All That Withers
by John Palisano
December 2016 (paperback)
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*** Review disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. ***
The first John Palisano novel I read was one released a few years ago, Nerves, which I reviewed for Hellnotes. Since then, he has had numerous subsequent releases and his latest is a short story collection called All That Withers.
We start things off with a story called Happy Joe’s Rest Stop. As the title suggests, the main character, Greg, is at a place called Happy Joe’s, which is indeed a rest stop where people that are in transit from place to place drop in to get some food and freshen up before the next leg of their journey. It seems to have more of a buffet atmosphere and more of a self service customer type of experience. Greg notes that they are in Nevada. Everything seems normal until the lights go out. Then there is an explosion. Instead of Stephen King’s man in black from the Dark Tower series, this time it seems we have of the Man in White who we see at the very beginning of the short story as a man wearing a white cowboy hat. At first Greg thinks that it’s possibly an earthquake or a series of earthquakes, but then quickly thinks it has to be terrorists. Greg starts calling for his father.
It was at this point that I started to guess that perhaps our friend Greg is not of the mortal earth and he’s in heaven or some version of heaven. As things turn black outside, the Man in White sort of shrugs and says that this is how it’s supposed to be, which kind of led me to think if he is maybe some sort of angelic character or if he is a deity of some kind. There are creatures. But it is not quite clear what they are. It doesn’t take long for some pretty icky descriptions of violence to follow, but the story maintains its breakneck speed in amping up the reader’s interest. Things end on an interesting note with the reader scratching his or her head and wondering what has just happened, which is appropriate for a story like this.
Splinterette switches gears to a snowy landscape. A character is caught in some kind of a storm and thinks that he is seeing a demonic version of his wife. He nicknames this creature Splinterette. This story ends on a note that is surprising and definitely not what the reader would expect, and it is one of the most poignant pieces of the collection.
What might be twins or if not twins but people separated at birth begins The Geminis, which revolves around characters who have a close bond, although we do not learn the name of the narrator at first. We do know that the name of the similar character is Lia. She is a designer while the main character is a filmmaker. They seem to be harmonies or balances to each other. The language in this piece is very immediate, which gives this story a very active sense of pacing.
The narrator seems to have some kind of an out of body experience or a hallucination that is very resonant. For readers who like their horror mixed with music or just prefer the short stories with musical elements, this story will satisfy those. This story speaks about the magical connections we sometimes have with the people with whom we fall into romantic relationships with and can’t explain–of how it is possible to have such a seemingly deep and unique connection, which as any reader knows who has had this before, can be ripped away at any moment and made to disappear, often without any explanation. It is a very existential piece that poses philosophical questions about life and what it all means to the reader.
Next up, Available Light begins with a narrator who tells us that he or she became the neighborhood monstrosity by their 6th birthday. There has been some kind of early mishap with playing too much under the sun and as a result, this character is not meant to go out into the sun. To say this character’s family is unsupportive is an understatement. This individual’s mother also has issues, which is putting it mildly. Ultimately, the story is about how some forces are may be meant to return from where they came, and disturbances of the natural order.
Long Walk Home is great if you like military horror that’s also kind of existential while My Darkness Travels on Sunshine calls on the author’s experiences in the film world highlighted through the story of this budding filmmaker, Dana. To say that her professor is eccentric and difficult is an understatement. Despite the tremendous and very negative odds that Dana must overcome, she chooses to tackle them head-on rather than running away from them. She has a painful and scarring incident in her past but it’s not what the reader would assume. Healing takes on a different form here.
Switching gears, The Haven has shades of Clive Barker and is a more visceral story than the others, while To The Stars That Fooled You continues the Barker-esque themes and undertones with an almost biblical horror and Lilith feel but also has the author’s musical background and expertise thrown in.
Mother You Can Watch marks a sort of fusion of the forms of the short story with the format of poetry. It’s a very short piece and seems to be an homage to the film Psycho. For a story to get you into a Halloween state of mind, look no further than Outlaws of Hill County.
Returning to the filmmaking theme is Welcome to the Jungle, intentionally named for the monster Guns N’ Roses hit. This time, we venture behind the curtain of the actors’ world and Hollywood exposing just a few of the seedy underbelly activities that go on with some beastly terrors thrown in. For fans who want more gore, you’ll get it in spades with this tale.
Wings for Wheels is a fusion of music and motorcycles with a James Dean vibe while The Curious Banks of the Wabash River takes us all the way over to Salt Lake City and the confusion as to where it really is. Needless to say, the piece ends on a terrifying note.
The Tennatrick proves that some beasts don’t go away that easily while Vampiro is a very clever take on a vampire story. X is for XYX is definitely on the creepier and more unsettling end of the spectrum. I feel like I should preface it with a trigger warning and mention that if you’re sensitive to issues dealing with suicide, you may want to proceed with caution. The story is about a suicide that shouldn’t have failed but does. What happens is slightly more psychedelic than that and also creepy but good because the ending is unexpected.
Sunset Beach reminds me of an interesting episode of The X-Files while Forever seems to imagine what the afterlife is like, starting off with some good images, mentioning Valhalla, but it’s a very clever tale that pet owners will be struck by, and it’s written in second person present tense, which imbues this story with a striking sense of immediacy. Gaia Ungaia is a creative story that ends on a chilling note.
Another thing I appreciated about the collection was that John included explanations at the end of the book for what inspired or prompted him to write each tale. This is a collection that is difficult to sum up because the stories are of an excellent calibre (some of which are award-winning and/or nominated) and the themes all range from so many different topics that reflect the author’s own experiences, making this a fascinating quilt of some of the most unique and eclectic horror fiction out there. If you have not read and discovered the wonderful work of John Palisano, start with his short fiction in this collection. It’s a wonderful place to begin and will only increase your appetite to devour more of his work.