“The way Lucia creates his worlds and their inhabitants is masterful.”
A lifelong fan of the written word and stories, Kevin Lucia is a voracious reader. His two greatest literary influences are Charles L. Grant and Stephen King, the latter evidenced in his attention to creating everyday and relatable characters. He sold his first short story in 2007 and hasn’t looked back, forming an especially fruitful and productive partnership with Crystal Lake Publishing, for whom he has written short stories (Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, June 2016), contributed non-fiction (Writers on Writing Vol.1: An Author’s Guide, August 2015), and written his series of books set in the fictional town of Clifton Heights, of which this is the fourth.
The book opens with the unnamed narrator telling his story in first person, recounting his previous career as a salesman for magazine subscriptions, who specialises in visiting high schools across the country and convincing the students to sell subscriptions to raise money for their schools. He’s good at it, too. His advertising degree is put to good use. But it’s left him in something of a rut. Moving from town to town, delivering his shtick to the students before moving onto a bar in a neighbouring town to drink away his blues and probably hook up with a lonely woman for the night. But the twenty-somethings have given way to forty- or fifty-somethings and even the motel rooms are beginning to look the same.
Then he arrives in the small town of Clifton Heights, the setting for all of Lucia’s published work to date. He immediately feels a wrongness about the town, especially when dusk falls and his thoughts turn to the .38 revolver he has in the motel room. Instead of following his usual behavioural pattern of picking up a stranger in a nearby town, he wanders around Clifton Heights. And finds himself outside Handy’s Pawn and Thrift. After a strange encounter with the man behind the counter (though not the proprietor; nobody sees the elusive Mr. Handy), the narrator finds himself seemingly alone in the empty pawn shop, surrounded by items both mysterious and mundane. And, as it happens, his story serves as the frame story as he wanders the store, interacting with certain items. The first is an old tape recorder. When he presses play, he hears someone, a farmer, telling a story.
This first story, ‘The Way of Ah-Tzenul’, is told in first-person by farmer and bibliophile Seamus to the doctor he has called to his farm to tend to his wife, Betty. But the story of what ails Betty isn’t straightforward and begins with the discovery of a strange journal which contains some strange rituals that Seamus reckons were used by an ancient civilization to aid the growth of their crops. It is the story of how for some will go to provide for their family, as well as to prove how great they are. The light-hearted tone Lucia gives Seamus while he regales the Doc with his story is great, and it leads to a very creepy ending.
The second story begins when the recorder stops playing and the salesman picks up a Magic Eight Ball, which leads us to ‘The Office’. John Pinkerton is browsing the bookshelves in his home office, trying to decide which of his horror books he wants to read. But his concentration is continuously broken by the thing that keeps swishing past his office door, and the appearance of a strange black journal amongst his books, many of them collector’s editions by some of the biggest names in today’s horror community. He toys with his Magic Eight Ball the whole time, but as time passes, he notices many of his collectibles, and that black journal, seems to move places when he isn’t looking. While he tries to recall his own kids, and their kids, his memories begin to blur, to the point where even he is unsure of how old he is and how much time he has wasted fussing over his books while his family grew up around him. A very effective ghost story that manages to convey a message at the same time.
The next item the narrator picks up is a Nikon camera which seems to be playing a video recorded by its previous owner in ‘Out of Field Theory’. Brian Palmer is trying to find a topic for his final project in Philosophy of Photography. His subject seems to be the “Bassler House”, a seemingly empty farmhouse. But he soon learns it isn’t as empty as it appears when he ventures inside. Lucia builds up the dread throughout this tale as Brian feels the encroaching darkness from within the house. When the video seems to loop back around to the beginning, the narrator takes the opportunity to turn it off.
It isn’t long before he hears a word processor clicking away, typing words on its own. The words he reads are the opening lines to the next story, ‘Scavenging’. A former teacher has fallen on hard times after losing his job in disgraceful and tragic circumstances. He resorts to scavenging the streets and junkyards of Clifton Heights for anything he can sell for profit. Eventually he begins to find items that not only remind him of his past life and all that he has lost, but specific items from his past. He tries to ignore these occurrences, but they continue to haunt him until he takes them home, constant reminders of all that he has lost. One of the more emotional tales in the book, this one packs a punch.
This tale also has an effect on the narrator as he again thinks of the nothing that his own life has become. He tries again to get out of the store, even trying to call the police on the landline. Then he notices a basket of old cell-phones. And one begins ringing. In ‘A Place for Broken and Discarded Things’, we meet husband and wife Shane and Amanda, shopping for new furniture for their new home which they bought to give them a new start after the sudden infant death of their toddler. Their relationship is strained, and it only gets worse when they become lost in the labyrinthine halls of the school-cum-furniture shop. Shane finds a cell-phone in one of the many lockers remaining from the buildings days as a school and it isn’t long before it rings and he hears from a woman who also seems to be lost and has misplaced her husband. It’s around this time that Amanda wanders off and Shane relies on the woman on the phone for help. But when the woman finally explains where she is calling from, Shane begins to lose his grip on reality. Before the story ends and before he can escape from the building, he must make a difficult decision about his future, and face some hard truths about his marriage.
After hanging up the phone, the narrator picks up a black pyramid with some strange carvings on the side. What lies within is a Lovecraftian nightmare. ‘The Black Pyramid’ concerns Reverend Norman Akley who discovered the pyramid on a stall at Handy’s and took it home. As with so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, it becomes clear that Norman is a man struggling with his faith and these characters are so often susceptible to the influence of other powerful entities, as Norman finds out. The star of this story is Lucia’s descriptions of the horrors within the pyramid and the ambiguous ending which hints at a greater horror.
Once the narrator regains his composure he quickly returns the pyramid, unwilling to touch it again, and ventures behind the counter. Here he finds a trapdoor, and the connection with the next story, ‘When we All Meet at the Ofrenda’. Readers of Crystal Lake Publishing’s anthology Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories will recognise this touching yet disturbing story. Graveyard caretaker Whitey Smith lives alone in hut in the cemetery grounds, since his wife passed and to the chagrin of his sons. But these are the same sons who were less than supportive of their mother’s wish to embrace her Mexican heritage. This is perfectly exemplified by her love of Dia de los Muertos, a passion shared by Whitey ever since they were children and he longed to please her. A tradition of the Day of the Dead is to provide offerings for those loved ones that have passed on an altar, an ofrenda. The story taking place on the first instance of the holiday since Maria’s passing, Whitey plans to make the ultimate offering for his wife and their sons. As the reader can surmise from its inclusion in the afore-mentioned anthology, this is a beautiful horror story that has a great deal of depth and wonderfully realised characters.
The final story, ‘Almost Home’, begins when the narrator discovers a .38 behind the counter, much like the one he left at the motel. He did leave it at the motel, right? In the story, the previous owner of the gun is fleeing with her son in their car, late at night, and low on gas. But who or what are they running from? And what secrets are they hiding? There’s a desperation to the characters, something that instantly grips the reader. The dynamic between mother and son is a powerful one, and Lucia handles it well to deliver a touching and horrific story.
The final story has a special resonance and relevance for the unnamed narrator, leaving him with even more questions. But the strange shopkeeper chooses this moment to return and reveals a little more about his history. He also makes the point that Handy’s has things you need, and this may not necessarily be things you want. In the end, the narrator gets what he has been missing for most of his life; a purpose, a role to fill. It is a fitting and satisfactory end to an interesting book. Most of the individual stories are straightforward, but the way Lucia creates his worlds and their inhabitants is masterful. And the way he crafted the book as a whole, using each story to not only entertain the reader but reveal a little of the narrator’s character before his emotional conclusion, is especially well done. We’ll be returning to Clifton Heights in the future.
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
eBook: 219 (pps)
Release Date: 28 September 2018
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