Book Review: Tales from the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror edited by David James Keaton and Max Booth III

“There are so many different flavours of horror available that it will be nigh on impossible for a reader not to find something to enjoy.”

 

If you follow either of the co-editors on social media, or are yourself a budding short story author, you may well have seen the origin of this seemingly-absurd concept play out online. Max Booth III and Lori Michelle are no strangers to publishing anthologies consisting of a strong line-up of contributors (see 2016’s Lost Signals and 2018’s Lost Films). They are also no strangers to taking on a challenging concept. So, it came as no surprise when they announced an open call for submissions for a new anthology, the only caveat being that the subject had to be ‘pizza horror’. To say editors Keaton and Booth’s unique concept had an effect on small press short story magazines and anthologies would be an understatement; it was suddenly not uncommon to see open calls include the statement ‘NO PIZZA STORIES!’. The real question was: could they successfully deliver an anthology containing stories exclusively about pizza?

The introduction, ‘Pizza my Skull’, is credited to David James Keaton and Steve Gillies, where Keaton gives a brief explanation of the origin of the anthology in his trademark entertaining storytelling style. Then he segues into a story featuring a letter he received from old friend Gillies describing his own horrific encounter with pizza. Although it may be delivered as a real-life event, it serves both as an entertaining opening story and an introduction to what we can look forward to with the rest of the anthology.

Cody Goodfellow’s ‘The Vegan Wendigo’ is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who, along with his partner, accepts an invitation from his food critic brother Ethan to an underground pizza place that only receives patronage through word of mouth. Already wary, the narrator is further horrified when asked to discard his shoes at the door and kneel at tables without seats. But Ethan knows about a secret pizza only accessible by those who know to ask for it. Thus begins an obsession for the narrator, enamoured by the strangely delicious pizza and the ingredients shrouded in secrecy. It’s a sinister and nightmarish story, a strong opener for the anthology.

Mikey is a pizza delivery boy with a side business in selling weed in ‘When the Moon Hits Your Eye’ by Jessica McHugh. He’s also a pledge for a college fraternity and, when a group of young women place an order for both of his services, directed by Pi Kappa Alpha members, Mikey believes he’s in for an unforgettable night and a pair of panties to add to the fraternity’s wall of conquests. But there is much more to these women than meets the eye. McHugh is a gifted storyteller who doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to describing the full horrific repercussions.

In ‘Rosemary and Time’ by Craig Wallwork, a young man with a specific set of skills and an ad in the local newspaper accepts a job to kill a man unseen in an industrial unit. The real horror begins when he opens the door and lays eyes on the supposed victim. Wallwork creates his story with a strong science fiction element, giving it a unique twist.

‘Last Request’ by Rob Hart is told from the point of view of death row prison officer Cynthia Marks who uses a discussion with an inmate as the push she needs to drop everything and visit New York to taste what was described to her as great pizza. An abusive husband at home, a big heart, and the charms of the inmate lead her to throw caution to the wind and she becomes deluded by thoughts of an impossible future. Whereas the previous stories have been entertaining and strong stories, Hart’s is the first to have a deep, emotional element to add another layer to the reader’s enjoyment.

Positioning Michael Paul Gonzalez’s ‘Upper Crust’ immediately after Rob Hart’s story could certainly throw the reader for a loop. This can best be described as ‘extreme horror’ as four fraternity brothers vie for the ultimate prize; elitist status and a position of power for life. But at what cost? To say any more would be to rob the reader of a unique experience. But you have been warned! Gonzalez plunges deep into the depths of depravity to deliver stomach-turning horror you won’t soon forget.

‘A Bloody Hand to Shake’ from master storyteller Brian Evenson tells the story of two friends Raster and Turner getting high on some new drug. When an argument takes a deadly turn, one ends up dead. But he doesn’t stay that way. Is he a ghost? A hallucination? Or something worse? Essentially a one-scene discussion between two characters, the horror is unnerving and claustrophobic but not lacking in action.

Tony McMillen’s ‘Elude the Snood’ is a play on Domino’s ‘avoid the Noid’ marketing campaign of the 80s. In this story, the Snood is a fictional character belonging to the Dicey Slice chain of pizzerias. The Snood ruined all pizzas, except a Dicey Slice. Unfortunately, the creator failed to check with the narrator, Drederick Fitzgerald Snood, before unleashing their creation and ruining young Drederick’s childhood and, consequently, life. This leads the real Snood on a revenge mission aimed at the CEO who just happens to be visiting a local Dicey’s. He’s convinced he is the victim of more than bad circumstance, and he could be onto something. As wildly imaginative and entertaining as we have come to expect from a Tony McMillen story.

With so many stories in a horror anthology, one or two zombie-story submissions were inevitable. It would take something special to make it stand out in this eclectic collection. T. Fox Dunham’s ‘The Blessed Hungry’ is just that. Told from the point of view of reluctant restauranteur Danny, having inherited his abusive father’s pizzeria years before, we meet him in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. But the shuffling horde takes a back seat to the horror playing out in Danny’s mind as he recalls his relationship with his deceased father, and the other, criminal, side of the family business. The story ends as all zombie stories seem to end, but it is a great story while it lasts.

Izzy Lee takes aim at bullying in ‘Demons of 1994’ where Kat comes to the aid of best friend Steve when he is continually, and with increasing viciousness, targeted by classmate Joe. One strength in Lee’s story is definitely in the depiction of Kat and her loyalty to, and unrequited love for, Steve. She will do anything for her friend, including something truly demonic. But where will it end?

‘Bad Night Below Ricky’s’ by Nick Kolakowski is delivered as the transcription of a police interview following an ‘incident’ at pizza place, Ricky’s. When two internet trolls with a penchant for ridiculing conspiracy theories meet for a date at Ricky’s, one admits to the other that she chose this pizzeria specifically because of a conspiracy theory that something monstrous lurks in the basement. The delivery of the story is done well, teasing out the events at Ricky’s and using a narrator whose reliability is questionable until the very end.

‘Introduction to ‘Let’s Kill the Pizza Guy’: The Love Poems of Yael Friedman Concerning Hadassah Herz’ by Tim Lieder takes a unique approach at storytelling as it reads like an academic essay. Through this medium, Lieder explores the poetry of fictional Friedman and her relationship with Hadassah Herz which, in turn, leads to the murder of pizza delivery boys. It is something of a departure from the offerings thus far in the anthology, but it proves the diverse possibilities available to tell a tale of pizza horror, especially with an author of the ability and creativity of Lieder.

With ‘Mickey and the Pizza Girls’, author Sheri White creates a very surreal, very bizarre, tale that takes place on a distorted version of Earth after a cataclysmic event has caused all manner of strange things to happen. In truth, the characters know only that their own town is affected; any cars or people who try to leave simply float into the air. The sun and the moon seem to have disappeared. And inhabitants’ bodies have mutated and changed so that everyday items are embedded in their flesh. Former pizza delivery girls, twins Chloe and Zoe, are now fused together and spend their days delivering inedible and disgusting ‘food’ to Mickey and his friends. But what happens when Mickey finally refuses? A fine example of the potential offered by ‘pizza horror’, and the creativity and imagination of the author.

Known for stories of Cosmic Horror, Matthew M. Bartlett can usually be relied upon to deliver a story stuffed with dread and hinting at a larger, unseen horror. ‘The Black Cheese’ does just that when, seemingly out of nowhere, the world becomes obsessed with a new frozen pizza. Whether through subliminal advertising (the main character finds herself unnerved by a billboard on her commute home) or another sinister method, pizza fans are suddenly literally crazy for the new pizza. Marielle braves the madness of the store to bring one home at the request of Austin, despite increasing acts of violence and disorder. And, when she finally gets home and cooks the pizza in the oven, they realise just how strange the pizza is, just as the rest of the world seems to be tipping over into a dark abyss. Unnerving, unsettling, and a whole lot of fun.

Joshua Chaplinsky’s ‘Cenobio Pizzeria’ opens with the front cover of a menu that includes the statement ‘Enter a new realm of culinary indulgence. We have such sights to show you’. Combined with the title, this should give the reader a hint at where we are headed. What follows are descriptions of each of the pizzas on the menu, from ‘The Kreuger’ to ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ and many, many more, each utilising elements from the horror classics to describe the pizza on offer. It also includes a description of the ‘Delivery/Home Invasion’ service. It is a unique example of the different methods available to tell a story, and it is done very well.

In ‘Body of Crust’ by Amanda Hard, a group of determined priests fight for survival in a world overrun with the ‘Soulless’. Whether zombie or demon or something else entirely, they crave the taste of human flesh and usually only come out at night. An encounter with one hunting during the day has a profound effect on Father Pearson as he joins the other priests in preparing a blessed feast of pizza and wine, where it is his job to bless the dough. But is his faith waning? A story with plenty of action and heart.

Mark and Tony’s father runs a pizzeria in Evan Dicken’s ‘The Parlor’. But this is no ordinary pizzeria, as Mark recounts through the story. As the boys grow older and begin to learn about the family business, they learn about the strange customers who occasionally visit, when their father orders them behind the oven in the kitchen and not to come out. But they still hear bits and pieces of the odd conversation taking place between their father and the customers. Unfortunately for Tony, when their father passes away, the business falls to him while Mark tries to escape. But it isn’t that simple. Family businesses and sibling rivalries rarely are but, add this strange cosmic twist and Dicken’s brilliant imagination, and it makes for a very interesting story.

From the beginning of Andrew Hilbert’s ‘Watch Them Eat’, it is clear that the unnamed narrator is a couple of slices short of a full pizza. He is, in fact, a pizza delivery boy who has developed an unhealthy obsession with one of his regular customers, The Waltons. He knows entirely too much about them and he is about to cross the line in a big way. It’s either the sign of a great writer, or a troubled mind, that Hilbert can so easily deliver the often disturbing and always exciting voice of the protagonist as his world begins to unravel. There are some truly memorable passages throughout this whole story, sure to elicit many laughs from the reader.

Meeting through an online dating site, Sarah and Vannie instantly hit it off in Emma Alice Johnson’s ‘Pizza_Gal_666’. Vannie takes pizza very seriously, but this is only one of the many endearing and alluring characteristics that attracts Sarah. However, it seems that Vannie isn’t the only one to take pizza so seriously as sinister figures from her past soon make themselves known to Sarah during their dates. Johnson builds the dread by eking out little details of the group and Vannie’s connection to them, while exploring the relationship between the two characters. Another excellent addition to the anthology.

The main character of Nancy Brewka-Clark’s ‘By the Slice’ – ex-con William – takes a great deal of interest in the pizza place situated beneath the flat where he is living. But William has been diagnosed with an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and his interest soon becomes an unhealthy obsession. It makes for a very interesting point of view when telling a story, and Brewka-Clark delivers a compelling tale.

Matthew King’s ‘Phosphenes’ opens with Sam describing a cosmic, almost poetic, series of visions. But it soon becomes apparent that Sam and a co-worker are just getting high inside proofing ovens in the pizza place where they work. However, Sam’s night quickly goes downhill when he accepts the opportunity to make a delivery to an isolated home. The story could just play out in a simple way from this point; pizza delivery boy is kidnapped and tortured/killed. But King’s vivid descriptions of everything that Sam encounters, both that night and beyond, are hauntingly mesmeric. The author’s writing is uniquely unsettling and wildly evocative, and it makes for a thrilling experience.

Another pizza delivery gone awry in Michael Allen Rose’s ‘Ultimate Pizza Club’ when Josh delivers to an unfamiliar address. His terrible experience could have been avoided if he simply followed the instructions on the door, telling him to leave the pizza and go. When he enters the house, he finds an interior layout more suited to a pizzeria, complete with tables and a counter. What follows is both brutal and bizarre, featuring characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, if the crazy family were big pizza fans. It’s an exciting and imaginative take on the delivery-boy-in-trouble situation.

Betty Rocksteady’s ‘Leftovers’ is a delightful change of pace as the story focuses on the relationship between Robyn and her mother in a world plagued by the ‘strays’, strange creatures skulking around our peripheral vision. The unease Rocksteady creates with the vague yet menacing descriptions of the creatures is palpable, but the real strength in the story comes from her depiction of Robyn, damaged since the loss of a loved one. Rocksteady is gaining a reputation as an author of tremendous skill when it comes to writing short stories packed with equal amounts surrealism and raw emotion. It is an exceptional ability.

‘Crucifixions in the Garden of Garlic Bread by Alex Dean Shibboleth’ by Pearse Anderson is delivered as a piece of investigative journalism as the narrator explores the connection between pizzerias and the drug operation of the mafia. But his investigation soon takes an otherworldly turn when he realises the real story is waiting to be told by those who have paid the greatest price for the criminal operation. So, he finds a way to interview the deceased and documents them in this story. It is a great technique for delivering the story, and makes for compelling reading.

‘30 Minutes or Less… or Else!’ by James Newman and Desmond Reddick begins by showing delivery boy Keegan in a state of disarray as he tries to deliver a pizza, hinting at the trouble he’s already experienced. Then the authors take us back through it, beginning thirty minutes before, with him accepting the delivery. What follows is as action-packed as a reader can hope for from a short story. In the course of his delivery, Keegan stumbles upon something sinister and the action kicks in as he tries to do the heroic thing. With great dialogue and a peek at suburbia’s hellish underbelly, it is reminiscent of cult movie The ‘Burbs, if slightly darker.

‘And she Answered the Door… Naked!’ by Wallace Williamson is almost a reversal of the delivery-boy-in-trouble trope as the narrator delivers a pizza to a newly bought property to find the female owner stunning and hungry for more than pizza! But what is she, really? And what will it cost our hero to find out? Told in a very informal first-person point of view, as if hearing an old buddy recounting the story, the tale is dotted with asides and exclamations from the narrator which could prove to be more than a little distracting.

‘Bonus Slice: Pizza Party Friday!’, co-written by the anthology’s editors, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where two strangers – Max and Dave – meet and go on a mission to cook a pizza. It isn’t all as light-hearted as it seems, as every possible source of food seems to have been depleted. Dave assures Max that he has some frozen pizza in his chest freezer. However, he seems to have more than pizza inside… It’s funny and entertaining; just what fans of these two would come to expect from a collaboration in pizza horror.

As with David James Keaton’s introduction, Nathan Rabin’s ‘Afterword: The Violent and Ugly Death of the Noid’ must be treated as a story in its own right. Depicted as the chilling tale of the monstrous Noid, so unlike the version utilised in the television marketing campaign of the 80s, this gets extremely dark. Nothing and nobody will stop this Noid from fulfilling his mission of halting those pesky pizza delivery people, be they man, woman, or child. It makes for disturbing reading, but it is also highly entertaining, and a fitting conclusion to the anthology.

To answer the question set forth at the beginning of the review, Keaton and Booth absolutely delivered an anthology about pizza horror. And it is an overwhelming success. There are stories of cosmic horror, body horror, action, humour, bizarro, surrealism, science-fiction, stories masquerading as non-fiction, and even a menu straight from the number one pizzeria in hell. Therein lies one of the strengths of the anthology; variety. There are so many different flavours of horror available that it will be nigh on impossible for a reader not to find something to enjoy. And the strong line-up of storytellers not only guarantees the quality of the work within, but also demonstrates the ability of the editors and publishers to appeal to the very best, even with an idea as seemingly absurd as ‘pizza horror’. Pull up a stool, grab a delicious slice of pizza horror, and enjoy the ride.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
Paperback: 346 pp
Release Date: 27 August 2019

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