Heretics, by Greg F. Gifune

heretics-by-greg-f-gifune cover imageGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Delirium Books
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Jack Crane

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You’re not apt to find a more honest, or honestly terrifying, writer than Greg F. Gifune. His Bram Stoker Award nominated collection of short horror stories, Heretics, resonates with bona fide creepiness and displays a visionary, neo-classical prose signature, honed to a razor-sharp knife edge. Gifune manages to find time for plenty of sex and violence in this collection — and brushes elbows with the Prince of Darkness Himself on more than one occasion.

Heretics weaves an octet of short stories based on the theme of Homecoming. All of the stories to riff to the Prodigal Son groove — with one notable difference from the Biblical myth — on Gifune’s Satanic Cape Cod, Redemption may not be so easy to find.

Gifune takes up the sinister quality of falling snow in the opening story, “Ushers of Darkness”, which is an excellent Overture in theme and execution. The poetic use of snow as a harbinger of Absolute Evil is combined powerfully with a vignette-style tale of a man whose young wife has seemingly gone mad, and the professional Medium he contacts to try to help her. “Ushers of Darkness” is authentically terrifying.

The next story, “Vessel”, transposes on the Apocalyptic theme in earnest, with a nativity Ritual in Blood. I felt the set-up for this one, a sibling-abortion nightmare in Kafkaesque style was a bit too artificial. You can’t take anything away from Gifune as a technician, however, and even this Satan-as-a-Cannibalistic-Infant story, one of my least favorites from the collection, is flawlessly narrated.

Once Satan gets going, She’s very hard to stop — or escape. Gifune launches resistance in, “The Uncertainty of Darkness”, a violent and heroic dance with Lucy as Lucifer you won’t soon forget. When protag, Julian, returns to a porno underworld to take on the Enemy first hand, he makes first contact with Absolute Darkness. Gifune gives the reader a taste of thematic and stylistic fusion here drawing an Allegory in the style of Flannery O’ Connor with an interesting, almost Sartrian imperative.

“Creep” is a nerd-gets-violent-revenge story that, were it not for its unique blend of confessional and satirical theme, would come off rather cliched. In Gifune’s expert hands, however, this story terrifyingly succeeds — and reminds me in a very personal way — that we are forever responsible for the cruelty we perpetuate in this world — or we should be.

“Snow Angels” is a riff on cannibalism, sort of a “Salem’s Lot” permutation in short-short form. Like all of the stories, it’s narrative precision is unerring, though I found the historical backdrop of this one a bit unconvincing and the story’s shocking, satirical ending hard to sallow, pun intended.

One of the most frightening devices in Gifune’s formidable arsenal is his ability to weave ghostly and chilling descriptive passages. The narrative flow and careful treatment of sounds, colors, dialogue, and inner-monologue verge on brilliance throughout every story in the collection. Furthermore, the imagery of the stories is connected in a dreamlike, yet technically coherent, fashion. Gifune also manages to spark your pulse by hinting at a Terror beyond that presented on the page.

Two other shorts, “Past Tense” and “Restoration”, follow through with startling narrative technique, and horrifying premises. Gifune’s arrangement of the stories in this collection is brilliant. The tales rise in suspense and intensity, all the while Gifune’s narrative artistry becoming more and more apparent to the reader. And just when you think you’ve hit maximum intensity, Gifune sets you on fire with a masterwork you’ll never forget.

“Heretics” is quite simply the best horror novella I’ve read in years. As a fan of the “long” short-story, I’m always on the prowl for a good example of the form. Gifune’s thrilling, complex, socially aware, metaphysically dense novella gave me goose bumps, made me seriously reconsider my spiritual/moral bearing, and deepest of all had me smiling with vicarious pride at his devastating and studied prose technique. Plotwise, “Heretics” concerns three teenage outcasts, two young men, and a young lady who form a deep, mystical bond in a small town called Virtue. That their friendship will end tragically is never a question — however, even the most perceptive reader will likely fail to anticipate the shocker climax and resolution. “Heretics” is a masterpiece, destined to be read and discussed at a much greater length than this review can offer.

A reviewer offers opinions, sometimes lukewarm, sometimes passionate. With regard to Heretics, I can only hope that some of my passion and enthusiasm for Greg F. Gifune’s haunting and terrifying collection shows through. This is a book that you should buy and read even if it’s the only short story collection you buy in the next six months.

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