“Gonzalez has the uncanny ability to combine heart-breaking and horrific situations to create tales equally emotional and eerie.”
Michael Paul Gonzalez is the author of the novels Angel Falls (Perfect Edge, 2013) and Miss Massacre’s Guide to Murder and Vengeance (Thunderdome Press, second edition, 2018) and the creator of the gripping serial horror audio drama Larkspur Underground. With short stories appearing in print and online in magazines such as Dark Moon Digest and Pantheon, and in anthologies like The Booked. Anthology (VON Media, 2013), Lost Signals and Tales From the Crust (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, (2016 & 2019, respectively), and Hard Sentences (Broken River Books, 2017) among many others—not to mention inclusion in two volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror—a collection of his short fiction is long overdue.
‘Your Mutual Friend’ is an incredible story to open the collection, one which we previously covered in our review of Dark Moon Digest issue 31. After thirteen children are kidnapped by a mysterious black car on Halloween night, the story follows the parents of one of the children as they are tormented by phone calls from the abductor over the following years. Until, one day, they receive a knock at their door. We said it before, and it is just as true after a second reading, it is a gripping and compelling story, the exploration of grief hitting the reader right in the gut.
Gonzalez takes a different approach with ‘Worth the Having’ which, while having an emotional impact, utilises the author’s extreme-horror writing abilities. The narrator participates in a unique and terrifying ritual that he has been experiencing annually for twenty-two years. What follows is him recounting his history with this annual visitor and the bloody exchange that takes place, and what he gets in return, whether it is worth the having. The story makes use of the ‘making a bargain with a devil’ trope, but Gonzalez adds an effective emotional dimension to the story, chilling the heart of the reader while tugging at our heartstrings.
‘The Seas of Hell in a Little Glass Bottle’ gives an alternate history origin story of a writer we are led to believe is Lovecraft, and how he came to discover his most horrific creations. There is mention of inventions similar to telephones and computers as the narrator (H.P.L) visits a strange business to watch his muse, Delphi, dance while he is under the influence of Nepenthe, the fictional medicine for sorrow. Later in the story we find that all is not well at home for the young writer, domestic problems with his wife threatening to boil over, while he seeks inspiration to write about the nightmare visions he sees while intoxicated.
As with the opening story, ‘Upper Crust’ was previously covered in another review here at This Is Horror. And it is another story that is not easily forgotten, not entirely for the same reasons as ‘Your Mutual Friend’. Four fraternity brothers compete for their ultimate prize, power and elite status for life. The challenge they face, served up to them on pizza, can only be described as extreme, Gonzalez plunging deep into the depths of depravity to deliver stomach-turning horror you won’t soon forget.
‘Bloodsuckers (Three Monologues)’ is a playful look at the mythology surrounding the famous monsters used for the classic Universal monster movies. Frank, Rolf and Dracula each give their own accounts of a terrible incident that befell their colleague the Mummy after the success of the cinema depictions of them went to his head. It makes for a brief and entertaining study of fame through this unusual lens, and offers some respite from some of the deeper and, in the case of the preceding, extreme stories.
‘The Iron Bulldogge’ is another lighter offering, although what it lacks in emotional depth it makes up for with a larger, hinted-at, mythology. Trucker Rook is enjoying a break at a truck stop when he is approached by a seemingly innocent kid, looking for a ride. He is no ordinary hitchhiker, but Rook is no transporter of ordinary goods. The history that connects the two characters and the inclusion of religious iconography suggests a larger world to be explored, possibly in future work by Gonzalez.
‘Red Moon’ is a fictionalised retelling of the Apollo 11 moon landing, where Armstrong and Aldrin are informed at the last minute that there are werewolves on the moon, and their mission, besides bringing back specimens and documenting (some of) their visit, is to kill these once-human monsters. The story behind their arrival on the moon, and how it pertains to the space race, is simple yet entertaining.
‘The Forest that Howls’ considers the bigfoot myth, with a twist. When a police officer happens upon a hunting party after they have supposedly been attacked by a group of monsters, he automatically assumes foul play. Until the evidence appears in front of him. But there is more to this story than a single lost link to humanity’s evolution, and there are deeper dilemmas to consider than one misguided hunting party. The officer is presented with a choice that will have ramifications for humanity and the people he serves, no matter which path he chooses.
Taking a detour through science fiction, ‘Human, Trafficking’ still wears its horror badge on its sleeve. Set in a near future where long-distance lorry drivers are being replaced by self-driving rigs, the narrator is a driver trying to make a living in a changing world. A potentially life-changing injury results in an unexpected opportunity to work within this new enterprise. But, thanks to difficulties at home, and with mounting pressure to work more and longer shifts to provide for his family, he finds opportunities within his new organisation to enhance himself to make the most of his new job. It is a position many hard-working people recognise nowadays, with a slightly more sinister edge to it, leading to a sad ending.
In ‘Almost Heaven’, Rosa is driving a bus-load of senior citizens through the fog to an African American Heritage museum when the bus fails her. Of course, being stranded at the side of the road in any normal circumstances would be inconvenient, but Gonzalez hints that there is something more dreadful and perilous in this world. By the time the zombies shamble up to the bus, we have a good idea what we’re going to see. Except … we don’t. These helpful yokels state they are more than a cliché and only want to help them get on their way. It makes for a refreshing take on the trope, although it doesn’t go completely to plan. Engaging and entertaining.
‘Life on Afterlife’s Terms’ begins with Stasia awakening in the cramped drawer of a morgue. That alone is enough to give many readers nightmares, but what follows is a case of existential dread as Stasia is introduced to her support group for the newly undead. She is told by nurses and doctors that she is not dead, yet no longer alive. And that she must come to terms with it. But when someone mentions a previous diagnosis for Cotard’s Syndrome, it casts doubt on Stasia’s experiences, and the reality of her situation. That is, until the ending which makes a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn in tone and leaves us in no doubt about what is happening. Gonzalez does an excellent job of keeping us guessing while taking a fun look at the question of existence.
Written as a letter to Santa Claus, ‘Choking Hazard’ is a delightfully creepy tale that did not come from the pen of an admirer. In fact, it is a letter of grievance from one of the many put-upon elves who have been unfairly treated by their master for generations of Christmases. Are they forming a union, calling a strike? Such action would make for a tame horror story from an author as gifted as Gonzalez. Their diabolical actions unfold through the reading of the story, detailing a sinister and evil plot that reaches far beyond the boundary of the North Pole. Let it serve as a cautionary tale to business owners and employers everywhere; don’t oppress the masses for hundreds of years and expect them to take it.
Set in the aftermath of a cataclysmic act of nature, ‘City of Emerald Ash’ tells the story of an unnamed narrator whose job it is to guide those left behind who lost loved ones in the devastation in Seattle into the city to find closure. We follow her as she takes one woman into the city of ash, amongst the ruins. But it turns out she too lost contact with her wife and their daughter in the disaster, and what we see is an examination of a strong character trying to come to terms with her grief. Wonderfully heartfelt storytelling.
‘The Ballad of Easton Tucker, the Last Man Out (or, Eat Shit and Die)’ tells the story of an unlucky inmate of Alcatraz, who only found himself there thanks to a clerical error, when he should have been serving his time elsewhere. Driven to desperation by the lack of understanding from the guards, he attempts the near-impossible; escape. What follows is a graphic depiction of the lengths to which a prisoner will go for a chance of freedom, and the bloody consequences they’ll encounter (not to mention other unpleasant consequences).
Taking a more subtle approach, ‘Ingénue’ is a touching tale about dementia and guilt. The ingénue of this story, Anne Marie, seems to be running from something—bad decisions or a bad situation—when she encounters charismatic old-timer Bert at the train station. Displaying a knack for song-and-dance and vaudeville, Bert dives into a ‘bit’ to try to drum up some business from their fellow waiting passengers, roping Anne Marie into the act, believing her to be an old partner, Dottie. The guilt comes from Anne Marie as she struggles with her conscience, whether to play along with the act, or take advantage of the old man. Eventually she takes advantage in another way, less hurtful in the big picture, but still tough enough to cause some pain. Wonderful characters and a great depiction of dementia makes for a touching and more subtle horror story.
The next four stories are all possibly flash fiction, or at least very short stories. But they all differ greatly in tone. The Matilda in the title of ‘Matilda Hits Rock Bottom’ is actually a yacht, owned by a rich bully called Stan who liked nothing better than to belittle his stuttering employee, our narrator. An accident causes our narrator to finally confront Stan with courage, but the accompanying revelation will undoubtedly lead to more trouble for our poor hero. Not so much a horror story, it made for lighter fare. But it was a great deal of fun.
‘Spitfire’ tells the final moments of a fighter pilot, presumably during World War 2, as he reminisces about the girl he left at home. But his regret is compounded by unfortunate actions the previous evening. A lament of grief and guilt, Gonzalez’s descriptive abilities shine here, between the action in the cockpit and the pilot’s final thoughts.
‘White’ takes place in a parked car caught in a snowstorm. In the aftermath of a huge revelation by the woman that we never hear, they compare each life to a work of art, how each is different, but some shine brighter than others. The man seems desperate to impress upon the woman how much he cares for her, possibly more important given her revelation, but she is reluctant to accept it. An interesting story told in the space of one very brief scene.
One of the stories that truly delivers on the promise of ‘Heartbreak’ made in the collection’s title, ‘Tidal’ opens with a man recounting the imperfection of a first date. We soon learn that it led to something special, a long-term relationship. But nothing lasts forever. The rest of the story is an exploration of grief as he paddles out on a board to meet a wave, and thinks on his true love. Quite a departure from the author who wrote ‘Upper Crust’, but it just goes to show Gonzalez’s range.
In a world where we can find out exactly how we die, how do we live? That is the question posed in ‘One Shot (God Only Knows)’, by the unnamed narrator, after the technological breakthrough. The bigger picture is hinted at throughout the story, the opposition of organised religion which sees this advancement as a threat to faith. It is at an underground church that our narrator meets Nadia, and is immediately smitten. But how can relationships, both romantic and otherwise, flourish in such an environment? This is something Gonzalez explores through the couple’s various trials, from health to trust. Again, the horror here is subtle, but the heartbreak is front and centre.
The subtitle of the collection is incredibly apt; there are stories that fall mainly in the horror column, and those that fall in the heartbreak column. Then there are those stories that strike the perfect balance between the two. Gonzalez has the uncanny ability to combine heart-breaking and horrific situations to create tales equally emotional and eerie. He has a great range of stories and themes, utilising conventional horror tropes in unique ways, not to mention the range of emotions he evokes with his captivating characters and attention to detail. Every page is either blood-soaked or tear-stained or some combination of the two, as he puts both character and reader through the emotional ringer.
Publisher: ThunderDome Press
eBook: 252 (pps.)
Release Date: 1 October 2020
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