THE RED EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES by Joe McKinney (to be released 1/1/2012 by Redrum Horror / 356 pp / tp)
McKinney, best known for his Dead World zombie novels, here delivers a collection featuring a novella and seven shorts, most with a police-theme.
In the novella THE RED EMPIRE, a secret military bio-weapon is accidentally unleashed on a small town where a woman and her young daughter (who is recovering from having cornea implants) are trying to get home during a heavy rain storm. Adding to the problem is an escaped cop killer, who seeks refuge in the woman's isolated home. While the story is action-packed and will give you the willies, it's almost as if the killer-ant thing takes a back seat to the psycho/hostage drama. Good, if a bit uneven.
'Blemish' is a love/ghost story dealing with a cop who ends up leaving the force, and while I didn't find it spooky, McKinney's take on ghosts and lost love is well done. 'Cold Case' deals with a rookie cop who becomes fascinated with the story of a cop who was slain during his second day on the force...back in 1900. Why this short tale (which originally appeared on a true crime blog) was included in a horror fiction collection is anyone's guess.
My favorite piece here is titled 'The Old Man Under the Sea,' an addictive tale featuring Ernest Hemmingway in Cuba--fresh off a boxing match with Louis Lamour--who becomes enticed by a young girl, only to have her father threaten his life if he doesn't help him with a dangerous diving expedition. The suspense and mystery here never lets up, and McKinney handles this classic literary figure in a slick way.
'The Millstone' is a pointless trailer-trash outing about two sisters, their wacky neighbor, a cheating boyfriend, and an axe. Likewise, 'Empty Room' is a sort-of ghost tale about a suicidal would-be father. And a pistol. Both tales are forgettable.
The very-well done 'Burning Finger Man' pits a cop assigned to a housing project against an impossible-to-grab freak who molests women in the hallways then seemingly vanishes. Its cast of crackheads and hood rats gives it a genuine hood-film feel. The collection concludes with 'Eyes Open,' an apocalyptic/Lovecraftian yarn about a cop who becomes "enlightened" by a schziophrenic homeless man about a coming calamity. I'm a sucker for cult-themed stories and this one's quite satisfying.
THE RED EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES is all over the place, which is fine; but coming from a new small press dedicated to horror fiction, I was surprised to see so many non-genre stories in the mix. The good tales heavily outweight the bad (and thankfully, the longer stories are the more memorable), so it's still worth your time. This is the first I've read from McKinney and it's easy to see why he has so much material out there.