Me, writing an review of an anthology: I will write an overall review about this book.
Me, writing a review of an anthology I really fucking like with stories that all feel very unique: I must talk about each individual story in this book.
Prepare yourself because I really fucking like Secret Faces by Kealan Patrick Burke.
I picked up Secret Faces after reading one of its stories, Mother/Nature, in Cemetery Dance. I have never been so impacted by a short story in all my life. I read it and sat there for a long time afterwards, not turning the page, just reflecting and reconsidering some major aspects of my life. Things felt different for me after I read Mother/Nature. That is incredible.
“Picked up” is honestly too casual a term. I read Mother/Nature, immediately looked up where I could find it and began recommending it to everyone I knew. Once I finally had Secret Faces in my hands, I devoured it. There was not a single story in the anthology that touched me the way Mother/Nature did. There might never be another story that impacts me the way that story did the first time I read it. I really mean that. But each and every story in Secret Faces was wonderful and I feel the need to tell you about them all.
Yes, I am even talking about the fucking introduction. Is that fangirling? Maybe. But I enjoyed it. Burke didn’t use the intro to talk about himself much at all. Instead he included a list of books that he “heartily recommends”. I was pretty excited to see some of my favourites on the list and lots more that I’d read. Anything that I hadn’t read made it to my to-read list pretty quickly. I trust this man’s recommendations and I am that writer who reads with the intention of learning to write more effectively.
I had no idea what the hell was going on for, like, three quarters of this story which is actually really cool. It was the perfect story to begin the anthology with because it does the Secret Faces thing so well. The narrator is completely unreliable but it took me a very long time for that to dawn on me. I think this might be because the story is told in the third person. I’d have been more suspicious, I think, of a first person narrator but I just didn’t expect Burke to lead me astray right off the bat. The story is suspenseful right from the very beginning and you’re nervous but for all the wrong reasons. Absolutely living up to the expectations that Mother/Nature set so far.
If you told me I had to read a story that was half about shit I would totally have turned up my nose. That sounds horrible. But Burke pulled it off. I’m not kidding you, the story is about a guy who has to shit so bad that he gets himself killed. It is crazy to me that I felt so nervous about this guy making it to the bathroom before he could shit himself- maybe even more nervous than I did about him having a gun in his face. The only bad thing about this story is that now I KNOW Burke has had some really awful bowel movements. You cannot write about it in that much detail without having experienced it.
THE END OF US
While Stalled had some serious comic relief, The End of Us was just so fucking dark. The story starts with a razor. Right off the fucking bat. And it just has a heaviness the entire way through that I didn’t experience in the other stories. Burke’s crude sense of humour was missing from this story. Luckily, I do like dark. The story stank of heartache and loss and was almost too relatable.
THE RED LIGHT IS BLINKING
I think this is the first story that left me feeling like Burke has that totally twisted mind that I so admire in a horror author. I’ve been trying not to tell a whole lot about the plot of each story- partially because I don’t want to give a whole lot away as this book is a must read and partially because I don’t want to insult these stories with my butchered summaries- but I just have to talk a little bit about the premise of this story. Internet trolls are drafted into a life or death contest to see just how good their trolling skills are. They’re forced to face off against each other while living in conditions only fit for a totally stereotyped troll. That’s not twisted enough for you? The bodies of failed trolls are put on display as warnings along with notes and threats of continued violence. Lemme just say that not only is it a killer idea, it is executed superbly. Burke, I am formally requesting a full-length novel about these happenings, please.
I feel like I may already have gushed about this one enough but just in case I wasn’t clear: I felt like I got the air knocked out of me as I finished reading this story. It changed me. Another incredible premise- the earth is reclaiming its territory. Mother Nature has taken it upon herself to take out her biggest enemy: the human race. Throw in an abusive relationship, damaged people, and the disease that is humanity and you have an absolutely earth-shattering story. There are some great (as well as some disturbing) visuals in this one and I want to hand this story over to my tattoo artist and ask him to recreate one of the images of Mother Nature doing the reclaiming bit. Be prepared to feel all the things when you read this story. It will stick with you forever.
I’M NOT THERE
Some people are absolutely exquisite writers but don’t have particularly creative concepts. Then there are writers who come up with the coolest ideas but don’t write them in a way that is particularly amazing. Kealan Patrick Burke has both of these talents. I’m Not There is a neat idea paired with the unhealed ex bit that Burke apparently does really well (any backstory you care to share there, Burke?) and kind of a dark, open-ended conclusion. Nothing will ever be able to follow Mother/Nature but this one worked its ass off trying.
Do you ever read a story and you’re like, what the hell just happened? Either I missed something, something went over my head, or the author is watching from somewhere close by enjoying the look of confusion on my face. I don’t think I got this one but I have a funny feeling that maybe I wasn’t really supposed to. Quite a few of the stories in Secret Faces allow the reader to go ahead and let their imagination help fill in some gaps in the endings. I love that. I enjoyed the story the entire way through, I loved the confusion, and when I was still a little confused at the end I wasn’t mad about it. I will have an extra wrinkle on my forehead courtesy of Burke after this one.
I fucking hated Adam. Right from the very beginning I hated the protagonist in this story. Actually, I wasn’t a huge fan of Adam’s one night stand either. The characters in the story kind of sucked, which made the ending disgustingly satisfying. Such a weird fiction feel to this one and I desperately want to see more of that from Burke.
I found Forced Entry really quite sad and I have a feeling that Burke wouldn’t be upset to hear that. Another unreliable narrator in this one but this time it is a feeble old lady whose mind is clouded with confusion and bubbling with paranoia that can’t get her story straight. As you move through the story there’s a home intrusion feel, a paranormal feel and finally just a real bleak sadness. So effective.
There are very few topics that I find hard to read but I will tell you right now that losing a child is one of them. I am not afraid of clowns or spiders or the dark or alien invasions. I am scared of the way a parent must feel if they lose a child. Add in some guilt surrounding the death and even trying to imagine that feeling gives me knots in my stomach. The Quiet is about that exactly and, yes, it fucking got to me. Parents be ware.
THE ONE NIGHT OF THE YEAR
There are some stories that are all about atmosphere. Creating a story that is all atmosphere takes a certain kind of talent. This is one of the things that I most admire about H.P. Lovecraft- he could create a story with a plot that could be described as mediocre at best but have such a strong atmosphere that the story was still exquisite. The One Night of the Year had an atmosphere that strong. It had such a gothic, haunting vibe that I ate it right up. It made me feel creative and inspired.
Stories that are heavy on text messages and the grammar (or lack thereof) that go along with that are super hard to pull off. When I think of formats like this the first author to come to mind is Chad Kultgen. He has a real knack for using text messages, casual speech, and hard language effectively. Text messages are the only device used to tell the story in Pig. That’s right. The entire story is horrifying grammar, ridiculous abbreviations and a thirsty guy- honestly all frightening. It is actually really neat because one of the texters (Did I just make that word up?) uses proper grammar and calls the other out for being an imbecile. Super predictable by design. Probably only like 200 words long but a really cool effect.
I used to see some reality show on T.V. back when I actually had T.V. about hoarders and it would make me start throwing my stuff out. That is the effect it had on me. This story was exactly the same. The descriptive language in this story was so good (bad?) that I could taste this fucking house. You know why hoarder’s houses bother me so much? It feels like you could get eaten by it. Fuck you, Burke.
The most incredible thing about Secret Faces as a collection is Burke’s ability to touch on so many different topics that really make you feel something. I can guarantee that there will be at least one story in this collection that gets to you. Whether you’re bothered by humanity’s selfishness, losing a parent to dementia, a troubled love life, guilt, horrific grammar, or shitting yourself because you can’t make it to the bathroom in time, there will be a real world event in this collection that shakes you up a little. And that’s before we even get to the monsters.
I think that is what a good horror short is all about. It isn’t just scaring the reader with things that are freighting but impossible. It is making them face the scary realities of our world. I feel like this is what Kealan Patrick Burke set out to do. Nailed it.