brian kirk

Book Review: Behold, edited by Doug Murano

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Behold anthology cover art

Edited by Doug Murano
With a Foreword by Josh Malerman 
Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Get the book here

* Please take a moment to support the Thunderclap campaign for Behold *

*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *** 

Lisa Morton’s story “LaRue’s Dime Museum” kicks things off and starts in a very Cthulhu-meets-1940s pulp mood. The main character, Julie, starts off by finding some old photographs of a travelling circus and she finds out from the modern-day shop that the place, LaRue’s, closed sometime in the 1960s. Fans of Lovecraftian horror will enjoy this story. Julie has a bit of an obsession with film noir movies from the 1940s and the Humphrey Bogart type. Pretty soon, she starts to see some of these people from the old photographs and thinks she’s going mad. There is a definite plot twist towards the end and I found this story to be an enthralling introduction to the anthology overall.

Next up, “Wildflower, Cactus, Rose” by Brian Kirk starts with the point of view of the child of a woman who has had a botched surgery gone very bad. Both of them struck me as possibly turning out not to be human, particularly the child. The unreliable narrator trope is a running undercurrent throughout the piece, which adds interesting layers. The imagery is also very vivid and well-described in this tale of the perils of corporations and their effect on the environment in the name of profit.

Probably my favourite story in the anthology was by Hal Bodner, “The Baker of Millepoix.” It starts off with a man, Henri, who, after losing his husband, Marc, moves to the small French town that Marc was originally from. I enjoyed the foray into French culture and language, even if the dialogue and a few characters tended toward the over-the-top at times. Nonetheless, the incorporation of opera was a nice addition. Henri becomes a baker and beyond that I can’t say much without giving away the plot, so I will say that if you enjoyed the film Chocolat, you will appreciate this story, although this one has a decidedly more interesting twist.

Legend Clive Barker’s offering is called “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” and begins with a (trigger warning) woman who is attempting to kill herself. It’s a story that reads like a hallucinogenic experience, a quality that some of the other tales in this anthology share, and again the theme of the unreliable narrator is executed here, pretty much to perfection.

The first of two poems from the sublimely talented Stephanie Wytovich, “An Exhibition of Mother and Monster,” was a fascinating composition and a good bridge to the next story, John Langan’s “Madame Painte: For Sale,” which makes what I’d have to say is one of the most interesting uses of garden gnomes that I’ve seen in fiction.

Next up, we have another living legend’s tale, that of Neil Gaiman, called “Chivalry.” Within the first third, I recognized the piece as a riff on Song of Roland, the epic poem that tells the story of Roland’s quest for the Holy Grail. Essentially what happens in the Gaiman piece is an old woman, Mrs. Whitaker, buys the Holy Grail (without knowing what it is, of course) at an antique or thrift shop of some kind. But instead of Roland coming to her house and asking for the relic, Sir Galahad does (spelled as Galaad in this story).

The story is, of course, intended to come across as comedic to a certain extent, but Gaiman, being the absolute master he is, juxtaposes the humour with the more serious elements of the tale very well. Continuing the train of living legends featured in this anthology is Ramsey Campbell, with his story, “Fully Boarded.”

Canadian Erinn Kemper follows with her story, “In Amelia‘s Wake,” a sort of supernatural Grapes of Wrath type story involving what really happened to Amelia Earhart set in Alberta, Canada, in 1937, right before World War 2.
Readers who have a penchant for historical mysteries, particularly those having to do with Ms. Earhart, with an Unsolved Mysteries vibe, will enjoy this tale.

One of my perennial favourites, John F. D. Taff, has a story of a Concentration camp survivor called “A Ware That Will Not Keep” that involves a supernatural element from Jewish mythology, and that’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to spoil it. This is another case of a story where the protagonist’s grandfather, Lev, may not be telling the complete truth and reinforces the message that everything, but especially revenge, comes with a high price. Taff’s offering is one of the strongest the anthology has to offer because of how he utilizes story structure so well.

Patrick Freivald’s offering, “Earl Pruitt’s Smoker,” is an ominous tale set in the world of beekeeping, and has a very creative spin on hive hierarchy with a creepy, unsettling ending thrown in for good measure. Following this is the second of two amazing poems by Stephanie M. Wytovich, this one even more evocative than the first, and it’s called “As a Guest at the Telekinetic Tea Party.” The imagery was magnificent in this one, as well.

Lucy A. Snyder’s story, “Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummys,” reads like a cautionary tale for authors and takes place in a setting most are familiar with: at a writer’s convention or conference, albeit in this case a fictional one. Any author who has ever sold books at a convention in the dealer’s room will be familiar with the scenario that begins the story. The protagonist, Miss Bower, is trying to keep busy over Halloween weekend at this convention purposely so that she can preserve her sanity as much as possible owing to a tragic event that befell her a few years ago, but we don’t know what at first. The story also deals with themes of mental health issues and it reads like a hallucinogenic trip. Still, the story is full of surprises.

Other notable offerings include Kristi DeMeester’s “The Wakeful,” which was probably the most disturbing story for me in the anthology and involves a school teacher getting entangled in the creepy life of one of her young female students. If you want disturbing body horror, look no further than this tale. Furthermore, there is a reason why DeMeester has been one to watch for the past few years.

Also notable was “Through Gravel” by Sarah Read, which deals with an underground-ish people, the Kindred, and how they have struggled to reproduce for more than eight years so when they finally do, it is very momentous, but also  fraught with much angst because there is a lot at stake here. This story is a wonderful example of the ‘beautiful horror’ theme that Murano started with Gutted, which I also reviewed.

Last, we have Richard Thomas’s story, “Hiraeth,” a memorable, post-apocalyptic tale with shades of Cormac McCarthy that I found to be thematically similar to the Sarah Read story, so if you enjoyed her story, Richard’s will also prove to be gratifying and was a perfect way to cap off this anthology.

Behold marks yet another stellar anthology of horror fiction from Crystal Lake Publishing. Editor Doug Murano has assembled an intricately quilted patchwork that collects a unique combination of well-written stories that continue the theme of beautiful horror established by his previous anthology, the underrated and remarkable Gutted. As with any anthology, some stories will resonate more with certain readers, and everyone will have a different list of favourites, but the pages of Behold contain memorable tales you won’t soon forget.


“Gutted” Interview: Brian Kirk

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brian kirk author photoBrian Kirk lives in Atlanta with his beautiful wife and rambunctious identical twin boys. He works as a freelance writer in addition to writing fiction, and is currently working on the second book in a planned trilogy. WE ARE MONSTERS is his debut release. Visit his website for more information, or just to chat. Don’t worry, he only kills his characters.

I am pleased to host Bram Stoker Award®-nominated horror author Brian Kirk on my blog today to go into more depth with him about his phenomenal short story, “Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave,” which was recently published in the anthology Gutted from Crystal Lake Publishing (my full-length review is here). Without further ado, here is our exchange! Enjoy!


AES: In regards to your story, one of the interesting subsets was your ability to zero in on the fact that in times of other people’s deep tragedies and accidents, there are always bystanders and the first to report what has happened with a sense of glee. You describe them as being “drunk” and “high on crack.” This came into play with the bystanders who seemed thrilled at the main character’s tragedy with his daughter being found in such horrific conditions after six years. Can you comment on why you chose to incorporate this as one of the facets of your piece? 

BK: All wrecks have rubberneckers. It’s a strange phenomenon, but one we’re all prone to doing. Part of it is feeling a sense of relief for having avoided catastrophe. Mostly, though, I think that excitement in the face of tragedy is just a response to novelty. I described the bystanders as acting celebratory simply because that’s what I tend to see happening on the periphery of horrific events.

AES: Why did you choose to make the protagonist a comedian (and a failed one at that)? Was there a special significance to that? Oftentimes people don’t realize that behind the scenes, many comedians are hiding from some of the deepest issues with depression (Robin Williams being one of the most recent and heart-breaking examples of this). One of the things that has often mystified me about comedians is how people who are capable of bringing others so much joy cannot seem to give that same joy to themselves. Was that a part of your decision to make the protagonist a comedian or was your reasoning different altogether? 

BK: This may sound goofy, but I didn’t consciously decide to make the protagonist a comedian. At least it didn’t feel like a decision. That’s just what he was. First came the idea for the story, then came the twisted jokes. The jokes drove the story for me, as the story is somewhat of a dark and twisted cosmic joke. Pain is the punch line. Hurray you’re born! Now prepare to die. Then, there’s that old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.” The story is about that, too.

AES: I think you painted a grim but very believable portrait when it came to the characterization of Meagan, the protagonist’s daughter, and that she was alive after she was found. You gave her a specific speech pattern and described her as wanting to go back to her old habits, so it seems she was disappointed to have been found because she got so used to the torments and life she endured in her box. What research did you do in order to make this depiction as accurate as you could? 

BK: Thank you. I’m glad it felt authentic. I can’t say I did any research other than ruminate on the experience of being abducted and kept hostage like Meagan was. Stockholm Syndrome came into it as well. I can’t imagine the mental and emotional toll that being abducted and kept as a sex slave would have on someone. Especially a teenager taken during her formative years. How would that shape the way the victim viewed the world? How frightening would the world seem having endured such an experience? This was the mental state I wanted to explore through Meagan’s terrible ordeal. And it’s not a pretty place.

AES: Another interesting facet/element of your story was the calculations/formulas you used to convey emotion. How did you decide to incorporate this into the story and how did you know just which word choices would work best? 

 BK: Those all came to me in a flash revelation in the middle of the night. I keep a notepad beside my bed for these occasions, and I wrote those formulas down almost word-for-word as they appear in the story. I have no idea where they came from, but they shaped the father’s character and informed the overall tone. Thanks, universe!

 AES: You seem to have a knack for depicting the mindsets of characters who carry a lot of psychological damage. Guide us through the genesis of this story. How did you decide to write about this topic? What were you trying to accomplish in the piece? Did you start off with the theme and build from there or did your approach begin elsewhere?

BK: I think we all have a primal fear of being buried alive. Of being confined against our will in a coffin, waiting for the air to run out. Just thinking about that gives me anxiety.

Have you ever been stuck in a tight spot? Backwards in a sleeping bag, or caught wiggling through a narrow tunnel? Claustrophobia is serious business. You may have access to all the oxygen in the atmosphere, but it feels like you’re about to suffocate. You panic. Time elongates as you get a real sense for what it may feel like to be driven insane.

I’ve read stories about young women who have been abducted and kept as sex slaves. My cousin runs a non-profit in Texas called New Friends New Life that fights against sex trafficking and helps women who have been sexually exploited, so it’s top-of-mind for me. That horrifying world is our dark underbelly. Our worst impulse.

You read these stories about women who were rescued from places where they were shackled in dungeons, or stored in boxes like the poor girl in my story, but you rarely get an interview with them afterwards. An interview would feel exploitative, and we don’t need one, but I do wonder about the mental toll such an experience takes. How does one integrate back into society after going through something like that?

I often try and put myself in the mental state of people who have suffered unbearable traumas. It’s an attempt to empathize with the victim’s condition and tease out what could drive people to commit such heinous acts. This story was my way of exploring the great damage caused to innocent women who are taken from home and kept hostage by deranged men. Despite the horrific subject matter, however, it’s ultimately a story about love.

AES: Although you don’t have daughters, you’re a father and so you made the reader feel the protagonist’s suffering for the condition of his child and the depths of how far his love went to try to keep her happy, which is something that any parent understands. As a parent, was it difficult for you to deal with such disturbing subject matter? Did this story become too emotionally involving at points while you were writing it?  

BK: Dealing with difficult subject matter is therapeutic for me. It’s probably what draws me to horror in the first place. While the subject matter is truly repugnant, the comedic father allowed me to approach it with a dark sense of humor that made it easier to deal with. There’s a line at the end about God not knowing whether to laugh or cry at our human predicaments. That’s how I felt while writing it.


Thanks so much to Brian for stopping by and answering my questions! Please pick up a copy of Gutted today 🙂