Review: The Hangman Feeds the Jackal by Coy Hall

Even for those who reject Freud entirely (and admittedly, there’s some baby in his bathwater), his influence on language and reflection on mental illness has been internalized by most post-Freudian people to some extent, even those who consciously try to elide his reductio ad absurda from their analyses. Charles Mackay’s 1841 “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is a perennial time machine for studying ante-Freudian psychology, as is anything by William James and even novels by a great many 18th and 19th century writers, who are close enough in time to our secular modernity to relate to but who wrote without the subconscious influence of Freud (see what I mean?)

Cover of The Hangman Feeds the Jackal, showing a ruined Spanish mission that figures prominently in the story.

Adjacent to those 19th-century authors, are contemporary historical fiction writers who take the required care to create characters of their own time and place, including the treatment and understanding of mental illness as it was in their day. In his latest novel, The Hangman Feeds the Jackal, Coy Hall, definitely succeeds in that, taking us back in time to the post-Civil War American West, a place littered with the psychologically broken, physically maimed, morphine– or alcohol-addicted casualties of war and genocides trying to treat their shell-shock, PTSD, melancholia or whatever they might have called the debilitating effects of a hard century.

Hall’s protagonist is Elijah Valero, “a gunfighter afflicted with terrifying hallucinations” that make him a danger to himself and, frequently, to those around him. Imagine the fastest gun in the west also hearing voices telling him whom to kill and you’ve got an idea of the threat Valero poses to everyone just by being around. Which is why at the beginning of the novel we find him hiding in the ruins of an abandoned Spanish mission, a place stripped of all wealth and infested with rats. Vallero is hiding from others but mostly from himself, trying to get better or at least not to murder anyone during one of his unpredictable episodes. But eventually every roof attracts someone seeking shelter. Valero’s obvious affliction makes them wish they hadn’t:

“The old man furrowed his brow, and it was enough motion to make one of his scabs bleeds. ‘You’re like one of those war fuckers, aren’t you…Hearin’ guns in your head’…”

The old man is partially right, but Valero’s condition predated any war, inherited from his mother and triggered by events that unfold in the book. Ultimately, he’s trapped inside both a ravaged mind and marketable skillset that others encourage him to use for their own purposes. Whether he’s a good man or not, remains to be seen in the pages of Coy Hall’s fast-paced and true-to-its-day “gothic western.” Whatever the judgment, Valero is certainly dangerous to know.

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Review of Stephanie Ellis’s Metallurgy: A Collection of Found Poetry of Love and Death and Metal

Guest reviewer, Stuart Johnson

What it is that unites metal is a complicated question. With its endless array of comically specific subgenres (see werewolf metal, pirate metal, etc.), it can be hard to pinpoint what it is, if anything, all metal has in common. Metalheads themselves even disagree on what counts as metal, excommunicating one another’s favorite bands from the church of metal (leading to spirited arguments between nerds on the Internet calling each other poseurs and heretics). Metalheads are passionate and they don’t care what non-metalheads have to say about the music they like. They are loud, obnoxious, and unapologetic.

Metallurgy: A Collection of Found Poetry of Love and Death and Metal, the latest collection from poet/headbanger Stephanie Ellis, explores one aspect of metal music’s unabashed nature: its lyrical content. Ellis finds poems in metal songs, reinterpreting both genre essentials and underrated gems. She showcases an impressive range of bands throughout the collection. From Samael to System of a Down, there is something for every veteran metalhead and casual headbanger alike. For the best experience, I suggest following the author’s recommendation and dropping the needle on your heaviest record (I went with Celtic Frost personally).

“These poems go hard.”

This anthology pulls no punches in capturing metal’s brutality. Some of my personal favorites include “Release,” which is an interpretation of Slipknot’s “Wait and Bleed” and Metallica’s “One” (if you are unfamiliar with “One” look up what the lyrics are about). The poem does justice to the hopeless and dark nature of the source material while creating an original work that could be a song on its own. If you find yourself in the mood to read something that isn’t afraid to be dark and edgy, Metallurgy has it in spades. These poems go hard.

In addition to sourcing metal from a plethora of styles, Metallurgy has poems in a variety of creative formats. “Sign,” a found poem inspired by Black Metal bands Gorgoroth and God Seed forms the shape of an inverted crucifix (so kvlt). I can hear blast beats and tremolo picking in my head as I read it.

As a metal lover, I found a lot to be excited over in this anthology. I would recommend this to any metalhead who wants to spend time reimagining their favorite lyrics. For the uninitiated who may be curious about heavy music, or even those who just enjoy the darker side of poetry, this book is enjoyable with or without familiarity with heavy music. Who knows, it could even inspire you to take up headbanging.

# # #

Stuart Johnson is the drummer for Wretched Fixation, a black metal band in the Pittsburgh DIY scene. His favorite bands include Iron Maiden, Tesseract, and Ulver. He can be found perusing discogs for new DSBM bands to listen to late at night. He recently graduated college with a degree in physics.

Stephanie Ellis’s Metallurgy: A Collection of Found Poetry of Love and Death and Metal drops 16 June 2022 and is available for order now.

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Review: “Song of the Red Squire” by C.W. Blackwell

C. W. Blackwell’s historic horror novella puts the “cult” back in the US Dept of Agriculture.

1949. The hills of Appalachia are crawling, as if with dichromatic ants, with black-and-white clad government men sent out on a mission to counteract the actions of their own bureaucracies. WWII is over and the post-war boom is driven by a post-New Deal zeal of government-directed policies to bring prosperity and modernity to the remotest hilltop and hollar—even if progress must be forced on those living there. But this change will come with a price: the destruction of cultural and agricultural diversity. Condescending and patronizing, unable to stop smirking even when locals sic dogs or train shotguns on them and tell them to git, the G-men may exercise the better part of valor in seeming to retreat, but only because they know their way is inevitable, and for the best.

A typically self-assured 1940s American male

2021 Derringer winner for short fiction C. W. Blackwell first appeared on my radar with his story in the 2019 anthology Appalachian Horror, “The Bend,” set in 1922 Tennessee. Blackwell gets Appalachia. Perhaps C.W. was scarred at a tender age by the empty-socketed stare of one of those freaky applehead dolls sold at roadside pumpkin stands, those representations of shriveled people too old to be naturally alive, imbued with a scent of the cider press that catches you unawares in the same way you catch them looking at you, but he gets Appalachia: culturally, historically, linguistically, and he frequently returns to mine its history and hills for his stories, such as his soon-to-be released horror novella, Song of the Red Squire.

Picture the scene. It’s Washington, DC, 1949, but the slides on display stem from the orchards of North Carolina:

In a pitch-black room, a bright square blinks onto a projector screen. A gang of bureaucrats sits around a conference table, arms folded. Against the pure white light, they look like typeface hammered onto a sheet of blank paper. Smoke eddies through a projector beam. Little red flares of tobacco cherries wink in the dark. Metal spools click over a reel mount.

Picture these government men, WWII veterans in their buzzcuts and black ties with short-sleeved white dress shirts, their polished shoes, their absolute certainty in progress. Blackwell captures the vibe of the age’s blind faith in the science that had just triumphed in wars abroad and would now triumph at home.

In the 1930s & 40s, the hills of Appalachia filled up with these G-men, pipes tucked away in zippered cases for evening pontifications, carrying as well their recording devices, cameras, and primitive video recorders. They were anthropologists, folklorists, musicologists, agricultural specialists, urban renewalists, highway and dam builders. Few were welcome, despite the promise they believed they carried with them like inoculations against poverty and its ills. They were baffled and bemused by the locals’ hostility, which the G-men wrote off as ignorance; oblivious as they were, with the patronizing arrogance of anthropologists, of the threat which they themselves represented or the equilibrium they were about to topple like, well, apple carts.

As Song of the Red Squire opens, Department of Agriculture functionary Charlie Danwitter appears on a train heading into the back country of North Carolina. Monocropping is coming, factory farming is the future after all, but it’s also become someone’s pet project, somewhere inside the same bureau that’s destroying traditional farming and land ownership practices, to save heirloom apple varieties themselves (if not the people or societies which bred them) and preserve the legacy seeds of the mountains for posterity. Danwitter is, in short, the public face of a government divided against itself, a G-man charged with staving off the inevitable outcomes of his own department’s policies, those of a government that’s already tried and failed with imposing Prohibition (apples, the creepiest of fruits, were originally spread to make alcohol, not pies) and a host of other untested sociological whims on the mountain people. The hostility Danwitter faces seems as unrelenting as it is irrational, at least to him, as he fails to recognize his own place in the scheme of things.

As hostility morphs into violence, Danwitter finds he needs an ally. A local. Someone to make the introductions for him. He feels lucky when he finds allies, but as readers, we’ve seen The Wicker Man, probably read Children of the Corn. We know the winking of the applehead doll is neither a trick of the light nor the product of Danwitter’s WWII-combat-induced paranoia. We know that the hero is in, to use the technical term, “deep shit.” But oh, what a delicious journey. What rituals will an isolated community invent to create meaning? And are they even inventing the rituals, or are the rituals always there, tucked away somewhere in the human psyche, waiting to be put on like old robes? And despite Danwitter’s well-meaning, if condescending, notions of the bumpkins he’s trying to help, his biggest blind spot is his certainty that the suspicion and hostility of the mountaineers against him will prove to be unjustified and transient. In fact, it’s neither.

A creepy-ass Appalachian applehead doll. Not for children. No.

Blackwell clearly did his research for this one, and he captures the sense of time as well as place in rural Appalachia before it was pried open with highways and electrified with dams. His writing plays both into and against archetypes, such as a rural sheriff who defies attempts to pigeonhole him. The historicity is wonderful, with Blackwell peppering his story with period descriptions like a hotel room where “A candlestick telephone sat on a bedside table beside a glass ashtray.” If you like historical horror and you’ve ever lived in a mountain town where the local sheriff is everyone’s second cousin and therefore does not involve himself in disputes of honor or retribution—sticking to the road and ticketing the occasional out-of-towner who runs the town’s lone streetlight—or if you love a good harvest-time tale that puts the cult back into agriculture, you’ll dig sharing Charlie Danwitter’s guileless trek into the backcountry and guessing at the fate awaiting him there.

Song of the Red Squire is due out September 6, 2022, from Nosetouch Press and can be bought here and here. I was given an ARC in exchange for my honest feedback, which you just read.

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Whither the Political Thriller? Review of “American Spy” by Lauren Wilkinson

A critical piece of the political thriller is that it’s political. Classic genre writers like John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene took as given the macro-level political agreement among the center-right and center-left political parties that held sway in the English-speaking world throughout the Cold War that politics “ended at the water’s edge,” and that Labour or Tory, Democrat or Republican, all agreed that the enemies of the hyphenated capitalist-democratic system must be opposed with a united front at home. Le Carré frequently hinted that the NATO/Warsaw Pact struggle was less ideological than driven by the frequently validated belief that Communist leaders were ruthless, arbitrary bastards, and Greene just as often highlighted the democratic right-wing’s flirtation with authoritarianism and distrust of their own domestic left, but even so, both writers largely followed the script, as did politics.

Cover of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Post-9/11 thriller-writers who focused on America’s 21st-century wars were also writing political thrillers, again at least at the macro level, because, for all its propaganda and flaws, the “War on Terror” was at heart an ideological struggle, and thereby both political and politically uniting, e.g., even those in the West most vehemently opposed the US invasion of Iraq weren’t rooting for Saddam Hussein, let alone for Bin Laden.

Which brings us to the post-Trump, and especially the post-1/6, political thriller. Whether or not you think Putin’s actions were effective, it’s not a matter of debate that the Russian dictator intervened in the 2016 American election on behalf of Donald Trump. It’s also not a matter of debate that Trump welcomed the interference and that his children and campaign manager met secretly with members of Russian intelligence. Nor is it up for debate that Trump went on television and explicitly asked Putin to hack his opponent’s computer. These are matters of public record. That Trump garnered a single vote, let alone won the electoral college after this behavior, signals a need for, putting it mildly, national self-examination.

Then came January 6, 2020, when the president of the United States, after months of claiming victory in the election without producing a scintilla of evidence to support his case, staged a full-blown, deadly coup by inciting a mob to sack the US Capitol building, then watched for hours without intervening—other than telling the rioters he loved them—for reasons that are as self-evident as they were self-serving.

So, how does an American write a political thriller now, when roughly half the voting public supports a president who openly solicited the help of a hostile foreign power to win an election and subsequently staged a coup in an attempt to overturn the election he lost? When “The Manchurian Candidate” not only essentially came true but is an event celebrated by the majority of one political party, how does one dramatize external threats to our way of life? How does one write a compelling political thriller when the man who undermined our most basic macro-level political beliefs is still free and openly trying for Coup 2.0? Is the political thriller now as endangered as democracy itself?

So. That was an admittedly long lead-in for a “review” but it’s relevant both to the future of the political thriller, not to mention democracy, and to Lauren Wilkinson’s outstanding debut novel “AMERICAN SPY,” which breathes new life into one, if not both. Our overdue national self-examination, of course, starts by returning to the past, one hopefully remote enough to view with fresh eyes. “American Spy” is set primarily in the late 1980s, early 90s, focusing on the democratic West’s, uh, let’s say, “overexuberant” defense of mom, baseball, and apple pie by which I mean our repeated undermining of self-determination in developing countries any farther left than promoting military dictatorships promoting laisse faire (Western) capitalism in support of the post-colonial status quo set up to continue the transfer of wealth from, broadly speaking, southern nations to northern ones (again, as with Trump’s openly treasonous begging for Russian election meddling, none of this is controversial—Sani Abacha, Mobutu Sese Seko, Carlos Castillo Armas and Efraín Ríos Montt, Pinochet—it’s a long damn list.)

Wilkinson focuses on the sad fate of the revolution in Burkina Faso, a country few Americans ever heard of, fewer could put on the map, and where barely any understand America’s (alleged) role in undermining their attempt to escape the post-colonial straight-jacket tailored to trap them in a cycle of debt and dependence. The protagonist is Marie Mitchell, a disillusioned African-American FBI agent who’s been sidelined by a sexist supervisor, leaving her open to recruitment by CIA officers who need someone with her qualifications—black, young, and smoking hot—to lead the Burkinabe revolutionary leader (the real-life but fictionalized Thomas Sankara) into a “compromising position.” Mitchell is not so blinded by patriotism or ideology as not to see the moral implications of what she’s doing, and her position as a double outsider in the 1980s provides Wilkinson with the narrator’s perspective to assess the past with the critical eye that a black, female FBI agent of that time would surely have possessed. This is the historical novel’s bridge to the present, and, coupled with Wilkinson’s insights into universal human nature, what makes the novel immediately relevant to our current political climate: a chance to dispassionately reflect on general behavior of Americans in the here and now through the past lens of our actions in a country so little-known it might as well be Wakanda or “Nambia” to most Americans.

When we meet Mitchell, her assignment at the FBI has her recruiting informants, whom she herself tellingly dubs “snitches,” to inform on, broadly speaking, “black power” organizations in the greater NYC area, one of whom will soon host a speech by the visiting Burkinabe leader, resulting the CIA’s initial interest in Mitchell—the CIA’s ranks at the time looked a lot like both the roster of Cold-War thriller writers and the starring cast of Hollywood spy movies: wolfishly toothsome, male, and white (the retro-fitted Felix Leiter excepted, natch.)

Unlike her FBI boss, the CIA agents, and even her self-righteous, would-be “Che” Guevara target, Mitchell has no illusions about what she does for a living, as we learn in her initial meeting with an informant who Mitchell controls by doing favors for the woman’s incarcerated boyfriend:

“Got his parole hearing coming up soon,” [the informant] added, looking at me cannily. “But you knew that, didn’t you?”

I [Mitchell] shook my head. “I’ve got no reason to be keepings tabs on him.”

Of course we both knew that was a lie, as his status was my source of leveraging with her. But recruiting and running informants was about cultivating their trust. To do that I found it worked best to lie frequently to them.

Later, when Mitchell becomes the target of the CIA’s recruitment, she uses her experience in recruiting her own “snitches” to try to outsmart them, something that proves to be more difficult than she anticipated:

The first few moments after you meet someone are precious, because the data on them is plentiful and your own subjectivity has yet to interfere. I’ve always been good at making guesses about who people are, and often used that skill when I was recruiting informants. I generally kept what I knew to myself though; my talent for observation put most people on guard, and my memory could cause the same problem. When it’s a question of how much you remember about an acquaintance, a colleague, or a snitch, there’s a fine line between what’s flattering and what gives them the creeps.

That passage sums up Mitchell’s tragic flaw: her intelligence makes her smarter than so many people around her, she’s come to assume she’s always the smartest person in the room, which, once others figure that out, becomes a way to manipulate her.

Wilkinson’s writing on the sentence- and paragraph -level is excellent, as is the plot, which provides plenty of compelling reasons for Mitchell to act—threatened family members, personal safety, boatloads of tax-free “contractor” money. After the setting moves to Africa, the writing avoids “Orientalism” or the African equivalent by making it clear it’s Mitchell who’s the exotic one in Burkina Faso, not the country itself, which has always been there, neither expecting nor needing her. It’s a refreshing approach in a genre that can too easily adopt a colonial gaze.

The featured CIA plot to undermine the local government of a sovereign nation without any sense of guilt or—again—self-reflection as to the long-term consequences is also timely given America’s recent experience being on the receiving end of foreign subversion of our sovereignty. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum from “Jurassic Park,” when it came to foreign coups, we Americans were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn’t stop to think if we should. The reverberations of not asking that question go back at least to the Dulles brothers’ actions in Iran and Guatemala, if not to Hoover and certainly Teddy Roosevelt, or, being honest, the Polk and Jackson administrations. As America finally finds itself on the receiving end of foreign political meddling, hopefully we will start asking “if we should.”

So, Wilkinson’s novel provides a distant viewpoint from which to begin the process of self-evaluation. It’s also an exciting, well-written tale. Fans of “Star Trek” might want to know Wilkinson has also been a writer on “Star Trek: Discovery,” among other projects, though hopefully that won’t detract her from following up on the cliff-hanger ending to “American Spy” and other novel pursuits.

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Serena Jayne Thinks an Awfully Lot About Revenge.

Cover image for Necessary Evils by Serena Jayne

NECESSARY EVILS: “Desperate times often demand dastardly deeds.”

“Most times when a woman is sick, she resigns herself to feeling horrible. The pain and suffering become background noise, a monstrous new normal…I long for the days when I feel human rather than like a broken, battered, barely alive thing, but being infection-free comes with its own steep cost.” [“A Noble Rot,” in NECESSARY EVILS by Serena Jayne]

Dark-fiction author Serena Jayne is forever on my personal “Dirty Dozen” list of short-story writers whose names on an anthology cover are guaranteed to separate me from my money. With an output matched only by her creativity in malice and her insight into human frailty, Jayne has at last graced us with a collection, NECESSARY EVILS, tagline: “Desperate times often demand dastardly deeds.”

Indeed, they do.

Running the gamut of dark fiction from horror to sci-fi, crime fiction to romance gone horribly wrong, the collection’s theme comes down to one word: Revenge. Revenge for perceived humiliations (“Final Girlfriend”), for betrayal (“Best Friend Forever”), revenge against the guilty (“Still Life”), proxies for the guilty (“Chet-Shaped Lure), revenge on those who pitied you (“Degrees of Disorder”) and on the world itself (“Baby Magic”). Sometimes revenge works, sometimes it fails; but there’s always collateral damage, with violence as cyclical and unending as plague. These stories will not spare your sensibilities, so consider this a blanket trigger warning.

Along with her gritty stories told from a decidedly feminine point of view, Jayne’s eye for detail infuses the stories with wry humor, such as this description of the smells inside the wire & papier-mâché-molded head of a third-rate business’s promotional cat costume:

“If not for her need for quick cash to replenish her supply of inks, paper, and holographic hoopla, she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a kooky cat costume and spinning a ‘Get Kitty Kat Kleen’ sign on the corner of Loser and Nowhere. Yet here she was, a living advertisement for car cleanliness, standing in front of the Kitty Kat Kleen carwash trying not to puke. The scratchy suit stank of weed, body odor, and rancid crab cakes from lack of laundering. Her pina colada body spray added a sickeningly sweet vomit-inducing dimension.”

Weed, body odor, rancid crab cakes, and cloying body spray; because of course a character costume head smells like that when you put it on. Here’s a protagonist we hope gets revenge, and against whom is only a secondary concern, since the list of deserving is likely to be long. Just, get some on someone somewhere. We’re rooting for you, girl.

If you like stories of revenge served hot, cold, lukewarm, successfully, and sometimes with utter, delicious failure, this is a book for you.

NECESSARY EVILS was published March ’22 from Vancouver’s own Unnerving Books ($14.99 paperback, free with Kindle Unlimited.) It includes stories previously published and others new in the collection. Read more about Jayne on her website or follow her @SJ_Writer on Twitter.

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Poetry Review: River Street Rhapsody by C.W. Blackwell

Cover of River Street Rhapsody.

“I hear trash flagging
atop ravaged utility poles
and the mosquito buzz
of transformers overhead”

[Excerpt from “What’s Left of a City,” RIVER STREET RHAPSODY]

“Go West” versus “Gone West,” such similar statements, yet such a difference. The first, an encouragement to seize the day; the second, a euphemism for death. The frontier may have closed in 130 years ago, but mainland Americans looking for fresh hope still invariably “Go West,” and, just as invariably, end up in California, the most populace and wealthiest US state, now boasting a quarter of the nation’s homeless population…but the people keep coming. The Western Lands are both the land of eternal promise and the land of the dead. And when a mainland American at last finds themself staring at the Pacific Ocean, it means they’ve reached the end of the road; a surfer, a stroller, or another lost soul stranded without a coin on the wrong bank of the River Styx, wondering how they got there, but damned to stay.

Mid-coast California poet, crime fiction and horror writer C. W. Blackwell includes all of these connotations in his debut chapbook, RIVER STREET RHAPSODY, his homage in verse to his home state, proverbial land of promise and haven for the lost. The major themes are drug addiction and self-awareness, almost a junk-sick-heightened self-awareness, of little lives failing amidst so much success:

“pawnbrokers weighing gold in
the throatslit colors of sunset,
how heavy are the dreams in
the cages of their palms” [“Dreaming of Redwoods”]

Blackwell’s meter exudes a vibe of Cool Jazz overlain with the additional near century of comfort and weariness since its invention, evoking Beat poets past and present, taking one along for the ride through the crumbling infrastructure and the unfulfilled promise that’s come to define a young country that feels so preternaturally old, like a twenty-something addict’s face in the mirror:

“Emily lies rigid and blue-turning in the
crook of your arm, gray foam dotting her
mouth, an ambulance wailing distantly.” [“Ocean Street”]

Or:
“Summer ends like a stone
kicked into a storm drain,
like a pair of crows peeling rot
from the road’s hot shoulder.” [“Autumn Equinox”]

More than unflinching, Blackwell’s language is precise and rhythmic, and brings joy through his keen eye and ear for detail. I especially loved this perfect description of an owl pellet:

“Downtown, owls roost in the
date palm trees, spit mummies
of fur and bone while we smoke
and conspire to slip the city’s
cuffs.” [“Plymouth”]

Perfect.

There’s love here, and loss, and the state of not knowing which is which or what the difference in feeling might even be anymore. Oh, and jazz. So much jazz.

The chapbook comes from indie publisher Dead Fern Press, who put out a compelling-looking book illustrated with black-and-white phantasms by Eric Giles, pictures which create pauses in the music Blackwell lays down. Not to mention the arresting cover from Tianna Rose. Be sure to keep an eye on Dead Fern’s website and catalogue for quality noir & horror in poetry and prose.

Find more on C.W. Blackwell in his recent interview with J.B. Stevens in Mystery Tribune. Follow C.W. at: @CW_Blackwell on Twitter. You can order RIVER STREET RHAPSODY here and here. And I recommend you do.

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Review: Burying the Newspaper Man

Cover picture of "Burying the Newspaper Man." Shows a car with an open trunk near a San Diego beach.
Novel cover image

In his 2021 debut novel, San Diego-based crime writer Curtis Ippolito took a dive from the highest platform in tacking the trauma of childhood sexual abuse from the POV of an adult male survivor. The title “Burying the Newspaper Man” is pitch-perfect as a guide to where this story is going: protagonist Marcus Kemp, now a tight-lipped San Diego street cop, setting out to bury the past by confronting it.

We learn early on that Kemp was victimized as a preteen by a trusted adult, the editor of a small-town newspaper where his father insisted Kemp take a summer job. Bullied by the man into silence at the time, the lingering shame, confusion, and self-doubt form the bedrock of Kemp’s secret inner life. When Kemp accidently discovers the murdered body of his former tormenter in the trunk of an abandoned car, he can no longer suppress his feelings, and vows to do whatever it takes to make sure his own monster’s killer gets away with it. This, of course, is at odds with Kemp’s chosen profession, which is also soon put at risk by this decision. In Kemp we find a sympathetic man and a skilled investigator forced to choose between two versions of justice, neither of which is perfect, and both of which bring risk.

Ippolito’s prose is precise and direct in the best tradition of crime fiction, and this fast-moving story is free of filler. If you aren’t familiar with Ippolito’s name and work, check out samples of his short stories, free to read here and here on Shotgun Honey, to get a taste. Ippolito doesn’t shy from showing us what Kemp suffered though or the ease with which an experienced predator can isolate and coerce a child, but he never crosses the line into voyeurism or exploitation. This is an extremely difficult topic to write about, and Ippolito does it with a skill all the more unexpected in a first novel. Difficult as the topic is, it’s also an important one, both in bringing more perpetrators to justice and for reaffirming to victims they have no cause for shame, embarrassment, or feelings of inadequacy because someone they once trusted violated that trust.

Kemp’s detailed investigation, in which he simultaneously tries to find the killer (to thank them) and thwart the SDPD’s attempts to catch them, also makes for a first-rate mystery. What Ippolito shows us is crime-writing at its best–a reflection of our greatest fears and a catalyst for social change packaged as damn good entertainment.

Read Burying the Newspaper Man as soon as you can, and get ready for Ippolito’s NEXT novel, which can’t be long in coming.

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Poems from the Dark Side: Valzhyna Mort, Cynthia Pelayo, and J.B. Stevens

We read a lot of poetry around our house, reserving Monday nights after dinner as the time each member of the family shares one or two poems that struck them that week with the others around the table. Perhaps not surprisingly, the dark subject matter satisfies a wider audience and age range. The following three recent collections by Valzhyna Mort (2020), Cynthia Pelayo (2020), and J.B. Stevens (forthcoming in 2021) all resonated especially well. If you like poetry that pulls you out of your comfort zone in both image and topic, these three are guaranteed to arrest any listener’s attention.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG 2020) by Valzhyna Mort, an immigrant to the USA from Belarus who writes in Belarusian and English, evokes the history of propaganda over the past hundred years, a century of harvested humanity when not only blood and treasure but so much emotion and ritual were conscripted into the service of the state.

Non-Americans in the 1980s often told me how much alike they thought American and Soviet mentalities were. It was an easy, cheap comparison to make, but they had a real point about the messianic self-image of both regimes and the absolute certainty with which our respective citizens repeated our unexamined national myths. For instance, determine which of those two countries Mort is describing here:

“One by one, streets introduced themselves

with the names of national

murderers.”

(Excerpt by “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica”)

Her poems focus on family; lies and hidden ciphers passed through nods between generations no longer able to speak openly. One of her most poignant poems describes a grandmother who cried both when the secret police disappeared her son, and again at the death of Stalin, the man who’d empowered those same thugs to kill her child. I am sure there were many such people.

Mort’s vivid imagery captures the wonder present even in times of horror, as when village women flock out to see a tank roll through the streets, a tank sent to terrorize them, but now only an object of glee to their numbed and narrowed lives:

“Once a tank drives through a street here.

Like an elephant,

it waves its trunk

from right to left.

An elephant in our village!

Instead of hiding, women run to look.”

(Excerpt from “Little Songs”)

The book’s introduction states that Mort’s work asks, “How do we mourn after a century of propaganda?” Having the awareness to ask that question is as important as finding its answer.

And speaking of Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Chicago-based poet Cynthia Pelayo’s volume “Through the Forest and All the Way Through: A collection of true crime poetry of missing and murdered women” turns this apocryphal quote by Uncle Joe on its head, demonstrating that the sheer magnitude of violence surrounding us becomes an additional tragedy in its own right.

Pelayo’s book contains 100 individual poems for 100 missing and murdered women. The poems are as unique as each victim, but in being forced to view them in the aggregate they weigh heavier and heavier, alerting us that it’s not just 100 murders, not just 100 irrevocably unanswered mysteries, that are stalking us.

Instead, the numbers demand we stop averting our gaze from a system of injustice, from a culture of misogyny, rape, and murder in which we swim as blissfully unaware of our medium as fish are of water.

A high percentage of the missing are minority women, and many especially are Native women, who face overwhelming odds against safety and justice in this country. Pelayo, who researched active police case files for her subjects, treats the class and racial disparities among victims as the indisputable fact it is, but never wavers in considering each individual as her own person.

“Case:

They say she left on her own

She did not leave on her own

They say she will come back

Home, it’s been months and

Newspapers won’t print her

Name, television won’t show

You her face, the internet is

Burgeoning with irrelevance

And yes, detective, I have

Called all of her friends, and

She is not a runaway or any

Of those other names that

Are said to discredit the value

Of their lives…”

(Excerpt from “A Woman of Color Has Gone Missing, in Three Parts”)

You won’t read this book in one sitting, it takes several. Pelayo’s individual portrayal of each murdered soul is too complete to allow moving on from page to page without reflection. The missing are arranged by state, and that’s how I ended up reading them, a state or two a day.

These poems are sad, and this volume in brutal, but it’s essential that more of us take this trip through the dark if we’re ever going to summon the collective will to reach the other side.

The third volume that’s been raising the hair on our necks around the dinner table isn’t out yet, but is available for preorder (ebook now, paperback coming). This is J.B. Stevens’s deeply personal chapbook of war poems, “All the Violent Memories.” These reflections on his time as a junior officer in the US Army infantry fighting in Iraq (and more recently in law enforcement) read like a journal set to rhythm. I was lucky enough to score an advance copy, and this is one I did read all the way through in one sitting, and then again in a second.

“The first patrol was short,

The first patrol was a letdown.

And it will forever feel unfinished.”

(Excerpt from “I Left the Wire”)

I almost called Stevens an Iraq War veteran, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate since the post-9/11 war has never been declared, and the theatre of war for the past 20 years has been partially Iraq, partially Afghanistan, partially everywhere and nowhere, but mostly out of sight and out of mind among the Western public who’ve funded it and in whose name it’s still being fought. But people on many sides continue to die. Stevens’s book is not political, is neither a glorification of war nor a screed against it. It’s rather exactly what the title says: a poetic rendering of battlefield memories that followed him home and refuse to excuse themselves.

Among other topics, PTSD and veteran suicides figure large in Stevens’s post-war memories, reminding us that war scars every generation sent to wage it:

“Logan died in a single car accident,

On a clear day.

On an empty road.

On a dry road.

On an easy drive.

Thirty-one years old and sharp of mind,

He was going to the VA for a counseling appointment.

He still had a single car accident.

It is much easier for families to accept,

And insurance payouts to come,

When it is not a suicide,

Or so I’ve heard.”

(Excerpt from “Logan”)

The speed and pacing of many of the poems about moments in combat read like frenetic action sequences from a Gus Van Sant movie, or, as likely, from the nightmares they’ve caused. They’re tight, spare, and lean in language, with Stevens recreating the heart-pumping moments of danger with rare skill. Many of the poems of near escapes, combat, and police raids are funny if only for the ridiculousness of the scenes they describe, and from the realization that these Boschian horrors make up the ins and outs of many people’s lives, or careers:

“The first warrant was a meth dealer who made masturbation videos of himself while smoking crystal and wearing a Scream movie mask.

It was a Thursday night.

How do I explain that to my wife when she asks how my day was?”

(Excerpt from “War is Great”)

Stevens’s “All the Violent Memories” comes out March 26, 2021, and in my opinion, builds a perfect base along with Mort’s and Pelayo’s poems to examine the violence we do to ourselves and each other, violence that is, hopefully, not without end.

I highly recommend fans of dark and cutting poetry explore all three of these fine artists.

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Thriller Magazine Vol 3 Issue 2: A Review

Thriller Magazine Vol 3 Issue 2

We are truly living the Golden Age of a Pulp Fiction revival. Thriller Magazine editor-in-chief Ammar Habib plays a big role in that, “Bringing you the best in established and new voices in the thriller genre!

Thriller Magazine Number 6 (Vol 3, Issue 2) is out now in Kindle and print format. It includes an adventure story of mine, “Canis Interruptus,” about a bowhunt that goes downhill fast & keeps rolling. I wrote it as an old-fashioned, first-person, present-tense adventure of the sort Tim Cahill gently mocked in his book “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg!” I hope you like it.

One thing I really like about Thriller Magazine is the poetry, and Habib selected three for this issue:

John Grey’s comic poem, “The Wolf,” considers the psychological fitness of Little Red Riding Hood’s antagonist; “On Finding the Man,” by Holly Day conveys the eschatological musings of a dog and the liturgical rites of grubs; and “Private Eye” by Brent Spencer is an ode to Philip Marlowe. It’s fun to read these out loud.

ADVENTURE POETRY –WE NEED MORE OF THIS!

In addition, the 11 flash and short stories run the gamut from adventure to horror to crime noir to psychological romance and political thriller. It was hard to pick a favorite, but the lead story, “Buried Treasures” by Eddie Fogler, was deeply creepy, made doubly so by being told in the child’s voice of the narrator who leaves it for the reader to figure out what he’s actually seen. Great kick-off!

Fingers Through Dirt” by Stephen J. Golds captures the eternal truth of war and the wounds it inflicts on even the survivors. Which anthologies ISN’T Stephen J. Golds in this year? The guy’s everywhere–and for an excellent reason: he’s very, very good. Fingers Through Dirt conveys as much pathos in a brief two pages as many full-length novels. Definitely follow this guy.

Another stand-out is Nikkia Rivera’s haunted house story, “Those who Dwell Below.” Rivera’s lyrically gothic prose and tension shows why there’s always a new spin on the haunted house genre (and why you’d best check every door before you sign the deed.) Hard to believe this polished, atmospheric piece is her first published work–keep an eye out for this writer!

In Joe Giordan’s “An Afternoon in Brooklyn” the author brings the borough to life through excellent details. The hapless Tomasina’s first clue something’s up is when his land-lady demands his rent money early. What does she know that he doesn’t? We soon find out.

Other stories in this fine & fun collection include:
“Feingold Gets Wet” by David Rachels. A hitman in the rain tracks his victim’s habits, and sticks to his own.

“Deadly Guests” by Chris Fortunato tells THE story of 2020, the story of a family cooped up together for too long! (Can you relate?): “Art was the weapon he used against her. Art no longer inspired her. Just the thought of it upset her.”

“Taking Care of Business” by John H. Dromey. Two casino debt collectors bite off more than they can chew when they arrive on a job in a hick town that isn’t as impressed with them as they’d expected.

“Metoo Culpa” by Michael Mallory is a timely political thriller. Some things will always be true: the guilty deny their crimes better than the innocent, and politicians are always dirty.

“Watching Someone Sleep” by Richard Risemberg is as creepy as the title suggests. Sometimes the most frightening knowledge in the world is that other people have the same thoughts we do.

The collection finishes with Fred Anderson’s funny “Jaxon Square” in which a freshly sprung jailbird tries to figure out how to get revenge on the guy he’s sure cheated with his girlfriend (who bailed him out) while he was away without her finding out. Creativity just demands the right incentive…

Fun stuff. Again, it’s hard to believe there is so much wonderful, fun and creative fiction out there. The Internet has been a mixed blessing in many ways, but in letting authors and publishers find each other in this big wide world, it’s been a definite win.

BUY SOME DAMN BOOKS!

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Review: Rock and a Hard Place, No. 4, Fall/Winter 2020

Rock and a Hard Place magazine, #4, Fall/Winter 2020 is a winner.

At $12.95 for the paperback ($2.99 Kindle), its 18 stories (plus art) can be had for less than a dollar each, & I’d encourage lovers of short stories & noir to get this aspirational issue. Much, but not all, of the content is crime fiction, with a smattering of horror & even two romances: Michael Chin’s “Wedlock” about love and marriage on the pro-wrestling circuit, & Susan Kuchinskas’s “Gator Baiter” about the things we give for love…

The production quality is high, the editing solid, & the stories cover either unique topics or the seemingly familiar in creative ways, e.g., Jason Mykl Snyman’s haunted house story “Even the Monstrous” about a voyeur obsessed with a suicide-inducing hotel is downright gothic in all the best ways.

Every story in this anthology is good, as are the foreword by managing editor Jay Butkowski–on what RAHP & noir in general are trying to accomplish, and should be–and the essay by EIC Roger Nokes on power imbalances in society that led RAHP to suspend publishing pieces with protagonists in law enforcement (worth a read & food for thought). The maze is good, too. More zines should have mazes, word searches & “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzles. Because reading can educate us, but damn it, sometimes it should just be fun!

For me, other eclectic standouts in the issue are:

Jane Young’s “7-11, True, and Just” about a heroine willingly bound by the obligations of filial piety & the man who would free her from them.

Thomas Pluck’s “88 Lines About a .44 Mag” is a paean to the over-powered, slow-to-draw American-smelted steely-dan-in-a-holster that says much more about the user than they probably wanted you to know. Comic relief amidst the grim.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s “Pink Aviary” takes on an insidious form of trafficking: when does a friend cross the line between hooking you up & hooking you out?

N. B. Turner’s “Fingerprints on the Razor” is an open-faced look at cutting disorders, a hidden epidemic in America, particularly among young people. Turner handles his topic with great skill here.

Jay Bechtol’s “Off the Furrow” portrait of alcoholism is perhaps the most true-to-life portrayal in issue 4. It brought back detailed memories for me of a relative who should still be with us, but isn’t. Sometimes all you can do with such people is understand them.

In this issue RAHP definitely lives up to their tagline: “A Chronicle of Bad Decisions and Desperate People.” Perfect for a long winter’s nap.

“Buy Some Damn Books!”

-Z.

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