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Much of Stephen King's horror injects a fantastic element into a world recognizable as our own, in which his characters play circumstantial roles. In a similar manner, fantastic, twisted, frightening things happen in Dennis' stories, and the characters react and try to understand. They try to outwit, overpower, solve or stop the surreal events. In the end, however, most of Dennis' characters are powerless and impotent. They can't stop what happens. They can only witness and report the strange events. They cannot escape them. Much like the characters created by King.
Dennis' stories, however, more enthusiastically employ the themes and motifs found in the work of Edgar Allen Poe, an important progenitor of the modern short story, particularly the horror genre. Most if not all of Poe's protagonists are monomaniacs who become entirely fixated on a single concept or idea. Poe himself fixates on dead or dying wives, premature burials, decomposition, resurrection, and communication from beyond the grave in many of his tales. Many of Poe's tales are also told in the unreliable first-person by unnamed narrators. Poe believed that quality work (with the exception of novels) should be short enough to be read at a single sitting and focused on a specific single effect or emotional response. Most if not all the stories in Terrible Thrills subscribe to these principles established by Poe in the 1830s and 1840s with such tales as "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Premature Burial." Even Dennis' title suggests that each story in Terrible Thrills has an intentional single effect, their very own terrible individual thrill.
Five of the twenty-five stories in Terrible Thrills are less than half a page long. At this length, Dennis does not traditionally develop these motley fictions with scenes and dialogue. They are each based on a single simple motif, and four of them deal with murder, death, disease and resurrection. One of these fictions, "The Laughing Picture," clearly suggests a larger, longer, more complex story behind the simple facade presented to readers. Hemingway might have approved this latter fiction, since it stretches his famous iceberg theory to the breaking point for its greatest effect for the careful reader. "Winter's Reign" personifies the seasons, turns them into a familiarly dysfunctional family. Winter, the youngest of four brothers, has taken over the world from his brother Autumn, and currently holds off his brother Spring as long as he can. The seasons here are turned into something like the child's game 'King of the Hill' under the watchful eyes of Mother Nature and Father Time.
"The Laughing Picture" is told by an unnamed first-person narrator who has taken a photo of the object of his affections, though she doesn't know he has the photo. The day she shrugs off his love, laughing at him and walking away, her picture starts to laugh at him at night, cackling, roaring laughter. That is, until he kills her. Then it begins to scream. The interesting point of this story is the questions that remain. Are the narrator and the woman lovers? Or has the narrator developed the relationship in his mind without interacting with the woman except for the single pivotal instance? Is the narrator a serial killer? Has he done this before? Will he do it again?
In "Ghostwriting," Lester, a successful novelist, has left Peter, a writer suffering five years of writer's block, an unfinished manuscript. Peter finally finishes Lester's novel, the "words flowing like wine from his fingers" and "the clacking of the keys like the voices of angels." When the novel is finished and Peter looks over the manuscript, he discovers that the writing is Lester's, not his own. And when he looks in the mirror, Peter sees Lester peering back, emerging from the mirror one page at a time.
"Patches" features another nameless monomaniacal protagonist. In this flash fiction, the monomaniac starts out harmlessly patching a beach ball and his own pants. But when his shoulder becomes diseased, he steals flesh from a homeless man in an alley and patches his shoulder. As the disease progresses, he continues to patch his body with skin from other people, until he is a patchwork of ever-rotting skin.
In "High!" another nameless protagonist finds his most impossible fear realized. He feels something like a bowling ball in his throat, working its way up, and realizes that he is floating away. His tries to grasp a telephone wire as he floats upward toward the clouds, to stop his ascent, but the ground quickly becomes a hazy patchwork and the world continues to shrink as he rises, until it is gone in the depths of space.
Death & Burials
Death is a theme that Dennis comes to again and again in his writing. Though death figures into many of Dennis' stories, four stories in this collection focus solely on death and burial, with many of the other themes described above mixed in for thrilling measure.
Terrible Thrills opens with "Preparations," one of Dennis' best stories in this collection. In this short 2-page story, Dennis manages to paint a reality eerily similar to our own with one very important and disturbing distinction. The single scene is simple enough. Mr. Seagle's wife, Astrid, has been dead only a few hours, and Mr. Seagle has come to Mr. Perry's office to make arrangements. The story is nothing more than a common interview one might have with a funeral director. Mr. Seagle, who loved his wife dearly, wishes to spare no expense for her preparations. We learn that she has died from lung cancer and has about a dozen friends. She is five and a half feet tall and weighs about 120 pounds. Mr. Seagle wants to have the ceremony as soon as possible at his home before she decays. We also learn that Mr. Perry's company will provide the rib spreader to remove Astrid's lungs because "no one's going to want to eat cancer-ridden lungs" for dinner. Ah, cannibalism at its finest!
"Astrid Like A Candle," which appears later in the collection, shares the characters of Mr. Seagle, Mr. Perry and Astrid with "Preparations." Though unrelated, "Astrid Like A Candle" deals with Astrid's burial. In "Astrid Like A Candle," Mr. Seagle inexplicably finds himself trapped inside the metal coffin with her body. He can't say why he might be in her closed coffin, but he feels the coffin being wheeled into Astrid's funeral, then out of the room and into the hearse. As the story develops, Mr. Seagle discovers that Astrid's body is like soft wax, then discovers that his body and hers have begun to melt together like two candles, and that he is slowly, stickily dissolving into her. He begins to panic. When they are being lowered into the grave, Mr. Seagle hits the lid of the coffin with his remaining free hand in an effort to escape, only to feel his waxy fingers fall back onto his body from where they stuck to the lid of the coffin. Soon he feels his skull flatten and melt into hers. Then there is only the burbling of their bodies and the sound of the dirt being tossed into the grave. In this story, not only is Mr. Seagle buried alive, his body has been permanently bonded to Astrid's corpse.
"In the Veins" might remind readers of the famous cave scene in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Poe's "Cask of Amontillado." An unnamed tour guide has led a group of ten thrill-seeking teenagers, including the unnamed claustrophobic narrator and his girlfriend, Rebecca, down into the winding catacombs beneath an unnamed city on Halloween night, and then quietly slipped away in the darkness. This is the first half of the tour; the second half is finding the way back out. The only light is a single bulb at the end of the hallway where the guide has left them. As the group splits up again and again, the narrator and Rebecca find themselves alone together in total darkness, and the narrator's sanity begins to unravel. He recalls the rumor that one year someone never made it out, and he imagines finding this lost one's skeleton with dried blood on the wall from his efforts to dig his way out. A short time later, he begins to hyperventilate so that Rebecca leaves him to find the exit and get help for him. By the end of the story, the narrator wanders the catacombs aimlessly, no longer afraid of being lost. He has taken the lost one's place.
"The Strange Thing that Happened at the SpinCycle Laundry" has long been one of my favourite stories penned by Dennis. It was first published in a short chapbook called Blue Collar, which I happened to design and publish (it is a great chapbook -- get a copy if you can!). Harris and the narrator (yet again nameless) work at the SpinCycle Laundry & Linen. On this particular day, one of the industrial washing machines has broken down during the spin cycle, and Harris attempts to repair it, but his hand slips and something flies out of the washer and hits him in the head, killing him. They place his body on the couch in the manager's office. Just minutes later, however, Harris stumbles out of the manager's office and walks right back over to the washing machine as though nothing has happened. Everyone at the laundry watches Harris work. Harris can't speak, but tries to, mouthing words as needed. He also moves slowly, and at one point, Harris forgets that he's holding the wrench he needs and the narrator tells him the wrench is in his hand. Soon Harris has the washer back in working order, and he simply walks back into the manager's office and lies back down on the couch, settling in for a good long nap.
Body parts play an important role in the horror genre, even in Poe's time. That beating tell-tale heart, for example. Today, we need only glimpse at the horror films for rent at any Blockbuster, Family Video, Hollywood Video or similar business. Body parts are big in horror. As one might expect, Dennis also likes to play with body parts and turn them loose in his stories. "Bob's Leg" is one of the most entertaining stories in this collection. It can't be forgotten easily by anyone who has ever worked at any fast food restaurant. The well-wrought ironies in "Bob's Leg" are nearly worth the price of admission. In this story, Steven coaxes Jared to ask their manager, Bob, how he lost his leg and which one is prosthetic. After a few minutes of coaxing, when the restaurant is empty, and Bob, who is in a good mood this day, is whistling 'Chattahoochee,' Jared asks Bob about the leg. To Jared's delight, Bob agrees to show him which leg is prosthetic first and then to tell him how he lost his real leg. They go to the men's room, where Bob locks the door and lifts his left pant leg. Then Bob, as he had agreed, shows him how he lost the leg. Bob hikes his right pant leg to display two dozen thin pink scars from the knee down. The scars smile, yawn and open to display double rows of pointed teeth and long forked tongues, and half the mouths open wide and spit tiny splinters into Jared's body, paralyzing him. Bob tells Jared how he lost the leg. "The other leg ate it...Sometimes it does get hungry. Like now," Bob says. After a few minutes, Bob opens the men's room door a few inches and peeks out. "Steven, you might as well see, too. I know you're dying to," says Bob.
"Inside" is a mere two pages long. It might have been classified as a flash fiction for this review, but it is four times longer than the flash fictions discussed previously. Like them, however, this story deals with a single simple motif similar to "High!" Michael is moving into a new apartment with a much better view than his old apartment, which looked out on a brick wall, and he has scratched himself on a nail somehow. The scratch is three inches long just a couple inches right of his navel. It bleeds a little but does not hurt. Michael becomes lost in his thoughts about the city only to discover that he has worried his forefinger into the scratch up to the first knuckle. In surprise, he jerks his finger out, turning the scratch into a cut now an inch longer. But this doesn't hurt like it should. Michael continues to experiment with the cut in his abdomen and tears the cut until it is as wide as his body. Widening the wound and inserting his fingers and hands, however, Michael has felt no pain or, more surprisingly, body parts. He rips his flesh up the middle and inside sees blackness, stars and tiny planets. He leans into himself for a better look, loses balance, and falls into his own wound. He tumbles end over end and the stars and planets rise up to greet him.
"Parliament of Jim," like other stories in the collection, might have been written to answer a question. What if a man's body is not really under his control but the control of his body's systems and these systems no longer like the decisions that are being made? In "Parliament of Jim," Jim has made 5273 decisions against his body's wishes over the past two years. This particular morning, after a night of drinking and more bad decisions, Jim finds himself unable to get out of bed. Though the sun should be shining in his window, he can't see anything. His head hurts. He has to urinate. He tries to roll off the bed, but his body refuses to move. He thinks perhaps he is so literally exhausted that he can't get up, until his body speaks to him. The parts and systems don't want him to get up, and he can't see anything because they have disabled his vision. One by one, Jim's systems are allowed to speak, to decide which of them will next be trusted with control of his body. The Ringmaster leads the proceedings. Each system testifies to their condition and the damage caused by Jim's poor decisions. The final vote rules that Jim is the most unfit to control his body, so he no longer has a say.
Several stories discussed earlier in this review, particularly "In the Veins" and "Parliament of JIm," deal in some way with identity, or the lack of identity. The theme of identity, however, finds fuller expression in two stories in this collection, among others discussed later in this review.
In "Plaything," Phillip Gordon suddenly and inexplicably finds himself suddenly in the body of Owen Marus staring at himself across the break room table. Phillip doesn't know who is now in his own body, and the person now in his body doesn't notice anything wrong. Throughout the shift, Phillip-mind slips into the bodies of other co-workers without warning, and no one but Phillip notices anything amiss. Work progresses as usual. Though the switch is disorienting for Phillip, there is no pop or feeling of any kind, except a headache, which he brings with him from body to body. Toward the end of the story, the pay phone in the break room rings, and Phillip-mind in the body of yet another co-worker answers. The voice on the other end tells Phillip-mind that the day is almost over and that Phillip will be coming home soon, but home is not Phillip's body. The voice on the phone tells Phillip that Phillip does not have a body, just temporary bodies to use as the caller wishes, like living Barbie dolls. "You're my toy," says the caller, "and I have to admit, the best one I've ever had."
"The Stand-In" is an unconventional horror story. Nothing supernatural or inexplicable takes place in this story. Fifteen-year-old Timothy discovers his adoption papers while rummaging through his father's desk looking for money, and confused wonders who he is if not his Dad's son. Curious, Tim locates his biological father over the Internet and invites him to their home. A couple weeks later, Tim's father shows up while his Mom and Dad are at the grocery store, and Tim is surprised how pleasant and intelligent he is, until his Mom and Dad get home. Then Tim's father suddenly turns violent, and beats and binds Tim's Mom and Dad with duct tape. Tim watches in shock, and is surprised by his Dad's courage in the face of violence. Despite seeing his wife knocked out, and being knocked unconscious and painfully bound himself, Tim's Dad remains calm throughout the ordeal. Tim wonders how his Dad can make smart-ass remarks when three of the four people in the room don't know if they are coming out of there alive. Tim's father blames his adoptive parents for taking Tim away from him, as though Tim were something to be stolen. Soon Tim realizes that heredity doesn't determine the man he will become, and takes courage from his Dad's example. He realizes that his father provided the seed for him, but his Dad has made him the boy he is, and it is up to him to decide the man he will become. And with that final realization, Tim gathers his wits and courage, stops his father's senseless rampage, and saves his Mom and Dad.
Vampires, Demons, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & the Otherwise Supernatural
Every successful writer of horror has probably written about the classic horror mainstays at one time or another: vampires, demons, shapeshifters and similar supernatural characters. Stephen King, the most successful horror writer and a fave for Dennis, comes immediately to mind. Dennis is no exception. These classic horror characters fascinate Dennis as much as they fascinate other writers and the public. They are the subjects of numerous blockbuster films with big name stars. While Dennis isn't a big name star, he's got grit enough to spin some memorable supernatural tales with a twist.
"The Salvation of Victor" is not your typical vampire story. Victor drinks no one's blood in this story, though he has done so to stay alive (as it were), and no one is turned into a vampire. Instead, this story deals with a vampire who has tired of living and lost his true identity to that nocturnal lifestyle. He has become bored and depressed with choosing his victims, telling people he's moving or faking his own death, time after time. He longs for something new, but after 300 hundred years, he feels he has seen all he wishes to see. For Victor, nothing changes. In 300 years, Victor has also changed his name so many times has forgotten his real name. Though even vampires are afraid of death, Victor has decided to kill himself in this story. Thoughtful readers might associate Victor's loss of identity, a frequent theme in Dennis' work, with Victor's profound depression and desire to end his own life.
"The Legend of Mr. Cairo" will be another reader favourite in this collection. This story creates, so far as I am aware, an entirely new legend to account for the story Dennis has written. This story takes place during a single afternoon, but Mr. Cairo's legend begins 600 years in the past, in a small farming village near Cairo, Egypt, from which Mr. Cairo gets his name. One night, Mr. Cairo killed his parents and draped their intestines about their home, then moved through each hovel in his village, killing every man, woman and child, every living thing, until he was the only thing left alive. After this first massacre, Mr. Cairo went from village to village, torturing and killing. Eventually the Benendanti, people who can see ghosts and true witches, discovered him and found a demon inside, a demon who had been so long inside him that the soul and the demon had merged so completely that the demon could not be safely exorcised. In trying to do so, they released a pair of purely evil but joined spirits to possess others at will and continue their torturous work of delivering pain in ever new and increasingly morbid, terrible ways forever. This back history is skilfully intertwined like the souls of Mr. Cairo and the demon as this story unfolds one afternoon. The story opens with Morghan Stanley, a home appraiser, who is hit with a hammer on the back of the head by a beautiful, golden-skinned, big-and-dark eyed woman, only to awaken in the basement of the home he has come to appraise. "That is the first wound," the exotic woman tells him. "Expect five more." As Morghan tries to get up, she continues to torture him by breaking his arm at the elbow and the big toe on his right foot with a nutcracker, counting off each wound, a wound for each 100 years Mr. Cairo has been spirit. With the last wound, the demon will be manifest, and the surprises begin. One of Dennis' best, this story keeps readers until the very last word, and leaves them wanting more and hoping for a sequel.
In "Mistress," another noteworthy story in this collection, Dennis creates a unique alternative universe where fantasy fulfilment has become a cheap imported industry of unknown origin (like some we may recognize in our world). In this universe, Mistresses are women who with a simple touch can project the likeness of anyone into their lover's mind. Mistresses enjoyed great financial rewards as they fulfilled their clients' sexual fantasies, but since the sudden appearance of the mysterious godboxes, which are considerably cheaper and more powerful at fulfilling fantasies, Mistresses have become little more than second-rate prostitutes. Rebecca is one such Mistress, who has lost touch of her self-identity and self-worth, like so many characters in Dennis' stories, but also fallen for Lenny, one of her last regulars. So on impulse she buys a cheap, barely-used, slightly dented godbox off a street vendor outside her window, out of both curiosity and her own need to be fulfilled. When she tries the godbox for the first time, she is suddenly transported into a fantasy world, a party thrown to honor Rebecca, filled with shining people, bright lights, and beautiful furniture. The first strange thing Rebecca notices is that everyone wears blank alabaster and porcelain masks, some edged in gold and chrome. Fantastically enough, Lenny is one of the masked people at this party. After a dance or two, Lenny leads her away from the others into a room where they are alone. They have sex, and Lenny tells her all the things she has wanted to hear, how she is the one he always thinks of no matter who he is with. Then Rebecca opens her eyes to see blank masked faces in the shadow of the room watching them, and their sex grows painful, burning. Rebecca finally pulls away from Lenny and rushes back to the party, where everyone the party has stopped and everyone stares at her. "Something's wrong," she tells them. The blank faces assure her everything is fine. "It's just a little dent," says one blank masked face. Suddenly, for readers, this one short sentence draws the entire history and purpose of this single dented godbox into question, and all godboxes everywhere. To Rebecca's dismay, she discovers all doors lead back to the party, not to the safety of her apartment, and to her horror, she realizes she cannot leave this party thrown just for her. For Rebecca, there is nothing left to do but accept her fate and join the crowd of blank faces once more, the party again in full hypnotic swing. In some ways, this story is a statement about industry in general, where cheaper is not always better, and tall promises of fulfilment are often empty and soulless.
"The Flesh-Method & Myriad" opens with a scene like something from a sci-fi version of the film "The Fugitive." Anderssen is escaping a mysterious compound run by the Trust, chased by 'Hounds, breeded by the Trust, who would tranquilize him (or, Dennis tells us, they might be using real bullets this time) and drag him back to the complex against his will. For Anderssen, the only choice is to elude his pursuers, because at least then he is free to choose what happens to him. During the story, Dennis reveals that the Truth's purpose concerns eternal life, cloning, cybernetics and other fields of study. For research purposes, they have acquired the body of a laundry worker who had come back to life minutes after being pronounced dead to finish repairs on a broken washer before finally slipping quietly into death, and had also acquired the ashes of an actual vampire who had committed suicide by flying over Lake Michigan at daybreak (these should sound familiar!). At the fence at the boundary of the Trust's complex, Anderssen transforms himself to make the leap from a tree over the fence to freedom. As the chase enters the nearby city, Anderssen notices that a Director has joined the hunt for him, which means that the Trust wants him alive, and he is likely to spend the rest of his life in Evolution Chambers, changing, becoming ever less human. At the final confrontation in the story, Anderssen is struck by lightning in mid-leap and disappears. Only his charred and burning jumpsuit falls to the ground. Unknown to the Trust, the lightning has reacted with Anderssen's evolved body and freed his mind somehow, and all the others inside him. He is no longer Jude Anderssen; he is now Myriad, and flies away on leathery wings to plan the Trust's destruction and their revenge.
The story that gives this collection its title, "Terrible Thrills," is a two-part tale, tied together by a single Halloween novelty CD called Terrible Thrills. In the first part of this story, Chris plays Track One: The Murder for trick-or-treaters, and ends up daydreaming the events from the sounds on the CD, a story about Edward murdering Alice for infidelity. At one point, Edward burns Alice with a curling iron. When Chris is startled awake by the phone, he knocks over the CD player with his foot and the CD rolls across the floor as his friend Eric leaves a short message. He also discovers that he has acquired a burn where Alice was burned in Track One. The second part of this story transitions to Eric as he hangs up the phone and starts playing the same novelty CD. He doesn't like Track One and so skips to Track Two: Mayhem, a cacophony of ringing bells, whistles, sirens and screams, and answers the door to trick-or-treaters. The father who accompanies the children smiles at Eric, but then his expression changes and his chest puffs out and he charges into Eric's house and begins to savagely attack him. Eric manages to shove the man back outside and slams and locks his door, all while the CD continues to play. The man begins to pound on the window. The trick-or-treaters begin to pound on another window, wanting to get in. The father breaks in and attacks Eric again. Eric quickly decides he can call the police from the neighbour's house and tries to escape, but he is tripped and bitten by one of the trick-or-treaters, a clown. Eric manages to get back inside his house and yells at other trick-or-treaters passing by to call the police, but they are quickly swayed by the CD and, like the first trick-or-treaters, began to attack Eric. Eric's neighbour even comes out of his house to attack Eric. The attackers begin to bite Eric, and every trick-or-treater who comes near joins in the feast. The "Terrible Thrills" CD plays on in the house into morning. Of course, this story will probably remind readers of Night of the Living Dead, and Dennis pointedly alludes to the film in the second part of this story.
Though I don't like the title "Angels of No Mercy" and feel it would be better as just Angels of Mercy for the ironies it would provide with the story, "Angels of No Mercy" is a fine short story that gets right to the point. This story is like an episode from the classic Twilight Zone series of the 1960s, and it is every bit as twisted and entertaining. Stone, an American soldier, is awakened by a scream, but the other soldiers in his tent have not stirred, so he investigates. In the med tent he finds two nurses starting IVs for morphine for sick and injured soldiers. Stone recognizes some of the soldiers, however, and they should not need morphine. Then he notices that the nurses are breaking the clips on the IV lines so that morphine flows freely into the soldiers, killing them. As Stone confronts the nurses, he is drugged from behind with a syringe by a third nurse he had not noticed. When Stone awakes, he has been prepped for an IV like all the other soldiers in the tent, but one of the nurses had to borrow more morphine from another unit. While they wait for this nurse to return, Stone learns that each of the nurses was killed on the battlefield during different wars. One started killing American soldiers like this in 1882. Another was the first American nurse to die on foreign soil in the Spanish-American War. Another was killed during the Vietnam war. They go from unit to unit killing the injured or ill. As they start Stone's IV, he is able to break free, and though groggy fights them as best he can, until Nurse Jane, who had died during World War I in 1919, shoots him in the head. After Stone's body has stopped spasming, these Angels of No Mercy load their supplies into a truck and head for another nearby unit, where they have heard that a squad is targeting an enemy hospital where higher ranking officers are recuperating. This story is like an episode from the classic Twilight Zone series of the 1960s, and it is every bit as twisted and entertaining. Rod Serling would be proud.
Fairy Tales & Legends
These stories take a conventional legend, fairy tale or myth and rewrite it, turn it on its head, with pleasing, entertaining, sometimes terrifying consequences. No matter how frightening, they are engrossing, and the reader cannot stop himself. He just has to see what happens until the story ends.
"Coming Down the Mountain" is an effective little tale that reminds us why the ancient Greeks may have worshipped their gods -- they had to or suffer unspeakable acts of depravity and torture. In this story, a small group of explorers has nearly reached the summit of Mount Olympus and set up camp for the night; two have been injured that day and cannot make the final climb. The next morning, Barrett, Toomey and Seamoon, the remaining members of the expedition, climb the final stretch to the summit and find the legendary Pantheon, and two pairs of footprints in the dust inside where Barrett, unknown to the others, completed the climb before anyone else had awakened and met Hermes, the small golden god with winged feet. Of course, they are surprised to find the gods alive and well! Emboldened by the miraculous find, Toomey and Seamoon eagerly try to convince Hermes to return with them to civilization, so things will be like they were so many centuries ago. As they try to persuade Hermes, a door behind them opens and suddenly Toomey's head is ripped from his body. Barrett, we learn, has been Hermes pawn, his will stolen by Hermes when he first arrived at the Pantheon that morning. Seamoon watches and listens in silent horror as Dionysus next rips Seamoon's clothes from his body and has his way with him. "Hurry," Hermes says in his small golden voice, "there's more down the mountain." And with that, the Greek gods return to earth, surely never to be forgotten again.
In "Working for the Fat Man," one of the better stories in this collection, Santa has refused to change a thing to compete with the big toy manufacturers. His workshop has kept turning out the same old wooden trains and tops while the toy manufacturers make fun, exciting toys kids love. Everyone thinks Santa is a jolly old soul, but the elf who narrates this story knows better. He is disgruntled and disillusioned with Santa, and Santa has a dirty little secret we don't know anything about. He takes a child from the naughty list -- literally takes the naughty child, though never an only child -- back to the North Pole with him. This holiday, though, the elf who narrates this story pulls a switch and takes the twin who has been good. Now what Santa does to these naughty kids is particularly naughty, though the elves ignore what goes on in the back room with Santa and never talks about it even with each other. But what happens to Santa when he unknowingly takes this good twin instead of the naughty twin into the back room is truly grotesque and frightening. And what Santa does to the offending elf is even more horrible and terrifying yet. Dennis has great fun with readers with this tale. For horror fans who enjoy Christmas horror, this story isn't to be missed.
"Luck of the Draw" retells and reshapes a classic fairy tale from the point of view of John, the sympathetic sheriff of a small German village. Every year John administers the annual lottery, which decides which child will be given to the witch in the forest. Only this year, the witch visits him before the lottery and demands two children for the upcoming lottery and all future lotteries. By chance, a brother and sister are chosen and given to the witch in the forest. John, already tormented by the responsibility of the lottery and the grief it brings each year, is doubly tormented by the new requirement, and drinks himself into a days-long stupor. When he awakens one evening, instead of killing the witch as he has fantasized, he prepares to take his own life with his rifle, only to be stopped short of the deed by an excited villager who bursts into his house with the surprising news that the children -- Hansel and Gretel -- have returned! They have tricked the witch into climbing into her own oven. "Luck of the Draw" is a simple story with a satisfying alternate perspective of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale with a twist: Dennis doesn't reveal the names of the children until the last page of the tale, providing a satisfying ah-ha pulled out of the sleeve of his tuxedo. Like any skilled magician, Dennis makes this kind of trick look easy. Though not the strongest story in the book, it is nonetheless an interesting exercise to demonstrate how a famous story may be skilfully rewritten only to reveal the original source with an unexpected twist in the very last moments. Of course, readers may also be reminded of Shirley Jackson's short story classic, "The Lottery."
By now, readers familiar with Christianity will notice that many Christian names and themes appear in Dennis' stories. Two stories in this collection are particularly noteworthy for their overtly religious subjects and themes.
I must admit that I've not been well-studied in biblical themes, so the first time I read "The Son of Man," its relevance was lost on me. I simply didn't get it. To this day, I don't understand why Dennis included this story. This story is no thrill ride or spine-tingler like the other stories in this collection. "The Son of Man" is the weakest story because nothing of consequence occurs to the characters or to the world. Though the other tales in the book are thrilling, with unexpected turnabouts and twists, this story simply seems to dissipate at its end, like its subject matter, the Son-of-Man-cloud. Three friends, named after saints Anthony, Francis and Irenaeus, all begin to see a shape in the clouds above the city which portends the second coming of Christ: "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." As months pass, the shape, which had begun in the shape of a spine in a fetal position, acquires ribs, a femur, and other cloud-bones. Anthony, Iren and Francis feel anxious all through this time, until finally on December 3rd, the Feast Day of St. Francis, a skull appears in the clouds and completes the cloud-skeleton, which then comes alive, breaks through Anthony's house, and consumes each of the friends one at a time (they simply disappear into the cloud-skeleton's mouth). Afterward, the cloud-skeleton disappears, its bones drifting apart and evaporating to nothing. Though the three men presumably die, they have only been able to watch helplessly. They have not been able to take action of any kind to protect themselves or foretell the Christ's Second Coming. Nothing occurs to the planet in this story, either. The Son of Man, in this tale, like its main characters named after saints, is impotent, not powerful and glorious as much of the world would have everyone believe. Perhaps readers more scholarly than I can make better sense of this tale and find in it more meaning and terror. I just don't get it. But perhaps the impotence of the main characters and the Son of Man *IS* the point of this allegory.
"In the Town of Broken Dreams," Dennis again works a Catholic saint into one of his stories. Unlike "The Son of Man," however, this story is a page turner, complex and rewarding. Saint Jude Thaddaeus, patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, has come to Yellow Brook, Kansas, population 257, to heal Ellie's damaged lungs. To heal her, he must put his hands on her, but Ellie, an old frail librarian, is frightened and cries for help, and this is where things go bad. After a chase through town, Jude is finally caught by a small group of townspeople and taken to the county jail. As the sheriff interviews him, they learn that Ellie has just died. Although the townspeople are already worked up over the attack, with Ellie's death, they turn ugly and a small mob storms the jail and kills Saint Jude. The sheriff, friends with every member of the mob, decides to cover up the murder and tells everyone in the mob, to come to the jail that night with shovels, and they bury Saint Jude in an unmarked grave. But Dennis wisely and brilliantly doesn't end the story here. He toys with his readers a few pages longer. After Jude's death, dreams that were once being fulfilled for the townspeople, particularly members of the mob, are suddenly, tragically, shattered. Billy Ashley, a singer in a local band, has sparked some interest from a recording label, but he is diagnosed with throat cancer within days of Jude's murder. Cecil and Judy Starmer have just paid the down payment on their first home and spent only one night in it before learning that the foundation is crumbling and it is termite infested; in less than two weeks their dream home collapses. Susan Jagger, a young gymnast and Olympic hopeful, is a passenger in a car driven by her father when they are involved in a head-on accident which kills him and severs both her legs at the knees. For the sheriff, it is "a hell of a thing," and he loses the next election by a landslide. Though he had not been convinced that Jude was a saint sent to heal Ellie, the sheriff has long since begun to wonder whether Jude really had been telling the truth, and plans to dig up the body in the hopes he'll find some kind of an answer. Of course, Dennis ends the story here, so the reader is left wondering as well, though the sheriff is likely to get his answers off stage. In a similar manner, Poe leaves readers to wonder about Montresor's motive for murder in "The Cask of Amontillado." Poe's readers know everything about the murder, except his one important element.
In character, the 25 stories in C. Dennis Moore's Terrible Thrills resemble the work of Stephen King, the modern master of horror. On the other hand, these stories are indelibly reminiscent of the themes and style of Edgar Allan Poe, grandfather of the modern horror story. In these stories we find death, corpses, hungry body parts, evolving identities, supernatural beings, and myths and legends turned inside-out. Like Poe's tales, Dennis' stories are colorful, curious and thrilling, psychologically terrifying for their characters but fascinating and riveting for readers who dare to keep reading. Sometimes, despite the subject matter, C. Dennis Moore even makes us laugh. Nervously.
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