Dancing with the Tombstones is a delicious anthology of short stories, and I had the opportunity to review the latest book written by Mark Aronovitz and published by Cemetery Dance compiled during the COVID-19 lockdown of short stories that could be easily described as the adult equivalent of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark.
The following book review of Dancing with the Tombstones from Cemetery Dance is Spoiler-free**
This novel features seventeen short stories, with publication dates that vary from 2009-2020. Ten of these short stories have been published previously in various other anthologies, but it features seven new terrifying tales.
Mark Aronovitz tells us in the afterword that he put this book together in response to the pandemic, during the lonely days of quarantine.
His hope to bring some comfort and distraction during this trying time was a huge success and could have easily been titled Chicken Soup for the Spooky Soul.
Straight up – no nonsense horror.
Aronovitz delivers exactly what he promises, and this was a delightfully terrifying read, his short stories requiring no lengthy plot or conception of reality, just straight up – no nonsense horror.
This anthology is certainly one worth adding to your library, with tales that would be ideal to tell around a campfire on a chilly night and each packs a hefty punch that is genuinely terrifying when the blow strikes home.
Dancing with the Tombstones is split into four sections titled “GIRLS,” PSYCHOS,” “TOOLS & TECH,” and “MARTYRS & SACRIFICIAL LAMBS,” with each of his short stories falling into one of these categories.
Each short story is bite-sized and perfect to pick up and return to again over and over, and the fantastical element of short horror makes for a refreshing read. The short length allows these tales to grow more and more gruesome and disturbing. And every tale holds a more disturbing thought that is expanded upon to a truly terrifying conclusion.
My personal favorite in this anthology was “Puddles,” where Dora Watawitz’s obsessive cleaning routine turns into a waking nightmare when she starts to hallucinate the filth entering her home.
Mark Aronovitz delivers some truly real and a relatable material and to light brings disturbing thoughts such as “When DID I ever clean the toilet brush?” or, “How often do I ever really clean the bottom of my feet?”
These unsettling notions escalate into insanity (or perhaps a supernatural version of Doris’s personal hell) and all the cleaning, scrubbing, and bleaching just can never remove the filth plastered all over the walls of her mind.
Indeed, in a book where hell is described as an eternity consigned to an old Nissan Sentra in “The Echo,” there is something for everyone in this book.
Mark Aronovitz’s writing quality is stellar, and this is certainly a book to be enjoyed again and again.
Mark Aronovitz is the author of the novels Alice Walks, The Sculptor, The Witch of the Wood, and Phantom Effect. He has published two other collections, Seven Deadly Pleasures, and The Voice in Our Heads. He has published over fifty short stories in total and is definitely an author worth following!
361 By Donald E. Westlake: unique, hard-hitting brilliance brings hard-boiled gritty noir down an alley that you cannot leave until the book is done.
Hard Case Crime thankfully brings many treasures like 361 back to the forefront of fiction on today’s market.
Personally, despite loving crime, mystery, and hard-boiled fiction, I had yet to read a novel of Donald Westlake’s.
And here is the beauty of HCC’s paperback series: it is very easy for a good friend in the know to mail me a book that will kick my ass, and get me into gear, just like 361 did.
If you love Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collin’s Quarry series (to name one), then this 1962 publication will be very appealing and not the least because it is a style all Westlake’s own.
Warning, Will Robinson! This book review of 361 by Donald E. Westlake has Spoilers* for the opening pages.
Ray Kelly has landed in New York retired from his time abroad as a US military man. He feels bad at talking to his brother’s wife, who he has not met, on the phone to get directions. He cares about family.
When Ray’s father, Willard, picks him up and talks about how his brother settled down happily and then remarks how good his Ray looks after all those years, father and son break down crying.
Dad brags about the air conditioning in the car and remarks, “chased a lot of ambulances lately,” as he was an attorney with a good sense of humor.
Westlake has brought a happy family together and the pair drive over New York City’s George Washington Bridge in what has been an uplifting tale so far.
In 361, Westlake pulls one of the fastest literally punches to ever gut the main character and the reader.
And then a Chrysler pulls up beside them and fires a gun, so that Willard appears to vomit blood and falls over into Ray’s lap as the car hits the bridge barrier.
A month later, Ray wakes in a hospital minus an eye and his one leg shattered and put back together in a way that would leave him with a debilitating limp.
End of Spoiler Warning*
Westlake pulled the rug out from under me so quickly I nearly dropped the book.
Readers beware of Donald E. Westlake, whose use of realistic dialogue, rich character feeling, and sharp descriptions make up boisterously boiled worlds that are increasingly intriguing as the tale winds on.
The plot gets harrier and harrier as it goes on too.
There are some mysteries and some surprises.
And 361’s ending is wholly original, utterly pragmatic, and very satisfying.
Dune & Frank Herbert immortalized by Centipede Press in a limited edition that creates a uniquely bold, intricate, imaginative, and sharp book, a true work of art – illustrated by Mark Molnar – befitting a masterpiece that is one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time.
There are few works as grandiose, moving, tragic and exhilarating as Frank Herbert’s Dune.
The following book review of Dune by Frank Herbert is SPOILER-FREE* and will touch on the story and then focus on the signed-limited fine press edition published by Centipede Press in 2021-2022.
Dune can be summed up as masterful sci-fi, and every facet of the Centipede Press tome does it justice.
Dune is one of my favorite books, and so as to not give a 30-page thesis of a review on the story for the ages, I am tabling that (at least for today) in favor of focusing on what I consider the epitome of a physical book encompassing the revolutionary work of Frank Herbert.
For the uninitiated, Dune is another name for the desert planet Arrakis – which aside from tiny polar ice caps – is entirely covered in desert.
Arrakis is itself one of the most dominant characters in the book.
The extremely harsh environment makes water the most valued commodity for any living or traveling on the planet, and it molds one of the toughest peoples that live in the deep desert, the Fremen.
Arrakis is also the only place in the galaxy where spice mélange is found. This is found in sand patches and has to be mined quickly before gargantuan sand worms arrive; they dwarf even Guild spaceships and come to devour spice, or anything on the surface making unnatural noise.
The spice is a drug-like property found in many things like flavoring for cooking, or as part of recreational drug use, and it also has hallucinogenic prescient properties making it the sole way the Guild navigators can successfully fold space and time, achieving interstellar travel.
Dune and the spice are necessities to that space flight monopoly.
The characters, Paul Atriedies, and his mother the Lady Jessica, Stilgar, truly make the story what it is, as they grow amidst the innovative world building, where the setting, revenge, intricate politics, and innovative technology intermingle within the galactic regime.
But beware this work is a tragedy, similar in some ways to Homer’s Oedipus (but not the Oedipean complex), and so there are joys and pains and losses and victories, but the book is fully fleshed and nothing is one-sided, not even joy.
WARNING! I have tweaked the Goodreads summary of the book here to be near to Spoiler-Free*:
“Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
“When House Atreides is betrayed . . . [Paul] evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, [but] will [he] bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream? [And at what cost will the attempt bring to Paul and to all?]”
End of Spoiler Warning*
Centipede Press accomplished something truly extraordinary with their S/L of Dune: their offering is a vast work of art that truly bears the essence of the journey of Paul Atreides from Caladan to Arrakis.
And speaking of art . . .
Mark Molnar’s incredible illustrations and paintings for Dune have become definitive views of the characters and world.
The overall book design is sleek, sexy, and works to capture Mark’s art in every aspect, from the capped slipcase’s spine window onto a worm illustration to the similar circular cutout in the cover boards.
There is a stunning and vast two-sided dustjacket featuring an enormous painting of Paul Muad’Dib with spear amongst the vast stony and sandy Arrakean backdrop as a worm’s surfaced beneath the planet’s two moons that look golden on the horizon.
There is a large foldout map – from the original publication – showing the areas of the planet that are discussed in the book.
The book is printed on Mohawk Superfine paper, and there are over a dozen interior full color illustrations by Mark Molnar and the back of each one has a gritty sand-like feel to it that is a lot of fun in the hand.
But the feel of the numbered edition is like nothing I have ever experienced, as the black Nabuka Prestige cloth is a suede-like other-worldly smoothness.
There are 500 signed editions and 250 unsigned, and the latter have a fine Japanese cloth binding.
Though Frank Herbert is not with us writing in the physical realm any longer, his family and his son, Brian (who helped his father in the writing of the last couple of books in the series), approved a facsimile signature.
And what is more, the book has an introduction by Michael Swanwick and he and Brian Herbert and Mark Molnar have signed the 500 copies.
The epic tale is encapsulated in a mammoth book sized at 7¼ × 11 inches.
And the other five books in the Dune series are forthcoming with 500 signed copies and matching numbers to the owners of Dune.
If you get an opportunity to acquire a signed or unsigned C.P. edition of this great tale, do not pass it up!
Gwendy’s Final Task Soars! A Spoiler Free Book Review examines the latest in the Gwendy trilogy, Gwendy’s Final Task, coauthored by bestselling authors Stephen King and Richard Chizmar.
Spectacular and moving … there’s just no one like Gwendy.
This is a SPOILER-FREE** Preview Book Review of Gwendy’s Final Task by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar. We may re-examine this book at TFF in more detail, with SPOILERS, in a couple months’ time – it is that good of a read! But you may want to read the first two books in the Gwendy Series before tackling this book.
There are three major players in this book: Gwendy, those forces opposed to her, and the button box itself.
The button box is a keystone for power: good and evil can be performed by it, in large doses or small.
Gwendy is a good person, at heart, and so she understands this and has been one of its better caretakers, it seems, but that does not make the choice of using or not using the button box any easier.
Still the gravity of this escapes her, because the thought that extremely powerful entities will stop at nothing to claim the button box does not cross her mind until that is told to her flat out.
For fans of previous works of Stephen King and his many worlds, and also previous works of Richard Chizmar, Gwendy’s Final Task is a rare animal-shaped chocolate treat that you cannot resist.
The story passes through Castle Rock and another infamous town – and still horrifying – from Stephen King’s works, on and up to the space station.
When we last saw Gwendy, in Gwendy’s Magic Feather, she was 37, a Congresswoman, and had been sent the button box for the second time, as crises developed all around her.
She was only supposed to have the button box one time, at least that is what Farris said in Gwendy’s Button Box.
Now Senator Gwendy Peterson is older again and her third time with the button box will take her from Castle Rock and planet earth up into to outer space.
This is both remarkable in the achieving and very necessary for the plot.
The world building by King and Chizmar is paramount to this modern fairy tale enveloping the reader.
The very experience of anticipating the takeoff and having the tablets and instructions needed to manage one’s own controls from their seat draws the reader in.
The responses of the crew (and its computer), the dialogue and banter, from serious-to-jovial, and the setting all pave the way to a ratcheting thriller taking place in the near future and, at times, in zero gravity.
Gwendy is one of the “celebrity” guests on the way to the space station.
And as the story goes back and forth from Gwendy’s brilliant but troubled mind out in space to her memories and the happenings on earth, you cannot help but feel the anxiety that Gwendy feels, again and again.
She has a mission. And it only gets more difficult by the day, the hour, the minute.
The circumstances are dire, and Gwendy’s grip leaves dents in your heart.
The Richard Farris we have all come to know, he is on the cover, and I will confirm he is back, and I will say he has a significant part to play, as he did in the first two books in the Gwendy Series.
We learn a great deal more of Farris and of Gwendy too, and of what the button box can do. These three entities have all been revealed more and more throughout the trilogy when things are at their worst.
So the suspense meter is high, the horrors of earth and space run rampant, and the ending to Gwendy’s Final Task will leave you floored.
This ending moves the reader in a truly profound way.
The Dark Tower Ties To Gwendy’s Final Task
The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King’s magnum opus that begins with The Gunslinger – looms largely on all of the covers of every edition of Gwendy’s Final Task, so you assumed right: there is a connection.
And it is definitively one of the more closely tied books to the Dark Tower amongst the bevy of Stephen King’s works.
I will just say this to the authors: thank you.
A last word on Gwendy and collaborative character building:
I can think of only two characters, each born of two authors pairing up to create a character’s brains, courage, and soul that makes for some of the strongest and compelling people in the world of fiction.
Peter Straub and Stephen King’s Jack Sawyer is one of these, and Richard Chizmar and Stephen King’s creation of Gwendy Peterson is the other.
Richard Chizmar’s Gwendy’s Magic Feather forwards an odyssey undertaken by Gwendy who was just twelve when she was made caretaker of a device that impacted her world and ours: it was the rewarding, dangerous and beguiling Button Box.
Gwendy’s Magic Feather is the second book in the Gwendy Series.
Gwendy’s Magic Feather surprises and chills, like a Maine snowdrift.
There is a great crime element in this book, a touch of macabre in both well-lit scenes and ones in the frozen darkness, and a lot of brooding suspense led by the intrinsic character of Gwendy.
The first book in the series is Gwendy’s Button Box, co-authored by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, and if you have NOT read Gwendy’s Button Box, STOP HERE and go read that novella now! Not later. I do not care what format, reading is reading with it be via hologram, audiobook, or good old-fashioned paper, made from trees, that smells nice.
Here is a SPOILER WARNING** for the Preceding Book, Gwendy’s Button Box.
If you have read Gwendy’s Button Box, but it was not one of your favorite books, or it did not really move you, I highly recommend a second read if you like the character of Gwendy.
The second book in the series Gwendy’s Magic Feather brings new wonders and dangers to Gwendy, now 37, whose world is a whirlwind when the Button Box returns.
There are disturbing disappearances going on in Castle Rock, and melee in the world at large, and the character of Gwendy feels ever more intensely as she attempts to ward off the temptation of the Button Box.
The suspense simmers to a boil through her keen eyes.
Let us go back Back to Gwendy’s Button Box for a minute, as it is vital to understanding the 37-year-old Gwendy that appears in Chizmar’s novel.
Gwendy speaks with a stranger, a man with a felt hat, at age 12 who asks her to guard a precious object.
Put particular emphasis on these things: Gwendy lured beyond recall and the Button Box (and Farris, possibly) in the end caused the Jonestown massacre.
Now examine the character of a person who, despite being told her caretaking of the Button Box has rewards, is savvy enough to believe that there is a cost too and so she does not abuse the power she inherits.
Think of the temptation for a young person, who is being bullied and has high aspirations (that the 1891 Morgan silver dollars help with) to not use the compelling buttons that call to her.
She still makes mistakes and others, as well as herself, suffer for them; she is human and this realness permeates the reader.
Gwendy has such strong feelings of empathy, despite a dim world, and so she grows up and is a strong woman that can tackle anything.
All of the4se qualities help to shape the Gwendy we meet in the second book of the series.
Gwendy’s Magic Feather is a modern fairy tale fit for the Brothers Grimm updated to slice like a twentieth century switchblade!
So what does happen when an older Gwendy is returned the Button Box amidst far greater perils?
Spoiler Warning for Gwendy’s Magic Feather**
To start off the book, we meet an older Gwendy in Washington D.C.
Gwendy’s sharp intuition and skill makes her a successful writer and then, in a sudden fit of obligation to her country and her home state of Maine – and the encouragement of others begging her to run – she miraculously unseats a deplorable Congressman in her district.
Sadly more lecherous old Congressmen and a dangerously enraged President makes life as a US Representative challenging.
The world created in the Gwendy-verse feels too real at times, bringing its own amount of horror with that realness.
We can see the Washington meetings. We can smell the unknown plots lurking in some of the politicians’ shadows.
Congresswoman Gwendy Peterson is a beacon of kindness and candor in Congress where these traits light up amidst the ever-growing shadowy spaces besieging Washington.
The extraordinary journey that began as a “palaver” with a mysterious man named Richard Farris in a sharp suit and felt hat at the top of Castle Rock’s Suicide Stairs 25 years earlier has become a memory, floating but distant.
The once kind and witty Gwendy of age 12 – the first time she held the Button Box – is still a kind and witty person, because that is her charm, even as she is beset by dangers to her home town, the Capitol, the world, and her family.
And so, for the first time in 15 years, the Button Box reappears to Gwendy . . . sans Farris.
Where is he?
The vivid memories come back strongly and a thought torments Gwendy: what role has the Button Box played in the outcomes of her life, of her successes and failures? Were they just paths she carved on her own?
Much of this is a “who knows?” inner monologue that goes on throughout the book.
We feel for Gwendy as guilt clouds her mind and her strong demureness is rattled by the uncertainty of what she has done in her life – did she act because she wanted to or what things did she do that may have just as a result of holding the talisman, the Button Box.
She does not lose her sense of self, even as she doubts her past, present, and future deeds, which is admirable.
But you feel for her self-doubt that is ever-torturing until the very end of the book.
Where is the man who said she would never see the Button Box again? Where was the bearer of the blessing and/or curse? Where was Richard Farris?
All the while, Gwendy’s husband is away across the world in a dangerous city bordering on implosion; that stress looms large.
What can the Button Box do to help?
Gwendy’s mother collapses with a certain terminal diagnosis of cancer.
What can the Button Box do?
Two girls have just gone missing in Castle Rock, and Gwendy arrives on the scene.
What can the Button Box do?
The Button Box is its own character that crashes on the story and never lets up.
Gwendy’s mother was recently seen as cancer-free, and her parents brought out a long-lost treasure: Gwendy’s magic feather.
Once conned as a little girl, with all of the money she had saved for months to buy a “magic feather” from a young boy preying on tourists. The feather did not appear to have any magical properties once it was attained.
Then her mom collapses.
Dying in the hospital, Gwendy slips her mom chocolates from the Button Box.
There is a miraculous recovery the next day, but her mom also has the magic feather in her hand.
It must have been the feather her parents think.
Amidst the search in the town, Gwendy acts and thinks more like one of the sheriffs than she does a Congresswoman and she dislikes the mark of any celebrity labels.
Before the Button Box had with the pull of a lever delivered delicious chocolates that improved all of the senses and gifted, for a time some of the things the holder of the Box desired; for Gwendy, she initially wanted to lose weight and as she got older she kept the box dispatching mint condition 1891 Morgan silver dollars so she could afford to go to an Ivy League college.
But the Button Box has a price behind each gift, and the lure of the buttons grows stronger and overriding with each use.
Still, when Gwendy gets a kind of shine to her and she can read into the memories of someone she touches, the psychopath behind the missing girls is spotted, as is a crushed felt hat amidst the darkness in the Maine snow.
Castle Rock is an infamous place in Stephen King’s works, and Richard even inserts a statue where a great fire once ran rampant in the infamous town.
But this is also the Gwendy-verse, and Chizmar expands it brilliantly.
Only in the end does Richard Farris come back to claim the Button Box again.
But he does finally assure Gwendy that she is special, a caretaker, but she has also made her life’s accomplishments on her own.
The possibly evil giver of power, in Farris, seems to have a soul in there.
END of SPOILER WARNING*
If you look at this book as a casual, fun page-turner you will like it, but there is so much more to Gwendy if you try to observe her.
Gwendy is like no character I know of and her stories are a great example of contemporary speculative fiction that delves its own niche far into the realms of fiction.
There are thousands of years of stories based around good and not-so-good people being given choices with consequences and rewards that weigh on the conscience, the humanity.
But this one has a flair, a moral, and a character like no other.
Richard Chizmar brilliantly grows Gwendy’s story arc. And come the end the reader is left wanting to follow along with her as her odyssey continues.
The Cemetery Dance edition has a beautiful texture to the boards with gold foil stamping and awesome cover art by Ben Baldwin and interior art by Vincent Sammy.
The SST edition is illustrated, oversized, is signed by Richard Chizmar and all contributors, including the wraparound cover and interior artist Vincent Sammy, the author of the afterword Bev Vincent, and the Castle Rock mapmaker, artist Glenn Chadbourne; this is another stunner!
The quality of both editions, from the paper, to the boards, to the dust jackets make both of them worth having side by side.
The next book Gwendy’s Final Task, possibly the comclusion to the Gwendy Series, is co-authored by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, and comes out on February 15th, 2022.