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!!

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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