Kealan Patrick Burke,
The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others
(Cemetery Dance, 2008)

Imagine that it's Thanksgiving and you're watching the Twilight Zone marathon with which some station near you will inevitably fill up its programming day. You watch them all -- from the drolly cute ones like "Time Enough at Last" to the somber morality fables like "In Praise of Pip" to the darkly gripping stuff like "It's a Good Life." And then when you've had your fill of both turkey and television, somebody tells you (erroneously) that one guy wrote every episode of TZ, across that whole range of styles.

Well, what's impossible for the tube is possible in print, and Kealan Patrick Burke, in his dandy of a collection, The Number 121 to Pennsylvania, proves it. Seemingly effortlessly (unless you read his story notes and find out what a difficult time he had crafting some of these tales), Burke takes us down the tracks to visit funny fantasies with just a hint of bile in the aftertaste, hard-hitting psychodramas that don't rely too heavily (if at all) on the supernatural to make their point and a few truly nasty creep-out sessions that will have you thinking twice about how fragile everyday reality might be.

It was not much of a surprise to me to read in the author's bio that he once edited a collection in tribute to Charles L. Grant, for despite his Irish upbringing, Burke himself displays much of the late Grant's ease with the style of "quiet horror" stories that can be set just about anywhere (or nowhere in particular) across America, that eschew fireworks for finesse and that can grab you unaware with the last line despite how closely you thought you were paying attention to the menace that was coming. In this respect, even better than the second coming of Rod Serling, he could well prove to be the modern Ray Bradbury that we so very much need in these days when it's easier to get yet another sequel to Saw or Hostel produced than to find genuinely thoughtful and new works of dark fantasy readily available in our bookstores.

The best of the bunch include "Underneath," a thoroughly realistic and harrowing examination of adolescents' inhumanity to their fellow adolescents at the high school level that, like certain dances from my own school days that I'd rather forget, only gets more horrific when you think that the worst part is already past; "Saturday Night at Eddie's," a loving throwback to the "put a bunch of strangers together in limbo and see what happens" mode of Twilight Zone-style grimness; and "Peekers," among the shortest and oogiest of the supernatural segments (I'll never go into a neighbor's house alone again after this one).

Also effective are Burke's somewhat more lighthearted turns in "High on the Vine," with harried husband Jack (of course) wondering if the ominous giant beanstalk that has appeared in his yard is his curse or his salvation, and "The Last Laugh," with every comedian's fear about the audience that just won't laugh taking on proportions that are both amusing and frightening.

Less satisfying are a few unfocused efforts like "Tonight the Moon is Ours," which uses teens again to strive for spookiness but delivers only yawns, and "Mr. Goodnight," which makes precious little sense when first presented as a mercifully brief short story featuring two dull boys, and far less sense when inexplicably revisited in a screenplay-length version that has been padded with a confusing gaggle of older cardboard cutout characters and stretched beyond tolerance to a lackluster imitation of the already lamentable Nightmare on Elm Street style of cinema, bringing us to a dim final station after what has otherwise been a mostly shining ride.

Overall, having taken these jaunts on The Number 121 to Pennsylvania, I am eager to see what Burke can do at greater lengths with plots on which he can really stoke the engines. But he shouldn't stray too far away for long from the short-but-shocking tales that he shows so much engineering skill at here. All aboard....

review by
Gary Cramer

1 November 2008

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