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Grady Hendrix

Fiction and Excerpts [2]
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Fiction and Excerpts [2]

Horrorstör (Excerpt)

|| Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking. To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they'll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

The Great Stephen King Reread: Just After Sunset

It wasn’t just novels. In the early 2000s, Stephen King seemed existentially exhausted. He’d started the decade with two books about the limitations and failures of storytelling (From a Buick 8 and The Colorado Kid), gone back into the hospital for surgery still dealing with his 1999 accident, emerged with memory problems, then turned in one of his least popular novels (Cell), before getting his groove back with Lisey’s Story and Duma Key in 2006 and 2008. During that low point, he’d also turned in one of his least interesting short story collections, Everything’s Eventual, which felt like it was mostly made up of recycled ideas. There were some good stories in there, but the ones that just lay there, barely breathing, far outnumbered them.

But in 2006, King edited the 2007 Best American Short Stories collection and something clicked. Confessing that he’d lost his knack for writing short stories after writing a bunch of long novels in the late Nineties, he said that reading the huge volume of stories required to put together the Best American Short Stories anthology reignited his spark and in 2006 he wrote “Willa”, his breakthrough story. It felt like the old days to him again, and inspired by his rejuvenated mojo, he powered through the rest of the stories in this volume, which turned out to be King’s most satisfying short story collection since Skeleton Crew.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Duma Key

You can’t write as many books as Stephen King without returning to the same well from time to time. Whether it’s evil cars (Christine, 1983; From a Buick 8, 2002), life after death (Pet Sematary, 1983; Revival, 2014), an image of a rat in someone’s mouth cut from ‘Salem’s Lot showing up 36 years later in a story from Full Dark, No Stars (“1923”), or an abandoned manuscript from 1981 (The Cannibals) getting repurposed as Under the Dome in 2009, King believes in recycling. But it still delivers a shiver of deja vu to read Duma Key (2008) which could basically share jacket copy with Bag of Bones (1998):

“After suffering a life-altering trauma, an artist goes to a vacation destination to heal. There he befriends locals, becomes embroiled in an old mystery involving drowning deaths and a wealthy family, and his unblocked talent connects him to the supernatural.”

The big difference between the two books is that after writing Lisey’s Story, King’s wife said, “Are you ever going to write about anything besides writers?”—so in Duma Key his blocked artist is a painter. Otherwise, throw in the fact that these are both written in the first person (only five other books by King share that POV) and you could be forgiven for thinking he’s treading water. But while Bag of Bones is perfectly okay King, Duma Key is one of his best books.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Lisey’s Story

By the time he got to Lisey’s Story, King had written himself into a dead end. His Dark Tower series was finished. He had been in so much pain from his accident that he announced his retirement in 2002 and his books since then felt increasingly exhausted. From a Buick 8 was about the limitations of fiction, and The Colorado Kid was about the failure of stories to actually solve anything. Cell was a dark book about the old world dying, and a new world of constant struggle being born that destroyed everything King found worthwhile — from schools to language.

He was also physically exhausted. The 1999 van accident had caused previously undetected damage to his right lung that turned into walking pneumonia in mid-November, 2003. Nevertheless, he attended the National Book Awards on Nov. 19, 2003 to receive his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and gave a big, combative, rousing speech, begging the jurors of the National Book Awards to include more popular fiction in their nominations (a plea they ignored, judging by subsequent NBA shortlists). A lot of words were typed about King’s National Book Award speech, some folks finding his comments defensive, others finding them offensive, but no one mentioned how much of his speech had been about Tabitha King, his wife. Over half the speech is about how the award belongs to her because her love and dedication allowed him to write, and how she was there when he was poor and without prospects, and she was still there when he’s got an award around his neck and the world at his feet.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Cell

As surely as the sun rises in the east, every few years Stephen King will mention retiring, the press will jump on it with both feet, the world will spread far and wide that “The King is Dead”, and minutes later King will have another book on the market that his publishers call “his return to true horror.” In 2002, King told the LA Times he was retiring while promoting From a Buick 8. After about 15 minutes, Stephen King was back, and this time it was with a zombie novel dedicated to George Romero and Richard Matheson, and Scribner was thrilled that their multi-million investment in King was paying off with a new horror novel.

They printed 1.1 million copies and, to promote it, they got Nextones to send texts asking people to join the Stephen King VIP Club where they could buy $1.99 Cell wallpapers for their mobile phones and two ringtones of King himself intoning, “It’s okay, it’s a normie calling.” and “Beware. The next call you take may be your last.” King wanted it to say, “Don’t answer it. Don’t answer it,” but Marketing nixed that idea. The result? Parent company Simon & Schuster got sued for unsolicited telephone advertising in Satterfield v. Simon & Schuster to the tune of $175/plaintiff, or $10 million total. With a price tag like that, good thing Cell is one hell of a 9/11 novel.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: The Colorado Kid

The tiniest Stephen King book, both in page count and substance, The Colorado Kid came along after King disgorged three of his massive Dark Tower novels. Arriving in early 2005, three years after his last non-series novel, From a Buick 8, it could easily be considered a coda to Buick. Clocking in at a slim 184 pages, set in two locations (a restaurant and a newspaper office), and with only three characters, this is as skinny as King gets.

At this point in his career, King’s line-by-line writing is so polished that he can pull off pretty much anything, from a big fat fantasy series to DVR set-up instructions, with panache. But his one-a-year publishing habit was firmly established by 2005 when this book came out and that’s got pros and cons. As he said around the time of Buick, “I can’t imagine retiring from writing. What I can imagine doing is retiring from publishing…If I wrote something that I thought was worth publishing I would publish it. But in terms of publishing stuff on a yearly basis the way I have been, I think those days are pretty much over…From a Buick 8…so far as I know [is] the last Stephen King novel, per se, in terms of it just being a novel-novel.”

With Colorado Kid he proved himself wrong.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Everything’s Eventual

After almost two years, The Great Stephen King Reread is back, and this time I’m not stopping until I reach the absolute end. Which is kind of the way publishers feel about issuing collections of King’s short stories. You understand their impulse to put out absolutely everything King ever wrote since it all makes money, but sometimes that results in books like Everything’s Eventual. Consisting of all the previously uncollected short stories written by King, there are no new stories in this book. There are some good stories in EE, a few stinkers, and a handful of well-executed yawns, but the stinkers and yawns outnumber the good stories four to one. Rating this against other King short story collections, Everything’s Eventual comes in last.

In 2007, King edited the annual Best American Short Stories collection and said that it reignited his talent for writing short stories, something he’d lost after years of focusing on very long novels. I reckon the stories in this collection were mostly written during that fallow period since ten of the fourteen were written in a seven year period (1995 – 2001) when he published nine novels. Call this The Stephen King Deja Vu Collection because every story in here feels like you’ve seen it someplace before.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

Fantasma Pits the Mafia Against Werewolves

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that day of the week when we turn to out-of-print paperbacks to remind us that it is good to be sensitive to other cultures and how they handle their GTL. Also, this is the last Freaky Friday for the summer, because next week I’ll be starting the final leg of my epic Great Stephen King Reread.

Mama mia! It’s spaghetti night at Freaky Fridays! Sit down inna chair and mangia, mangia, mangia! Eat some pasta! Have a nice cannelloni! Maybe a little red wine? And we end with a nice cappuccino an’ a little zeppole. You eat! Thatsa good boy! Gotta grow up big n’strong like Uncle Gino! And maybe so you don’t get the agita you can read a nice book after?

I’d suggest you pick up Fantasma by Thomas F. Monteleone because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s written a book about la famiglia fighting la H.P. Lovecraft, and I don’t mean your cousin Tracy’s famiglia, I mean LA FAMIGLIA, as in the Cosa nostra, as in the mafia, capeesh? There you go, I knew you were a smart boy who’d understand.

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I Preferred the Book: The Pulse-Pounding Novelization of Invasion USA

Welcome to Freaky Friday, that day of the week when we review classic literature that has inspired great works of cinema, from Gone with the Wind and Great Expectations to The Godfather.

Books are the biggest things in movies. Almost every blockbuster movie franchise had its start on the printed page, whether it’s The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, or 50 Shades of Grey. People have always argued that the book is better than the movie, but a huge number of literary classics have become motion picture masterpieces. Weirdly enough, high brow books usually become terrible movies. Just look at Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter, or Jack Black in Gulliver’s Travels, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations. Or, better yet, don’t. Surprisingly the best movies come from the pulpiest books. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is middlebrow schlock, but Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation rests comfortably at number three on the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. Children of Men and Dr. Strangelove’s minor league source material would probably be forgotten if they hadn’t been adapted into classic films. Steven Spielberg has made a living out of this, turning a pretty lame novel (Jaws), beach chair pulp (Jurassic Park), and obscure second-string literary fiction (Schindler’s List) into three motion picture landmarks.

But usually, the book is better than the movie. The Iliad, Vanity Fair, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Cat in the Hat are all far better books than movies. So it’s probably no surprise that director Joseph Zito’s motion picture, Invasion USA, doesn’t live up to the literary heights of its novelization by Jason Frost.

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If Stephen King and Oliver Stone Had a Baby They’d Name It Shinglo

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, where out-of-print paperback horror from the Seventies and Eighties straps on its M-16, scrawls “Born to Kill” on its helmet, and slogs out into the jungles of ‘Nam to get possessed by demons from hell before coming back home and stirring up trouble in Cleveland.

Every single horror paperback of the Seventies and Eighties is a special snowflake, each one a unique arrangement of Nazi leprechauns, arm-eating whales, jogging cults, and extraterrestrial orgasms. But one thing many of them have in common is their hero: the Vietnam vet. Tim O’Brien’s moving and accomplished memoir about his tour of duty in ‘Nam, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, came out in 1973 the same year the US was withdrawing from Saigon. But horror had been there first. Bob Clark’s Deathdream, about a young soldier coming home from Vietnam to reunite with his family who do their best to overlook the fact that he’s now a flesh-eating zombie, came out the year before in 1972, as did Stanley about a Vietnam Vet killing people with snakes, and Targets had a deranged Vet turned drive-in sniper all the way back in 1968. Since then, Vietnam vets have become motion picture shorthand for damaged goods. Whether it’s Invasion of the Flesh Hunters (1980), Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980), Fleshburn (1984), House (1986), Combat Shock (1986), Fear (1988), or Jacob’s Ladder (1990) the traumatized and often violent or deranged Vietnam Vet has become an eye-rolling cliche.

Horror fiction, on the other hand, turned Vietnam vets into heroes.

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What’s the Matter with the Midwest, Oklahoma Edition: Blood Sisters

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that magical day of the week when we turn to dusty old out-of-print paperbacks of the Seventies and Eighties to learn about the world around us.

Last week, we confronted the question “What’s the matter with the Midwest?” and learned that mostly it was an issue of both immortal, blood-drinking serial killers cruising around in stretch limos with their psychotic lesbian henchwomen, and constipation. But to be scientific about it, that told us what was the matter with Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and as we all know, unfortunately there’s more to the Midwest than a single town in a single state.

Believe it or not, that ominous region known as the Midwest covers twelve states, and all of them are problematic. Wisconsin was home to cannibals Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein; Illinois is where you can find the Seven Gates to Hell; Indiana hosted the murder of Sylvia Likens which spawned numerous books and movies; Iowa is infested with dragons; Minnesota is home to the infamous wood chipper murders; Ohio contained the haunted big box furniture store Orsk; North Dakota is stalked by pterodactyls; Charlie Starkweather hails from Nebraska; a Michigan crime inspired the horror movie Jeepers Creepers; Kansas hosted its own personal war; and Oklahoma? As you can see by the cover of Blood Sisters, it has an unusually high graduation rate for skeletons.

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What’s the Matter With the Midwest? John Tigges’s Vessel

Welcome to Freaky Friday, that day of the week when the great political issues of our day are solved by out-of-print paperbacks from the Seventies and Eighties.

In his famous 2005 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank examined what are derisively called the “fly-over states” to see how they’ve changed America’s political calculus over the last 20 years. I’m no political scientist, but judging by what I’ve read in horror novels set in the Midwest, what’s changed is that everyone’s a depraved whore. I was born and live on the East Coast and my hair turns white at what people get up to in the Midwest, and before you start writing sharply-worded letters to Tor telling them I’m being judgmental, I’d like to direct your attention to Exhibit A in this Gallery of Shame: John Tigges’s Vessel—in which immortal witches kidnap young women, lock them in dark rooms, and make them constipated by feeding them “food you probably never ate too much of at home.”

What kind of food is served by these sadists? “Spinach, beans, cabbage, broccoli, peas…Oatmeal, almonds…and different tasting breads. Not the good old fashioned white stuff you get in a supermarket either.” As one of the girls says, “Sounds like this might be the room in Hell to punish people who never ate stuff that was good for them while they were on Earth.”

SOUNDS LIKE SOUTH DAKOTA MIGHT BE THE STATE IN HELL TO PUNISH PEOPLE WHO’VE NEVER BEEN WEST OF THE MISSISSIPPI!!!!! Welcome to this edition of Freaky Friday where we ask: What the hell is the matter with the Midwest???

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Bringing an Uzi to a Vampire Fight: Nightblood

Welcome to Freaky Fridays where paperbacks are still on the racks and they’re full of sexy vampires and the even sexier men in leather trench coats who kill them.

If you thought ‘Salem’s Lot needed more automatic weapons, then T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood is for you. In the Seventies and Eighties the rugged, emotionally repressed tough guy who was equally comfortable with both guns and lovemaking was the leading man of choice. The hottest ticket in male hunkdom was the Vietnam vet because he’d seen such things that he was basically Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner only he didn’t dye his hair. But after Anne Rice’s slim-hipped, glam vampires took over horror in the mid-Eighties they provided horror writers with a template from which all future leading men would be forged, giving rise to a legion of edgy male leads who were conflicted, tormented about their motivations and, when they confronted their nemesis, were subjected to a speech about how they’re both the same underneath the skin.

Martindale saw that trend and said, “Oh, hell no.” He took Anne Rice’s sensitive vampires and machine gunned them into kibble. He set them on fire. He stuck bombs down their pants. His book’s hero? A Vietnam vet dedicated to avenging evil, wearing a trench coat and toting an uzi. A man as reliable as a divorced dad, roaming the country, parking outside lovers lanes and spying on them from his creeper van to, erm, make sure no vampires were about. Or anything. Instead of doubting himself, he was sure of his abilities to kick ass. Instead of worrying about whether gazing into the abyss would turn him into an abyss too, he worried about making pipe bombs. Instead of carrying baggage, he carried an uzi. Ladies, put on your running shoes because this stud is single!

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The Horror of Fitness Fads: The Glow

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that magical day of the week when we put on our light blue Adidas track suits and go jogging! Then we come back home, pour a big glass of grapefruit juice and read a crunky old paperback from the Eighties.

In 1963, a small pamphlet was published in Oregon called The Jogger’s Manual. Sponsored by the National Bank of Portland and the Oregon Heart Foundation it told readers how to give this crazy new sport a whirl:

“Start with a short distance then increase as you improve. Jog until you are puffing, then walk until your breathing is normal again. Repeat until you have covered a mile or two, or three. Jogging…can be done ‘anywhere’ and by ‘anyone’ — male or female.”

With those words, a boom was born. In the Seventies, everyone jogged. Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running sold over a million copies. Magazines like Runner’s World, Running, The Runner, and Running Times appeared. President Jimmy Carter put on unflattering workout shorts and jogged, even though he wasn’t very good at it. During the Seventies, 25 million Americans took up jogging. Did you really think no one would write a horror novel about it?

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Drug Lords and Were-Beasts: Nightlife

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that day of the week when you take off your business casual, put on some stonewashed jeans, a white blazer, an electric blue silk shirt, and a pair of Vuarnets. You pour yourself a big glass of tequila, put on “Smuggler’s Blues”, and do a lot of cocaine while reading an out-of-print paperback from the Eighties. Or, hey, even the Nineties. We’re not judging.

At the end of the Seventies and Eighties horror boom, Dell tasked editor Jeanne Cavelos with launching a paperback originals line. And so, in the early Nineties, Cavelos launched the Abyss line ,which set a high water mark for groundbreaking horror fiction from authors as diverse as Melanie Tem, Michael Blumlein, Kathe Koja, and Poppy Z. Brite. But for every experimental, avant garde novel like X,Y they published, they also published some jaw-dropping, head-scratching slabs of weirdness like The Orpheus Processa book so weird and broken that you can only goggle at it in awe.

Nightlife is no Orpheus Process (what is?) because it’s actually a lot of fun and doesn’t make your eyeballs spin around in opposite directions when you try to read it. But still…

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Nazi Super Babies: Psychic Spawn

Welcome to Freaky Friday, the day of the week when we bring you wisdom right out of old paperbacks. Most of that wisdom involves how you should avoid children at all times.

Every child kills in its own unique way, each one a special snowflake of homicide. If you’re in The Children, you are a child’s body with Howard Hughes’s brain transplanted into it and you show up at reporters’ front doors in your private school uniform asking for autographs, then when they bend over to write it you pull out a silenced pistol and blow their brains out. If you’re the young, Jesus-addled child in Mama’s Little Girl, you hate brains, too, but you use a hammer to get at them. If you’re an army of children controlled by an evil psychic child in Piper you wait until Halloween and then you and your friends go on a kill-as-kill-can rampage that sees thousands die at your tiny hands.

And if you are Psychic Spawn, well, you’re going to kill psychically. Also, you’re a Nazi.

[As usual, the Nazis are to blame for everything.]