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Spotlight on: Tom Piccirilli
Tom Piccirilli, Headstone City
It's easy to admire Tom Piccirilli's versatility. Even though his novels often share certain themes, there is not one very much like another. Even more amazing is how he begins Headstone City in much the same way as his previous novel, November Mourns -- with a man returning home after some time spent in jail to find a task set before him -- yet decorates this simple plot device with a completely different motivation, setting, and cast of characters.
When his friend Vinny Monticelli's sister, Angelica, had a bad reaction to some recreational drugs, Johnny "Dane" Danetello attempted to drive her to the hospital in his cab, hitting a police officer on the way. Angelica died despite his efforts, and the killing of the police officer, especially considering Dane's already lengthy record, got him sent up for five years, and Vinny subsequently put a contract on his now ex-best friend.
Now Dane is back in town, talking to ghosts and trying settle an old score.
Author Tom Piccirilli's literary sense in Headstone City is phenomenal. Within the confines of the noir genre, he references Shakespeare, gangsters, and Old Hollywood, with room enough left for a subplot involving ghosts, dreams, and alternate realities (and don't worry -- he didn't leave out the "ill children" of his previous two novels, the aforementioned November Mourns and its predecessor, A Choir of Ill Children). And in the midst of all the darkness, there is still room for nostalgia (I got nostalgic myself upon reading the passage about "my mother's old forty-fives. With the little plastic thing in the middle so they'd fit on the record player").
Headstone City is by far the most purely enjoyable of the Piccirilli novels I've read. This could be his ticket to mainstream success, if given the proper promotion. It would most certainly make a terrific movie; the characters, setting, and plot cry out for a cinematic treatment. But the most impressive part is how it can be enjoyed on multiple layers: You can be completely entertained by the surface mafiosi-revenge-noir tale, or look deeper and find even more satisfaction by viewing "Dane" as a Hamlet-type (revenging his father's death while besieged by spirits).
Some readers have complained that Dane is a "passive protagonist" and I happen to disagree, believing that he is simply waiting for the right moment to act (much like Hamlet, who doesn't kill Claudius when he has the chance because Claudius is praying and would go to heaven -- Hamlet wants him not only dead, but damned, too -- so he waits, and that leads to his downfall). But, in any case, even when Dane isn't seemingly doing anything toward his end, so much is happening to him that it keeps the story moving smoothly. The supporting characters like Glory Bishop and Grandma Lucia provided at least half of my enjoyment of the book. Headstone City soars either way. It is truly a textbook example of how to combine an age-old plot with a well-worn genre and still manage to produce a novel that is completely cohesive and fiercely original.
Tom Piccirilli, November Mourns
For beating up a guy who tried to rape his sister Megan, Shad Jenkins spent two years in the pokey. Finally out and ready to start his life again, he finds out that Megan has been murdered and that their father wants him to "come back [to Moon Run Hollow] before you get on with your life." Megan's body was found with a single, tiny scratch on her cheek up on Gospel Trail Road, a place where even the hardiest residents fear to tread.
Set up in a crime/noir/murder-mystery/whodunit format with Southern Gothic overtones, Bram Stoker Award–winning author Tom Piccirilli's November Mourns is his best novel yet. Advancing on themes approached in 2003's A Choir of Ill Children (in many ways, his breakthrough novel), Piccirilli uses this familiar format as a trunk upon which to place many beautiful and disturbing branches.
Often, these come in the form of odd characters with memorable names. Zeke Hester, the wannabe rapist, still won't let go of his pride, bruised at having his tail kicked two years ago. Glide Luvell, a teenage girl a year Megan's junior, exhibits knowledge of little more than how her body, which was "designed by the Hollow to pass on the burden of her general simplemindedness," affects men.
Glide's brothers Venn and Hoober are walking examples of why, when you run moonshine for a living, you don't spend your day sampling the wares. Even the Jenkins' dogs have all carried the name Lament, showing the overwhelming sense of despair that pervades Moon Run Hollow, and that Shad would desperately like to escape, if only he could get loose. In fact, Shad's avoidance of his past is a pivotal decision to the plot. If he didn't, November Mourns would wrap itself up much too quickly.
Tom Piccirilli and Joe Lansdale both write about the dark side of the American South, the really dark side that most don't ever see -- they certainly don't admit to having family there. The major difference is that Lansdale's characters are written to be threatening, ridiculed, or merely present for shock value. But, in November Mourns, Piccirilli delves beneath the surface to focus on the tragedy. While Lansdale makes fun of married siblings, Piccirilli shows you their deformed offspring (whom he still refers to as "ill children").
Shad wants to know what happened, but nobody is talking; even his father begs him to leave it alone -- he's got other things on his mind. Meanwhile, other parts of Shad's past are creeping up on him and it's all he can do to just get through it all, especially when he keeps seeing Megan out of the corner of his eye. Piccirilli knows how to keep the suspense up, but even when the killer is finally revealed, it does not compare to the intensity of the trip we've been taken on beforehand. November Mourns wraps itself around your emotions and won't let go.
Tom Piccirilli, A Choir of Ill Children
I'd unknowingly stepped into a world so foreign (yet strangely familiar) and disturbing that for at least ten pages into three-time Bram Stoker Award–winning author Tom Piccirilli's A Choir of Ill Children, I was totally disoriented. I didn't know how to process it mentally, and to me that's a definite sign of a brilliant author at work. This story of Thomas and his three conjoined-triplet brothers starts out strange and then gets really weird. I love that in a book -- challenge my perceptions.
There are different kinds of horror fiction and each one has its own proponents. There is the horror of fear, where the likelihood of people being harmed is high; the horror of action, where the escape from a perceived harm is the main component; and the horror of the weird, where characters and events are so strange and unfamiliar that the natural response is to be afraid of them (the main reason why Tod Browning's Freaks is considered a horror film, and indeed a carnival geek plays a pivotal role in this novel). A Choir of Ill Children belongs firmly in the last camp. In fact, I was wondering if Piccirilli (whose The Night Class won 2002's Stoker for Best Novel) was trying to make things as odd as possible or if the characters in his own brand of Southern gothic appeared in his mind fully-formed.
A motley crew of characters populate the town of Kingdom Come, including a couple of women who are competing for the affection of the tragic triplets. (Piccirilli gives the three brothers oddly conflicting personality traits, and then ironically has them share the power of speech.) Also in attendance is Drabs Bibble, son of the local reverend (and a minister himself -- he presided over Thomas's marriage) who speaks in tongues following a breakdown (connected to an unrequited love for Thomas's wife), and spends a lot of time publicly nude. (The often-nude son of an important member of the community is right out of Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son, but Piccirilli somehow makes it, along with everything else in the rest of A Choir of Ill Children, feel completely original.)
Adding to the proceedings are two concurrent investigations taking place in town: one for information regarding the attempted murder of a regressed teenage girl, and the other for the town's resident dog kicker, based merely on boot size. The author's lyrical style (Piccirilli is also an award-winning poet) makes it hard to tell dreams from reality, making the reader's perceptions even more difficult to discern. But the emotional heft of the storyline -- the weight of blood ties and the consequences and importance of history -- do a lot to pull the reader along in a story filled with visions of all-days suckers and oxtail soup and a lesson on the cleansing power of lightning. A Choir of Ill Children is a one-of-a-kind novel that won't appeal to everyone, but should be read by fans of literarily-bent genre fiction that don't mind an assortment of oddities. It's really weird, but it's really good.
Tom Piccirilli, The Deceased
Several novels throughout author Tom Piccirilli's career have used the subject of homecoming as a springboard to get the plot going. The Deceased is an earlier take on that familiar horror trope (along with its direct predecessor, Hexes) folded within a "haunted house" setting. It is an interesting addition to the genre, but it has many things going for it that, oddly enough, often turn out to be the source of the book's problems.
Jacob Maelstrom has a history. The son of famous writer Isaac Maelstrom and a writer himself, Jacob was the only survivor of the murder of his family committed by his sister Rachel, who locked Jacob in the closet before she killed herself. None of the heads were ever found. Now, ten years later, on the anniversary, something is calling Jacob back to Stonethrow, his family's old house that has been rented out in the interim to struggling writers seeking inspiration (and, of course, sales), and it sounds a lot like the voices of The Deceased.
Jacob's friend and agent Robert Wakely (who was also Isaac's agent and friend) does not want Jacob to go back (though Wakely has profited handsomely from the Maelstrom legacy both in commissions and from his own three books about the family). His secretary (and lover, who he doesn't know is pregnant) Lisa's friend Katie is writing her thesis on a comparison of the Maelstroms' collected works (while grieving the loss of her baby and boyfriend), so she wants to interview Jacob.
So, just like any best friend would do, Lisa rifles Wakely's desk, gets directions to Stonethrow, and she and Katie take a creepy and dangerous drive out there. Meanwhile, at Stonethrow, Jacob is already experiencing the voices of his dead family haunting his dreams. He's barely able to handle it, and he doesn't know why, but he knows he needs to be there. Then there is a knock at the door ...
... and that is just about the point that the goings-on stop making any real sense, strictly speaking, and it was the primary reason that I had a difficult time finishing The Deceased. Apart from a rather conspicuous overuse of the word maelstrom (as if its use as a surname weren't symbolic enough), it is also my only real complaint. Piccirilli has never shied away from a sense of the surreal in his works -- he is a poet, after all -- but it is such an integral part of the plot here that it makes for a very tough read. While the book is never less than completely compelling, I never really got the feeling as if I were along for the ride, but simply a spectator forced to watch from a distance. Hallucinations and memories are blended with actual events with no clear demarcation. This makes for a highly rewarding, but often bewildering, read.
Fans who were introduced to Piccirilli through books like A Choir of Ill Children or The Night Class will certainly miss the more polished feel of those later works, but The Deceased contains a lot of the same feel. I often have trouble not being disappointed, once I begin at one point in an artist's chronology, by works written earlier in their development (it happens with music and films, too). In this case, though, it was the pure momentum of the prose that kept me turning pages even while I had trouble figuring out just what was going on -- sort of like being strapped into the cockpit of a plummeting airplane with an instrument panel labeled in a foreign language.
Still, even now, I'm not quite sure precisely what actually took place within the walls of Stonethrow, but I do know that The Deceased will please plenty of Piccirilli's newer fans while expanding their perceptions of what he can do with a novel. (Those looking for more "homecoming" novels need look no further than Piccirilli's own November Mourns and Headstone City, two more recent novels that carry on the tradition.)
Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, Tom Piccirilli, Four Dark Nights (Novellas)
I guess we have to thank (or blame, as your preference lies) Stephen King for the popularization of the horror novella, legitimizing it as a publishable format with the appearance of his 1982 collection, Different Seasons (and following later with Four Past Midnight). Novellas have yet to achieve mainstream success, per se, but at least people no longer offer up vacant expressions at the mention of the word.
Among the smaller presses, however, the novella has really taken off. Yes, they're still often used simply as the springboard to a longer, more commercially viable work, but in some houses, novellas are just as likely to be published as novels or short story collections or anthologies.
But this lead-in has little or nothing to do with Four Dark Nights, an anthology containing four novellas from authors better known for releasing full-length novels: Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, and Tom Piccirilli -- all popular in their own horror subgenres.
How they come across in their execution of this medium-sized format depends as much on your expectations as their skill. Little's entry, "The Circle," comes first and immediately decides to not play fair -- it is really just three separate short stories tacked together, only two of which are related. Not an auspicious beginning, but then I've often found Little short fiction lacking (see Last Pentacle of the Sun). His combined tales of a feral boy who defecates precious gems, and the strange backyard goings-on of a small town just like your own simply did not hold my interest, though Little's unassuming writing style certainly made it an otherwise easy read.
Luckily, Christopher Golden's "Pyre" is a vast improvement, or I may have just stopped there and not finished Four Dark Nights at all (as you'll discover later, that would have been a pity). A girl, stoically attending the funeral of her mostly absent father, flashes to another time when she and a group of her friends came across an island reportedly formed from the burned remains of dead bodies. This memory launches an idea that will hit her with an uncomfortable truth and change her life forever, if she can only survive the night ahead.
The main problem with "Pyre" is the pacing. Once the central action is presented, Golden and his characters take entirely too long to get where they're headed. I found myself skipping entire paragraphs of description during what were essentially travel scenes (Robert Silverberg shows how to manage this properly in The Book of Skulls). Otherwise, Golden paints a fully developed, especially in the beginning scenes, but mildly implausible portrait of a teenager dealing with confusion and lost opportunity. His history of writing for younger readers is apparent in the obvious respect he has for his characters and their needs.
"Jonah Arose" will please fans of Tom Piccirilli's Southern gothic novels A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, and it was the first written of that trilogy of sorts. Piccirilli enjoys focusing on odd characters -- freaks, if you will -- and here he goes right to the source with a look at a real freak show, carnival-style, as a former child preacher and carnival geek goes in search of his kidnapped son. Surrealism is the method here, and Piccirilli plays fast and loose with "reality." We are constantly finding out that things are not what we thought they were and the author never flinches from the most disgusting of images. I often find Piccirilli a difficult read, but always a rewarding one. I just hope I never end up in his world.
Ending the anthology with a bang, Douglas Clegg's "The Words" is a real stunner. In the space of just 85 pages, Clegg creates a mythology, ages it, and sets its destiny in motion via two teenage boys, Dash and Mark, and their perhaps poorly chosen selections of reading materials. Once Dash sets the awful events in motion, only Mark can stop them, but he can't for the life of him remember the words Dash begged him not to forget. Oh, he can remember the names that started it all, but those foreign-sounding words continue to escape him. Clegg creates real tension, even during the flashback scenes used to explain the history and lead up to the present. Using the novella form to its utmost, "The Words" could be told no other way.
Of the four novellas in Four Dark Nights, Little's is the only true dud, but his fans may enjoy his particular style of storytelling anyway. Golden's is surprising (my first work from this author), Piccirilli's is disturbing, and Clegg's is thrilling, the only true page-turner. Horror fans of all stripes will enjoy at least one of the stories told in this anthology, and fans of novellas should especially seek it out, given how rare it is for that form to make it into mass-market paperback. Leisure is just about the only one doing it, often tacking one on to a shorter novel as a bonus to fill out the page count and give the reader more for his money (see Jack Ketchum's Red -- Clegg fans can find novellas in both Nightmare House and The Attraction).
(Email me and let me know what you think.)