Book Review: The HARLAN ELLISON COLLECTION: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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I have no mouth and i must screamHarlan Ellison
Ace Books
1984

Slowly but surely I am assimilating eBooks into my reading habit. Not that I’m fully converted to the digital style of reading a book; I’m still very much old-school when it comes to that, I can assure you. But, even I have to admit that there are some advantages to reading something electronically. Like when you’re on a rather long download at work, and can access the ebook account there for some quality reading time while you’re waiting for that dial-up download to go through. Seriously, in this day and age, why do are there still dialups going on?

Anyway, one of the ebooks I purchased was this nifty thing featuring seven short stories by science fiction icon Harlan Ellison. Mostly because for years I’ve been hearing about how the title story was one of the more haunting and scary pieces of science fiction horror written. But, also as kind of a taster for the author himself, as I wasn’t really all that familiar with Ellison, beyond his reputation of not being able to play well with others. Also, he wrote a classic episode of Star Trek TOS. Here are the stories and my thoughts on ’em:

“I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream”
…the classic story of a sentient computer that came self-aware during World War III and killed off all of humanity, save for five, which it (he?) keeps alive for the simple reason to torture them throughout the centuries. I have to admit, this is a very haunting and nihilistic post apocalyptic tale, very effective. Just the way I like it. I can see why this is loved in the Science Fiction community.

“Big Sam Was My Friend”
…a sad tale of an intergalactic circus performer that was put to death due to his interruption of a virgin sacrifice. Also, he can teleport. Also, his circus chums let it happen due to business. It’s quite bittersweet, really.

“Eyes Of Dust”
…on a planet of perfect beauty, the “ugly” couple have a kid equally as ugly, and it doesn’t sit well with the Normals. This one is rather brief, and I get the feeling that there could have been more explored within the context of the story, but it just kind of escalates quickly and then ends.

“World of the Myth”
…three space-faring explorers crash-land on a planet, and while waiting for their rescue ship to arrive, have a run-in with an indigenous species of insects. And yes, wackiness ensues. This one kind of reminded me of a variation of the Outer Limits episode “The Sandkings”, with the insects that are more than what we would perceive them as. Or, more to the point, as they would perceive us as.

“Lonelyache”
…a divorced man slowly goes insane. It doesn’t end well, as you may have deduced by now. Very bleak, very melancholy. Also, it makes me question my desire to not remain single for the entirety of my life.

“Delusion for a Dragon Slayer”
…an average man living a mundane existence happens to be a mere few minutes late on his usual routine and is crushed by a wrecking ball…and that’s when the adventure begins. This was more a straight fantasy, like one of the Dreamland tales of H. P. Lovecraft, with a rather melancholy ending. Not too bad, this.

“Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”
…a down-on-his-luck guy uses his last literal dollar on a slot machine in Vegas, and begins to win big; the reason of which involves the ghost of a lady that died playing that very slot six months prior.

I have to admit, I had no idea of what to expect when first taking in the stories. It turns out that Ellison’s style is really more of a blend of science fiction, some fantasy and horror, with everything marinated heavily in dark existential nihilism. It’s kind of like Philip K. Dick without the mental illness, and just jaded and grumpy. Which is what I dig. Also, his introductions are insightful, yes, but also a riot.

As a first timer checking out his work, I found this collection to be more than beneficial. I was rather sad that it ended so soon, really. Highly recommended to check out.

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Book Review: FULL DARK, NO STARS

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Book Review FULL DARK, NO STARSStephen King
Scribner
2010

Stephen King excels at telling stories. That’s pretty much the basic gist of it, I guess. He’s been telling stories in many different formats over several decades, which means he’s capable of telling tales that manage to break the bounds of the genre that most have pigeonholed him in. Which, I guess, is my lame way to start off this review for his third collection of novellas to have been published, Full Dark, No Stars.

The four stories collected here lean more to the hard-boild crime chiller type of stories that, had this been a different time, probably would have been published under King’s former pen name Richard Bachman. But, before I get too far, let’s take a look at the individual stories contained herein, shall we?

“1922”
…a Nebraska farmer writes a confession/suicide note detailing the bad year he had in 1922. It’s a murder chiller that plays out like a classic story from the old EC Comics thrillers of old.

“Big Driver”
…this was a hard one for me to get through, mainly due to the subject matter of a woman who is raped and gets her revenge on the culprits. The whole violence against women thing makes me sick to my stomach; regardless, this was a good hard-boiled revenge thriller with…well, I wouldn’t say a “happy ending”. Would that even be possible ever again?

“Fair Extension”
…the shortest story in this collection, it would be a stretch to call this a novella, given that it’s just a skosh over thirty pages. And for whatever reason, I pictured Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame) playing the part as the Devil in this story. Anyway, kind of a darker Twilight Zone type of story, where a guy who’s had nothing but bad luck happens upon someone who can give him a new lease on life, for a certain price.

“A Good Marriage”
…a wife’s long-time and idealistic (if not a bit hum-drum) marriage existence gets shaken to the core when she accidentally finds out her husband might be a notorious serial killer. Pretty tense, and the ending is straight out of a Columbo mystery.

Overall, the collection within Full Dark, No Stars aren’t so much supernatural horror, so much as hard boiled thrillers from the same vein as the EC Comic and the Alfred Hitchcock pulp magazines. Obviously, there’s going to be a touch of the supernatural style, mostly with “A Fair Extension”; most of the horror, though, is derived from regular everyday people finding themselves in a very non-regular and dark situation, where there’s no hope of coming out unscathed. Like I mentioned earlier you might say these are Richard Bachman stories that King just decided to put his regular name on.

I really should note that two stories from here have already been made into movies: “Big Driver”, which was made into a Lifetime movie, and “A Good Marriage”. And there’s been news of “1922” being made into one as well. I haven’t watched any of the two movie adaptations, and probably won’t any time soon. As far as reading the book goes, yeah, no regrets doing so. It’s a Stephen King book for certain. What more can I say?

HALLOWEEN’ING 2016: Day 4 – Classic Horror Stories

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halloweening-2016-logo

Spooky Reads:

classic-horror-stories

CLASSIC HORROR STORIES

(Barnes & Noble Collectible Edition)

I’m a real sucker when it comes to gimmicky horror and ghost story collections, especially the ones that the big chain bookstore Barnes & Noble churns out ever now and again. Usually these are cheaper versions made specifically for their discount priced rack; once in a while, though, something pops up in their Collectible Editions line that bears attention. Such as this one here, Classic Horror Stories.

Since this is part of their Collectible Editions line, this tome is beautifully rendered to look like one of those kinds of books that are always in Victorian era bookshelves in movies. Classy. Bonded leather, gilded pages, even a built-in ribbon bookmark so you’ll never lose your place. But, what the real treat to this is located between the covers.

There are some very classic stories from the masters of the genre from back in the day: Edgar Allan Poe (“The Black Cat”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”), J. Sheridan Le Fanu (“The Watcher”, “Schalken the Painter”), Ambrose Bierce (“The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), Henry James (“The Ghostly Rental”, “The Jolly Corner”), Bram Stoker (“The Judge’s House”, “The Squaw”), Guy de Maupassant (“Was It A Dream?” “The Horla”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Body-Snatcher”), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (“The Wind in the Rose-Bush”, “The Shadows on the Wall”), F. Marion Crawford (“The Upper Berth”), E. Nesbit (“Man-Size In Marble”), Arthur Conan Doyle (“Lot No. 249”, “The Horror of the Heights”), Edith Wharton (“The Eyes”, “Afterward”), M. R. James (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, “Count Magnus”), Arthur Machen (“The Great God Pan”, “Novel of the White Powder”), W. W. Jackson (“The Monkey’s Paw”), Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow Sign”), E. F. Benson (“Caterpillars”, “Negotium Perambulans”), Algernon Blackwood (“The Windigo”, “The Willows”), Oliver Onions (“The Beckoning Fair One”), William Hope Hodgson (“The Derelict”, “The Voice in the Night”), Henry S. Whitehead (“August Heat”, “The Ankardyne Pew”), and what collection would be complete without the great H. P. Lovecraft (“The Colour out of Space”, “The Dunwich Horror”)?

For twenty bucks, not only do you lend some gravitas to your bookshelf, but you can truly kick it old-school with a proper scare that only your imagination can give you.

Book Review: The OXFORD BOOK OF TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOST STORIES

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Book Review: The OXFORD BOOK OF TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOST STORIESMichael Cox (editor)
Oxford University Press
1996

“The ghosts of fiction were not killed off by the advent of the electric light, the invention of the telephone, the coming of the motor car, or even by the once unthinkable horrors of technological warfare. Instead they took over the trappings, landscapes, and cultural assumptions of the twentieth century for their ancient purposes.” Thus Michael Cox introduces The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, a unique collection of 33 of the best and most chilling ghost stories of our era. The first anthology to trace the evolution of the ghost story over the last one hundred years, this book demonstrates the variety and versatility of the genre and the different ways in which stories of the supernatural have adapted to twentieth-century venues and concerns. In these tales we encounter not only the returning dead, but also distinctly modern phantoms: a haunted typewriter, a ghost that travels by train, and an urban specter made of smoke and soot. There are child ghosts and haunted houses, playful spooks and deadly apparitions. The authors of these uncanny tales are as diverse as the kinds of stories they tell; there are ghost stories by such specialists as M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood and many by authors not commonly associated with the genre: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, A.S. Byatt, and Angela Carter are only a few of the literary celebrities included in this collection. At a time when our era seems to grow increasingly rational and predictable, The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories reminds us of the joys of uncertainty and wonder. Distinctive and gripping, these stories will linger long in the memory.

I came across this copy of The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories at one of the local libraries in Omaha, back in 1999. This was back when I was actively embracing the Gothic subculture, and was searching for adequate literature to help develop my burgeoning pretentiousness. Also, I wanted something beyond just the usual staple of Anne Rice and…well, strictly vampire fiction in general. So, I picked up this collection, because it had the pedigree of being an official Oxford collection, and also ghost stories. I loves me some ghost stories. Ever since I was but a grade schooler, and found myself listening to them being told by a bonfire at a friend’s sleepover one October night. But, I digress.

Of the authors that populate this collection, the ones that I recognized right off the bat whilst scanning the Contents section were M. R. James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Algernon Blackwood, Graham Greene, and Robert Bloch. Of those five that I recognized, there were two that surprised me by being included, being Fitzgerald and Greene. But, hey, I guess that everyone has a ghost story or two in them. Otherwise, James, Blackwood and Bloch (which, when said that way, sounds like a law firm of some sort) are mainstays in the genre of supernatural fiction, and some of my favorites.

As far as how the other authors featured in this collection go, well…let’s go through them a bit, shall we?

“In The Dark” (E. Nesbit)
A young man suspects that his college chum might be losing his marbles after allegedly murdering a rather annoying schoolmate over holiday…

“Rooum” (Oliver Onions)
A railroad labor worker seems a bit extra jumpy, and fears some seemingly non-existent whispers and echoes…also, he seems a bit preoccupied with molecules and osmosis…

“The Shadowy Third” (Ellen Glasgow)
A nurse discovers she can see the ghost of the daughter of the sick lady she’s taking care of, and the reason behind all this might have something to do with the patient’s doctor husband…

“The Diary Of Mr. Poynter” (M. R. James)
An antique book collector finds an interesting pattern bit inside an old diary and uses that for the pattern of new curtains…turns out to be a bad idea, that…

“Mrs Porter and Miss Allen” (Hugh Walpole)
A recently widowed woman seems rather anxious about something…or someone…much to her young companion’s consternation…

“The Nature of the Evidence” (May Sinclair)
A widower decides to remarry, but his dead wife doesn’t approve of his choice…

“Night-Fears” (L. P. Hartley)
A long-time night watchman encounters a mysterious stranger who strikes up a conversation about the watchman’s profession…it doesn’t end well…

“Bewitched” (Edith Wharton)
A reclusive farmer has been visiting his old (and very dead) flame, and his wife is a bit perturbed about it…

“A Short Trip Home” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
A young man’s childhood friend (and major crush) comes back from college with a bit of a sinister hanger-on…

“Blind Man’s Bluff” (H. Russell Wakefield)
A night shift security guard isn’t going home tonight…or any other night, it seems…

“The Blackmailers” (Algernon Blackwood)
An insurance agent finds himself being blackmailed by someone who…well, just doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it…

“Yesterday Street” (Thomas Burke)
In a bit of a nostalgic mood, a man decides to visit the street in which he grew up, and finds himself engaged in a game of marbles with his childhood pals…

“Smoke Ghost” (Fritz Leiber Jun.)
An office manager has visions of a ghostly thing forming out of the smoke and soot of the industrialized city he dwells in…

“The Cheery Soul” (Elizabeth Bowen)
Having been invited to a large estate for Christmas, a young lady finds the sole inhabitant a bit off-putting…as well as those cryptic messages found in the kitchen…

“All But Empty” (Graham Greene)
A regular patron of a silent movie theater has an encounter with a rather peculiar attendee…

“Three Miles Up” (Elizabeth Jane Howard)
Two gents are taking a holiday on a boat, and happen upon a young lady who joins in their expedition…and then they get a bit lost…

“Close Behind Him” (John Wyndham)
After a robbery gone bad, a thief is pursued back to his home by the ghost of the guy he robbed…

“The Quincunx” (Walter de al Mare)
The nephew of a stingy (and recently declared living impaired) aunt inherits her house…and unwittingly becomes the new abode for her restless spirit…

“The Tower” (Marghanita Laski)
A lady goes sight-seeing alone at an ancient Italian tower, climbing steps in the dark…

“Poor Girl” (Elizabeth Taylor)
A governess has as a charge a young lad with a very old soul…

“I Kiss Your Shadow—” (Robert Bloch)
Shortly after an accident killed his fiance, the survivor soon learns that true love never really dies…like it or not…

“A Woman Seldom Found” (William Sansom)
A lonely man visiting Rome happens across an equally lonely woman while walking at night…wasn’t expecting that ending, there…

“The Portobello Road” (Muriel Spark)
A writer regales us with the details of her life, leading up to her murder five years prior…

“Ringing the Changes” (Robert Aickman)
A newly married couple arrive at their honeymoon destination, and learn the hard way to not go someplace on the off-season…

“On Terms” (Christine Brooke-Rose)
As far as I can tell, a ghost is having a fever dream-like breakdown in the process of his essence breaking down into nothing…surreal and seemingly constructed from run-on sentences and stream-of-consciousness…

“The Only Story” (William Trevor)
A man writes down the only story he’ll ever write, about the final moments of his life…

“The Loves of Lady Purple” (Angela Carter)
The centerpiece of an old man’s traveling marionette show has a sordid back-story…and a bit of a Pinocchio complex…

“Revenant as Typewriter” (Penelope Lively)
A college professor discovers to her annoyance that she’s not acting like herself…

“The Little Dirty Girl” (Joanna Russ)
A middle-aged woman inadvertently befriends a waifish 8-year-old girl, and discovers the power of existential projection…booga booga booga…

“Watching Me, Watching You” (Fay Weldon)
A ghost watches idly the passing of time between a divorced couple…also, the story’s title automatically makes the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” start playing in my head…

“The July Ghost” (A. S. Byatt)
A summer tenement befriends a young boy in the garden, a boy who’s quiet, not unpleasant, and also the spitting image of the flat owner’s dead son…

“The Highboy” (Alison Lurie)
Antique chest of drawers…not as innocent and unassuming as one would think they are…

“The Meeting House” (Jane Gardam)
A bunch of old-timey Quakers meet their new homeless neighbors, and wackiness ensues…

Overall, I found the entire collection to be a good selection. They didn’t all go for the same formula, as many tend to do. I think that, like with other collections I’ve read, the majority of authors I didn’t recognize helped to give me an idea of what kind of talent lies out there for me to check out some time in the future. So many stories, so little time. Otherwise, this was a good sampling of the kind of ghost stories that could be found within the various decade of the 20th Century, from a time when “fantastic fiction” was regulated to pulp publications, to when the style was beginning to gain some bit of legitimacy in literary circles. Also, they fire up the imagination, which is really the measure of a good ghost story. Definitely worth checking out.

Book Review: VAMPIRES: The Greatest Stories

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Book Review: VAMPIRES: The Greatest StoriesMartin H. Greeberg (Editor)
MJF Books
1997

Whenever I find myself at one of the two Barnes & Nobel shops here in Omaha, there’s usually one main area you’ll be able to find me browsing in: the Bargain Books sections. Besides the possibility of running into a title by an author that’s been marked down to titillate my cheapskate sensibilities (stop giggling), you can also find some obscure short story collections of both the horror and sci-fi varieties that B&N releases on one of their offshoot publishing groups.

And that’s how I happened across a copy of Vampires: The Greatest Stories. I was looking for something cheap yet interesting to kill the time while driving my Nurse Practitioner mother around to her appointed rounds, and came upon this very thing that caught my eye. So I bought it, and read it. Obviously. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this obligatory review.

The stories contained in Vampires: The Greatest Stories have maybe a handful by authors I recognize right off the bat: Robert Bloch (“The Bat is My Brother”), Philip K. Dick (“The Cookie Lady”), Robert McCammon (“The Miracle Mile”) and Richard Matheson (“No Such Thing As a Vampire”), as well as stories by names I didn’t recognize (but that hasn’t stopped me from devouring their contributions anyway): Eric Lustbader (“In Darkness, Angels”), Roger Zelazny (“Dayblood”), Brian Stableford (“The Man Who Loved the Vampire Lady”), David Drake (“Something Had to be Done”), Daniel Ransom (“Valentine from a Vampire”), Jane Yolen (“Mama Gone”), Karl Edward Wagner (“Beyond Any Measure”), Tanith Lee (“Red As Blood”), S. P. Somtow (“The Vampire of Mallworld”), Tad Williams (“Child of an Ancient City”) and Dan Simmons (“Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites”). It was an intersting selection, with some imaginative takes on the whole vampire genre, without devolving into a whole glut of “dark fantasy romance” or “young adult fiction”. But, I digress.

Overall, while the stories themselves were amusing and at times inventive and imaginative, I wouldn’t go so far as calling this the “Greatest Stories” ever assembled for vampire-themed fiction. Yes, I know, hype for the purpose of selling. Still, the collection seems a bit anemic. But then again, for a greatly affordable bargain book, it was a great way to kill a few hours.

Book Review: FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT

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Book Review: FOUR PAST MIDNIGHTStephen King
Viking / Signet
1990

You are strapped in an airline seat on a flight beyond hell. You are forced into a hunt for the most horrifying secret a small town ever hid. You are trapped in the demonic depths of a writer’s worst nightmare. You are focusing in on a beast bent on shredding your sanity. You are in the hands of Stephen King at his mind-blowing best with an extraordinary quartet of full-length novellas guaranteed to set your heart-stopwatch at- FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT.

Four Past Midnight is the second collection of novellas written by Stephen King. Novellas are an interesting thing, really; they’re too long to be considered “short stories”, but not enough of a word count to be considered full-length novels. Though you could probably argue what exactly constitutes a “full length novel”, the point is we have another bunch of Stephen King stories to look at.

Like the Different Seasons collection (and to a certain point, The Bachman Books), Four Past Midnight has four separate novellas written for this collection. Unlike Different Seasons, though, the stories here are all uniformily of the horror/supernatural variety, all designed to give you some spine-tingling sleepless nights. Well, attempt to, anyway. Not that I’m knocking the quality of the stories…well, let’s take a look at what’s inside, shall we?

“The Langoliers”
Ten passengers on a red-eye flight wake up to find that they somehow slipped through a tear in the space-time continuum maybe a split-second or so after normal reality, and try to find a way back to said normal reality before the After-Reality cleanup crew arrives…before everyone goes stark-raving mad, that is…

“Secret Window, Secret Garden”
Kind of a companion piece to the previous novel The Dark Half, a writer is confronted by a rather angry guy from Mississippi claiming he had plagerized his story…only, it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that…

“The Library Policeman”
Sam Peebles has a phobia about public libraries. This is compounded when he has to go to one to check out a couple of books on speech writing, and discovers the new librarian has this thing about feeding on the fear of children…

“Sun Dog”
Fifteen-year-old Kevin Delevan receives a Polaroid Sun 660 instant camera for his birthday, only to discover that it has a glitch of some sort: it only produces picturs of a vicious looking black dog that seems to be trying to break out and do some damage…and Kevin can’t seem to stop taking pictures…

I received my copy of Four Past Midnight as a Christmas gift in 1990, while it was still just a hardback in stores. And despite the length, and the fact that I was only 17 at the time, I read that thing in less than a week. I probably would have read it in less time than that, had I not have to read it around my usual high school work and farm life business. Point is, I more or less devoured it, and the stories still have stuck with me decades later. In case you’re wondering, yes, I have seen the movie versions of both “The Langoliers” and “Secret Window, Secret Garden”, and I’m glad I read them long before I watched them, as the stories are the top two favorites in this collection for me. “The Library Policeman” falls on the “more bizarre but still interesting” side of things (“Chow-de-dow”?), while “Sun Dog” once again takes a bit of harmless nostalgia and makes you afraid of it. Also, it’s the second-to-last Castle Rock story, so there’s that.

Anyway, I rather enjoyed reading this back in the day. I recommend picking it up, as I think it falls in that period where Stephen King was sobering up and getting back to his stride.

Book Review: WORMWOOD

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1-29 - Book Review: WORMWOODPoppy Z. Brite
Dell
1994

In an old car rocking down a North Carolina highway with the radio on so loud you can’t hear the music… Behind a dusty Georgia carny show… In a mausoleum in Baton Rouge, or in an alley in Calcutta… Here wanderers come to rest, the lost and lonely press their bodies up against each other, the heat rises, flesh yields, bones are barred, blood spills. This is the landscape of today’s most brilliant young horror writer, Poppy Z. Brite. Now, in a collection that sings like cutting edge rock n’ roll and shows the deft touch of a master storyteller, Poppy Z. Brite weaves her unique spell of the erotic, the frightening, and the forbidden…

Early on, Poppy Z. Brite’s style of modern Southern Gothic horror rivaled that of fellow New Orleans dweller Anne Rice, but never seemed to find as big a reader base. Which is a shame, as during Brite’s horror period presented stories that didn’t shock you so much as it slithered over your skin and burrowed deep into your brain like a parasite that slowy made you go insane. Yeah, it was that kind of horror fiction.

This collection of short stories began life in the UK under the title Swamp Foetus. Although it’s the third publication for the author, it’s worth noting that the stories are early works, written between 1986 and 1992. With them, you can see the progression of the writing style that would eventually typify the full-length novels.

Of note, there are a couple of stories here–“Angels” and “How to Get Ahead in New York”, the later of which is quite the black comedy pun–that feature the appearance of Steve and Ghost, characters that are familiar to those who have read Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, and since I read Lost Souls before rescuing Wormwood from the Goodwill I spotted this in, it was a bit of a squee on my part. Yeah, I admit it. This is also the first place I read the now-classic zombie story “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” (if one is to judge “classic” standing by how many times it’s been included in other anthologies).

Overall, Wormwood (as is the version I got, in mass-market paperback) was a very engrossing collection of early short dark fantasy fiction by Poppy Z. Brite. It shows the flashes of brilliance the author would unleash on future novels; if you happen to come across this, pick it up and curl up for a few hours of creeping horror goodness.

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