Little Dixie’s Callin’ You Home – A Review of Phantasmagoria Blues by Mer Whinery

Published by Literati Press; Book Available for Order Here

Review by Matthew M. Bartlett

Crows know death.

It’s almost like they can smell it. Something in their nerves gets a hum going. The hive mind melts together and the murder starts to form in the sky, swirling in sooty spirals…

– Mer Whinery, “The Little Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods”

I’m as provincial as they come. Give me New England, with its dense woods, its diffident baristas, its progressive bumper stickers, its snooty colleges, its coffeehouses and even, God help us all, its Vermont hippies. I don’t even mind the cold.

The South? It might as well be another planet. In the early 90s, I took a trip to Florida. Along the way I stopped somewhere in Georgia and found an ancient, leaning, and unpainted ramshackle house, whose owners sold hot dogs out of their kitchen window. The dog I got was the most unnatural, terrifying shade of pink I’ve ever encountered. I ate it anyway.

I think it changed me, and not for the better.

But you know what? I really like Mer Whinery’s dark and haunted South. I’d pay good money to take in an exploitation flick at the Red Hand movie theater. To spend a sticky night in the Tarantula Arms Motel in the staticky blue glow of a television with a dangling antenna. To put on a lighted helmet and trespass at Bloody Ben’s Pit. C’mon, readers, meet me at The Git’N Split. We’ll get some Dr. Peppers and drive around the dark, weird towns of Coffin Mills and Black Knot. (Note to self: ask the author if I can get a subscription to the Black Knot Daily Redeemer.)

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Phantasmagoria Blues, the second collection from Oklahoma horror writer Mer Whinery, consists of seven stories that explore the haunted shadows of Oklahoma and Texas, and the damned and damaged souls that dwell in those shadows. Whinery deftly inhabits and breathes life into a bereft husband and father, a lovelorn teenage girl with a very unhealthy crush, a scummy projectionist, and a broken, cigarette-chewing repo man obsessed with a creepy photograph he finds in a dank old house.

The collection starts off ambitiously with “The Loved Ones,” a post-monster-invasion science fiction tale of a man who has lost his wife and two kids, and the replacements with whom—with which—he’s provided. It starts off by dispensing in a few paragraphs with its premise, but the info dump quickly pivots into a compulsively readable and tense story with a well-executed twist that some might have predicted—though I didn’t. Whinery won me over quickly.

The centerpiece of the collection, a-darker-than-dark little masterpiece, is “The Projectionist,” whose protagonist, the deeply unpleasant Newt McAlester, after suffering a grievous injury via a malfunctioning movie projector, is given a sketchy new assignment: He must arrive at the theater at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, sequester himself in the booth, run the projector without peeking at the film and, especially, never, ever look down at the audience below. He must wear earplugs. He must stay until precisely 7 a.m., and not a moment before. And he has to keep the whole thing a secret.

The narrative starts off fairly predictably—of course McAlester’s curiosity gets the better of him—but it spins off into such grotesque and ornery insanity I felt myself grinning in admiration. And what an ending! Here Whinery proves himself an audacious storyteller with a flair for the grotesque.

I also really dug “Hungry Boy,” despite Whinery’s abject disclaimer that precedes the tale, in which he says his goal was to write “whiney-ass bullshit—like ‘Twilight.’” I haven’t read Twilight, but this story, told from the point of view of a precocious teenage girl, is smart, emotionally real, funny, and, of course, violent and grotesque. I went in not expecting much and emerged from the other end impressed.

Most of the stories in Phantasmagoria Blues were similarly surprising, similarly good, compulsively readable, and well-executed. I always kind of inwardly crumple when I encounter a zombie story, and Whinery as much as notes in his preamble to “Dead Folks” that there’s not much new to be explored in that tattered, groaning corner of the genre. I read “Dead Folks” and found little to object to, but also little to cause it to stand out. Otherwise, “The Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods” is effective and eerie, with shades of S.P. Miskowski. “Memento Mori” is a terrific tale of a lost man who finds a women who may or may not be the subject of an ancient photograph of the Posed and Photographed Dead. “The 10th Life” is a buried-treasure story with an aspect that I—an admirer of cats—particularly enjoyed.

I recommend Phantasmagoria Blues as a refreshing take on Southern horror by a writer with a unique and strong voice. It’s well written, enjoyable, dark, and nasty. If I have any minor complaints, they’re about the form, not the content. The margins aren’t right-justified—a peeve of mine—and I found the sans-serif font distracting. It’s a choice far better suited to onscreen reading. I found a smattering of minor grammatical errors and the occasional typo as well. The content, though, is more than sufficiently strong to outweigh the aesthetical issues.

I’m going to pick up a copy of Whinery’s previous collection, and I await the chance to make a return trip to his next work—to his corpse-riddled and gore-soaked savage South.

Four blackened fingers out of five

Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, the forthcoming Rangel from Dim Shores, and Creeping Waves (due out late 2015) from Muzzleland Press. His short stories have appeared in Faed, Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, Wicked Tales, and High Strange Horror. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie and their cats Phoebe, Nigel, Peach Pie, and Larry. You can visit his blog at www.matthewmbartlett.com.

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Book Review: Resonator – New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond

Edited by Scott R. Jones; Published by Martian Migraine Press

Available for pre-order now

“From Beyond” is a Lovecraft story that, while lacking the elegance and polish of some of his other works, is effective precisely because it presses the right buttons in very few words. It’s profoundly Lovecraftian in the hidden-world-higher-dark-power aspect. Human beings stumble blindly through magic and forbidden science to open up a dangerous and increasingly hostile new world that is always just out of sight. It’s only a few pages long, with most of the terrors generated by the reader’s mind. Lovecraft supplies us with just enough details to stoke the fires of imagination.

The film From Beyond, conversely, shows quite a bit—and liberally dumps buckets of slime and blood everywhere—while also under-explaining the true nature of the creepy-crawlies that float, bite, suck, consume, and ultimately corrupt and metamorphize the humans who come in contact with the infamous Resonator. Or, is it the bodies of that characters themselves that cause the corruption? Does the pineal gland, once stimulated, assume a life of its own, pushing the characters into new states of abominable evolution?

Martian Migraine Press has assembled an all-star team of horror writers who tackle these themes. In Resonator -New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, these writers pick up where Lovecraft and Gordon left off, tracking the fate of the Tillinghast family and the Resonator technology through a variety of weird and slimy tales of lurid erotica, old-fashioned splatterpunk, and paranoid science fiction-horror.

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I feared that the collection would at one point run out of steam—after all, how many different ways can you rebuild and re-frame a concept like the Resonator technology? The writers of this collection—expertly assembled by Scott R. Jones—managed to write stories with common themes and gross-outs, but that stand on their own in setting, characterization, and creativity. None of these stories feel like repeats or filler; each new story has a fresh and viscous take on the terrors that lurk in the branes beyond and within the human heart.

While there are reasons to like every story in this collection, I have a few personal favorites.

“IPO” by Darrin Brightman explores the Post-9/11 commercialization of the Resonator technology. Brightman’s social critique is so on-the-nose it’s easy to miss: the very machines meant to protect us make us see monsters, everywhere.

“Film Maudit” by Christopher Slatsky explores one of my favorite horror tropes: that of a forbidden film and/or a haunted movie theater (see Mer Whinery’s “The Projectionist” in our upcoming High Strange Horror release). A gorehound who has seen it all attends a special screening of a supposedly lost art house/snuff film, with the experience enhanced by the RestoRed Oscillator, an almost-forgotten spookshow gimmick that thrills the audience in new and horrifying ways.

“Bug Zapper” by Richard Lee Byers follows a scientist and a team of Army Rangers—wearing armor and popping pills to keep them motivated—as they try to destroy a special tower the government built to keep the invisible monsters away. Turns out, we are far more connected to that invisible ecosystem than even Tillinghast could have imagined, and mucking around in t-space wasn’t the best idea after all.

“Parasitosis” by Lyndsey Holder is about a man with unexplained psychological issues—including the ability to see emotions and psychological states—exploring the meaning of memory and current experiential reality, one moment at a time. This story is disorienting as it is frightening.

“The Wizard of OK” by Scott Nicolay shows us an Aleister Crowley devotee as he uses an unspeakable mix of technology and blood sorcery to explore space and time, at the expense of one very lost and damaged woman and her son. There’s a demon-thing-god-worm-creature that defies the imagination, with a psychic and physical presence that preys upon our unsympathetic characters, resonating with both physical and emotional fear.

“The Divide” by Damir Salkovic is the soul-scarring final piece. It’s more of a science fiction sequel to the original story, with a near-utopian future consisting of a wealthy elite seeking greater and greater thrills and experiences that lead them all the way to the center of creation. There they encounter a fate—and a truth—far worse than they could possibly have imagined.

There’s plenty more to like. This is a creative exploration of form and content around the shared conceit of technology/sorcery and third-eye truth. In case you missed the original story, it’s included at the beginning of the collection, so don’t worry about being lost in the shuffle. Each author takes those primordial ideas and conjures up terrors both immediate and existential. In Resonator, merely getting eaten alive by unseen monsters from outside time and space is the least of your concerns, and one of the more noble fates the hapless characters end up suffering.

This book comes with my strongest recommendation for fans of both science fiction-horror and body-horror.

5/5 Resonance Waves

Matthew M. Bartlett, author of Gateways to Abomination, to join Muzzleland Press

Muzzleland Press is proud to announce that we will be publishing the new short fiction collection from independent horror author Matthew M. Bartlett.

Gateways to Abomination, Bartlett’s first collection, was an underground hit, generating praise from The Arkham Digest, PlayWithDeath.com, and many others for its disturbing and original take on occult horror. Bartlett’s grotesque, vivid style makes his work stand out as a unique contribution to the current Weird Renaissance.

Bartlett has also published stories in Faed published by A Murder of Storytellers, in Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond published by Martian Migraine Press, and in High Strange Horror published by Muzzleland Press. His next release will be The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, an illustrated chapbook.

Muzzleland Press will publish the as-yet untitled follow up to Gateways to Abomination, a short fiction collection featuring his infamous cult and radio broadcasts, grotesque bio-horrors, and new dark and disturbing settings and characters. Accompanying the book will be a small series of short horror films set in Bartlett’s twisted universe.

The book is tentatively scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016.

For updates on Bartlett’s writing, check his blog at www.mathewmbartlett.com.

What is High Strange?

What is High Strange?

Well, for starters, it’s the theme of our next anthology, High Strange Horror. It will feature several very talented writers, including Matthew M. Bartlett, Mer Whinery, Charles Martin, Matthew D. Jordan, Doctor Gaines, and more.

It’s a horror anthology. But what kind of horror anthology, exactly? If you spend any amount of time lurking on sites like DarkMarkets.com, you’ll see a new call for submissions every day or so. Typically, some small start-up press (like us!) will be looking for gimmicky stories (“your story MUST contain mutant beaver cyborgs”) or something to do with zombies.

Zombies. Always zombies. Because creativity is dead.

Or, as in the case of Spooklights, the submission guidelines are vague. A story that falls within the realm of “horror” can be anything. So if High Strange Horror isn’t a collection of conventional horror stories—what is it?

There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t take a strong interest in the paranormal, the occult, the spiritual, the spooky. I may have taken certain subjects less seriously from time to time, but I’ve always been fascinated by strange and bizarre events (“Fortean” events, named after the great alternative philosopher Charles Fort) that are purportedly true. Yes, hoaxes are legion—doctored evidence has only increased with the advent of consumer-level digital photo manipulation tools. That there are pranksters and charlatans out there selling their stories of strange happenings doesn’t disprove all strange happenings. Our oldest and most enduring stories—from dead mythologies to living religious traditions—are often accounts of the bizarre and supernatural. As a Christian, I take the Bible to be a true account of many, many supernatural events. Yahweh Himself is a trickster, confounding the plans of man and spirit-being alike, knocking down towers, raising the dead, and subverting social paradigms. Go read the book of Ezekiel for some really spooky stuff.

Someone you know has probably had a spooky encounter—most likely a ghost experience, or maybe a UFO sighting. Or maybe, just maybe, they’ve had a profound, frightening experience, and they don’t like to talk about it.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? You can dismiss the Ancient Aliens nonsense, scoff at the Ghosthunters, and see the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult for the cranks they were. But that can’t account for the fact that someone you know or trust has probably had an experience they can’t explain.

According to a National Geographic survey from 2012, about 36% of Americans believe in UFOs as inexplicable phenomena. Thats almost 80 million people, give or take. Other surveys put that number even higher. While the popularity of shows like The X-Files and alien abduction films are no doubt contributors to this upswing in the zeitgeist, some of this trend may be due to personal experience, open-mindedness, or the proliferation of baffling accounts in the media. The events in Stevensville Texas in 2008 and at Chicago O’Hare airport in 2006 were major media news stories that attracted the attention of the nation, and, despite the guffawing of mainstream media talking heads and tongue-in-cheek reporting, they defy conventional explanation.

High strange events are not limited to UFO sightings. Almost every region of the United States has its own local legend or monster—Champy in Lake Champlain, the Mothman of West Virginia, Bigfoot in all sorts of places—and, in many cases, these sightings go well beyond implying that there are unidentified animals running around in the hills.

No, not only do Bigfoot sightings happen—but sometimes Bigfoot gets into or out of a UFO. The Mothman flies around your house, and the men in black show up at your place of work. Police chase a hairy half-man across a neighborhood until he leaps over a house. A goblin-like creature warns children away from certain parts of the forest.

High strange is the inexplicable, the nonsensical, the trickster element in the weird and wild. Things just don’t add up, and people are left in the dark with their fears intensified and their worldviews shattered. This, then, is our modern mythology: the fears of the past re-cast as technological angels and demons, the human mind conjuring (or being made to conjure!) dark creatures and psychic phenomena. High strange isn’t just the UFO sighting—it’s the life changing results of seeing and experiencing something that defies any sort of rational understanding of the universe.

High strange is the crumbling of your worldview when you happen to see the small gray men in silver suits running through the moon-lit field. High strange is the fear of the gargoyle creature appearing beside your bed before vanishing in a flurry of your prayers. High strange is the rain of frogs on your wedding day. High strange is the men in Army uniforms with dead eyes that appear at the edge of your campsite, beckoning you to carry a new and terrible message to humanity.

High Strange Horror releases early April, 2015. We hope you’ll join us as we take part in some modern myth-making, and delve into greater and greater depths of fear, paranoia, and the utterly unknowable.

Or, as Charles Fort might put it – we examine the facts of the damned.

Book Review: Turn the Radio Off

Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

$3.99 e-book; $7.99 paperback from Amazon

Leeds, Massachusetts isn’t a place you want to visit.

You see, things have gone bad. Real bad. A mysterious radio station—WXXT—transmits polka music, distorted church broadcasts, snippets of history, and accounts of unspeakable terror. Just listening to the station—even once or twice, to something as harmless as atonal distortion or a folksy, repetitive sing-along—can have terrible effects on mind, body, and environment.

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Gateways to Abomination takes a lot of risks. While there are subtle narrative threads laced throughout the many stories, transmissions, transcripts, newspaper articles, and poetry-like accounts, the book is neither conventional nor linear. Each piece can be read on its own, but works best in full context. That said, stomaching more than a couple of stories at a time can be difficult. Not because they’re not well-written—because they are—but because of their nightmare-like prose and disturbing content. It’s a lot to absorb.

I’ve been consuming horror movies and literature for most of my life, and this book managed to punch through the walls of my jaded expectations. There is some truly horrific content here: gore, violence against children, body horror, and much more. What’s most disturbing is that these elements are used to facilitate a despairing sense of unavoidable damnation and suffering. This isn’t a horror work where you scream at the characters to make better decisions; if you’re in Leeds, and you’ve heard WXXT, you’re doomed, no matter what you do.

Each glimpse of the unspeakable—men covered in soul-sucking leeches, people turned into goats and vice versa, mysterious men in black hats, secret ceremonies in the woods—builds to something greater. An apocalypse of sorts is underway in New England, and we’ve got a worm’s eye view of the terror to come.

Don’t approach the book thinking of it as a short story collection. Consider it more a panoramic view of terror, of the approaching darkness, of evil in a small community that gradually infects and corrupts everything it touches.

Bartlett’s voice is strong, his scenes unnerving, his characters damnable and relatable. Gateways to Abomination is a happy discovery in the side alleys of independent horror. Readers interested in something that will push their buttons, something that will inspire a contagious sort of fear beyond the reading experience, would do well to pick up a copy of this book and support a truly unique and disturbing take on Satanic horror and weird fiction.

5/5 Dark Rituals