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.)
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.