Tales Corpses Tell
It’s been far too long since I returned to the stories of J.D. Allen, one of the most talented horror authors I have discovered in 2021, if not the entire time I’ve been reviewing titles in the genre, and as such I couldn’t wait to see what was in his latest release, the short story collection Tales Corpses Tell. The collection has another shocking and attention-grabbing piece of cover art, deftly chosen by the author, which is utilized alongside a rather chilling font style that nicely complements the image. The collection contains ten stories in total, which I think finds the right balance in terms of length – reviewing single-author collections where there are more than a dozen stories can often become a little tedious because of how similar the writing style and narratives can become when only a single person is penning the stories. The back-cover blurb promised a variety of chilling and horrifying stories, and I couldn’t wait to see what Allen had in store for me this time.
The collection opens with Kill It! in which Allen takes a common household situation – a creepy-crawly scuttling under the furniture – and gives it an unexpected and unsettling twist, with the inhabitants of a house having to deal with an unusually intelligent and tenacious visitor to their household. A very short piece of micro-fiction, but with a rather darkly amusing ending. It’s followed by Mirror Image, a story that begins rather whimsical with a man noticing that a stranger in line at a coffee shop seems to have the same clothes and mannerisms as him – only to rapidly descend into darkness and paranoia. Why is this stranger purchasing the same things, in the same manner, as the man usually does? Why is he eating the same food he enjoys, driving the same car, with the same colour and even dents in the framework? And how come the man’s family doesn’t even seem to recognise that this imposter isn’t the real thing? It’s another deftly executed story by Allen, with a chilling twist that rather caught me off guard. Face Lift is one of the longest stories in the collection, and tells the tale of a legendary Hollywood starlet who took the film industry by storm in the 1930s and 1940s, breaking hearts and minds and collecting a startling array of awards thanks to her beauty and talent, before suddenly retiring. But several decades later, Gloria Davis suddenly plans a return to her old stomping grounds, the gossip magazines suddenly full of rumours and guesswork about what she can hope to achieve. As her planning commences, Davis resides in a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood, the garden overgrown, the building decaying slowly but surely, and tended to only by her old friend Adolph, director-turned-butler. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that her star has declined as sharply as the mansion and attached gardens, her memories fragmented and her abilities worn away by the sands of time. Her last hope is physical rejuvenation at the hands of a Hollywood auteur, a guru to the stars, and possessor of a mysterious, glowing ampoule that he claims will – one day – be able to perform miracles on face and skin. Desperate, Gloria steals the experimental treatment from behind the guru’s back and applies it – only to find that the cost of the treatment goes far beyond the financial, and into the physical – and the mental. Artfully blending body horror and even some elements of Bizarro horror together with the horrifying ravages of age on mind and memory, Face Lift is by far the best story in the collection, and worth the purchase price alone.
The Nag is a change in tone and narrative style, as a murderer gives a calm and utterly surreal statement to a police detective about the events leading up to him murdering his wife, who he alleges has done nothing but nag, berate and humiliate him for their entire decades-long marriage. But even after finally snapping one fateful night and slitting his wife’s throat open, the murderous husband finds that his deceased wife will not stop berating him even after death, driving him to the brink of insanity and leading to a particularly memorable sequence involving socialising stab wounds that’s lodged itself in my mind. Two Heads Are Better Than One is a tragedy-laced story about pregnancy and expectation on the part of a newly-expectant mother, and one that takes some intriguing inspiration from a common nursery rhyme that means you’ll never look at it in quite the same way again. Under the Bed is a short but gripping story told from the point of view of a little boy sent to bed by his mum for drawing on the walls: at first sad only because he can’t get his normal bedtime routine, he soon becomes frightened of the strange hissing noises under his bed, and the strange, angry attitude of his mum who refuses to enter his bedroom, and berates him whenever he calls out to her. There’s some interesting use of coloured text in the story that makes a certain plot point more powerful, making me curious as to why more authors don’t use such options in their storytelling, and it’s overall a great piece of storytelling.
Moving towards the end of the collection, Boo! takes an inventive and darkly amusing look at the perils of public transport, and those strangers who believe that mere close proximity to others gives them the right to interfere with others, and play with young children, without risk of penalty thanks to social niceties; and Cat & Mouse visits another husband with a wife who endlessly nagged and criticised him, only this has one has recently died. However, the man’s rather vulgar celebrations of her death are soured by the presence of his deceased wife’s hated cat, a wild and mangy barn cat that prowls and howls outside the farm house; but his attempt to deal with the animal once and for all lead to a desperate reversal of fortunes as the hunter becomes the hunted. Secret Santa, the penultimate story in the collection, is a whiplash of a story, providing unexpected twists and turns with almost every page, with even the ending being distinctly unexpected; I certainly won’t ever be able to look at a festive ‘Secret Santa’ message the same way ever again. The final story, The Creatures of Driftwood Beach, purports to be the transcription of a recovered 19th Century diary classified as ‘Top Secret’ by the Royal Navy, and penned by a young teenage girl escorting her mother to a holiday home in Dover. After caring for her mother, overcome by fatigue and illness, our nameless protagonist travels to the famous White Cliffs to paint the scenery, only to discover a strange, newly-created fracture in the cliffs that leads to a mysterious, deserted beach. But while there are no humans on the beach – nor any of the ever-present seagulls – our protagonist is far from alone, and only by comparing her paintings to the scenery around her is she able to discern the true threat. It’s a brilliant idea and the perfect way to end the collection, and is also the story that I think I’d most like to see expanded upon by Allen – there’s a great deal of possibility in the story that could easily be expanded to novella-length.
Tales Corpses Tell is another superb entry in the horror genre from J.D. Allen and readily demonstrates that he can compose short stories as well as he can longer pieces of genre fiction. While the collection has some minor formatting issues with a few stories – undoubtedly caused by Amazon’s less than friendly publishing system – they certainly don’t detract from te powerful storytelling and superb imagination they’re imbued with and which go so far to demonstrate Allen’s natural talent as a horror writer. The inventive plotting, superbly imaginative prose and first-rate atmosphere in Tales Corpses Tell are all matched with memorable characterisation and stories with some wicked stings in the tails, all combining together to prove that J. D. Allen continues to be an author to watch in the horror genre. He’s a rising star in the indie section of the genre, and deserves to have a host of publishers vying to release his stories under their banners.