The Red Empire and Other Stories
Joe McKinney

Redrum Horror, January 1, 2012
Review by Darkeva

Redrum Horror is a fresh, exciting new imprint with a passion for horror fiction old and new. Although they plan to publish old favorites that have gone out of print or aren’t widely available, they’ve also kicked off a line of new classics from writers like Joe McKinney, Gary Brandner, Jeremy C. Shipp, and more. The Red Empire and Other Stories features eight stories from horror scribe Joe McKinney, including the eponymous first story, “The Red Empire,” which concerns a tribe of killer ants. This tale began a bit slowly for me and took some time before I got into it, but as it went further, the plot grew more interesting.

Ants have gained the intelligence to kill and target people, and the military planned to use them as a weapon at one point, until they got out of control. I never thought ants could be used as objects of fear or antagonists in horror, but McKinney uses them effectively to illustrate the very real danger they pose here. But this is also the story of Casey, a girl with a degenerative eye disorder who is, for all intents and purposes, blind for most of the story, and her troubled but devoted mother, Amy. A convicted killer breaks into their house, and the tension goes up by a thousand notches. McKinney has a flair for writing from the points of view of characters who are real dirtbags, and the killer proves no exception. It’s an interesting tale with a solid conclusion, and McKinney’s post-story note lends a sense of intimacy with the author. He does this for the rest of the stories, as well, which adds a nice touch to the collection.

The second story, “Blemish,” starts with Scott, a police officer at the end of his career, and what drives him to that point, beginning with the sight of the corpse of a scantily clad teenage girl. Her eyes turn green, which reminds him of Angela Keller, a woman in his past whose death he feels guilty about although he had nothing directly to do with it. In college, he had an on-and-off relationship with another girl, Julie. On an “off” phase, he meets Angela, who he prefers in many ways, but she goes back to her ex and Scott naturally holds himself responsible. I found this story more engaging, easier to get into, and felt the same sense of being ‘haunted’ by Angela. He hears her saying she wishes she chose him, but Julie complicates things considerably, which makes for a more interesting story. Definitely a thought-provoking ending, as well.

“Cold Case” is a true crime story about a cop from 1900 killed the second day of duty and for fans of shows like Cold Case Files or American Justice it will definitely have an appeal.

My favorite story was probably “The Old Man Under the Sea,” which is part historical fiction, and deals with the author Ernest Hemingway saving a girl from rape, only for the both of them to discover a shipwreck while frolicking on the beach. Hemingway feels real and fleshed out, and his love interest, Paulina, is vividly painted, shining in the tale and going beyond the usual limitations of her role. Paulina’s dad makes Hemingway investigate the shipwreck further, and they discover a gateway that reminded me of a transporter. This one is a bit metaphysical and philosophical, and I liked it the most.

Also interesting is “The Millstone,” about a waitress, Roxy, who is grieving her recently deceased boyfriend, Frank, and coming to terms with everything with her sister, Jewel. It’s a pretty violent story, but the most interesting parts come out with Jewel, who is definitely not what she seems, and as with all things, appearances can be deceiving.

“Empty Room” takes a different route, shifting the locale to a haunted house with a couple who keeps hearing a crying baby, while “Burning Finger Man” explores the tenants of an apartment building complex taking matters into their own hands when it comes to a rapist who has been terrorizing the women and asking his victims, ‘Does it burn?’ which I found to be an effective device in amping up the creep factor. This story will make any police officer appreciate the ‘downtimes’ of his beat for sure.

And the last tale, “Eyes Open” centers around two former police partners who deal with a guy, Mark, who is convinced that there’s something bad coming to get everyone, which we learn is Nyarlathotep, presumably some Egyptian deity. One of the cops goes mad, but can’t see his own madness until his old partner shows up and discovers just how bad things have really gotten.

McKinney’s years of experience in law enforcement make the stories of police officers a natural fit for his work, as the authenticity is something he never has to worry about; it’s conveyed naturally through all aspects of his work, from characterization to dialogue, as well as the feel of his stories. And for the most part, although the supernatural does come into play in these tales, it’s done in a more subtle way, and a refreshing aspect of the collection is that each story has something different to offer and showcases the author’s strengths well. Redrum Horror has gotten off to a great start with this collection, and promises to deliver more high calibre contributions to the genre.

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