Writers are usually solitary creatures who prefer to work in isolation where no one can bother them, and where they can come up with their macabre tales in the comforting embrace of darkness. Most of the time. But once in a blue moon, two scribes who gel particularly well think “You do dialogue and characterization very well, and I do plotting and narrative structure well, so why don’t we combine our talents and come up with something supremely great?”
This is the basic premise behind why Gene O’Neill and Gord Rollo, two notable horror scribes, came together to produce this short story collection. Some of the stories are by one of the authors, and some are by both, and there are seven tales in all, with an introduction from horror master Kealan Patrick Burke to boot.
The first of the tales is by both O’Neill and Rollo, called “Marcella Transmuting.” I think by this point I’ve established that I’m obsessed with all things voodoo, which was why it was so refreshing to read a tale that gets voodoo right. Besides the folklore/mythology aspect, the story is a fascinating exploration of the curses that people can pick up where they least expect it. Marcella is originally from the Dominican Republic and she starts things off by breaking up with her long-time boyfriend, Peter, because he cheated on her.
After she’s brutally beaten and raped by gang members, he tries to reconcile with her, but she’s more interested in finding out why she feels like a wild animal since the attack, so she goes to San Jose, Cuba, where she went on vacation a few years ago and picked up a talisman. Marcella seeks the witch who sold her the object, which turns out to be a pendant that protects her, but that’s only half the story. The other half sees the talisman causing a physical change within her that makes her feel free, but her body is mutating and she’s feeling less and less human. It’s a fascinating story, and again, the authors get their voodoo right, although it surprised me that Marcella would go to Cuba (which usually has practitioners of the similar religion of Santeria) and not Port au Prince in Haiti, but that’s a small quibble for an otherwise amazing story. It’s a strong start that will make you want to devour the rest of the collection.
The next tale, “Chameleon” by O’Neill, sees a middle-aged man, Albert, with no sexual impulses whatsoever (except for a mannequin he has the hots for), and the highlight of his life is taking care of his pet chameleon, who he envies for the creature’s ability to blend into his environment. He gets his wish but not in the way he expects, and it has interesting consequences.
“Divine Intervention” is by Rollo, and starts with Reverend Robert Morris, an alcoholic who is driving somewhere in Pennsylvania. Two oak trees mark the entrance to a park known for being the go-to place where people commit suicide, not too different from Aoigahara Jukai in Japan at the foothills of Mount Fuji. He has convinced himself that he has no reason to live. He is apostate, having lost his faith in God after the death of his wife, but then he hears a voice that he believes belongs to the Almighty telling him that he has further purpose and that it’s not his time to die yet. With a change in his heart, he decides not to off himself but … well, you’ll have to read the rest.
The other highlights for me included “Ice Kicks,” where an ice man disappears but a killer who uses an ice pick continues to elude police, then the narrative switches to a gangster whose vernacular speech is a bit over the top, and he finds a new pair of runners only to see a guy trying to drown himself in a lake. When the gangster tries to run, he finds that the shoes won’t come off.
Second to “Marcela Transmuting,” my favorite story in the collection is “Moving Pictures” by Rollo, which is the story of Ronnie, a mob low life who was on the way up in the ranks until he made the mistake of screwing a top mob boss’ daughter. He spends his days collecting money from stores as payment to ensure that they get mob protection. One day he stumbles onto a tattoo parlor that hasn’t quite opened yet, and finds an elderly Chinese guy that he decides to rough up. The artist is strong at first, telling him that he won’t give in to mob brutality, but when Ronnie finds the man’s grandson and threatens to hurt him, the artist offers a tattoo as payment. But these tattoos aren’t like regular ones. They’re exquisite masterpieces that take hours to complete, and in China, tattooing is a fine art passed down from father to son as a trade, including the shopkeeper. Ronnie selects a scorpion as a tattoo and loves it until the work of art decides to take on a life of its own – literally.
“Breath of an Angel” is something of an episodic story that concerns Death and its many forms; a nice way to cap off the collection. The afterword expands upon why Rollo and O’Neill decided to join forces for this project, having been admirers of one another’s work for a long time, and the mutual respect shows in the stories they collaborated on. All of the stories have something that will appeal to fans of dark, gritty urban fiction, and although there aren’t any pulpy or noiresque tales to be found, and the usual private eye stories won’t be found in these pages, it’s a wonderfully put together collection that showcases the talents of both of these scribes in a masterful way.