I am finding it hard to make time to review all the books I'm plowing
through lately, but The Number 121 to Pennsylvania and Others demands I make the time, for several good reasons.
I fully enjoyed every story in the collection, which is a rare thing. I've read several of Burke's books recently (Kin, and the whole Timmy Quinn series, review to come soon, I promise) and have yet to be disappointed; in fact I'd lay money that with his talent and his abundant output, he could be the "next big thing" in horror. With a nostalgic, sometimes elegiac, nuance that nods to Stephen King (especially in short form) and a deft treatment of the dark things lurking on the fraying fringes of normalcy that brings to mind John Connelly's Charlie Parker books, what's not to like? Also, Burke turns some lovely and evocative phrases: a graveside priest becomes "an oversized raven with a scabrous pink beak and a silver crown"; and a melancholy retiree watches "the sun die a phoenix death, bruising the clouds as it struggled to stay afloat." Maybe it's that Irish gift of palaver, but I'm hooked. The stories are so uniformly great I want
to write about them all, but that would ruin the fun, so I'll just mention a few that represent Burke's range.
On the black-comedy side, I loved "High on the Vine," a clever suburban retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, complete with disgruntled neighbors and paparazzi. And, as someone who went through the misery of quitting cigarettes fairly recently, I still have empathy for smokers, and snickered all the way through the nanny-state horror of "Prohibited," sort of like King's "Quitters, Inc." with a shot of post-911 paranoia.
As for the more traditional scare, Burke has an eerily evocative way with that helpless, paralyzing fear unique to childhood, the cold certainty that something is coming to get you -- and you can't do a thing about it -- which he uses to great effect in "Snowmen" and "Mr. Goodnight." And the tension-fueled, almost novella-length closer "Saturday Night at Eddie's," an excerpt from the novel Currency of Souls, made me buy the longer work immediately. Can't wait to dive in.
Finally, and this is big, there were two stories in this collection that are going to stay with me -- in fact, they horrified the absolute bejayzus out of me. I'm not an easy scare (but I keep trying), so that was a real treat. I would caution readers so very much not to take on the back-to-back brain-f**k that is "Empathy" and "Peekers" just before bed. I read "Empathy," an information age nightmare in the vein of "Ringu/The Ring," but rooted in an actual atrocity, and knew that shouldn't be the last thing on my mind before I slept. So I blithely continued on with the short, sharp and aggressively uncanny creepfest that is "Peekers," a story which makes me wish fervently that I lived in a wide-open warehouse space with no corners or doorjambs. (Alas, I live in a Victorian with many nooks, crannies and sliding pocket-doors just perfect for . . . peeking.) I stared at the space between my sliding doors until sleep finally carried me off. I felt like I was ten again, sleeping with the light on so nothing could get me. The following day I watched the short film made from that story (there's a link on Burke's author page here), hoping that if I saw it, it would somehow banish the lingering unease. No such luck.
So . . . well-played, Mr. Burke. You win, and so do your readers with this fine collection. Five solid stars.