Book Review: Speculations by Joe McKinney

“Whether it is horror of a supernatural nature or real-life horror, this collection has it all. Joe McKinney skillfully weaves entertaining, thought-provoking, character-driven stories that will take hold of the reader’s imagination – and not let go.”

Nominated for four Bram Stoker awards, winning two (2014 for Superior Achievement in a YA Novel for Dog Days and 2012 for Best Novel for Flesh Eaters), Joe McKinney knows a thing or two about telling scary stories. With thirteen novels, two short story collections and numerous appearances in horror and crime anthologies alongside authors like Jonathan Maberry and Joe R. Lansdale, McKinney has achieved a great deal in a little over a decade since his first publication. He also draws on his experience as a Sergeant for the San Antonio Police Department to add great depth and characterisation to his stories, which he has done to great effect for the nineteen stories in this latest collection from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.

The opener, ‘A Little Crimson Stain’, tells the story of Donnie Ross, an antiques acquisition agent who, along with two colleagues, uncovers a very rare and highly valuable artefact in an attic. But there is something unusual about the item, not least the disturbing history of its ownership, and, separately, they begin to experience very sinister occurrences culminating in a wickedly gruesome and terrifying finale. McKinney employs wonderful foreshadowing without giving the game away, and the way Donnie’s backstory unfurls throughout the story lends weight to the character, the reader becoming increasingly invested in his fate.

With ‘Blemish’, McKinney uses the first-person perspective of patrolman Scott Oates to tell the story of his life and how it was impacted by two women; the safe and reliable Julie, and the wild and voracious Angela. It begins when Scott and his partner find the body of an unknown woman in an abandoned car, but for Scott it brings back painful memories. A lengthy story, it is gripping from beginning to end as the author invites us through Scott’s ups-and-downs from his college days through his brief police career to his ultimate role as a private investigator, and his continuing battle with alcohol and guilt, and his relationship with Julie throughout. Great characters and wrought with emotion.

‘Hero’ is a supernatural tale in the style of The Twilight Zone. Robert Hanover appears to be a patient in an institution, where he is being interrogated by Dr. Lange. He believes that, in certain life-threatening situations, he can see exactly seven minutes and twenty-two seconds into the future. Skeptical at first, Lange comes to realise there may be some truth to Hanover’s claims, given some investigation. But are Lange’s motives for helping Hanover purely altruistic? A thrilling short story that serves as a good follow-up to the heavy emotional weight of the previous, longer piece. Both excellent and well-written stories that clearly demonstrate the author’s range.

McKinney utilises his experience as a police officer with ‘Ghost Town’, the story of the tight knit Narcotics Unit led by new man in charge, Sergeant Frank Reynolds. Even before they can carry out a bust on a suspected illegal drug lab, there is drama when the men have to deal with one of their own who has developed a dependency on alcohol. Rather than allow the new boss to deal with it through official procedure, the men decide it is best to deal with it internally. Unfortunately, this leads to complications during the execution of their bust, leaving two men wounded. This ultimately leads to a long-hidden secret, an embarrassing moment in the history of the police department that was covered up, but which has eaten away at the men involved. Reynolds takes it upon himself to uncover the truth, and expose the ghosts of past crimes. Yet another great example of McKinney’s attention to developing the characters and his ability to seamlessly blend elements of a police procedural with a traditional ghost story to create a compelling story.

‘Oh Fuck, It’s the Cops!’ sounds like something you would hear at a house party that has gotten out of hand. And that is the premise for this story, except it takes place in the woods. And it goes way beyond getting out of hand. Steve, in his first year at college, but back visiting his home town, allows himself to be dragged to a high school kegger by an old friend mainly because he still longs to maintain old friendships, even though he senses some hostility whenever he discusses the college life they are missing out on. He finds himself drawn to an unknown woman, so much so that he begins to notice her dancing with different boys throughout the night, boys that seem to wander off after their encounter. To say any more would give away too much of the story, but it is an entertaining story with a satisfying conclusion.

When we say that the next story relates to domestic violence and the title is ‘She Grew a Pair’, you may think you no longer need to read the story. But that is far from true. Delilah is basically a slave to Billy’s needs and desires. She keeps a clean home and always has his meals prepared for him, just the way he likes them. But Billy’s desires go to something much deeper, much darker, and when he brings another man home to “participate” in their adult relations, things don’t go as you may think. McKinney does a great job of weaving traditional horror elements with a story about domestic abuse, creating a very entertaining tale.

In ‘Sky of Brass, Land of Iron’, McKinney tells the story of a real estate development on land that includes the eerie remains of an isolated community of German immigrants. The main character, Robert Garza, is a police officer who idolises his superior officer, Frank Resendez, to the point where he becomes involved in the real estate business with him. But Garza is unaware of the history of the Kretschmer community, a family of German Satanists who dealt in black magic rituals and incest in order to keep their bloodline pure. He only discovers this horrific history when he finds the buildings that served as the Kretschmers’ homes, and their church. A delightfully creepy story.

Set in Mexico City, ‘Tenochtitlan Will Rise’ is a supernatural tale told against the backdrop of a bloody war between the drug cartels and the government. Ernesto is caring for his sick grandfather. But with the fighting in the streets he has been unable to go for the medicine his Papa needs. Until he decides he must or his grandfather will die. To make matters worse, there have been sightings of Cihuateteo or “blood mothers”, the malevolent spirits of mothers who have died in childbirth. These are the vampire-like creatures that are indigenous to Mexico, but there are similar cases appearing all over the world. This idea is quite unique and delivered brilliantly by McKinney as Ernesto goes on an action-packed adventure, facing off against cartel and Cihuateteo on his quest to help his Papa. It is gripping and fast-paced, the reader feeling relentlessly drawn on by the action.

‘The Night Visitor’ is the story of a retired San Antonio detective who has suffered from night terrors for more than thirty years, and how he came to be plagued by them. Back in 1981, Phil Carroll was working as a CSI, when he was assigned to a discovery of a shallow grave in a remote area three hours’ drive from San Antonio. Accompanied by his commanding officer and a State Trooper, and an unwelcome news crew, he assembled a tent over the body to protect it from the elements. But the weather became too stormy and they were forced to retreat to their vehicles for the night. Bad idea. The depictions of the truth behind Carroll’s night terrors are terrifying. A great story.

‘The Greatest Gift of All’ is one of the shorter stories in the collection, and quite different from the others. It depicts the horror of a man stranded in a malfunctioning spacesuit, floating outside of a space shuttle, 270 miles above the Earth, with only forty-three seconds left to live. A different kind of horror, but effectively horrifying nonetheless.

‘Pete’s Big Break’, is a story set on the movie set of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Told from the point of view of dog trainer Pete Ward, an alcoholic who loves his dogs and his job. The story begins with a good day on set and personal attention from the master filmmaker, causing Pete to think about the bright future ahead for him and his partner, Janice. But things take a turn for the worst when Pete and his dogs encounter real evil in the frozen tundra leading to the death of his star performer and problems with the production. Then the evil returns, and Pete goes looking for revenge, with disastrous consequences. This is an interesting premise, setting the story within a factual event, and McKinney does a great job with it.

‘The Shed’ is a very unsettling story about the crumbling relationship between Thom Campbell and his daughter Megan. While his wife, Sarah, tries to explain away the behavioural problems as typical teenage mood swings, Thom becomes increasingly concerned by the extent of his daughter’s “freak-outs” until, one day, it all comes to a head in the garden shed. Although the business of dealing with children and teenagers can be a minefield at times, rarely has it been depicted in such a truly terrifying way.

‘Writing for Exposure’ is a horror story with fantastical elements. The unnamed protagonist, a writer, buys a second-hand typewriter at a garage sale. When he begins to copy “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, he realises that the words begin to disappear from his copy of Blackwood’s book. Thus, a plan begins to form in the writer’s mind, a plan that should lead to fame and fortune. What could possibly go wrong? This is probably the lightest story in the collection, McKinney namedropping many of his literary heroes and a few contemporaries, as well as a hilarious encounter with Ellen Datlow at a convention.

‘Mr. Creator’ is the Weirdest story in the collection. It begins with a painter by the name of William Barton moving into a depressingly small apartment in San Antonio after wrecking his marriage, losing his job and alienating his two sons. He soon meets his only neighbour, a writer held in high regard by the locals, but who seems to know more than he should about Barton and is very unhappy to see him. Barton tries to get on with his life, but a creepy encounter with a large group of locals gathered on the street for the parade and the incessant scratching sound he hears wherever he goes are only the tip of the iceberg. He soon meets his neighbour again who makes a startling revelation, one that sends Barton into a spiral of despair and madness. McKinney does a wonderful job of capturing the madness in all its horrific glory.

With ‘Among Men’, McKinney seems to be using the story of a camping trip in the Texas desert as an examination of masculinity. Here we find three Addertons, brothers Thomas, Frank and Wesley, and Thomas’s two sons, Collin and Brent. The story is told from Brent’s point-of-view as they sit around a campfire at night, avoiding an incident that happened shortly before the story began. Through short interactions with his father, uncle Frank and Collin, it becomes clear that Brent is to blame for the incident. But he isn’t the only member of the party who appears to be left out, as much of the comments aimed at Wesley by his seemingly more masculine brothers hint to a deeper division. As the story progresses we learn more about Wesley and the admiration Brent has for this uncle, sensing a kindred spirit. But this doesn’t sit right with the other men and, when tragedy strikes, a decision is made. McKinney really delves deep into the topic of what it means to be a man nowadays, while still managing to deliver a great piece of character-driven fiction.

In ‘Burning Finger Man’, Ben Cortman, a cop with the San Antonio Housing Authority struggles to deal with everyday crime on his housing estate. Then a spate of sexual assaults leads to a prolonged manhunt, but with resources dwindling, Ben must call on the help of volunteer community patrols by civilians. But their foe seems to have an extensive knowledge of his surroundings, almost on a supernatural level, and tensions begin to mount within the community at what is seen as a lack of impetus on the part of the police. This leads to vigilantism and a horrifying conclusion. A gripping story.

‘The Woman Who Collected McCammon’ is a piece of metafiction where McKinney serves as the protagonist in a love-letter to Robert McCammon. But he isn’t nearly as crazy for McCammon as artist Lucy Parkes. When McKinney spots scenes from McCammon’s fiction in Parkes’s paintings, they form a strong friendship based on their mutual appreciation. But McKinney gradually learns that it is more than appreciation for his new friend, especially when the great writer is scheduled to make an appearance at a convention they are both attending. A fun, yet sobering portrayal of fandom taken to the extreme.

‘Dodging Bullets’ opens with a nervous Peto standing outside of his heroin dealer’s house, struggling to keep it together after being summoned by Fernando. He stole from the dealer, and now he is worried that Fernando has found out. But the dealer has other suspects in mind and employs Peto to assist him in dealing with them. This leads Peto down a dark path of double-crossing that eventually lands him in a sticky situation. This story exemplifies McKinney’s skill at building the tension, drawing the reader in until a very bloody conclusion.

The final story of the collection veers into the realm of science fiction. In ‘Acclimation Package’, Dan, a forty-four-year-old cop awakens twenty-one years after he died, and he seems to be sharing his consciousness with a twenty-four-year-old Applied Neurology student called Heather. What follows is something of a mystery as Dan and Heather work together to find out who killed Heather and what it has to do with her work for “The Lazarus Institute”, the organisation responsible for Dan’s return. This story opens up many avenues for discussion like, just because we have the means to do something, should we do it? What are the costs and implications to playing God? Although horror does seem to be McKinney’s chosen genre, it is good to see that he doesn’t allow himself to be confined. This was an entertaining and well-written tale on which to end the collection.

With Speculations, McKinney has shown a formidable knowledge and passion for the horror genre, and beyond. He fills every story with compelling characters and, despite the fantastical premise of most of the stories, he seems to, without effort, be able to make each tale wholly believable. The reader is emotionally invested in the fates of the protagonists, whether they are innocent or not, and even when he ventures into well-worn clichés like vampires, he brings his own unique voice to the table and delivers pure entertainment. Whether it is horror of a supernatural nature or real-life horror, this collection has it all. Joe McKinney skillfully weaves entertaining, thought-provoking, character-driven stories that will take hold of the reader’s imagination – and not let go.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
Hardback: 492 pp
Release Date: 30 January 2018

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