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.
I hadn’t heard of Erik T. Johnson before reading Yes Trespassing, but after reading the glowing endorsement from horror writer John F.D. Taff, whose work I do respect and admire, it set up the short story collection for me in a good way. Rather than give a story-by-story breakdown, what I will say is that Johnson is a writer who knows how to play with the reader’s expectations. One story, “The Black Tree’s Box,” in particular, was well done. It used various elements, including a possibly unreliable narrator, to spin a pretty good yarn. It also plays with chronology of the characters and of events in a very interesting way.
Rather than suffering from the fate of some short story collections that have stories that are all too similar or thematically not very different or make the reader question whether they’ve just read something very similar recently, Johnson’s collection offers a wide variety of stories on different themes and keeps the reader guessing as they make their way through the collection. In addition, the use of hand-drawn illustrations made this book reminiscent of House of Leaves or other books that have creatively incorporated hand-drawn notes and marks to give the overall design a feel as though it has been written down on lined paper, similar to a student’s notebook.
It is fitting that Michael Bailey and his press, Written Backwards, is the publisher of this superb collection. Johnson’s work has appeared in other Bailey anthologies, including Qualia Nous and the recently launched You, Human as well as Chiral Mad 2. From a print culture perspective, this collection makes an interesting use of marginalia or readers’ commentary and annotations as part of the text, not necessarily on the main pages of the stories, but in the front matter and the end matter as well as for the story and chapter titles, which uniquely uses typographical elements and creates a dynamic overall aesthetic element that runs as an undercurrent throughout the book.
If you prefer the type of slipstream or Weird horror, you will thoroughly enjoy Johnson’s short story collection. If you’re looking for a horror collection that features the standard tropes of vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts and so on, then you should likely look elsewhere because you’re not going to find anything cliched or overdone, or “been there done that” about these stories. Instead, you will find originality, good storytelling, and a compelling collection of tales.
“The Chamber” is the first story in this collection and is about Karl, someone who has done bad things but he’s trying to make amends. He was a Nazi in a concentration camp and says he was just following orders, but what he did continues to sicken him. There are corpses who come back to life, but the larger threat seems to be the fact that Karl’s post-traumatic stress disorder makes him unable to tell the past from the present, which has dire consequences for his family.
“Valerie’s Window” starts off with a girl, Valerie, who is scared of a nearby monster, trying not to be seen by it. Someone called Jasper has kept her as a sort of prisoner for some time under the guise of ‘protecting’ her and still has the nightmares that remind her of how she ended up here, abducted, in the first place–sadly, she’s not the only one who this has happened to. To say that this piece is full of despair and misery would be an understatement.
“A Window to Dream by” involves a guy, Seth, who finds himself attracted to a possibly Cthulu-inspired squid-woman of some kind in spite of the fact that he’s married and ends up being a tale of sexual obsession while “Each New Day Unknown” follows a scientific experiment mixed with some black magic gone haywire. Next up, “Under a Drift of Snows Lies Another World” revolves around a widowed man coming to grips with the loss of his wife, Claire, and recounting their far-from-perfect marriage with a twist.
“Blackbird’s Breath” has echoes of the previous story, also dealing with couples and loss of a wife, with a splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell Tale Heart thrown in for good measure. Anne loved birds but Henry doesn’t share her sentiments. At one point, he has to tend to an injured bird and all I will say is that for readers who have difficulties with animal cruelty, it’s going to be a hard one to take for them so they may wish to pass it over in favour of another tale.
“Desolate” continues the theme of discordant family relations and has shades of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always lived in the Castle. Next up, “Lost in the Woods,” as the title suggests, follows a protagonist, Allie, who is on a particular wooded path that we know from the outset is not going to lead to anywhere particularly good. The theme of familial loss is also a strong undercurrent in this piece, and explores the age-old notion of what if we could bring our loved ones back from the dead.
And if you thought that was dark, “Final Breaths” makes things even darker, this time dealing with the mother’s pain at the loss of a child. If that topic is a trigger warning for you, as well, this story is not going to be an easy one to get through. Needless to say, it’s one of the more disturbing pieces of the collection.
“Closer” is about a guy named Travis who is out hunting even though it has never particularly appealed to him in contrast to his father, who pretty much lives for the thrill of the hunt. The story, however, focuses more on their strained relationship and how despite the fact that Travis’s father has been less than kind to him, Travis is still desperate for the old man’s affection and approval.
The impact of the ending had resonance, but what followed immediately after was a little bit on the confusing side as there seemed to be a logistical issue. Still, like most of the stories in this collection, “Closer” is short, punchy, to the point, and delivers a sharp impact in a big way.
Along with frayed family relationships as one of the dominant themes in this collection, birds are another big one. This is something that continues in the story “Flocking Birds,” which is about Chad, who is at the dinner table with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Angie. Jane is quite keen on taking issue with everything Angie does, so this seems to set up a tale of mother-daughter conflict. It turns out that Angie has had a past issue with posting nude photos online, the cause of which seems to stem from her insecurities about her physical appearance and wondering if she’s pretty.
The metaphor here appears to be that while Chad constantly refers to worrying about birds outside, he is referring to his wife and daughter. The imagery that shows Angie’s bony body and implications that she might be anorexic are also bird-like to drive home the theme. While this story had a good build and an inevitable ending that seemed projected, it ended too soon and felt like there needed to be more build-up to the eventual conclusion.
“Pirouette” is another tale of domestic abuse, this time from the point of view of young Maddie, who does ballet as a coping mechanism for the awful arguments her parents have while “Of Both Worlds” seems to follow a mythological creature like the Minotaur or Grendel who can’t go out into the sun anymore. We learn through them that once upon a time there was a boy called Rylak who was a ‘malformed freak’ according to one of the humans who has invaded his lair. He has no choice but to reveal himself to them, and as you might guess, it doesn’t end well. It’s a fair attempt at trying to establish sympathy for why the monster becomes a monster.
“Breathing Cave” seems to explore some of the same territory as the previous story with a different group of teenagers in a cave. Soon, the main girl in the story is alone in the dark cave, her friends having disappeared, and the question becomes if she will survive, but of course, tales like this one never end well.
“Soul Tapped” follows an older protagonist, Henry, who reminisces about a son he has never met while he is being pursued by unruly teenagers. He’s something of an unreliable narrator, and when he finds his way back to the retirement home where he lives, there’s some trouble with another one of the residents. When the nurse comes by to check on him, Henry tells her that he thinks he has witnesses a ghost stealing the soul of one of the more overweight residents, but in the moment, it seems as though Henry may have been the one attacking this guy. I knew there was an elaborate setup for some twist and when it came at it at the end, it struck me as a tad underwhelming. Still, the story elements were interesting.
“The Water People” is about Chandler, whose wife has just left him. He speaks of having dedicated much of his life to research about ‘the water people’ near Chesapeake Bay and how he saw one when he was five years old. His wife finds out the hard way that she should have trusted him more.
“Water Snake” follows Sawyer, who is fishing, but he’s faced with several water snakes hurrying towards him. It’s a struggle for survival and how just when you think an experience is over, it can come back for you despite your best efforts.
“Buried Beneath the Old Chicago Swamps” continues the other dominant theme in this collection, which is that of creature features–stories about squid-like or reptilian creatures and monsters. This time around we follow the mishaps of a group of children who seem to have stumbled upon a witch’s house, but they also speak of “not having seen the Earth’s surface until last year, so their memories and knowledge may not be so reliable. It seems to be a post-apocalyptic tale set after some great calamity has beset the Earth and turns into a creature feature with the children’s survival becoming the question mark and follows an interesting path.
One of the other things I noticed about the collection is that it has been organized in such a way that stories with similar elements are grouped together. Thus, “The Bad Men” is another tale of post-apocalyptic suggestions, this time about a guy, Roger, who left Earth when in his early twenties, and is more of a sci-fi horror fusion.
“Parasite” is about Aiden, whose brother Neil has a habit of crying wolf, but when Aiden’s ex-fiancee, Jasmine (who, incidentally, appears to have been unfaithful to Aiden) gets involved, they have to make sure he’s okay, but of course, it’s far from okay. He’s been infected with some kind of alien life force and they need to get as far away from him as possible, but it’s a very complicated situation. There’s also lots of Cthulhu-inspired material in the monsters featured in this collection, and this particular story is one example of that.
“Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women” is slightly more comical in its horror as Jesse and his friends need to fight alien-esque crab creatures with some, ahem, interesting tools while “The Benefit of Being Weighty” starts off with the protagonist chastising himself for ignoring the fact that bad things happen when the skin under his wedding ring throbs. The consequences of one such occasion ensue.
Overall, Embers is a well-constructed and put together collection of horror stories from Kenneth W. Cain that marks another quality release from Crystal Lake Publishing.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t watched any of the Season 8 (final season) episodes of The Vampire Diaries and don’t want spoilers, skip this post and come back once you’ve seen the whole season.
The CW supernatural drama The Vampire Diaries has wrapped up its eighth and final season, the second one not to prominently feature series mainstay Elena Gilbert (well, until the end anyway). This season’s “Big Bads” were essentially two Sirens and a “Devil” (even though the character of Cade/Arcadius is called the Devil several times and is said to be in charge of Hell, he was more like a glorified demon rather than having the full-on gravitas of The Devil).
Also, just when you thought that a certain villain had been dead and buried for good after multiple instances of mysteriously always finding a way to scurry back to life, it turned out they weren’t in what would turn out to be one of the most over-the-top and pointless character returns in recent memory. I’m not going to rant about this character, but let’s just say they should be on a list of “Top 100 villains who started out as compelling characters but quickly became repetitive and annoying with each subsequent return.”
This time in the “let’s spin the wheel and see which brother will be evil for the season” it was Damon Salvatore‘s turn–well, for the first half of the season, then it was Stefan‘s turn. I will say that even though this was one of the more annoying parts of the entire season, Stefan had some good dialogue and quips here and there.
The mystery from the final episode of Season 7 revolves around what happened to Damon and Enzo when they stepped into the creepy tunnel room in the Armory, AKA Alaric’s Indiana Jones-inspired playground. We find out that a woman called Sybil is controlling Damon and Enzo and getting them to be her errand boys by virtue of her psychic abilities and mind control. Because both of their humanity switches are off, they don’t really care about the implications of all the terrible things Sybil is forcing them to do.
Eventually, we find out that Sybil is a (wait for it) siren. A siren. Seriously. I mean, I’ll give the show some credit for introducing the ability of mind control through song and adding a sort of almost shade of a dimension we haven’t seen to sirens before, but where it gets murky for me is when Sybil just becomes increasingly annoying and irritating. This is a problem that villains on The Vampire Diaries have had since Seasons 3 and 4 pretty much. After the Original vampires headed for their own show, the writers have had a tougher time making other villains stick. I’m not even going to get started on Kai/Malakai. The show has given us some truly awful villains, but in my mind he’s one of the absolute worst (and not in a good way).
So once we find out that Sybil is a siren, we find out that the innocent-looking nanny to Alaric’s children, Selene, is anything but. She’s the siren sister to Sybil, but it is also soon revealed that the two have something of a sibling rivalry and do not see eye to eye. The reason she has been keeping such a close eye on Alaric’s twin girls is because it turns out that she and Sybil work for an even douchier villain, a guy named Cade, who was accused of being a witch and then burned at the stake. But as he burned, he cursed the townspeople, blah blah seen-it-a-thousand-times-before blah. Just as a refresher, Alaric’s twin girls are part of the Gemini Coven and are siphoners of magic though they have no idea they’re doing it most of the time. The sirens were kicked out of their villages years ago for, basically, cannibalistic behaviour. This is how Cade found them. He got them to be his soul collectors. But Selene has wanted out of the gig for some time. Her scheme is to try to offer up Alaric’s twin girls to Cade as a switch.
But, oh, I haven’t mentioned the ever-sanctimonious and permanently in competition to see who can be the whinier martyr brothers, Damon and Stefan yet. While Damon’s Evil switch is still on, Stefan offers Cade a counter-bargain: he’ll take the place of Selene and Sybil if Cade will leave Alaric’s twin girls alone. Cade accepts. Stefan turns off his humanity switch. *sigh*
This season, witchy character Bonnie Bennett spends much of her time trying to get the love of her life, Enzo, to turn off his Evil switch. He does, but the consequences are that Sybil hounds him constantly. While Season 7 gave me a harder sell in terms of getting interested in the episodes, Season 8 was a bit of an improvement in that respect: the stakes were clear, and the adrenaline was always coursing.
Eventually (and you knew this was coming), Damon’s Evil switch starts flickering on and off and the goal for much of the second half of the season is to get Stefan to turn off his Evil switch and to stop being such a Ripper. It’s sort of cute that The Vampire Diaries has consistently tried so, so hard to make their version of a “Ripper” seem scary or distressing.
Some things I liked about this season:
- This time around, the rumours started to float early on about the fact that Season 8 would be the show’s last. Vampire Diaries fans received confirmation of this at some point and so the rampant discussion became whether Nina Dobrev would return to reprise her role as the central character, Elena Gilbert. Well, spoiler alert, we knew with some certainty that she would. Still, it grated on my nerves in a big way that Elena Gilbert is one of those characters who can be the central focus of an entire season with barely being in it.
- Stefan’s dialogue when he had his Evil switch on was entertaining in some parts.
- The mystical Bell that was made by the Maxwell family (which filtered down to become the Donovans, i.e. Matt) in a sirenly attempt to destroy Mystic Falls. I thought the historical connection to this relic and its abilities were interesting, and the tie-in to the dimension of Hell was also intriguing. I also thought it was cool to bring in more of the Bennett witches into play again–they were always one of the most interesting aspects of each season, and I would have liked to see even more of them during the show’s run.
- Even though the constant back and forth between Stefan and Damon about who would be the biggest martyr of them all annoyed me to no end, the lengths both of them were willing to go to in the name of destroying Hell and saving Mystic Falls was noble, and after shedding that much blood and causing centuries of pain and misery to countless people around the world, they both atoned in the end.
- That this was the final season. My interest in the show began to wane sometime around Season 4 or 5, and the show hasn’t had a compelling villain since the Original vampires took a hike (see above). I know I’m supposed to be focusing on things I liked, so I’ll say it was good to get a sense of resolution with this story.
Some things I wasn’t so crazy about this season:
- Bonnie’s constant insistence that she has lost her magic only for her to *gasp* magically have it after all. Can you sense the sarcasm? Just checking 😉 Also, just the fact that the show continued to screw with Bonnie in general and the whole thing where she tried to die a bunch of times but it wasn’t her time yet. Sure, it’s okay for Elena to have her happy ending with sunshine and rainbows, but Bonnie has to settle for some creepy Ghost scenario with Enzo. *sigh*
- The string of one annoying villain after another. The writers have relied far too much on flashbacks and backstory to try to convince viewers why their villains are supposedly so epic, but instead of building sympathy in the minds of viewers for the whole “wronged baddie” schtick, it ends up turning viewers off (this is the thing where the villain in this series always seems to be the same variation of “I used to be good but people were cruel to me so I turned bad”).
- “I’m so eeeeeeevvviiiilll” Damon (and Stefan): Because the show has overused this plot point so many times over the course of the entire series, it lost its impact a long time (and a few seasons) ago. When his Evil switch eventually stopped flickering and stopped at “off,” his next battle became to see who could be bigger martyr for their crimes: him or Stefan. They both lost, incidentally 😉 Although I hoped the return of Evil Damon would lead to a more interesting character arc this season, it disappointed in that regard. Of course I knew he would eventually go into full-blown good guy mode, but again, this is something that lost the impact because it happened so often on the show prior to this season.
- That villain at the very, very end: No. Just no. My first reaction when I figured out where they were going with it was…you’ve got to be kidding me. Again? I understand the reason, but it felt like the actor was just going through the motions and as a result, it had no impact. The introduction of this villain was brilliant but after the events at the end of Season 6, that’s where things should have wrapped up. Nuff said.
- In my review of Season 7, I had mentioned that I got a distinct Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe from the entity in the Vault of the Armory. I had originally thought viewers would be treated to something similar to The First Evil. That, uh, well, that didn’t quite happen. And the funny thing is that also in that review, I’d lamented the recycling of the “Oh no, what are we doing to do? Stefan is evil!” plotline except for Damon and Enzo, but it turned out that they applied it to Stefan yet again. Suffice it to say, I did not find it interesting at all to see where they went with this because they had gone there so many times before.
- There’s not really any way they could have ended the series except with a Happily Ever After, but most of it made me feel like I was watching the Hallmark channel and not the CW.
Throughout its history, The Vampire Diaries had a big habit of repeating itself and recycling its own plot devices and tropes. No show is perfect, but I think that at the end of the day, this is a show that was made by the same people who produced Dawson’s Creek (well, at least one of them anyway). The emphasis on the love triangle between the three characters, which then became the “will the two of them get their happy ending? and what about that other one?” continued into a narrative focused on wrapping everything up as neatly and as tidily as possible in the 16 episode span of the last season.
As their characters made the transition from high school to university, the show did its best to present efforts to more maturity and more serious plotlines. And in some ways, they did well, but by the end, the show became one increasingly ridiculous plot twist after another. The writers very much adopted the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. Part of that stems from the fact that this was the last season, so the creators wanted to end on a high note and try to tie up as many loose ends as they could.
I think that in a sea of so many vampire shows and films that have saturated the airwaves and theatres for the past 40 years, the show tried its best to offer something different or in some way unique, and I would say that from Seasons 1 to 3, that’s when things were at their most interesting for the most part–the peak of the show’s overall story arc.
Although some of the villains this show has introduced such as Katherine, Klaus, and Silas provided much entertainment and suspense when they were first introduced, it’s difficult to sustain that kind of momentum for any character and there were only so many times the show could achieve the shock factor with them. Still, they produced some addictive storylines that kept viewers coming back for more, and it was a fun ride while it lasted.
What about you, readers? Did you tune in to Season 8? What did you think? What were your thoughts on the series as a whole? Sound off below!