I was chasing an escaped, psychotic, naked midget with
a thick black beard across the car park. Sprinting, breath burning in my lungs.
He was always a foot in front and I just couldn’t quite reach him.
Me, in my light blue NHS issue tunic and navy pants.
Black boots. Him, in his birthday suit, head down, arms swinging like an
This is psychiatry. Forget your Freud, your analysis,
your pills and your potions. This is psychiatry.
I was gaining on him and just as I could feel my
fingertips getting nearer I wondered just what I was doing for a living. Thinking,
if I trip him he’s going to get skinned on the concrete. If he resists, I’m
going to end up in some kind of Greco-roman wrestling match I haven’t been
trained for. This is psychiatry on the front line.
It was 13:20 and the late staff were pulling up in the
car park for their shift starting at half past. I was whispering silent prayers
to the psychiatric Gods as I spied the back up.
They soon turned to curses as I clocked the laughter
and the horns blowing from the cars. The wolf whistles and the swit swoos. I
laughed despite myself. Fucking cunts.
I debated what to do and by the time I decided to do a
rugby tackle onto the small patch of grass it was too late and he’d escaped off
the grounds and my jurisdiction ended.
“Nevermind, there’s plenty more fish in the sea,” the
uniforms shouted as the wolf whistles reached a crescendo.
I was panting away trying to get my breath back, lit a
smoke, and gave the fuckers the finger, laughing again.
This is psychiatry. I smoked and wondered what I was
doing with my life, chasing naked, psychotic midgets with thick black beards,
getting cat calls, alarm bells, control and restraint, slashings, hangings,
rooftop negotiations, and I debated whether or not just to jack in, give my
notice and get back into the real world, the cosy world, the safe world, the
world of hidden aberrations to the stale norm.
I concluded fuck that, I’d carry on. Why? Because I was institutionalized and I might as well embrace it.
• • •
It was only a couple of hours before the police
brought the midget back. I was in his dormitory making up the beds with sweat
dripping down my face as he scurried in.
There was old Walter, deaf and blind, sat in a chair
by the window.
The midget laughed in my face.
He saw my expression switch as my eyes changed and he
watched, feet stuck to the floor, as I walked over to old Walter and walloped
the old man’s chin with a right hook, skewing his jaw and sending dribble
splattering onto the window.
I said, “Why, you no good little cunt. What in the
hell possessed you to do that to such a vulnerable human being?”
The midget shook his head and his mouth had dropped
open. He stammered out, “You, you, what did you do?”
“No. What did you do, dickhead. Who are they
going to believe?” I gave him a grin and hit the alarm. Then I ran over and put
the fucker in a headlock as the rest of the staff came charging in. Said, “He
attacked old Walter. I walked in on him. Get his arms.”
They put him in full restraint and practically carried
him to the seclusion room as he was screaming my name.
He wanted to play games, then hell fire, I could play
with the best of them. A record of assaulting staff and patients would keep him
in the system longer than he could ever have imagined. He’d be sent to a
forensic place and out of my hair.
Coal Black is unfiltered mountain crime. Set in the hills of eastern Kentucky, these tales lay bare the dark realities of the region. Sometimes the backdrop is the opiod epidemic and all the human detritus that comes with it. Other times it’s poachers or petty thieves who take center stage, people whose wild desperation invite danger everywhere they go. High in the hills the action takes place, alongside the rarely seen animals who hunt up there, and sometimes alongside the “haints” and spirits of popular folklore.
“And They Shall Take Up Serpents,” features two high school kids who set up a score on a strip mining site where they plan to make off with some tools and copper wiring. What they don’t take into account is what’s in the church van they borrow to haul off the goods, or what’s waiting deep in the forest on top of the hill. “A Queen’s Burial” pits a pair of brutal, drug dealing brothers against a simple mountain man who’s buried something they want, though they don’t know what it is. When they finally decide they don’t want, it may be too late. A weary, middle-aged female sheriff searches for a lost girl in the hills that rise up behind the abandoned coal tipple where kids party and drop oxy contin in “Coal Black Haint.” But the search brings back memories of her own daughter who disappeared years ago. What happens next involves more than just some lost girls angry at their mothers. The search leads back to the story of a violated young nun who took to the hills decades ago and was never found.
These stories are full of action, twists and turns, and characters on both sides of the law who navigate the treacherous, often violent terrain that spares so few. Coal Black is a collection of gritty crime stories—cleverly drawn tales with sometimes savage surprise endings.
“Chris McGinley’s aptly named COAL BLACK grabs the reader by the shirt collar and doesn’t turn loose. These stories are as dark as the coal that is no longer in the mountains McGinley writes about, channeling the haints of Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill while speaking in a hard edged voice that is undoubtedly the author’s own. These are tough tales about tough people and I can’t imagine someone picking up this book and not being impressed. I know I was.”
—Charles Dodd White, author of In the House of Wilderness
“Mesmerizing and intense, the stories in COAL BLACK are a treat to read, every honed sentence reminding us that we’re in excellent hands as we travel into the darkness of haunting crime and equally haunted countryside. This collection rocks.”
—Rusty Barnes, author of The Ridgerunner and The Last Danger
“These stories offer some of the best rural noir you’ll ever read. They are a pitch-black journey into the heart of America.”
—Nick Kolakowski, author of Maxine Unleashes Doomsday
Oftentimes the rich get richer this time of year, when the
same (deserving) books are recommended and lauded again and again. I tried to
pick a few “off the beaten path” that I read and enjoyed 2019, that might have
flown beneath the radar.
This book treads into Michael Crichton territory, but it’s a taut mystery wrapped around compulsive, atmospheric writing. Actually, all of Moore’s books are great; high-concept noir thrillers of the “why didn’t I write that” variety that are imminently readable.
Eric’s written a ton of books and short stories, and honestly, I could have picked just about any of them. This one happens to feature a crooked cop, and I like books about crooked cops (or cops who at least bend). ALL THE WAY DOWN has great pacing, a cool set-up, and a dash of black humor. It’s all the way good.
A period mystery set in 18th century Stockholm, this has been compared to TRUE DETECTIVE (Season 1) and THE ALIENEST. I found it fascinating, dark, and also (paradoxically) illuminating about a place and time I knew next to nothing about. There is a lot going on in this book, but it’s worth the work.
These are fantastic horror stories (one of which was recently made into a film) that are nearly impossible to pigeonhole. I struggle writing short stories, but there is so much imagination and craft exhibited in these, that I’ve spent time examining them just so I can learn how it’s done from a master of the style.
It’s refreshing to find a crime novel that is as much about the comic absurdity of life as it is the grit of the underworld. Most memorably, though, Boyle writes female characters who are strong, full of agency and wise cracks, and fallible. In short- they’re both real and entertaining. This read was a pure joy ride.
Speaking of well-written female characters, Miles nails it yet again with May Cosby and the continuation of her story after the events of 2018’s novel, May. After the Storm is dark, visceral and uncompromising- a deep dive into the underbelly of contemporary noir.
I’ve been a fan of Jacobs for years and I was thrilled to see the visual vignettes she shared online develop into a full-fledged graphic memoir full of heart, humor and startling moments of poignancy as Jacobs explores her identity within the context of America and tries to convey such an exploration to her son and other family members.
Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake is like stepping into a time machine back to the 1960s and into the social structures that shackle women from making drastic changes in their lives. Lippman’s Maddie proves to be a more than serviceable sleuth in the face of an apathetic police department. Can she solve the murder of Cleo Sherwood – and worse, will anyone care if she does?
Jake Hinkson is a criminally underread author. His books capture the seedy nature of small town life and how secrets can fester and ultimately destroy those who choose to keep them. Dry County is another stellar story from a master of noir.
Recursion is easily my favorite book of 2019. I finished this one in two sittings because I just could not get enough. We’ve all seen the movies and read books where the danger of messing with timelines has been thoroughly established. But I’ve never truly felt the frustration on the part of those trying more than the characters in Crouch’s new novel. There’s something about hopeless determination that kept me reading for hours.
When it comes to heroes, perfect is boring and complicated is real. Darren Matthews wears his flaws on his sleeve while keeping an unflinching eye trained on justice, even if he has to break the rules to achieve it, while navigating the complexities of being a Black Texas Marshall. Attica Locke’s follow up to Bluebird, Bluebird had me turning the pages so quickly, I almost tore them.
It’s been called everything from horror to spec to literary—I just call it excellent. Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut was everywhere this year and rightfully so. Shadow offers a terrifying and all-too real glimpse into the struggles mixed-race people feel on a daily basis through the lens of a father obsessed with the color of his son’s skin. I continue to think about this book on the daily.
Damn, that Erica Wright can write. Another flawed character for me to root for, though she does a terrific job of keeping those flaws from us—at first. Her poetry roots are obvious in her first standalone. The sentences flow into one another with ease as she takes us into the grimier side of Tinseltown.
Technically a 2018 book, but my TBR pile is ridiculous. Reminiscent of McCarthy’s Lester Ballard in Child of God, Darl Moody is one scary son of a bitch, even more so because he’s calculated and motivated. The final scenes sent my heart rate soaring. Joy writes brutality with poetic prose. I can’t wait to read more of it in When These Mountains Burn in August.
Hope you found a book or two to add to your reading list or for holiday gifts. Be sure to check back next week to see more recommendations from our favorite authors.
Cons walk slower than citizens. In
the prison yard, the chow line, you name it. Slow.
The reason is
simple: there’s no reason to hurry when there’s no place to go.
I was one of those
cons. Still am. For however much time I have left after I shiv Paco Perez.
• • •
My brother Ethan was the baby of
the family, literally. Born ten years after the next-youngest Madigan boy,
Ethan was blessed with more brains than the rest of us idiots combined.
From the day the kid started school it was obvious he would become Somebody
Important. An influential politician, a business tycoon or maybe an activist. He
was born to change the world.
While the rest of
us were smoking dope and ripping purses out of old ladies’ hands, and then
graduating to knocking over liquor stores and stealing cars, Ethan kept his
nose clean and worked hard in school. He got grades that made the rest of us
Not that that was
a particularly high bar to clear.
Even as he got
older, somehow he stayed out of trouble. With negative role models as far as
the eye could see, the teenaged Ethan was even more of a straight arrow than
he’d been when he was little, if that was possible.
Me and his other
brothers harassed him for it mercilessly, but we made sure nobody else in the
neighborhood so much as looked at the kid cross-eyed. We were so fucking proud.
Against all odds, one of the Madigan boys was going to make good.
And then Ethan
We all knew
something was wrong; of course we did. And with any regular kid we would
immediately have suspected drugs.
But Ethan Madigan
was no regular kid. Not one of us even considered the possibility he’d begun
sticking needles filled with poison into his arm. The notion was ludicrous.
For the longest
time, none of us suspected it could be that.
• • •
I was serving a five-to-ten stretch
for armed robbery when Ethan died. He was found on a streetcorner in Lawrence
with enough fentanyl in his system to take down a small elephant, and even in a
family of reprobates and small-time criminals, no one saw that kind of end
To say we were
blind to Ethan’s addiction would be an understatement.
I wasn’t allowed
to attend my little brother’s funeral.
• • •
Paco got send up not long
afterward, busted for running a gang specializing in opioids and prostitution.
The Devil Dogs, they called themselves.
I learned within days
of Ethan’s death that it was a Devil Dog who’d sold my brother the fentanyl
that killed him. It wasn’t Paco, of course. Paco was much too important to be
involved in something as minor as a street deal.
But Paco was the
man behind the curtain.
The brains of the Devil
And he was being
sent to Cedar Junction.
• • •
I know my brother suffered from a
chemical imbalance in his brain.
I know Paco Perez was
not responsible for that imbalance. He didn’t orchestrate it, didn’t force
Ethan to inject synthetic poison into his veins. I’m sure Paco wouldn’t have
known Ethan Madigan from a hole in the wall.
But Paco Perez is
still going to die.
• • •
It cost much more than I ever
thought myself capable of paying to acquire the blade.
that was the price. But I didn’t care. It was a business transaction, nothing
more. And now I have the weapon I need.
Tomorrow is the
In the yard.
Paco will never see
There’s no need to
get fancy or worry about witnesses. Once I take Paco down my life will be over anyway.
The Dogs will be able to get to me anytime they want.
But I don’t care. At
least this way my life will have meant something. If I were to get out it would
only be a matter of time before I ended up right back here, anyway.
2019 is almost gone, and it’s that time of the year we reflect back on the books we’ve read. I know the books I’ve read and those that still tower in my TBR pile all cattywampus next on and around my nightstand is sizable. I’m always willing to make that pile larger, so I’ve asked friends and writers to give me a short list books that were their favorites over the course of the year. Specifically, I asked for at least two books in our favorite genre, crime, and one book outside of the crime genre. It’s always a good thing to explore and expand your reading.
This isn’t a “Best of” list, reading is subjective after all. From the lists I’ve gotten so far, I can say I do highly recommend the books as well as the folks who have made the recommendations.
This is a weekly series throughout the month of December, so be sure to come back next Wednesday.
This is a frustratingly good book, like, as a writer I felt ashamed as I read this because it was so damn good. As a reader? What a goddamn treat. Beautiful and heart-wrenching, Steph Cha writes the kind of crime fiction we need to see more of.
With a strong voice and prose reminiscent of some of the best noir has offered before, Cosby’s debut, MY DARKEST PRAYER, will satisfy those with that itch only hard-boiled fiction can provide. This is the proper kind of graduation for such a gifted short story writer and I cannot wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.
I’m an unabashed Davidson fanboy. Her mix of tight storytelling and wicked black humor scratches all the itches I have as a reader. The first of her Shadows of New York books is a twisty and suspenseful thriller that I think fans of the genre and those tired of its conventions can equally enjoy.
That about does it in the crime world, what about outside of the genre?
A wonderful account of the career and astounding legacy of Milicent Patrick, best known as the artist responsible for the monster design of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (as well as her contributions at Disney). LADY is a fantastic piece about erasure in the past that remains relevant here and now.
Jamie Mason has this neat trick where she writes concise, careful, pretty prose without sacrificing the tension or suspense of the plot. Read the outstanding opening chapter of The Hidden Things to see what I mean, and then read the rest of the book for a tightly-written story about a stolen painting and the desperate people looking for it…and the people desperately trying to keep their truths from emerging.
The ¡Pa’Que Tu Lo Sepas!anthology is so many things – a powerful study of contemporary latinx voices; a wonderfully-curated collection of beautiful short fiction; a cry that should be resonating across our country. The market for anthologies is crowded nowadays, but this entry stands out in that field and deserves a wide audience (and all of the proceeds go to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico).
At this point, you’ve likely heard about Miracle Creek, even if it doesn’t fall neatly into a specific genre. Kim’s debut novel is absorbing and poignant on so many levels – as a story about immigrants adjusting to life in America, the complications of raising a child with special needs, the brutal effect of secrecy. By all measures, one of the best books of 2019, and one readers will long remember.
The best crime stories take a salacious plot and wrap it in real characters. Gailey does this as well as anyone. A variation on my favorite little sub genre of noir – finding a bag of money – this book is elevated by truly compelling characters. To be this invested in the people is the mark of great fiction, period.
Again, character is key -this time with families. When an author can make me relate to a family situation that is miles from my own, I know I’m in the hands of a great writer, and McHugh has done this in each of her three novels. Unpredictable as it spools out a mysterious past, I never feel manipulated by the author’s hand in a Laura McHugh book. I’m just swept away for the ride in the best possibly way.
I was around since the inception of this book because of my friendship with Steve Lauden and I know it was a passion project for him. As a punk rock kid I’ve seen a lot of the music of my younger days fall by the wayside of my own evolving tastes, but power pop remains. It’s the catchy, driving beat of the best rock roll has to offer and these essays explore why it endures and gives real life examples of how music effects our lives. It’s not a history, it’s an appreciation and a series of unique insights into the power of music in our lives.
Hope you found a book or two to add to your reading list or for holiday gifts. Be sure to check back next week to see more recommendations from our favorite authors.
We had our man. Jumped
bail on a racketeering charge. I guess he thought “fall guy” was just an
abstraction. Thought he could slip away on the 7:30 to Chicago. Not a chance.
We always got our man.
We could hear him running over the top of our heads, leather shoes clanking across the train car’s roof. The conductor bent over to check a ticket and I shimmied up and out of the hatch. My partner stayed behind in case our man swung back inside the car. We always covered our bases.
And there he was, running down the length of the train, his trench coat flapping behind him like a loose sail. I ran after him, after our man. I had to give it to him, running on top of a moving train isn’t half as easy as it looks. And that’s before you have to jump between the gaps.
But there he was, the last car. No more train to run to.
“Give it up,” I called over the wind. He was facing me, but I couldn’t make much of his expression in the darkness.
“How much you gonna get for me?” he yelled. He was clutching a newsboy cap in his left hand.
depends,” I said. “Dead or alive.”
I can get you more either way. I’ll disappear at the next river. Won’t be a
flashed me a peek inside his coat. Four fat wads of bills poked up out of the
breast pocket. Certainly more than we’d get from the Marshalls. I paused,
extended my hand, he passed me the bills. I slipped them into my own jacket,
climbed back inside the train.
Pete Greensmith arrived in his
beaten Toyota fifteen minutes late after stalling twice on the way over. He’d
get a nineteen-eighty Mustang once the cash started rolling in. The best car,
the only car. If God appeared on Earth with his long fucking beard, he’d choose
a Mustang. A real hitman needed a reliable set of wheels. Dennis owed him, and
he needed Pete.
He was getting out
of the car when he spotted Mercer coming down the street. “Fuck!” he hissed.
What was Mercer doing here? Pete’s head started pounding, which happened
whenever he was stressed. It probably didn’t help that he smoked all that crystal
an hour ago. No biggie – professionals handle shit. Time to start being one,
headache or not, high or not. Mercer was his second hit, but Dennis still hadn’t
paid him for his first. Whatever – that’s how Dennis rolled, and Pete would
roll with it, because he did fuck up. He could still hear the phone conversation
with Dennis last night:
“What the fuck did
you do? You fricken bone head!” Dennis yelled into the phone.
“Dude, relax. Just
a miscalculation,” Pete replied.
“A pretty fuckin serious
miscalculation. You shot him in front of a God damned McDonald’s!”
“You said that’s
where he hung out.’
“Yeah, the same
one a bunch of my clients hang out at.”
“Look, you wanted
him dead, I said I’d do it for a grand.”
“You could’ve led
“Didn’t think of
“You tossed the
“What? Naw. It’s a
really are a fuckin idiot.”
“I was wearing a
“Then how come
Mercer knew it was you?”
“He was over here
getting high the other night and he told me. How did he recognize you?”
“Oh. I guess I took the mask off.”
“I did. I was running,
and I couldn’t see.”
“Hey, I’ll make it
up to you.”
“Are you high?”
“What? Sure, a
“Oh, you’re gonna
make it up to me, Pete.”
“OK. Yeah, no
problem, it’s all good.”
“Shut up! Look, Mercer’s
leaving tomorrow night. No mistakes. No impulsive shit.”
“Why’s he gotta
“I told you, you
fuckin clown! He knows!”
“Yeah. Loose lips.”
“Can’t you front
me something for the first one?” Thinking about the down payment he could make
on the Mustang.
“Do this right
“How much for this
“This one’s to
save your ass as well as mine, Cinderella. Tomorrow, my place, one o’clock.
I’ll tell you what you gotta do.”
• • •
There were too
many mistakes: too much drinking, the occasional bit of crystal. School wasn’t
working out, and getting high was the answer. Fuck it. You made choices and you
lived with them. Time to straighten shit out.
Mercer was headed
up the porch. Could be a new plan – Mercer shows up first, they kill him in
private, no mess. It made sense. Then there was always the possibility Pete
could take care of Dennis, grab the cash and then go straight to the dealership.
Play it by ear, he decided. He charged up the steps behind Mercer, gun at the ready.
The door opened
just as Pete grabbed Mercer, shoving him into the apartment. Dennis pulled the
door shut. Everything was covered in plastic. Pete had guessed right.
“What you wanna do?”
Pete asked, gun in Mercer’s side. “Take him somewhere?”
“Here’s fine,” Dennis
said, pulling his Glock, silencer attached, and in one fluid motion stepping up
to Pete and putting a bullet in his head. Pete hit the floor with a slap, blood
pooling out with the viscosity of spilled pancake batter, disbelief in his glassy
• • •
Mercer grabbed a towel
to sop up the expanding puddle.
“No problem. You
got a change of clothes?” Mercer asked, holding up his arms to display his blood-spattered
said Dennis, plugging three shots in his chest, dropping Mercer on the sofa
like a fallen marionette. Dennis stared at the death tableau. Lesson
learned: you want something done right, do it yourself. It was tough finding
good help these days.
Usually it’s the fiery women
who drag you into trouble, but this one was round faced and small breasted and
of that age where a woman must choose between a nice face and a nice ass. She had a nice ass. The face was overfull and
heart-shaped like a February candy box, only it was late March. She chewed gum
ferociously and kept the beer and shots coming for the millworkers after their
four to twelve shift. She was the only
woman in this strictly cash bar but despite the rough crowd, every man there
treated her kindly.
I liked her. I liked her clean white bar towel and the
gold cross that now and then peeked through the gaps in her button front shirt.
I liked how she poured generously when she made my 7&7 and how she sounded
sincere when she said thanks for the loose change tips the workers left her.
And when she bent to wash beer mugs, I liked the motion of her best feature in
the mirror behind the bar and felt embarrassed for staring when she caught me
and happy that there was enough self-respect left in me to feel ashamed.
The place was nearly empty by
one-thirty when she said last call. I
asked for another 7&7 and ducked into the men’s room. By the time I had put on exam gloves, checked
my piece, and emerged, the place was empty and my final drink was waiting. I
took a long sip then spilled the rest on the bar. She moved quick as a
toddler’s mommy to mop it up with her towel. When she looked up, I had my
pistol trained on her. I pulled a tote bag from my pocket.
“Robbery. Empty the register
then come around the bar and sit down at a table.”
She didn’t look scared or
angry. She just looked like she didn’t
believe it was happening. But she did what I asked, which is good because you
don’t want to shoot them behind the bar.
There will be blood that you can’t help walking through and that means
you are leaving behind a witness and taking one along with you as well.
There was a Radio Shack
security camera setup that fed into an ancient VCR under the bar. I ejected the
tape and put it in my coat pocket. There was a cheap Brazilian revolver next to
it. I took it too.
“Stand up and go into the
ladies’ room. Count to 500 real slow
before you come out.” I said. I wanted
her get through the doorway before I shot. Blood spatters more than you think.
She looked at me a little
longer than I liked. She wanted to believe me, to think that in five minutes
she would open the restroom door and find me gone with her payday take. She
wanted her life to resume with an exciting story to tell her friends. She
pulled herself together, stood, a little shakily, and walked into the restroom. I meant to shoot her before she could close and
lock the door. Her white shirt filled the sight of my gun and my finger was on
the trigger. I can’t tell you why, but I
didn’t. I let the door close behind her
then I hurried toward the front exit. The restroom door slammed open and I
turned back just as she fired. She was
shaking like a leaf, but the Taurus she held didn’t require accuracy. A .410 buckshot load fired from a pistol
spreads wide even across a barroom. Two
of the three balls hit me and the pain was blinding. I struggled to raise my
gun as she steadied her hand and fired again.
I believed it would, Culver erupts in response to Levinson Ducard’s death. At Jeramiah and I in particular. However, as seen in the footage they release,
nothing close to a positive ID could be made.
Two reasons for this. One, we
knew every angle of every camera in that high-rise going in. The second being unchecked facial hair and a
pair of ball caps pulled down tight.
page news for days, the Reverand and his wife are portrayed as victims. Pillars of a community who ran a ministry
which could do no wrong.
could be further from the truth.
man a predator and nothing more. His
wife something other than a conspirator.
More than an enabler. A person
lacking in legitimacy and soul.
until what Jeramiah writes on their living room wall leaks to the public that the
perspective shifts, shedding light onto what this has always been about. FOLLOW THE CHILDREN is the message Jeramiah
leaves, using the blood of a woman who no longer owned a mouth to do so.
begins, we become more middle of the road in regards to persons of
interest. Not that it mattered. In a city the size of Culver, if one were
determined enough, it was easy to stay lost.
needn’t had worried.
once they prove the link.
the public turns, the outrage they held for two unknown men now a raging march against
law enforcement and the Free Dimensions ministry itself. Free and clear, now back page instead of
middle page, we focus on what I can only call an addendum to this whole Ducard
thing; another piece of scum who knew no bounds. Another man who would soon realize he was not
long for this world.
comes to our attention by way of a phone belonging to one of five men in a
basement which started this all. The
cell is in a baggie with all the others, between the front seats of the van,
and goes off as we sit at a light.
doesn’t miss a beat.
told you do deliveries,” All business, like he’d done this a thousand times
before, Jeramiah responds as only someone lacking a conscience can.
else you lookin’ for?”
was told this number would be pre-teen.”
Jeramiah bristles, his grip on the phone tightening, but he finds the
stones to continue. They go on about
price. Then location. And then Jeramiah disconnects the call.
looks ahead, out the windshield and beyond.
In a better world I might have said something comforting. Something to relieve the edge. This was not a better world, though.
to go to work.
• • •
“No. P-please no.
I-I have kids!” In socks and
sandals, carrying a paunch and sheen of face grease I have seen before, Mackay
backs away from me while holding the front of his neck.
words. I have kids. It changed
things. What I planned to do and how I
planned on doing them. Could have been
that finger too, the one he continued to point at me as I fully entered the
house, but no, it was the having kids thing.
grab that finger. Snap it clean back. He screams and yelps. His other hand doing its best to comfort the
place on his throat I’d punched when he first opened the door.
enter a living room, me moving forward, him backing up into a recliner. I look to the walls, at pictures of a wife
and kids which hung there.
break more than a finger this time.
break them all.
left thumb being the moment I lose him to shock. Doesn’t stop the train we were on. Not as you’d think. I double down. Snap backwards and forward, to the left as
well as the right. Isn’t until I turn
him over and step on an underdeveloped tricep that he begins to stir. I pull up.
The sound the compound fracture makes smaller than what comes spewing
from his mouth.
go again, the other arm, and again he passes out. Fine by me.
things easier for what came next.
• • •
leaning forward and toward me when he wakes.
Under him rests his dining room table upon which I’d written the same
declaration we warned about Ducard: FOLLOW THE CHILDREN. Like any good knot, the noose around Mackay’s
neck ran from ceiling fan to collarbone and back again. Inside his mouth: a lime green kitchen rag.
the choice—same as the choice which brought us together—would be his. Short trip or long trip. Darkness or explain.
This week Shotgun Honey editor, contributor and author Nick Kolakowski stops by to talk about his new book release, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, from Down & Out Books.
Nick, Nick, Nick… I thought I knew you as an author. Your latest release, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, is out this week and it is fantastic. I’d like to think I’m familiar with your style and stories, we’ve been in a working relationship for… how long? Hint: Jules.
It’s been almost seven years! “How Jules Left Prison,” my first flash-fiction story for Shotgun Honey, came out in ye olden days of 2013, followed by “Special Delivery” and some other ones over the years. There’s a very special place in my heart for flash fiction; it’s a bite-sized bit of nastiness, a little snack of noir. But with Maxine, I wanted to try for something that covered a big chunk of time (the book takes place over decades) and geography (it also takes place in a ruined New York state).
It is more sprawling, obviously, a lot more words allowed than our little flash fiction venue here at Shotgun Honey Can you imagine trying to encapsulate Maxine in a 700 word short? Hey, let’s go shorter. You step into an elevator and a known movie director/producer is standing there alone. Give us the pitch.
Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is about a car-stealing teenager who eventually becomes the outlaw queen of post-apocalyptic America, but in the process of saving her own life she accidentally unleashes a massive evil that could doom what’s left of the human race.
Your books and stories make easy comparisons to movies, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is no exception. I like Rob Hart’s mashup association of Mad Max and The Warriors. I see that almost right way. So, back in that elevator, who was the known movie director/producer?
Two directors pop to mind. First is Neill Blomkamp, because his vision of the future aligns with Maxine: the extremes of poverty despite futuristic technology, the angry protagonists trying to push back against some kind of massive societal bullshit, and so on. I dug Elysium in a serious way; I thought it deserved way more credit for the ideas it was pushing.
The second would be Lexi Alexander. She’s the best at combining messy, gritty action with this sort of screw-you humor. Punisher: War Zone is another underrated flick (and filled with visual jokes that folks just didn’t seem to get; for example, the ‘SAVES’ sign flickering behind Frank at the very end). What she could do with a character like Maxine would be incredible.
I wouldn’t have thought about Bomkamp because there is a somberness, slow deliberation about his movies. Between the Love & Bullets trilogy and Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, your storytelling always feels on the edge, frenetic and unexpected. Lexi Alexander would be perfect, and it would be nice to see her work in movies again. One thing I’ve always liked about your work is the dark humor. Where does that come from? Who are your influences?
When it comes to that madcap momentum, my biggest influences don’t actually come from noir. When I was really young (maybe too young, but hey), I got my hands on 60s writers such as Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson; they had a lunatic energy that bled down into my own writing. That’s the literary/pretentious answer, at least. The truth might be that I’m just hyperactive and depressive; mush those two things together, and you tend to find everything bleakly hilarious. I need to weave lots of plot twists and weird deaths into my own work in order to stay interested throughout the months-long process it takes to write (and re-write) a book.
So you’re saying that you ascribe to a copious diet of alcohol and drugs? Kesey and Thompson do make great primers to the kind of kinetic storytelling you produce, so as an influence I can see how gonzo beats can manifest in the story. Are these the writers that made you want to become a writer? Professionally, you’ve been working as a freelance journalist, right?
Hahaha, I think all those writers succeeded despite the drugs; Thompson was a wreck at the end. Most of those live-hard, write-hard types managed to burn themselves to crispy cinders, which isn’t anything to lionize. But their writing was exquisite. Thompson certainly made me want to be a writer; so did Raymond Chandler, and so did Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club was a huge influence on my writing, although as a teenager I tried way too hard to emulate its poetic repetition (which Palahniuk freely admits he took from Joan Didion).
I’m a tech journalist by day, which came in really handy for Maxine because I read lots of analyst reports and talk to people whose job is to predict what might happen 10, 20, 30 years out. We’re building some really powerful stuff with regard to A.I. and machine learning, for example, but as the novel delves into, there’s a very high risk that these systems are going to turn against us at some point. We’re in for a wild ride.
Do you think there was any A.I. that could have predicted you would write a book like Maxine Unleashed Doomsday, say almost 7 years ago when we first crossed the proverbial path? Where did Maxine come from?
Actually, Maxine began right around the time we crossed paths! She started out as a short story (which later became a chapter in the middle of the book) about convoy-runners in a ruined America circa 2030… an idea I’d been playing with for years. I’ve always had a deep love of dystopian fiction, and spent years trying out different plots and characters in that genre, but everything came off as a pastiche of The Road. Finally I focused on trying to portray a more realistic societal collapse, and having a character who lived through it. The key thing, of course, is that Maxine gets weirder and more damaged as the book goes on, reflecting the state of the world around her.
I can understand not wanting to tread into Cormac McCarthy land, that is no country for young writers. I like that what I identify as a Nick Kolakowski story is very much at the heart of Maxine. But there is much more than violence, humor, and complicated relationships (as if that weren’t enough.) This isn’t linear crime/noir storytelling, it’s generational, an evolution of a character from beginning to end. Was this exploring your own style or was it necessitated by the scope of the story?
The scope of the story demanded it. I also wanted to take a character and change them radically in all ways over the course of the narrative: physically, mentally, emotionally. How far could I break Maxine down? How would she build herself back up? What would she look like after the fact? She ends up taking literally decades’ worth of damage, but it leaves her with a mentality that’ll overcome almost anything. My characters in my other books never underwent that kind of arc (usually because my other books take place over a few days at most; Main Bad Guy, the third book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy, is something like 48 hours in real time), so it was a good stretch for me to explore.
You give readers a glimpse of Maxine’s damage early on, which only pulls the reader into your dystopian world. The scope of the story requires quite a bit of world building. What have you learned as a writer building Maxine’s world?
I’ve learned that you need to establish your world’s internal logic early on, and make sure you never stray from the “rules” you’ve established. This is especially true with speculative and future-focused fiction like Maxine, where you take jaunts into the fantastical. If the world makes sense, you can do anything within that framework, and the audience will stick with you. If you start to break the rules you’ve created because you need to slip through a plot hole or whatever, you’re going to shatter the illusion.
You’re not the first Shotgun Honey alum to release release a dystopian novel this year. Rob Hart who praised Maxine Unleashed Doomsday as mentioned earlier, released The Warehouse. Totally different beasts, but worth noting because dystopian fiction is a genre that cycles in popularity. What’s the appeal of reading and writing dystopian fiction?
The future is scary. We don’t have any control over it. I think the appeal of dystopian fiction is that it gives the writer and the readers the illusion of command — we can see a version of what might happen and, in many dystopian novels, the characters have some say over how that future comes about. I loved The Warehouse and I think Rob did a great job of making his future a believable one; it explores the consequences of capitalism (and e-commerce) in a way that’s frightening and believable.
Plus, going back to the ancient Romans, every generation likes to think that it’s the climactic one, that we’re trembling on the very edge of the End Times. I feel like dystopian fiction helps scratch that weird, narcissistic itch.
I feel we’re coming full circle, so, let’s give a little more love to dystopian futures. This last weekend Terminator: Dark Fate (which is what the 100th movie of the franchise?) was released. Not doing well from what I read, but I loved the original. What are some of your favorite dystopian movies (or novels)?
I think the Aussies do it best, probably because they have a long history of living on civilization’s dry, rugged edge. The Road Warrior and Fury Road are at the top of my list, with The Rover, which is a really rough movie starring Guy Pierce, in close third. The Rover is a little bit like Maxine without any semblance of humor or hope whatsoever; for better or worse, I really think that’s what the world might end up looking like — plus it has one of the best cinematic “punch lines” I’ve ever witnessed. Totally nihilistic.
I do think I saw that you were George Miller’s love child or something. While I enthusiastically encourage everyone to go out read Maxine Unleashes Doomsday right now, I do have to ask what’s next? What can I, your number one fan look forward to in our hopefully not so dystopian future?
If you’re my number-one fan, does that make you my Annie Wilkes? Will you lock me in a room and force me to write? Actually, that would help my writing process, which has been slow as proverbial molasses lately. Right now, I’m working on the sequel to Boise Longpig Hunting Club, which is slated to come out in September 2020; it folds in Bill & Fiona from the Love & Bullets trilogy, because Fiona is actually related to Frankie and Jake, the main characters of Longpig. I just have to finish the bugger… usually I’m a fast drafter but this one has been grinding along. Maybe I’m just getting old.
If Eric gets worried on the deadline, I might just have to come up and hobble you. If not me, I know people. Hopefully, it won’t come to that because I love you like a brother who I really really envy. Despite your current slog, you write enjoyable fiction, you edit like demon, you run marathons and you have better hair. Right? But, the cover for Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is a tipping point. I love that cover. Before I let you go, tell folks about the cover, the process and give some love the genius behind it.
Hahaha, hopefully nobody has to break my legs, but if someone had to, I wouldn’t mind if it was you? Is that weird? That’s pretty weird. Anyway, I love that cover: it’s stark. It was done by Zach McCain, who does a lot of horror covers. He’s big on skulls! But I’m big on skulls, too, so that works out. I was hoping for something post-apocalyptic that was distinctive, that stood out amidst other covers out there, and he outdid himself; when I first saw it I was a bit stunned.
I’m happy to report no harm was done to the author during this interview. I do recommend you go out and buy a copy of Maxine Unleashes Doomsday.
I’m generally not a good person. Make no
mistake about that because I’m very misunderstood that way. And I’m trying to
set the record straight.
the way it went down.
Manufacturer A had the patent for a really nasty thing: a portable weapon that
could really do some damage. They never quite told me what it was. And US Arms
Manufacturer B was infringing on that patent by doing the manufacturing in an
obscure country that didn’t exist twenty years ago. NBD ordinarily, but B was
being unreasonable, and A didn’t want the expense of a long litigation. Not
here in the US and especially not in some country the size of a postage stamp, run
by gangsters who wore suits made in London that didn’t fit.
the CEO of A paid me (through a proxy, which was appropriate for a CEO). And I aced
the CEO of B over in the postage stamp, some of whose ill-fitting suits I had
known back in the day. And B stopped infringing on A’s patent in the postage
stamp. Which some people said was a good thing: stopping the infringement, I
mean, not the ace.
didn’t care about that. I would have aced the CEO of A if B had paid me. Hell,
I would’ve aced both CEOS for that matter if anyone cared to pay me for it.
the US’s part of the investigation of the murder, the US government discovered
that A’s design was faulty, and that the actual weapon killed people who tried
to use it. And the CEO of A knew about that. So the went to jail for life. And so
Arms Manufacturer A collapsed and was bought by Arms Manufacturer B, whose new
CEO wore an ill-fitted London suit, who I had known back in the day. There’s
no philosophy involved.
Meet Kraj—pronounced krai—a low-level errand boy and hitman masquerading as a bouncer for Tricky Ricky Gutierrez, nefarious owner of the Twist, a club in upstate Elmira NY. A place that has both a LGBTQIA night and a cowboy country night, this cockeyed corner bar in northern Appalachia supports Ricky’s illegal schemes, and serves as a rural balm for Croatian-war refugee Kraj.
Kraj plies his trade over a short span, moving from petty theft to strong-arming tips from people at the door, breaking up redneck fights, protecting the club’s nubile female staff and collecting gambling debts owed Tricky Ricky. Kraj eventually gets sucked further and further into Ricky’s underworld plans, where he wants to be seen as a man on the come-up, but he has problems moving up in Ricky’s organization will never solve. His sister Ana, missing since the Croatian War for Independence, never strays far from his mind.
Kraj, together with his sometime girlfriend Cami, newly become manager of a franchisee McDonald’s, and his manager Mikael. negotiates his way through underground fight clubs, prostitution rings, drug deals, petty thievery, and of course, murder. Tricky Ricky gives Kraj a great deal of rope and autonomy to operate.
Will he hang himself with it or swing?
“Kraj is a human wrecking ball, hiding a tactical mindset, along with his sense of humor. Barnes’ Croat knockaroud guy is masterfully subtle, yet amplified by the colorful characters around him.”
— Scotch Rutherford, Switchblade Magazine
“Rusty Barnes leads us on a pulpy underworld adventure populated by toughs, scumbags, henchmen, double-crossers, pimps, and con men of the first water with his latest collection The Kraj Stories. Opening the book is stepping into the cage and each turn of the page is a quick jab to the face. You’ll close the book and find yourself with a bloody nose, a crushed larynx, and, if you’re really lucky, that you’ve been set on fire.”
— Eryk Pruitt, author What We Reckon
About the Author
Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely, with stories forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and Toe Six.