Jonathan Raab (ed.)
[Please note that the publisher sent a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
If you want a series of horror novels that represent the best of the Weird Horror sub-genre, then look no further than Jonathan Raab’s The Hill-Billy Moonshine Massacre and then its sequel, The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie. Both books are instant classics of the sub-genre, deftly blending together peerless writing with razor-sharp criticisms of the role of the military-industrial complex in the United States, conspiracy theories, drug culture and weird Lovecraftian horrors. They’re some of my favourite books, often on my re-read pile for when I need to take a break, and Sheriff Cecil Kotto – a paranoiac conspiracy theorist who discovers that every known conspiracy theory is not only true, but centred on his home county – is such a fantastic character. So when it was announced that Muzzleland Press would be publishing an anthology based around Kotto and his experiences, with stories from both veteran authors from previous Muzzleland Press titles and new writers, Freaky Tales from the Force – Season One shot to the top of my reading pile.
Before jumping into the anthology itself, I must once again pay tribute to artist Peter Lazarski, who has once again created a fantastic piece of cover art. Retaining the weird and psychedelic style of the previous books, Lazarski gives us a garish orange and purple-tinted tableau of Sheriff Kotto and the freakish monsters he’ll face during the first season of his unique public-access TV show. It’s another piece I’d love to see on my study wall, and perfectly encapsulates the weirdness to come.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
We open with a story by Raab, the bizarrely-titled The Manufacture of Biomechanical Slime-Horrors Sets A Bad Example For The High School Science Club, which has the members of the titular Science Club being attacked and kidnapped by a skull-faced villain and his minions. The latter are disturbingly-imagined slime-cyborgs, revolting creatures summoned from a 1950s B-movie; Raab imbues them with an oily, greasy un-life that makes you want to scrub your hands after reading about them. You can only cheer when a certain Sheriff and his deputy bring chainsaw-death to them in an entertaining and gruesomely-described fight. It’s a short tale that neatly sets up the premise of the anthology – Kotto has a public-access TV series following his constant war against the occult; it isn’t well-known outside the county but it’s popular with stoners – and YouTube, even more importantly.
S.L. Edwards isn’t an author I’m familiar with, but I greatly enjoyed The Stars at Night which takes a hard, unglamorous look at what certain survivors of the events of The Hill-Billy Moonshine Massacre might look like in the aftermath of being sent psychotic. The whole county is rebuilding after the events of that novel, but the scars remain, physically as well as mentally. I was struck by Deputy Richards comparing it to serving overseas in the aftermath of an invasion. Edwards’s story also brings in a new character, Jessie Esposito, looking for answers for her brother’s weird death; it was nice to see another character join the regular cast and bring a fresh perspective. And although Edwards is new to the series, he demonstrates his understanding of what makes it successful by giving us a narrative that mixes occultists drinking deer blood in secretive ceremonies, and Sheriff Kotto getting blind, patriotically drunk in order to enter a psychic trance. The action is fast, intense and gory, allied with an eerie foe that’s described in some unsettlingly vivid prose. Finally, there are some insights into the price that Kotto, Richards and their few allies pay in fighting the occult and supernatural: not just wicked hangovers and risking their lives, but also bringing up long buried and traumatic memories that continue to haunt them.
Lizard Boy Goes To College by Charles J. Martin brings in the sort of narrative angle that keeps a shared universe from going stale. While the backdrop of the story is consistent with Raab’s novels and shares that darkly comic humour – a hilarious, animal-based curse! Unionised science witches! More of Kotto’s deadpan humour! – its focus on the two people actually affected by the curse is the surprisingly moving heart of the story. Here we see the open suffering of the two poor souls affected by the curse and turned into weird creatures, a man and a woman bound by a depraved destiny that can be fought, but only at a very great price. The bittersweet ending finishes the story perfectly, with an ambiguity to it that makes it memorable long after the last page is reached.
Those Space Vampire Bastards Are Gonna Pay For Screwing Up My Last Radio Show, again by Raab, introduces the titular Space Vampires, the primary villains of the collection. They’re a formidable and supremely dangerous foe, by far the most difficult that Kotto and his comrades have faced, and the fighting between Kotto, the State Troopers, and the Vampires is brutal, lightning-fast and deadly. We also get to see some more insights into the show itself, from the way in which the episodes are filmed and edited, to the experiences of the local citizens who have to be the bystanders to the nightmares infesting the county. It’s a key story, both for the collection and what I’ve mentally dubbed as the Kotto Shared Literary Universe (KSLU), and demonstrates once again Raab’s skill as a writer and imaginator.
There’s always been a streak of humour in the Kotto stories, but Jared Collin’s Homunculus takes that streak and widens it significantly, creating one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read in the Horror genre. To even outline the tale itself risks ruining Collin’s immaculately-written lead-up to the key event, let alone the chaos unleashed as the payoff to the first third of the story, but it’s amazing. I come back to this story at least once a week to re-read it, almost entirely for this quote:
“DIRTY DOPPLEGANGING BASTARDS! YOU THINK YOU’RE COMING INTO MY COUNTY WITH YOUR BODY SNATCHING AND YOUR WEIRD MAD SCIENCE FETISHES?! NEW COUNTY ORDINANCE: IF YOU’RE CAUGHT JERKING OFF INTO CHICKEN EGGS AND GROWING ABOMINATIONS TO THE NATURAL ORDER WITHIN COUNTY LINES, I BLOW UP YOUR GODDAMN HOUSE!”
It’s just beautiful.
The earlier stories within the collection – especially Homunculus – are quite light-hearted in their focus, but as the collection moves on a more sombre and thought-provoking tone appears. That’s perhaps best represented by R. Morgan Crihfield’s Lake Effect, which takes a sobering look at how the supernatural events happening in the area might affect your average local, who doesn’t have any ‘insider’ knowledge of what Kotto is fighting. Veteran Alex Kolbjorn is haunted by his experiences, both fighting overseas and what happened when he was stationed in the United States; but then that metaphorical haunting suddenly becomes quite literal, as the ghosts of a former love and a former drill instructor begin appearing to him. There are occasions when the story is a difficult read, focusing on the experiences of PTSD and death, but it has a surprisingly upbeat ending thanks to Sheriff Kotto and a shotgun with salt-shells.
There’s nothing humorous about Matthew M. Bartlett’s contribution to the collection, Pause for Station Identification, and in fact it’s one of the most disturbing stories I’ve read in a long while. After a power outage, Sheriff Kotto and Deputy Richards discover that the usual rerun of his show was replaced – for Kotto’s eyes only – by an episode they never filmed. Or, at least, never filmed in this reality. Increasingly uneasy, they watch as their doppelgangers lead their TV crew into a radio station in the outskirts of Leeds, Massachusetts. That name will be familiar to fans of Mr Bartlett, as its the setting for a number of his own stories, and here he meshes it together with Raab’s setting in a dark and terrifying story. Things go from bad to worse for their counterparts, the tension and horror amplified by Bartlett’s mastery of the ‘found videotape’ trope, complete with sentences cutting in and out, sudden jump-cuts, and static blurring at the worst times. Again it’s a story I come back to, but not without a chill going down my spine each time I finish it, and makes me realise I need to review more of Mr Bartlett’s stories.
Moving towards the end of the collection, All Aboard The Occult Express by Raab is another key story in the collection’s narrative, while also being another darkly hilarious story. Kotto and his comrades attend a mysterious estate at the invitation of its owner, a friend of Kotto and collector of occult objects and art pieces. It turns out he’s come into possession of a train – as hinted at by the story title – but it turns out that the train is no ordinary one. Things happened onboard it – very bad things – and the unveiling eventually turns disastrous as certain villains attempt to use it to summon the apocalypse. Fortunately Kotto is there to swing into action, leading to skirmishing on the top and sides of the fast-moving express train, and a laugh-out-loud interaction with a ghost driver that ends with Raab putting his own unique spin on the trope of the ‘devil’s bargain’, this time involving ‘train weirdos’ that would be interested in preserving the ghost train.
Total Vortex Disappearance is a real head-scratcher from the mind of Tom Breen, although certainly in a good way, A short tale that focuses on a young couple waiting to watch the latest episode of Kotto’s show, very strange things begin occurring as the episode airs that don’t bode well for the protagonists. It is an extremely weird story, and frankly all the better for it. That weirdness continues with Colin Scharf’s Wicked Game, which follows a mall security guard as he contends with the weird, strange and downright dangerous things occurring in the local area. Reading it is an unusual experience, at times feeling like an out of body experience thanks to Scharf’s unique (and engaging) style of writing, and it’s a very affecting and emotional tale, though after several re-reads I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.
Raab then wraps up the collection with the appropriately-titled Season Finale, which ties together all of the plot points that he’s been seeding throughout the collection, And it has everything you’d want from a season finale. There’s some character development, the resolution of most plot points (with some left dangling for what will hopefully be future collections), and best of all a huge heap of action scenes, with Kotto and the State Troopers joining forces to fight the Space Vampires. It’s a fantastic ending to the collection, and made me want to see more – from Kotto, from Raab, and from all of the other authors who contributed to the collection.
Freaky Tales from the Force – Season One is many things, all of them good. The stories it contain are all weird, surreal, action-packed, horrifying and often deeply insightful; above all it is a hugely enjoyable ride into the complex and rich universe that Jonathan Raab has created for Sherriff Kotto and his domain of Cattaraugus County. It is a tremendous accomplishment for Raab and Muzzleland Press, creating a first-rate slice of Weird Horror and bringing together some of that subgenres most talented writers. I can only hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we see a second season of Freaky Tales from the Force – it would be too much to bear to see yet another excellent series cancelled before its time.