I absolutely love coming of age stories. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m an overgrown kid myself. Maybe there’s something inside me which looks back on those years fondly, but also remembers how hard it was to be a kid. Everyone expects you to “grow up” and figure out what it is you want to do with your life, all before your sixteenth birthday. I remember those years well, and as a high school teacher, I see it enacted before me, in living color, every single day. So I’m always a sucker for a well-told, engrossing coming of age tale.
I first encountered Al Sarrantonio the same way others most likely did; in his Orangefield Cycle, which regales the tale of the strange Pumpkin Capitol of Orangefield, New York, through the novels Halloweenland, Hallows Eve, Horrorween and the novellas The Pumpkin Boy and Hornets. In Orangefield, strange things happen around Halloween. People die mysteriously, create suicide pacts, conduct pagan rituals, and see strange things from other worlds. Like the mythical Pumpkin Boy, a robot with a pumpkin for a head. Or Samhain himself, trying to take advantage of Halloween’s thin dimensional walls in his repeated attempts to sneak into our world as the advance scout of an unholy army lead by something far worse.
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
This sentiment haunts me. It has since I first heard it quoted by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. The quote in its entirety, by Henry David Thoreau, is even more chilling:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.
The implications make me shiver. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Most of us are gripped by worry, anxiety, fear, and a crippling helplessness. But it’s repressed deeply inside; quiet, restrained, shackled, bringing us to the brink of madness without ever quite plunging us over the edge. And in the end, we go to the grave with the song still in us, never able to express what we wanted to—needed to—while shuffling through this numbing thing called “life.”
It was his Oxrun Station quartets which first drew me in.
It was March, 2011. We were spending Spring Break with family in Michigan. We’d visited the year before, and I’d wanted to visit a used bookstore there but hadn’t gotten the chance to because of our schedule. Fresh off my experience with Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone and Stuart David Schiff, hitting Jellybean’s Used Books was a high priority on our next trip, to be sure. When I had some free time in our schedule, I scooted over to Jelly Bean’s, clutching cash in my grubby little fingers. To my delight, I found a sprawling bookcase full of horror. Wasn’t long before I was sitting on the floor next to a teetering stack of books.
I first encountered Tosca Lee’s work in her debut novel, Demon: A Memoir. A moody, tense, gripping story about a down-on-his-luck literary agent and his encounter with a demon who demands he tell Its story told to the world, Memoir predicted big things for Tosca, big things which have come to pass.
Over the span of my thus far short writing career, I’ve been fortunate to experience several moments of clarity; moments which have changed me as a writer and a person. One of them came in the form of my first actual critique from an editor, regarding the first short story I ever submitted. The critique stung with its stark, unflinching truthfulness, but it forced me to face my writing weaknesses head on, and showed me the immeasurable value of honest feedback. It set the tone for how I approach editorial critique, to this day.
Over the past few years, Robert Ford has become the go-to writer when it comes to emotionally-wrenching fiction. Give him a little bit of your time and eventually, without fail, he’ll have your heart on a platter. The Last Firefly of Summer is no exception. With lean prose and and a powerful voice, Ford spins a tale about summer love gone wrong, and a vengeful adoration which must be satisfied.
Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith edited by Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz
Enigmatic Mirror Press (July 2016)
300 pages; $16.99 paperback; $9.99 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia
Writers grappling with faith through the trappings of speculative fiction isn’t new. George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Russell Kirk, William Peter Blatty and others did it long before now. There are many industry greats—such as Dean Koontz, Anne Rice and Stephen King, only to name a few—who have also written powerful works which address both the inspirational and also terrifying aspects of the Christian faith.
It’s a tricky balance, however, honestly grappling with these questions without proselytizing in the fashion of a preachy “Sunday School Lesson Wrapped Up in a Story.” All too often, “Christian” fiction errs too much on the side of “doctrinal correctness,” “proper theology” and an almost Puritanical “cleanliness,” completely missing out on the transformational power fiction has to impact humanity by sharing deep tales of the human experience and what it means to believe, hope, grieve, sacrifice, and trust in a higher power.
For the most part, I’m not an avid reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. I loved The Stand (of course), Brian Keene’s The Rising, and I enjoyed One by Conrad Williams. That’s about it. But, as with everything else he writes, Ronald Malfi is able to mine the core of the human experience, elevating what could be just another exercise in a well-worn horror trope to a powerfully affecting story. As always, his prose is tight, powerful, and he has the same capacity as Stephen King to breathe life into three-dimensional, fully-realized characters.
Odd Adventures with Your Other Father by Norman Prentiss
Kindle Press (May 2016)
217 pages; $2.99 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia
Norman Prentiss immediately distinguished himself from average horror fare with his debut novella Invisible Fences. A brilliant character study about the fears we inherit from our parents, and also about the guilt we carry deep inside us, it embodied the best of the “quiet horror” sub-genre with powerful, creeping atmosphere and an exploration of the human psyche.
Invisible Fences won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in long fiction (as a novella), an award well-deserved. Norman followed this up with his mini-collection Four Legs in the Morning, another brilliant exercise in quiet horror, about the machinations of Dr. Sibley, Chair of the English Department at Graysonville University, and the unpleasant fates of those who try to oppose him. Personally, I can’t to read about this mysterious (maniacal?) character again.
With his first full-length novel, Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, Prentiss has once again distinguished himself from others in the horror/weird fiction field.
A highly satisfying mix of genres, C.W. Briar’s debut short story collection Wrath and Ruin offers a voice reminiscent of George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, with a healthy sampling of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With a clear moral compass, Briar has crafted several speculative tales which target demons of the human soul: lust, greed, obsession with fame and power, and pride.
There’s something about coming-of-age stories that resonate with the child we used to be. The nostalgic longing for a simpler time allows us, just for a little while, to escape the often maddening grownup world we live in. When a writer is able to balance that nostalgia with a clear eye, avoiding romanticizing or demonizing the past, you’ve got something special indeed.
That’s what John Boden has done with Jedi Summer with the Magnetic Kid. He’s offered us a clear view to a simpler time which wasn’t without its own complications, but it isn’t a bitter, depressing tale either. It’s simply what it is: a story about childhood, a time which can never be again.