding coffins in the basement seems like a horror cliche, but there’s a whole other story here, about escaped convicts, a heist, bags of money, a sociopath, and a girl who’s prettier and greedier than she is smart.

Gramma’s House:  A trio of methheads breaks into the titular house, only to enter… The Twilight Zone.

The Plagues of Winter:  After a blizzard, an isolated northeastern island community finds itself dealing with much worse problems than no internet.

Guardian of the Orchard: The tale of three brothers who like to sneak into Old Man Peterson’s orchard to steal apples (and maybe have a good old-fashioned rotten apple fight once in awhile), and Old Man Peterson’s twisted, demonic act of revenge on them. Or maybe it’s about something entirely different.

Cinderblock:  Once a world class boxer, always a world class boxer.

Black Cloud:  If you’ve ever done something terrible, you know that the black cloud never really leaves. What you may not realize is that it might have a mind of its own.

3:33 The Bloodbird:  Sibling rivalry is no joke.

How Me and Bozy Became Dads:  A typical day of a group of inmates doing roadside clean-up duty becomes something entirely unexpected.

The Curse of Kirby: So let’s say you have the neighbors from hell.  And you happen to bump into a Goth-ish girl who can communicate with ghosts, and sort-of control a particularly strong one.  What could go wrong?

So to sum it up, this is the Halloween candy you have been craving, minus the calories. You know you want it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a full-size Milky Way bar. Seriously, whoever came up with the concept of “fun size” doesn’t understand fun.)

Loved this book!!

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

Short Take:  Y’all can stop looking, I have found the new Gone Girl.

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Yes, I’m back after a long hiatus consisting of mental misfires, dodgy doldrums, and a dearth of reading material that tickled my giblets enough to make me want to write reviews. Until now. As much as I’ve railed against every publisher blurb that promises me “It’s the next Gone Girl!”, I should have guessed that at some point I would eat my words.

So here I am, choking down my many many MANY statements that no other book could possibly be anything like Gone Girl. I will still sleep with my homemade Gillian Flynn doll, however, because the book gods giveth and the book gods taketh away and I ain’t taking any chances.

On its surface, the premise of The Couple Next Door is entirely different than the aforementioned Gone Girl. Anne and Marco, a lovely, upper-upper-upper middle class couple are at a dinner party at the home of their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham. Cynthia has made it very clear that this was to be an adults-only party, so when Anne & Marco’s sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to leave their 6 month old baby by herself. After all, they reason, we’ll be right next door, we have the baby monitor, we will take turns checking on her every half hour, she’ll be sound asleep the whole time anyway. What could go wrong?

It should probably go without saying that PLENTY could go wrong.

Marco checks on Cora at 12:30, and tells Anne that all is well, but when the couple go home at 1 AM, the baby is gone.  And what follows is one of the most deliciously twisty mysteries I’ve read in quite some time. Everyone wants something out of this case: Anne and Marco want their baby back. Detective Rasbach wants to figure out what happened and to find Cora.  The media wants to salivate over the fact that the baby was home alone and that Anne is being treated for postpartum depression. But above and beyond all other motives and goals, everyone wants to keep their own dirty secrets tucked safely away.

We get point-of-view chapters from Marco, Anne and the detective, as well as the occasional bits from other characters, including Cynthia. All of these characters are portrayed with a surprising amount of depth. My favorite was the detective. He’s seen too much in his career, and it’s made him jaded and cynical, but he still wants to believe that someone, anyone, is telling him the truth in all this. Yet he never lets himself quite believe anything he’s told. You really get a sense of how exhausting it must be to live like that, day in and day out. Beautifully done.

There are a few overused themes in Couple Next Door. Namely, Everyone Has Secrets. Nobody Can Be Trusted. And so on. But I have to add that for every reveal that I saw coming, there were at least three that I didn’t. And although many of the characters were unlikable at times, you also got the sense that their humanity was intact, that sometimes the wrong decision feels like the only one.

And the best part? On the amazon page for this book, NOT ONCE was it called “The Next Gone Girl.” So maybe, just maybe, publishers will stop using that line. Everyone wins!

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a duffel bag full of unmarked bills. Cause who couldn’t use one of those?)

Loved this book!!

 

To Each Their Darkness, by Gary A. Braunbeck

Short Take: I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but I like it.

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To Each Their Darkness is Gary Braunbeck’s take on horror.  It’s part autobiography, part analysis of the genre as a whole, part reviews of other works, and part brutally honest take on his own work.

Before I elaborate on this particular book, I should probably give a little background on my experiences with this author.  I have a love/hate relationship with Gary Braunbeck that’s been going on for a few years.  Make no mistake, the man’s brilliant, and I’ve no idea why more people aren’t reading his work.

Oh wait, I also know exactly why more people aren’t reading it.  Braunbeck’s books are gut-wrenching.  I say that not because of the amount of gore and violence (oh, they are plentiful though!), but because of the deep emotional upset I experience with every one of his works.  Gary Braunbeck knows how to hit where it hurts, and then to drive the pain in deeper, and when you are saying “oh, that hurts too much, I can’t, please no more”, he says “Oh, you mean no more of THIS?” and hits harder.  And it’s a testament to his level of craftsmanship that at the end of it, you feel like you’ve experienced something beautiful and tender and loving.

That…. went to a weird place.

This review’s a little schizo, and all over the map.  So is To Each Their Darkness.  It’s not a straightforward narrative of “this happened to me, and later I wrote about it in this story”.  It’s not a simple guide to what makes horror writing effective, or a basic list of “these horror books/movies are excellent, and here’s why”.  It’s all of that, and a few other things, and in no certain order.

So, impressions:  The autobiographical sections were fascinating.  Gary Braunbeck puts the worst out there (at least, I hope it’s the worst.  If there’s more, and worse, I don’t think I can handle it).  He openly discusses his abusive but also loving childhood, his depression, failed marriages, suicide attempt, the death of his daughter, and his time in a mental institution.  There’s a streak of humor in all the pathos though.  Example:  “I worked for a short time as a clown for children’s birthday parties. Hand to God, I did. My professional name was Rags.  I wanted to call myself Scuzzo the Marginally Humorous or The Banal Mr. Wiggles, but was worried folks might get the wrong idea about the nature of my show.”

I’ll admit that the “how to write effectively” sections were a bit of a slog for me.  Obviously, I’m not a writer, but some of the peeks behind the curtain were fascinating.  The section on opening lines, titled “Brought To You By The Law Firm Of Beguile, Intrigue, and Assault” could have been written with me in mind. Brilliant opening lines make me all tingly, though I couldn’t compose one to save my life.

The only section that really lost me was titled “Opinions, and the One Who Offers Them”.  It consisted of pretty much just forewards & afterwards written by Braunbeck for other authors’ works.  It felt disjointed, like I went from reading a story or article written by one author, to reviews of the works by a bunch of other authors, several of whom I hadn’t heard of before.  In a couple of cases, I was interested enough to look for the books he mentioned, but overall, it felt shoehorned in, and far too long.

A few goodies for the non-writing reader:

  • The conversation between Gary Braunbeck and his shelf of Stephen King books is hilarious.
  • I can say I’ve now seen the longest chapter title I’ve ever seen (in Part Two, should you wonder), and it’s called “Statistics; Subtext; and Why Horror Will Never Be Considered Serious Lit-rah-chure, No Matter How Much We Stamp Our Feet and Threaten to Hold Our Breath Until Our Faces Turn Blue and We Pass Out From Lack of Oxygen, Which, If We’d Been Using it Properly in the First Place, Would Have Gone to Our Brains and Made Us Realize that We Need to Make Our Writing More Than Merely Competent, Only Now We’re All Passed Out on the Floor and Have Wet Ourselves and Little Kids Are Sticking Uncomfortable Things Up Our Noses and Who’s Going to Take Us Seriously After That?”
  • The new-to-me full text of Braunbeck’s short story, “Need”.  It’s one example of what he describes as “After-the-Fact” horror stories, a clever subgenre I had never really heard described, and rarely encountered, but which I’ll be looking for in the future.

 

Final Summary:  Gary Braunbeck is good enough that even when I’m not his target audience, I can still find a lot to enjoy in his book.  His novels are still better though.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS

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Currently reading/Next review:  The Messenger, by Edward Lee