The Booked. Anthology Review 13: “Real, Live Ghosts” by Matthew C Funk

Scooby is the perpetrator of a carjacking gone wrong. We find him on the run, searching for solace like a rat scurrying from a flipped light switch. He finds himself in an apartment, playing up innocence and his young age just so he can safely get himself home to mom. From there, life for Scooby gets worse. Way, way worse.

Matthew C Funk came into the Booked. Podcast fold through a series of interviews to promote Noir at the Bar 2, a collection of short stories put together to help an independent bookstore. His piece included in The Booked. Anthology flexes Funk’s ability to create a suspenseful tension that is no less than maddening. His Scooby becomes a victim, and you whip-quick forget that he has recently killed in a failed attempt to steal a car. “Real, Live Ghosts” is a simple hunter becomes the hunted story, that reaches in and chills all of the important gizzards of its reader, without question, without mercy.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 12: “Children of the Wetlands” by Nikki Guerlain

Sometimes, when it comes to short stories, what is important isn’t so much a convoluted or impressive plot. It can merely be a scene, and this is going on, being character driven. The author can have an idea about a cool character with a sweet leather jacket, slicked back hair, and devilish squinty James Franco eyes. On occasion, short stories are meant to flex that language muscle, showing off a flowery language to paint a picture with a brief situation that means a whole lot of jack and/or squat. Or sometimes, just sometimes, Nikki Guerlain does something as simple as a little bit of everything and you get a fever dream of a nightmare, such as “Children of the Wetlands.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t “get” the point of this story, plot-wise. I don’t, and if there’s a massive arc, either character or story or both, it slipped on its best bandana over its eyes, swallowed an entire pepperoni pizza and Teenage Mutant Ninja’d itself right on by. There’s a surgeon, and an ungodly surgery or two. There’s something about siblings holding each other, and knives, and fire. There’s plenty of fire, yes. Fire. And three scenes happen, the first two being quasi-related through a few images, and then the third scene is kind of an amalgamation of the first two. But yes, there’s these scenes, and short of seeing and walking, I’m not sure what actually “happens.”

What I do know is the imagery is a terror. For such a small and pretty lady, what Miss Guerlain does with words and punctuation is impressive. She flexes those guns, flashes an adorable smile, and then beats the shit out of you until you’re euphoric. In this instance, the images are vibrant and undeniable. I feel like I know what it’s like to be inside Nikki’s head for a moment, and I’m not sure for whom I’m more concerned. However, I’m certain, that this piece, like many of the others, will stay with me. The writhing siblings in each vignette, they will not be forgotten. The burning fields and the blood and gore; all of it will stay with me. Because that’s what she do, she rocks your world.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 11: “Your Savior” by Axel Taiari

The human race is at war with its own creation in an epic battle of man versus machine, and boy howdy, are we getting romped! But you know, that’s kind of the point, right? I mean, why create something if there isn’t going to be some element of perfection. It’s the ultimate goal for which we strive, yea? Ultimately, we are our own undoing.

“Your Savior” is told from the point of view of the nucleus of the great machine. It explains the entire plot, lays out all of the battle plan, all of the while, keeps us up to date on the final invasion of our last and only hope. She’s a young girl with a gun and a specific set of skills. Taiari weaves a tale of complexity, creates a world of death and destruction, explains a view – we are the creator, we are the destroyer.

And as the girl continues to progress, we learn how important the machines are to the humans, how we need the machines. Without each other we have no purpose, and eventually we whither and die. Think of it this way, fire destroys forests at an alarming rate. Acres upon acres of trees go up in smoke every year because of an errant cigarette butt or a clumsy camper. But without that fire, in the event that that reset button is never hit, eventually the those woods can no longer produce. There needs to be an evolution, a revolution, or there will never be progress. Without the machines, we will never reach our evolutionary potential.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 10: “The Mulligan” by Joshua Alan Doetsch

Marked as one of the favorite stories of this collection by many of the readers and collaborators, I was incredibly excited to finally get to this story. I still had yet to read anything by Mister Doetsch, yet I’d met the quiet mystery man in person while in Boston this winter. I figured, based solely on the title, that I was in for some whacked out acid tripping dream about golf; Tiger Woods has three heads and melts into a puddle of sunflowers or some nonsense, before saving the world, and riding off into the sunset on a mechanized koala bear, a large-breasted President of the United States in his arms. You know, an upbeat romp fueled by whatever intentions and a need for Doetsch to amuse himself.

Instead, what we get is a contemporary fairytale for adults, something on par with The Brothers Grimm. Besides having the fantastic setting and elements of otherworldly time and science, there’s a Chorus-Verse-Chorus style to the storytelling. It’s quaint like a children’s song and not nearly as obnoxious as some of Palahniuk’s lesser novels. “The Mulligan” tells the story of mother and son, living together, surviving in a modern world populated by us and ladies in lakes, and angry, vengeful trees. It communicates a sense of the ever-evolving nature of story-telling, and with a tongue deftly planted in its cheek, shows you its handful of cards and lifts your wallet at the same time.

It’s hard to tell, exactly what is real in the world of “The Mulligan.” The unreliable narrator may or may not go to school. There may or may not be a girl there that becomes his boss, making all of his otherworldly decisions for him. His mother, while teaching him to rage against the machine, definitely takes great measures of pleasure, playing the role of both parents, doing her job the best she can, or maybe not. What is for sure, Doetsch made me look at my hand, looking for that girl’s fingers not entwined with mine. I miss having a boss. She was great at what she did, how she made me feel. I felt whole and I’d give anything to have that back.

Damn you, Mister Doetsch. Damn you.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 9: “Faces On the Milk Carton” by TW Brown

My general thoughts, when confronted with an alien invasion story usually involves anal probes, destruction on a grand scale, or maybe some wrinkly, loveable, creature devouring econo-sized bags of peanut butter flavored candies. TW Brown’s take on aliens coming to Earth is like nothing I’ve ever imagined before. Gone are the floating Simon game boards, freaking Richard Dreyfus out until he’s sculpting with his mashed potatoes. And forget the absurd thought of taking down a militant race by uploading a computer virus into the aliens’ network.

“Faces On the Milk Carton” chronicles the establishment of an alien race on Earth. They’re virtually invisible to the human eye and eat the essence of our children until their bodies dissolve. They’re carnivores with heart. Despite the fact that they eat our innocents, they make sure to peg the disappearances on those that prey on our kids, and they aim to take the children that need mercy from suffering. The story is a fascinating and original take on unexplained missing children cases, giving so many tragic tales, an almost, happy ending. It also takes on the reasons for dust motes, intuition, and paranoia.

Brown’s story is somewhat of a sunny spot in this collection. I know, aliens eating children totally sounds like an upper. But the narrator is a family man just making sure he and his can survive. In doing so, he’s trying to put a positive spin on some, otherwise, awful facts of life that we as people have yet to figure out how to put to an end. Children disappear sometimes. It happens. They runaway or they get taken. It’s all pretty horrible. “Faces On the Milk Carton,” does its best to make all of these things a little bit more palatable.

Fun Fact: Mister Brown also has an affinity for zombie stories. Inspect any food he gives you, it may be yourself.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 8: “Manger Dog” by Marc Rapacz

As a writer, one of the most haunting moments of pop-culture is a recurring exchange between Stewie and Brian on Family Guy. The infant is sardonically asking the family dog about the progress of a novel that he’s been writing for a number of years, with very little to show for all of Brian’s bravado. I’m certain that all of this translates in a stomach churning fashion to musicians, artists, any and all creative-types. Loneliness is being surrounded by people that do not care.

Hal is a family man, spending his time out in the barn, building his own furniture to sell. His wife dismisses him, her son thinks that he’s a joke, and the family dog can’t wait to runaway. Even the neighbors treat Hal with kid gloves, coddling the repeat failure, as he hasn’t created one piece of usable furniture in god knows how long. And then a delivery of exotic wood from faraway lands arrives, and Hal is struck with more inspiration than he knows what to do with.

Marc Rapacz tells a story of trial by fire, where the blaze never burns out. As an artist, you have to throw caution to the wind, ignore the haters, and put yourself into your work no matter the cost. Even then, when you’ve given it all you have, the end result may be nothing but a pile of rubble. Wives leave, children sneer, dogs will hate you. Sometimes, the art is in the effort and not so much the end result. Sometimes, the beauty is in the journey.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 7: “Think Tank” by Craig Wallwork

I read this out loud to my housemate and she grimaced, questioning why I couldn’t read her any “happy” stories. I argued that “Think Tank” was a happy story. It’s a story about sacrifice for the greater good, it gives back to those that give us life and love. She shrugged, displeased with my argument, that my summation wasn’t nearly as strong as the words contained within. Maybe she’s right, maybe I’m a sucker for a romantic martyr, no matter the depths that they dip their toes into before diving in head first.

The truth is, “Think Tank” isn’t happy. Like most, if not all, of the stories in The Booked. Anthology, Wallwwork’s story is dark and violent. People die, people bleed, and break, and suffer. The Booked. Anthology is a bleak look at life, a collection of the darkest times in the histories of its characters. But these people, the people we’ll never know contained within these stories, but for the glimpses we’ve been gifted, they live and breathe thanks be to these words. Authors like Wallwork are able to transport you into another world, and in this case, two separate periods of time that we haven’t even seen yet.

In a short few pages you feel for these people, this burned and beaten woman carrying her child within her. And with the ending, the means and the ends even out. You nod and mutter, “How right. That’s right.” And it isn’t because of trickery or special lighting. There is no swelling soundtrack to move your heart. It is simply Craig Wallwork’s words, crafted for you. There’s beauty in the power that Craig wields, and in that beauty, he earns admiration. He causes you to beg – do it again. Do it again.

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