Book Review: Hard Sentences, edited by David James Keaton and Joe Clifford

“…this anthology delivers some serious goods, like hard to come by contraband…”

Hard Sentences is a collection of stories themed around those poor bastards serving hard time on the infamous rock known as Alcatraz and also the people and lives they left behind. The pain and sorrow in a place like that hangs around for an eternity and can’t be shaken. The stories of death, violence and those unanswered prayers of escape are imbedded in the foundation there, leaving a residual feeling of hopelessness. This anthology is a guided tour through the darkness of a place where America’s most wanted were once sent to die and the ghosts they left behind. Featuring some hard-hitting crime fiction by some really talented story tellers who know how to place the reader in the midst of the danger and desperation of being sentenced to hell on earth, or being a loved one on the outside not knowing whether they should pray for the safety of those locked up or just hope that death ends their torment.

It opens with an introduction by David James Keaton about his attempt at sneaking his own short story into this prison themed anthology that turns out to be epically hilarious and very entertaining.

‘Break’ by Glenn Gray tells the story of an inmate born with brittle bone disease. His quest for freedom leads him through a gauntlet of unimaginable pain, just reading it will make you cringe. ‘The Children and the Gardener’ by Amber Sparks is about a group of kids growing up on the isolated rock that housed the prison and an old gardener whom they believe is a monster … and the only good monster is a dead monster. ‘Being Whitey’ by Nick Mamatas takes the reader on a Government-issued acid trip, an experiment in seeing other people’s experiences. Alyssa gets dosed by the government boys, it pays the bills, but her trips become linked to the lifetime of an Irish mobster who is imprisoned in Alcatraz.

Narrated by the cell mate of a pedophile and murderer, the reader is told the unbelievable escape plan of the, ‘Dream Flyer‘, by Les Edgerton. ‘The Sympathizers’ by Rory Costello tells the story of a group of confederate sympathizers sent to the rock after the assassination of President Lincoln. Fort Alcatraz is meant to feel like Hell to the group, even more so when one of them is sent to the sweat box. ‘Clean Shot’ by Jedidiah Ayres, A prison guard unravels his painful history to an inmate that people claim is not all there. Recalling one of the greatest mistakes he’d ever made in life by saving his wife who tried killing herself. When confronted with a similar situation he doesn’t intend to repeat it.

Easton Tucker is trapped in Alcatraz after a mix-up involving an inmate with a similar name. His escape attempt goes terribly wrong after getting stuck between the walls of the prison and encounters a strange accomplice in, ‘The Ballad of Easton Tucker, The Last Man Out (or Eat Shit and Die)’, by Michael Paul Gonzalez. Activists are out on Alcatraz. Wyatt mourns the loss of his dear companion while assisting Bob on another odd mission that would be useless, except Wyatt knows Bob’s secrets and he plans on exposing him in, ‘Xystochei’ by Carrie Laben. ‘The Eighth’ by Johnny Shaw is a heartbreaking story about a woman who moves from city to city following her incarcerated husband to different prisons as he serves his time displaying the burdens of those left on the outside.

‘Bodhisattva Badass’ by Mark Rapacz takes the reader into the life of a prison stint and escape, with narration that’s both extremely imaginative and entertaining. Joshua Chaplinsky’s ‘The Ghosts of 14D’ is told from the point of view of a prisoner stuck in the hole a lifetime ago, and also a team of paranormal investigators doing research on the rock in present time, their timelines cross and the encounter is unsettling and very creepy!

The infamous Capone is serving time in Alcatraz, playing his banjo and not taking any shit from anyone. He happens upon something that was buried there ages before that radiates a strange energy in, ‘Send’im a Chicago Sunset’, by Nik Korpon. Irving is given the task of taking out a fellow inmate by the nickname of Creepy. He’s confident the old man won’t be able to stop him but Irving has no idea the protector that Alvin keeps by his side in, ‘Creeping’, by Gabino Iglesias. Stash’ by Dino Parenti reveals a few secrets left behind on Alcatraz that accidentally get burned to the ground as well as one that swam away from it and lived.

Max Booth III brings a sense of loneliness and entrapment in, ‘Roller Canary, about the infamous bird man sadly realizing just how caged he really is. The Gas Chamber’ by Rob Hart takes the reader along for a conversation in the mess hall or “Gas chamber” as the inmates called it, words like cow and chili will have all new meaning to the reader by the time the story is finished. ‘A Broken Window’ by Matthew McBride is about a heist gone wrong. Frank is schedule to be sent back to Alcatraz, a place he promised himself to never return to. His time in the hospital reminds him of what’s in store for him, he seeks any way out.

A young girl develops a crush on her beautiful dance instructor who travels to Alcatraz just to give her lessons but young flora is harshly reminded as to why such alluring women shouldn’t visit places like the rock in, ‘The Music Box’, by Leah Rhyme. ‘Live at Alcatraz’ by Nick Kolakowski is an epic tale about a Johnny Cash type character performing in Alcatraz, hell is raised as the inmates riot but the man in black ain’t backing down.

Overall this anthology delivers some serious goods, like hard to come by contraband, with a stellar line-up and unique subject matter, it will definitely keep the reader entertained. The stories blend the horrific realities of being locked up with moments of otherworldly horror sometimes bordering on ultra bizarre territory that’s hard to ignore. Doing time with this anthology is really fantastic.

                                                                                                                                               MICHELLE GARZA

Publisher: Broken River Books
Paperback: (245pp)
Release Date: May 18, 2017

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