Book Reviews

Happy October! In the spirit of the season, I’d like to offer a ever-so-slightly revised version of a story that first appeared as “Radiation” in my collection, I Held My Breath as Long as I Could. I hope you enjoy it!

Through the window beside my desk, the setting sun bathed 72nd Street red. On the other side of the wall, my roommate Randall banged around the kitchen and cursed about missing frozen lasagna. It was impossible to focus. These were my last days in apartment 13D, and, though I’d found a new place to live, I hadn’t yet found a new place to work. The latest draft of my resume would have to wait until after dark, or even the following morning, when I could think without Randall’s violence chopping the knees out from beneath my every thought. 

I’d used the last clean plastic cup as an ashtray, so I drank Seagram’s 7 straight from the bottle instead of going to the kitchen for a new glass and risking contact with Randall. I dropped onto my bed, put my feet on the sill, and opened a horror novel to pass some time. 

Two more weeks, and it would all be over. 

A few meager sentences deeper into the book, Randall barged into my room without bothering to knock. 

“Have some lasagna today, Hair?” he said. Randall never met a person he couldn’t saddle with a nickname. I was Hair, or Hairball if a girl were present, because of my first name, Harrison, and my long hair. He knew I hated the names, but it didn’t stop him. 

“No,” I said, wishing I had the nerve to say something mouthy, like, Go fuck yourself, Randall.

“Well, it was there this morning, and I know for a fact I didn’t eat it.” 

He waited for me to say something, but I pretended the conversation was over and returned to my book. 

“Fucking asshole,” he said. He slammed the door on his way out. 

I have trouble reading when I’m angry, and getting drunk only makes it worse. By quarter to eleven, I was blitzed and had given up on the book. I was working my way through a boxed set of The Prisoner and had just exhaled the first drag of a second joint when I heard a small plop. It gave me pause, and I looked back at the window, thinking maybe a bug had flown into it. Didn’t see a thing, so figured it was nothing. Then my toe exploded with sudden sharp pain. 

I brought my foot up, slapped it hard with the palm of my hand, and crushed something creamy against my skin. I looked at the mess in my hand as blood pattered from my toe to the floor. The remains between my thumb and forefinger looked like a piece of rigatoni in some kind of alfredo sauce. There were sharp, bristly bits on the underside of the noodle, and its guts were thick and sticky. 

I looked back down at my toe and examined the cut. It was deep. The sucker had bit me good.

I ran to the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain back, turned on the cold tap, stuck my toe under the faucet, and tried not to pass out. I’ve always been bad with real blood, especially my own. That night was no exception. As I washed the bite mark on my toe, my mind slipped away like a man exiting a subway car and disappearing in a crowd, and I fell headfirst into the tub.


“Open your eyes, Toolbox.”

Dreams about macaroni salad and sailboats with Egyptian hieroglyphics slipped off, scurrying back into the corners of my mind. Above me, Randall was laughing, his Ken-doll blonde head looking oh-so-perfectly affable.

He’d turned the tap off (it had been left on when I passed out), but the water had yet to drain. We’d never had it out over what exactly I was upset about, nor did I intend to get into it before I moved. Gina was in the past. Let her stay there.

“I heard you fall, then you didn’t answer. Thought you’d died or cracked your head open or something.”

“Wouldn’t you have loved that.” 

He laughed. “C’mon, I hate you, but I don’t want you to die. What happened?” 

“My toe,” I said, sitting up a bit and pointing to where my foot dangled out over the tub. 

“Cut it pretty good, looks like.” He patted me on the chest. “You’ll live. I’m gonna go feed my birds.”

He left me to bandage myself up. We’d met through an Internet posting when my last good friend in the city moved to Texas with his new wife, and it had been all right with Randall for a while. For a while, it seemed like we were going to be friends–another Craiglist win. 

Until Gina.

I poured hydrogen peroxide over my left toe, watched the foam fizzle, and only then thought about the weird moment that had brought me to my present state. 

What the hell had bitten me? 

After wrapping a plastic bandage around my toe, I went back across the hall and pushed my door open wide.

At first, I didn’t see anything. Everything looked normal. And then I saw one of them. 

The radiator in my room was one of those white rectangular jobs that ran along the wall beneath my window. Most of it was obscured by my twin bed, but a small portion of it remained exposed between the foot of the bed and the right-hand wall. Nearly hidden by the bed’s shadow, emerging slowly from the lip formed by the top and front panels, inched a small, white slug, barely bigger than the first joint of my thumb. 

What the fuck?

I thought about telling Randall, calling him over to show him, but I’d seen too much of him already that evening. I went into my room and closed the door.


Because my stepfather was an exterminator and could handle bugs just fine, I decided that it didn’t take much to handle bugs. One day I woke up and decided all bugs were my friends. Instead of squashing them, I’d throw them out a window or put them in the garden or whatever was most convenient. I didn’t hate any of them. Spiders, roaches, silverfish–whatever, it didn’t matter. They were all cool. 

When I saw the bug on the radiator, I didn’t immediately fear it. It was simply some new kind of bug I didn’t know about. So what if one of them had bitten me? My stepfather would’ve killed them on sight, but not me. I would understand them. 

I went down on my stomach and put my face close to the edge of the bed-frame. I shined a penlight into the shadows and gasped at how many I saw dripping from the metal, spreading in a growing arc across the floor. A few opened their mouths, peeling open where a harder seam ran around their soft, gooey centers. I counted at least two rows of small, sharp teeth. They didn’t have eyes, or anything else in the way of sensory organs. 

Little white mouths–that’s all they were. 

A wet, rippling, slurping sound drew my attention to my left. Directly beside the bed, a second group of them writhed on the side of my desk. Some had climbed the wall onto the corner of my bed, worming along my pillowcase like leeches. It was like a creeping tide of boiling white cheese. 

I lost my cool and pushed back across the floor to the opposite wall and shrieked with a spasm of revulsion. So much for kumbaya. 

Few people, I’m hoping, know exactly how it feels to communicate telepathically with carnivorous macaroni and cheese. Imagine a bully twisting your arm behind your back until you feel like it’s going to break. Now imagine that arm is your brain and every word spoken at you is a lightning flash of migraine-like pain. That’s what it felt like when they spoke to me. Every word was a bolt of misery.

If you continue forward with this plan of relocation, we will kill you and your roommate Randall. If you want to save your life and his, you must make him move out. If you have not made any progress by this time tomorrow, we will draw additional blood. 

We believe we have communicated our message. We will depart. 

Be aware: what you see of us is nothing against our sum total. What we say comes from throughout the walls. 

My eyes welled with tears from the pain. I was seeing three or four of every one of the creatures. Every new breath brought a flare of awful sensation to my head. I remained, curled in a fetal ball, drooling on my floor, waiting for the misery to end as the creatures moved back to the darkness under the radiator.


I grew up with Gina outside Dover, New Hampshire, where we lived across the road from each other. Her father wasn’t a drunk like my stepfather, but he could be just as cruel. One day after her seventh birthday, he took Gina to a farm and let her pick a rabbit to keep as a pet. A month later, as punishment for Gina refusing to eat her eggplant dinner (Gina wanted real meat), Gina’s father went outside and butchered fluffy little Lavender. He made her watch while he hit her pet with a maul and ripped its skin off. Later that night, she ran away to my house. For a handful of amazing minutes, I held her while she wept. When her father came over, my parents made her go back with him. I followed, yelling at him while my mother struggled to hold me back, until he turned and charged me, sending me running for my mother’s arms. He spat at the ground, called me a faggot, and told me to stay away from his daughter. My mother cursed back at him and told him to leave before she called the police. I still remember the shine of Gina’s tear-filled blue eyes as she looked back before her father yanked her inside slammed the door between us. 

After that, I dreamed we’d grow up, marry each other, and live in a house somewhere far away in another state. We’d raise rabbits and never, ever kill them. 

If you’ve read your Steinbeck, you’ll know it’s no good dreaming about rabbits. The years passed, and she dated tougher, more imposing guys.

Gina Wallingford–the one I never had; the one I could never let go. 

She was a librarian working in Queens when I moved to New York City. I brought a freshly-minted degree from the Harvard School of Design and a head full of hopes of wooing her as an accomplished big city architect. I got in touch, we hung out a bit, but she didn’t suddenly become into me because I was accomplished and had money. For me, it was enough to see her again. 

Then Randall moved in. Randall was someone who attracted women easily, almost thoughtlessly. It just happened with him, in a way I always envied. I blamed it on him being a good-looking veterinarian, which is a powerful combination for a woman who loved animals. When Gina started routinely asking whether Randall would be coming along to the things I invited her to, would Randall be coming later, what was Randall up to, was Randall seeing anyone?–well, it didn’t take an architect to read the writing on the wall. 

One night, they were out somewhere. I don’t know what happened, but I received a call from Gina. She was sobbing. All I could make out was that Randall was some kind of asshole, our apartment was toxic, she couldn’t see me anymore, and goodbye. 

When Randall came home, he was all smiles and had another girl giggling on his arm. 

“Easy come, easy go, huh?” I said. 

“Fuck’s wrong with you, Hairball?” 

“Who’s this creep?” his new girl said. Randall waved it off, and then they were gone, laughing, stumbling to the other side of the apartment. 

A month later, I lost my job. I decided it was time to move out of my toxic apartment. Maybe then Gina would start returning my calls.


When I woke up the next day, I found the nearly empty bottle of Seagram’s 7 beside me in bed, where some portion of its content had soaked my mattress and my t-shirt. My head still ached, but it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling for me. My mouth was the kind of dry that extended to the back of my throat. The first glass of water didn’t take well and brought my gorge up. 

Good morning, me, I thought, flushing vomit down the toilet. I rinsed my mouth with tap water and spotted some dried blood on the floor near the bathtub. 

And there I stopped, contemplating the insanity that floated in my head. Little made sense. 

There was still a bandage on my toe. I unwrapped it and looked at the wound. 

Bite marks. Still there. 

Randall, I thought, panicked. I exited the bathroom and checked the living room. No sign of him. His bedroom door was closed, and I went over and knocked. 

“Yo,” he said from the other side. 

I could hear his damn birds, chirping and fluttering their wings. Randall liked birds a lot, and he had five separate cages in his room to house them. I wasn’t going to miss waking up to their infernal racket. 

“You okay?” I asked. 

“Why wouldn’t I be?” On the other side of the door, I heard him cooing to his pets. 

“Just checking.” 

“You’re just checking if I’m okay?” 

“Yep. Later.” 

“You’re a real psycho, Hair. You know that?” And back he went to his cooing. It must’ve been feeding time. 

I was about to walk away from his still-closed door when I thought to warn him, to tell him, what, exactly? 

Hey, I met some monsters last night. They want you to move out instead of me. 

Yeah, and how was that going to sound? 

Also, why me, anyway? I was a mess. I was unemployed. Why had they decided I was the guy they wanted to keep around? No creature, human or otherwise, really wanted a disaster like me for a roommate. Was I fracturing in my own head? Was I imagining it all? 

But the bite, I thought, sitting down on my bed. The bite proves it happened. 

But did it? I took the bandage off and brought my toe to my mouth. I was skinny and fairly flexible, but my toe made it to my mouth in only one way. 

My teeth couldn’t have lined up better with the bite marks if I had I made them myself.


So either I was crazy and wanted to kill my roommate, or my radiator was full of well-spoken telepathic monsters that wanted my roommate to move out. Why such high-functioning grubs would give two shits about who lived in our apartment was completely beyond me. 

Sane or not, it seemed reasonable to think I would have to be there to either kill Randall or do the creatures’ bidding. Both problems were solved if I just didn’t go home. 

So I went to the movies. Three of them. I don’t remember what I saw. I sat in the dark and tried not to think while I chewed the hell out of my fingers. When the movie theater closed, I went to a diner. I didn’t have a job (I’d been laid off from my architecture firm), so what did I need with sleep? I took my book and stayed out, drinking cup after cup of coffee, until the sun came up and turned the streets blue. 

Looking at that light through the glass of the diner’s window, the dread I’d felt two sunsets ago returned. 

… we will draw additional blood. 

Everything around me–the coffee cup, the spoon, the sugar packets, the stainless steel creamer, and the tabletop–seemed real enough. I seemed real enough.

What if they were real? 

What if my absence didn’t matter a bit to their agenda?

I had to get home. I signaled for the check.

And isn’t that exactly what they want? 

Come what may, Randall deserved to be warned, whatever it meant he would think about me. 

What did Gina matter anymore, anyway?


“Randall?” I called, cautiously entering the apartment after my trip to the diner, fearing what I was going to find. 

It was dark, no lights on anywhere. Nothing moved. Nothing breathed. Randall’s door was open. His bed was neatly made. His birds’ cages were covered in their dark cloths. From the look of things, he’d been gone all night. 

I let loose a heavy sigh of relief and sat down on the living room couch, relieved more than I would have thought possible. 

Nothing bad could happen so long as he stayed away. It was getting brighter in the apartment, and for some stupid reason, it made me feel safe, as if the horrors wouldn’t dare come out in broad daylight. 

The couch seemed safer than my room, so I watched a Twin Peaks rerun (Donna, at the Roadhouse, mouthed the words to James: I want you, rockin’ back inside my heart … ). 

I don’t remember falling asleep. When I woke up, all the lights were on, and my head was pounding with such force, I thought the entire apartment was shaking. 

You think we are not serious. You are mistaken.

They were everywhere, crisscrossing the walls in thick, pulsing webs, coating the floor, and piling up like slush against the side of the couch or the legs of the coffee table and TV stand. In my shock, I fell off the couch. Before I could get up, they’d swarmed over me, and in the time it took me to push myself to my feet, I’d lost the index finger of my right hand. At first, I didn’t even feel it; I stood up, shaking my limbs free of the creatures, and as I brushed them off, I rolled my own finger under my palm off my chest. The bent joints hit the floor, where the sad little hook of flesh was quickly devoured. 

Blood spurted from the wound. I screamed and fell backward, my head swimming. Without thinking much about it, I squeezed my finger tight while I grabbed a lighter from the coffee table and held the flame to the wound, until the pain and the smell of my own sizzling flesh overwhelmed me. 

[Note to self: standard lighters aren’t actually hot enough to cauterize a wound. I think I did more damage than good with that Bic. Next time, try the stove.]

I might’ve passed out, but they started talking again. 

It is our sincerest hope that now you will be motivated to do what must be done. Randall cannot stay. 

I was in too much agony to talk, but they seemed to read my mind regardless of the incoherence. 

We don’t like his birds, Harrison, or his mind. We have lived here for a long time. We will never leave. We are molded from many. We are not alone. What we say is thought throughout the walls. 

I tried to tell them to go talk to Randall themselves, but the words didn’t come out. The pain in my head pulsed with ebbing frequency as the white tide receded, leaving me gasping on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. The skin on my face was cold, but sweat still rolled down my temples and along my jaw. I regurgitated what little I’d eaten, but I lacked the strength to move anywhere or do anything about the mess. 

Eventually, the pain eased, and I fell asleep blowing bubbles in my own puke.


When I woke, there was still no sign of Randall. I cleaned the floor and wrapped a large Band-Aid and gauze around my little stump. Caught between miserable alternatives, the last thing I wanted to do was to try and explain my injury to some knit brow in the nearest emergency room, but I knew I should go. Except I really didn’t want to, and instead I went back to my room and downed the last swallow of the 7. 

“Fuck it,” I said. 

I spent the day stoned and watched more episodes of The Prisoner. When I’d watched them all, I watched them again in a different order. Two more days passed in a similar fashion, with no sign of either Randall or the vile macaroni. When I ran out of liquor, cold pizza, toilet paper, gauze, and hydrogen peroxide, I called out for more of whatever I’d run out of. You can get pretty much anything delivered in Manhattan. 

I tried to think of a way to convince Randall of the change of plans. If I showed him my finger, he might well assume I’d bitten it off myself. Same went for my toe. 

I realized I looked like shit, so I showered and shaved. No use looking like a homeless person when you’re delivering the news from Crazytown. 

With no clear idea in my head, I ate some leftover fried rice and fell asleep.


In the end, I wrote Randall a note. 

Hey Randall, 

There’s some kind of weird bugs in the wall. They come out in swarms. They seem to mean us harm. I think it would be wise to clear out. I’m going to stay to sort this out with the building, coordinate exterminators and the like, but I think it would be best if you moved out, found somewhere safer to live. These things are EXTREMELY DANGEROUS! 

I’ve lost a finger. Seriously. 

I’m really not kidding. 

You need to go. Don’t forget your birds. I think they’re on the menu, too. 



I put it in an envelope, marked it with his name, and put it on his desk. Then I retreated to my room, locked the door, closed the drapes, and I waited. 

At least now they couldn’t say I hadn’t tried.


He came back a few hours later, and it didn’t take long for him to come pounding on my door. 

“Hey, the fuck is this shit? Are you kidding me with this, Hairball? Christ!”

Ah, I thought, he’s got a woman with him. He’d used the one sobriquet reserved for such occasions. 

I stood directly on the other side of my door. “No. I’m telling you the truth. You gotta go. It’s not safe here for you.” 

The handle shook. The door popped and cracked as he fought to yank it open. “Damn it, you better open this door!” 

“There’s millions of them, man. You gotta go. I didn’t make the rules.” 

“You didn’t make the rules? I’m losing my fucking patience with you! Open this fucking door!” 

“No. I won’t. Just go. Please. Tonight. Before it’s too late.”

“You’re a fucking psycho! You hear me? I’m not going anywhere. You piece of shit. You cowardly little worm! I’m staying! So you can go fuck yourself!” 

He pounded on the door once, hard enough to knock a nearby picture off the wall. The glass of the frame shattered on the floor. 

“Oh, brilliant,” I said. “Really sweet. I’m trying to warn you, do you a favor, you idiot.” 

I lifted the picture up. Shards of glass tinkled to the floor. I could hear Randall and his date giggling and wandering away. I closed my eyes and tried to calm the embers of rage in my chest.

Well, that went about as well as I expected it to, I thought. I considered leaving the apartment that night. Staying put us both at risk. If I left, maybe the monsters would kill him and maybe they wouldn’t, but at least I’d be out of harm’s way. 

I made up my mind to leave the next day. I’d rent a hotel room until I found somewhere else to go. Financially speaking at least, I could easily survive the few weeks it would take to get settled somewhere else. 

I’d already lost a finger for Randall (I had the stumpy finger to prove it); I’d be damned if I was going to lose anything else. 

And if the monsters came that night? Well, they would have to give me some points for trying. 

I rolled a nice, fat joint. Whatever happened, though, I don’t think it was because of the pot, even if the pot made it so much harder to deal with.


I was still pretty high when I woke to someone screaming. I first thought Randall was doing something to the girl he’d brought over. I bolted from my room and opened Randall’s bedroom door without knocking. 

They were both naked, but Randall had fallen to the floor. His blood swirled in the churning stew. The flesh of his arms was chewed to the bone. They were in his ears, in his mouth, and had torn through his left cheek. One of his eyes was gone, and the monsters worked fiendishly into the socket. 

I’d been right about the birds; the monsters dropped from the ceiling onto the cages, chewing through the cloth, and were now busy consuming parakeet, parrot, and blue macaw.

But worse than either of these two scenes was the girl on the bed. When I saw her–when I realized it was Gina–my legs buckled and I had to hold the doorframe to steady myself. Sadness choked me, and it was all I could do to look. It was so unfair. 

They’d worked their way up her body, consuming her legs and the soft flesh of her stomach. There they pooled inward while she tried to worm her way off the bed with arms were nearly gone.

I couldn’t let it continue. I went to the kitchen and found the largest knife. Returning, I crushed a few of the creatures, feeling them ooze and squelch between my toes as I reached for Randall’s head. The ragged stump of an arm reached for me, searching, pleading, and then I pulled his hair back, exposed his throat, and drew the blade across the unbroken flesh. 

I took his subsequent gurgling for gratitude. 

Then I went to the bed. 

“Hair,” Gina said. “Hair, please. Stop it.”

I can believe the monsters. I can believe the insanity. I can believe a lot of things, but I can’t believe she would call me that. 

I put my hand over her eyes, and I pushed her head back. Then I pushed the blade deep and drew it across Gina’s throat, thinking about the skinned rabbit behind her father’s shed and how I’d consoled her all those lifetimes ago.


I woke up in the bathtub. I crawled out like a vampire emerging from its coffin. The toilet was unflushed and full of vomit, which I’d splattered all over the sides of the bowl, so I spent some time cleaning that up to avoid going back to Randall’s room. 

I’d lost all sense of what day of the week or month it was. The light coming in the window of Randall’s room was the same early-evening shade of red it had been the night I first met the monsters. 

There was no sign of the previous night’s terrors. No blood. No bodies. Not a single morsel of flesh. 

The creatures had eaten everything. 

The bed was unmade, and the door was open. The covers to the birdcages were shredded, but all the birds were gone. 

They’d left my knife on the floor. I picked it up, and bent it toward me in the light of another day’s retreating sun. 

I studied my reflection in the blade. Questions I didn’t want to ask about myself stood paralyzed in my mind.


Okay. I’ll come clean.

There’s something I lied about, and it’s important I tell the truth. I owe it to Gina. 

The truth is, it wasn’t ever because of Randall that Gina stopped coming around; it was because of me. We–Gina and I–got into it pretty good the day she went and did something with Randall that neither one of them invited me to. I was pissed. I was drunk. I was stoned. Then I called her up and yelled at her, because I’d lost the will to pretend I wasn’t mad at her for dating Randall instead of me.

I’m sure in her mind, my anger came out of nowhere.

“I just think you’re a bad fucking person,” I told her. “You’re not good for me.”

“Why would you say that? You’re my best friend!”

“I’m your best friend? Are you fucking kidding? I mean … that’s pathetic. We haven’t talked to each other for years, and now we’ve only been hanging out a couple months. But hey, yeah, we’re best fucking friends! That’s fucking sad, Gina.”

“You’re such an asshole. I can’t believe you. You’re just drunk, you know that, right? You’re going to regret this all tomorrow. You’re going to regret this when we’re not friends anymore.”

“I am drunk, but me being drunk doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with you being one of Randall’s whores, and I’m still going to think you’re one of Randall’s whores tomorrow because I thought it as soon as I woke up this morning. That’s right! I woke up, made some coffee, thought to myself, ‘Holy fucking shit is Gina ever a goddamn whore!’ Tell me: how did you become such a terrible goddamn person, anyway?” 

“Jesus, Harrison, can you even hear yourself sometimes?” She was actually crying. 

“I can hear myself just fine,” I said, “and I think I sound awesome.” 

“Well,” she said, and there was this wounded finality in her voice that satisfied me at the time and haunts me now, “I think you just became just another toxic relationship in my stupid fucking life. Have it your way. Goodbye, Harrison. Have a nice life.”

And that was it. She hung up; I hung up. 

It was one of those things that felt really good at the time and only felt worse the longer I went without being able to speak to her. Because she was right; I did end up regretting it. And after she died in my apartment? Let me just say that, whenever anyone says anything about not believing in regret, I expect to get pretty argumentative, and it’s Gina I’ll be thinking about. 

She was the love of my life, and the last thing I ever was to her was mean. 

Kneeling on the floor of Randall’s room the day after the monsters killed Gina and Randall, I found myself repeating my own stupidity: 

I can hear myself just fine, and I think I sound awesome. 

I can hear myself just fine, and I think I sound awesome. 

I can hear myself just fine, and I think I sound awesome.


You would think the beasts would have been satisfied, but they came back a night later. It was a long twenty-four hours; I wondered if police would be coming by to investigate the deaths and if I’d seen the last of those little white mouths. It was just long enough of a lull to make me think it was all going to be fine from that point on. 

At the same time, the conspicuous absence of the creatures worried me. For one, I felt some kind of resolution was needed. I didn’t know what I expected them to say (“Job well done!” seemed a bit cold), but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t seeking some sort of attaboy from them. 

Something that, at any rate, would let me know that we were square. 

But more than their compliments, I wanted to see them again to assure myself that they did, in fact, actually exist in the first place. 

They waited until around two a.m. the following morning, and then they woke me up one last time. Congratulations and accolades, however, were not what they had in mind. 

They came back pissed. 

When they woke me, they were covering the wall beside my bed, blocking the window, and spreading over the ceiling. Some fell onto my arms and face, and I brushed them off, retreating to the door before they screamed at me and brought me shuddering to my knees.

You poisoned us! We will KILL you!

Something hit the wall, and I saw an impact smear of bloody, milky gristle. There was more buzzing behind me, and another half dozen flew in uncontrolled arcs across the room. 

The creatures were growing wings. Even as they spread out, an increasing number of the boiling mass were popping out of the crowd, flying like wayward popcorn kernels from an open kettle.

We cannot control it! You have murdered us! The wings weaken us!

They splattered over every surface in the room, leaving behind the contents of their gooey bodies, and I soon realized the gore coating my walls was the undigested remains of Gina and Randall. The portion of the white tide that was not currently sprouting wings was regurgitating my former friends onto my bed, my desk, and the floor. 

It was the birds! The birds have done something to us! We are poisoned! You must HELP US!

With all that was left of my strength, I thought back, pushed back against them, and their mental power must also have been weakened, because it was the only time I’d ever been able to do such a thing. 

“No more!” I yelled, and when the force of my refusal hit them, the remaining creatures exploded, coating every inch of my room and my body with blood and flesh.


Spent a few weeks in a hotel after that. Found a new place through an online ad, cleaned myself up, and made a good show of it in the interview. I don’t know if the police are looking for me, but I figure they probably are. I might leave town altogether soon, but I haven’t quite managed to pull the plug.

My new roommates seem really nice. 

But you never can tell about people, can you?

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forget what you think you know about the contents of this masterpiece if all you know is the cinematic adaptation. Max Brooks’s followup to his excellent Zombie Survival Guide is that rare beast among all the reams of unending apocalyptica: it’s a story that’s as much about the world we live in now as it is a story of surviving hordes of the undead.

It’s a zombie novel where the insights about our world and all its cultures outnumber the flesh-hungry ghouls. It unfolds in short chapters that skip around the globe with delightful grace. There’s no main character, other than humanity itself. From the mountains of China and Russia to the shantytowns of South Africa to — yeah, buddy — the International Space Station — this book never settles down into a solipsistic American perspective. Brooks owns the title of his novel.

That so much fresh thinking could grow out of such tired ground gives me hope for humanity — and all writing in general.

Granted, the voices all end up blending together, and in a collection of alleged oral histories perhaps that’s a not-great thing. Yet as I continued reading, I was almost glad Brooks didn’t go too far with individualized voices because Brooks’s writing is clear and informative and rich in surprisingly well-imagined details.

At nearly every turn, Brooks uses encounters with the undead to speak about something else, something true about the way our various cultures operate. I’m in awe of this m’f’ing book. That anyone has been brave enough to write anything else about the living dead since this thing was published is incredible to me (though I am also grateful for some of those recent efforts, bless their rotting hearts).

I slid this one back on the shelf tonight feeling lucky to have it there.

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Dark Screams: Volume One
Dark Screams: Volume One by Brian James Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s Creepshow, I was thrilled to see the long-lost short story “Weeds” in the table of contents for Dark Screams: Volume One. I knew it as “The Lonsesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” but it has even more barbs and thorns in prose form (as well as being a little bit less campy).

It’s a good, tone-setting start to a solid anthology of genuinely creepy stories that harken back to the five-short-story structure of Creepshow itself, or even the original EC Comics. “The Price You Pay,” by Kelley Armstrong, is a fast-paced, twist-a-second revenge story with bloody consequences. Even if I didn’t buy every turn the story took, it was a still a compelling read.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” is a classic tale of a potentially homicidal man in an insane asylum. Well told, though somewhat familiar-feeling in shape and feeling.

The last two stories are the knockouts here, however. Simon Clark’s “Murder in Chains” had me delighted from start to finish. A simple story about a man who wakes up in an underground chamber, chained to a stranger. I never knew where it was going, but it was suspenseful and exciting the whole time.

But when I felt certain that “Murder in Chains” would be my favorite of the lot, Ramsey Campbell’s “The Watched” put on a clinic of how to place one creepy detail after another for terrific effect. I’m still in awe of the construction and execution of this story, which focuses on a young boy, a spooky cop with odd requests, and the neighbors who live next to the boy and his grandmother. Well done story with a pitch-perfect ending.

So some stories knocked my socks off while others were a bit more average, but there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I thought this short anthology was a whole lot of fun, and I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for volume two.

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Next by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So I used to really love Michael Crichton. Pretty much until he wrote the screenplay for Twister and things started to go downhill. The sequel to Jurassic Park was dreck. Timeline was borderline unreadable, and then he denied the influences of human activity on climate change in State of Fear. Oh, heavens. Crichton had lost his mind, it seemed to me.

Prey was okay. Kinda liked that one.

But whatever. Life goes on. Time passes. And I came to miss his peculiar blend of cardboard characters and crackling plots, infused with his brilliant gift for turning science into mental candy. So, okay, I picked up Next, hoping it would at least be fun.

And … what a mess! Readable, sure. But WOW! It’s certainly not a one-star book, given it’s convincing views on genetic research and patent law. It also features a subplot that I feel was stolen by the recent film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It didn’t bore me, either — hell, it barely stuck to a single plot-line long enough to do that. But the characters are so numerous (this thing actually has no main character), I was still waiting for the thing to start when it ended, more or less arbitrarily. Crichton said he was trying to model his book after the human genome, where the various plot strands were genes, and you never knew how important they were or what they were actually doing there.

Well, ok, then. Mission accomplished, I guess.

This book had the curious effect of endearing me to its author, if only for how gloriously off-the-rails he’d gone. This book is one strange mutant of a pop-science novel.

Good news is that last year the US Supreme Court invalidated gene patents. Who knows what role Crichton’s writing played in the formation of that decision, but it’s sad that he wasn’t alive to see it.

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The Dark Man: An Illustrated Poem
The Dark Man: An Illustrated Poem by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful volume, full of dense and dark and menacing illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne, this short poem tells the story of a creepy wanderer, who inspired the character of Randall Flagg, a familiar figure for anyone who has read The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, or The Dark Tower cycle.

While the poem itself runs only a few lines (and could probably fit on a single printed page), it was a real treat for a hardcore fan of King’s work such as myself. Perhaps too slight a tale for most readers, it’s a welcome treat to have this one on the shelf between The Secretary of Dreams and my Dark Tower hardcovers. Cemetery Dance (once again) has done a wonderful job turning a horror book into a work of art.

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North American Lake Monsters: Stories
North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nathan Ballingrud’s debut collection of short stories sank its claws deep into my brain and refused to let go until I’d read the whole thing. He writes clear, powerful tales, where the monsters in question flush out his characters’ humanity in traumatic clarity. Most of these don’t end well, but they’re all gorgeous pieces.

Often, the obvious monster of the story is not the worst monster. Take, for example, the story “Wild Acres,” where an early, bloody attack suggests an obvious sort of supernatural tale. Yet Ballingrud doesn’t go down that road, instead taking the reader through the emotional consequences of surviving the ordeal and the choices made during such an event. Or the eponymous “North American Lake Monsters” itself, where an unidentifiable beast washes up on the shore of a lake and yet remains only a lightning-rod metaphor for the things going on within the family that discovers it.

[Personal note here: I read that story with a mixture of adoration and sadness, as I recently submitted a story that featured almost exactly the same situation. Ugh. The outcome in my tale was far different, but it’s still quite frustrating to be scooped on a story I really liked.]

In another standout piece, “Crevasse,” about a sled team in Antarctica running into trouble, Ballingrud manages to concoct a Lovecraftian story that challenges even the best of Lovecraft’s work.

My favorite story in the collection is, unexpectedly, “Sunbleached,” which is a story about a young kid’s relationship with a vampire in his basement. I’m sick to death of vampire tales, and yet this one bowled me over. The details were captivating, and I still can’t shake the ending.

This collection represents some of the finest literary horror I’ve read since devouring Shirley Jackson’s short stories. I’m an instant fan of Ballingrud, and North American Lake Monsters is a powerful, disturbing beast.

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Off Season
Off Season by Jack Ketchum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The legend of Sawney Bean, the mythical Scottish cannibal who fathered a clan of 48 insane children who chomped their way through a thousand corpses, relocates to rural, coastal Maine, where six New Yorkers are terrorized by some inbred lunatics over the course of a rather harrowing night.

Oh, if only they knew … the truth is so much worse! You should see what things are like inland!

I kid. I kid my homeland.

This book was an engaging read, even if I didn’t feel like I had a real solid grasp on the characters. I continually got the cops confused (who was the young one? who the older one? their dialogue often sounded exactly the same, and they both seemed equally competent). I eventually memorized everything and got it straight, but in the beginning it was a bit of a nightmare to keep things sorted.

Also, I feel like the story itself echoes too many other things. For starters, it’s based on the whole Sawney Bean stuff, which has been done a lot over the years (notably as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes; I was talking about the plot of this to a friend over lunch, and she smiled and called it, The Coastal Cliffs Have Eyes, which is pretty appropriate). I do like this version much better than Wes Craven’s, but the story suffers for the familiarity.

There’s also a moment toward the end of the story that recalls another scene from a Wes Craven film, this time from The Last House on the Left. And a climactic moment is a nigh-on direct rip-off of a scene in George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead. I think Ketchum is aware of these grafts, but even so, once again, it saps the story of some of its luster to have so many echoes of other stories.

After reading the afterword to this revised version, I am so freaking glad I read this one and not the version that came out in 1988. I agree with the changes Ketchum made.

But all that doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from the simple fact that this is another Ketchum novel I couldn’t stop reading. I’m looking forward to diving straight into the first of the two sequels and seeing where he takes this next (and if someone is going to end up swinging from the Hairy Tree).

One more note: I bought this for Kindle from Amazon, and the formatting might have cost my appreciation of the story a modicum of enthusiasm. Whatever they used to OCR this book should never be used again!

Here’s a sample image of what my copy looked like … oh yeah … you know a book has to be fairly gripping to keep you reading through crap like this …

that's some ugly text

careful with that text, eugene

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Nightmare Magazine, November 2012
Nightmare Magazine, November 2012 by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this second issue fairly well, although the four featured stories here all seemed a bit too opaque for me to truly fall in love with any of them. I see that they’re good stories, though, even if they left me a little cold. Ramsey Campbell’s “At Lorn Hall”, a not-quite-interesting-variation on the haunted house story where the haunted house is part automated museum, was the only real miss for me (just too much description of beds, bureaus, and drapes, oh my!), but even that story had great atmosphere (in fact, it’s all atmosphere–ponderous, ponderous atmosphere!). I did like the nice touch of showing another anonymous character escaping halfway through the story (a great choice, and one that has had me thinking ever since).

Poppy Z. Brite’s story, about a man accompanying a woman to have an operation, was my favorite this month — some beautiful prose, and the characters worked for me. I don’t entirely buy the reaction to the events at the end of the story, but for me it’s all about the evidence the guy sees that the woman fell on the sidewalk. The story achieved a real sense of melancholy and loss. Liked this piece a lot, even if some of its final moments seem unlikely to me.

“Construction Project” was cute and experimental, but the ending struck me as a little ordinary. “Graves” would have been perfect without the bookends referencing the contrived nonsense of the narrator’s sleep disorder.

Not sure what to make of “The H Word” this month. Didn’t really dig it, I guess.

Overall, though, another interesting group of stories, and I enjoyed the second half of the Peter Straub interview.

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In the Tall Grass
In the Tall Grass by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not horrible, but sort of annoying. Two people pull over to try and help people lost in a field of tall grass. Madness ensues, and, of course, they can’t get out of the grass once they get in the grass.

It’s like Day of the Triffids meets Children of the Corn. But both of those others stories are better.

I liked the ending (apart from the goofy tag, which I think could have been accomplished with one sentence), but the rest of it … I don’t know. I didn’t get into these people. I didn’t really care. I was mostly bored by this. Even for a short read, it felt like work.

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