Book Review: Wrestle Maniacs, edited by Adam Howe

“There is something for everyone in this impressive and thoroughly entertaining collection from some of the best names writing speculative fiction today.”

An anthology of speculative fiction all sharing one thing in common, the central theme of this themed anthology; wrestling. It could only be the brainchild of the guy behind Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet (Comet Press, 2015) and Tijuana Donkey Showdown (Comet Press 2016), award-winning author Adam Howe. The flagship release from his new publishing endeavour, Honey Badger Press, it is a collection of twelve stories from some of the best authors in speculative fiction.

After the hilarious ‘Foreword by Pulverising Pat McCrunch’ as told to Jeff Strand, the opening story is ‘Real Americans’ by Tom Leins. It tells the story of a Native American police officer who once went by the name of Johnny Tomahawk, when he used to fight in the Testament Wrestling Alliance. He has been sliding down a slippery slope ever since he joined the force, and now he must work with the Testament PD to solve the murder of a young woman from the reservation. Their investigation leads John down memory lane as names and faces from the past keep popping up. This is a fine opening story to the anthology, Leins perfectly capturing the aesthetic and setting the mood for the stories to come.

In James Newman’s ‘A Fiend in Need… (A Nick Bullman Story)’, we are re-introduced to the hero of his novel, Ugly as Sin (Apex Book Company, 2017). Nick ‘The Widowmaker’ Bullman receives a distressing call for help from a former foe from his pro-wrestling days. Paul ‘Holy Terror’ Crusoe has committed a terrible act and, without Bullman’s intervention, it could get a lot worse. It also addresses the topic of brain damage in pro-wrestling in a sensitive way, making it one of the more serious stories in the anthology, but it is a welcome addition, with Newman’s skill at crafting well-rounded characters making it a stand-out.

‘Last of the High-Flying Van Alstynes’ by Eryk Pruitt is about a Texas wrestling dynasty and, specifically, how the aging Brad Van Alstyne is struggling to come to terms with the family “curse”. While he is haunted by the memories of his brothers, and their demise, he also struggles with reality. Is it another case of one too many blows to the head? Or is there a deeper genealogical reason for Brad’s mental state? A wrestling story that will pull at your heart strings. You may not expect it, but then that is the power wielded by Pruitt, a gifted storyteller, as he weaves together great characters and poignant dialogue to create a very moving story.

Following the emotive qualities of the last story is a tough ask of the next author but, fortunately, Adam Howe took on that challenge himself with ‘Rassle Hassle (A Reggie Levine Clusterfuck)’. If you are unfamiliar with the character of Reggie Levine, seek out Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet. It is gloriously entertaining, as is this short story. Howe once again throws everything he can at the washed-up brawler-cum-strip-club bouncer as Levine plays daddy to the son of one of the clubs’ curvaceous stars by taking him to see a wrestling bout featuring the “legendary” ‘Cottonmouth’ Kincaid. In true Howe fashion, all hell breaks loose, hilarity ensues, and poor old Reggie Levine is stuck in the thick of the action. If you are already a fan of Howe’s, you won’t be disappointed. And, if not, you’re in for a hell of a treat. The author knows how to write great action scenes, populate them with fun, believable characters and the pages just drip with witty, riotously funny dialogue.

Ed Kurtz brings us back down to Earth with the sombre ‘Duluth’, the tale of “Copperhead” Jake, a wrestler touring with a traveling carnival back in the days when people still flocked to the sights and sounds of the big top. A “movie man” wants to capture some of those sights on film. But when he turns his camera on Jake, we are shown more than just a wrestling routine. We see what Jake has been running from for his entire life, and we see him compelled to face his demons head on, no matter the consequences. A period story written by someone who clearly has a solid understanding of the time and who knows how to write hard-hitting drama. Kurtz builds the tension throughout the story, until we are right there with Jake, a willing accomplice to his final act.

Hector Acosta explores the tense relationship between brothers Jorge and Miguel in ‘From Parts Unknown’ as Jorge returns to Mexico City and the gym that, once operated by their father, is now owned completely by Miguel, a fact that is part of the tension. The other is the legacy their father left as El Rey Justiciero, a wrestler who stood for the everyman. With these underlying problems, Jorge returns home at the behest of his brother, seemingly to set things straight. But there is something more sinister at play, a prophecy and ancient evil that must be faced. But who will take the place of the protector? A riveting story that combines the drama of familial bonds with a wonderfully dark supernatural tale. Acosta’s style is very easy on the eye and this story adds another dimension to the theme of the anthology.

‘Three Finger Bolo’ by Joseph Hirsch is a gritty tale of boxer Bam-Bam Abruzzi, who was forced out of his boxing career for refusing to throw a fight for some mafioso thugs. When he is given a second chance at fighting in the ring, this time in a wrestling match, he once again comes up against men of corruption and greed. But this time it could cost him more than his career. Hirsch’s characters leap from the page while the action scenes are gripping, as too are the tense scenes of dialogue between Bam-Bam and the thugs.

Duncan P. Bradshaw puts the reader front and centre in ‘Glassjaw’ where grizzled old veteran Ronny ‘Ballbreaker’ Donaldson shows the new guy (referred to as Mickey, but all of Ronny’s comments are basically aimed at the reader) the ropes on his first day on the amateur circuit. Ronny gives the reader a very quick run-down of what to expect in the first bout and all the ins and outs of wrestling for money. The storytelling technique employed by Bradshaw makes for a very entertaining read, dragging the reader, kicking and screaming, onto the canvas. He does a wonderful job of utilising the voice of the old-timer, Ronny, and plays on the old wrestling stereotypes to deliver a rollicking good time.

In ‘El Kabong’ by David James Keaton, the story begins with the protagonist receiving the worst news imaginable; the body of his missing wife has been found dumped inside a guitar case. Unfortunately, the protagonist doesn’t react very well to the news. Of course, who would? But his immediate response is to flee, realising that in most cases the spouse is often the guilty party. But the idea of that guitar case continues to bother him. So, he gets out his brass knuckles and goes looking for street musicians. This story is typically “Keatonesque” in its refusal to be pigeon-holed, the wrestling playing second-fiddle to the real human drama playing out. It isn’t a straight-forward crime story either, but more a character study of a man dealing with grief. While wearing a giant rubber horse’s head.

‘El Neuvo Santo’s Last Fight’ by Gabino Iglesias is probably the most action-packed of all of the stories. That’s not to say it doesn’t have plenty of heart, too. It opens with “El Nuevo Santo”, Juan, spinning wrestling tales for his infant son before bedtime. But the touching family moment is soon shattered by a home invasion. The new owner of the wrestling federation wants Juan’s upcoming fight to follow a certain script, and he’s willing to use Juan’s wife and son as a guarantee that Juan will play ball. But Juan has other ideas. The action scenes in the ring are especially well presented in this story, but Iglesias’s real strength here is the way he builds his characters and their world, and the exploration of Juan’s love for his family. Another story where the wrestling is used as background while the human drama is centre-stage.

Patrick Lacey blends horror and science fiction with wrestling in ‘Kill to be You’, where Mighty Mick Manson is doing the convention circuit, signing photographs from the B-movies he made once his wrestling career had come to an end. But, suddenly, he is faced with a creepily convincing fan in cosplay. Or is he actually face-to-face with another version of himself? The wrestling connection is slight in this story, really just serving as backstory for Mick, but it adds another dimension to the anthology. It further displays the depth of ideas that this group of talented authors brought to the table when asked simply for a ‘wrestling story’. This is a compelling and entertaining slice of science fiction horror from an accomplished storyteller.

The referee takes the spotlight in Jason Parent’s ‘Canadian Donkey Punch’ as Rip Von Willebrand follows the orders of his crooked boss to force the outcome of the title match between the departing champion, Hercules Peril, and Lian Maim. Unfortunately, even after the final bell, the plan goes awry and Rip must fight his way through a very angry crowd to escape the wrath of Hercules. Parent’s attention to detail and the language he uses to describe the action makes for an extremely vivid experience for the reader as we feel Rip’s pain at the hands of his tormentors. And some scenes are definitely not for the squeamish, Parent delivering on the horror front with gusto.

Some readers may be put off by the idea of a wrestling-themed anthology. To those people we can only say: look at the names of the authors, and look at what is written above. First and foremost, these are storytellers. Mostly the wrestling plays a small role in the stories, the authors instead delivering stories of noir, familial drama, laugh-out-loud action-comedy and even some science fiction. The wrestling merely adds some colour to the proceedings. It would have been nice to see some stories from female authors (which was the original intention before Howe had to release the book through his own small press – a point that he addresses in ‘A Word From Your Editor’ at the rear of the book). Hopefully we will see a Diva Edition of Wrestle Maniacs in the not-too-distant future. For now, we have this wonderful anthology upon which to feast our eyes. There is something for everyone in this impressive and thoroughly entertaining collection from some of the best names writing speculative fiction today.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Honey Badger Press
Ebook: 221pp
Release Date: 1 December 2017

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