Written by John Weagly
Published by Twilight Tales
If Currie Valley were real, most people would keep as far away from it as possible. The town is full of ghosts, ex-pro-wrestlers, werewolves, murderers, circus freaks, and various and sundry other visions of villainy, so much so that to live in the town would be to surely shorten one’s life expectancy. For horror fans, however, life in Currie Valley is wildly entertaining.
The Undertow of Small Town Dreams: Stories of Currie Valley is a collection of short stories by John Weagly, who, considering he carries the entire town of Currie Valley around in his head, has a somewhat skewed view on life. Contained in 88 pages are thirteen stories that range from the bizarre and demented to subtle and, in their own strange way, sweet. Readers who pick this book up will find themselves taken to a strange version of “Our Town,” where nightmareish antics appear commonplace, and where nothing is quite what it seems.
Beginning with the first story, “Ruffled Feathers,” Weagly introduces the readers to his singular point of view. A circus is in town, in which Elvis, the side-show hunchback, has been murdered. Enter an ex-pro wrestler, who manages to figure out the who’s why’s and with-what’s. Following is “The Strange Case of the Monkey Candelabra,” in which a trinket won from a carnival (perhaps the one in the previous story) has the ability to raise the dead. Things get truly strange in the next story, “The Ballad of Johnny Whisper,” in which the title character manages to cut off his own shadow. The following two stories, “The Brain that Wouldn’t Dance” and “Revolt of the Zombie House Cat,” seem to revolve around the same character, a weird little fellow named Simon, who is a bumbling version of Herbet West.
Other stories in the collection show just how sweet things can be, even if there is a touch of dementia added. In “The Fire on Hogback Island,” a lovers wish burns a forest down, while “Smilin’ Jack’s Donut Shack” is a touching tale of how far someone will go not to be forgotten. There are stories in which things are not as they seem, such as “Maggie Anne and the Raggedy Man,” and stories in which the reader gets slapped with the true meaning of the tales, but only in the last lines, such as in “Combustible Soup” and Nocturnal Divorce.” There are also stories that speak to the classic horror fan in the form of “Fool’s Eve at the Slaughtered Lamb.”
What makes this collection so interesting is that, in a space of only a few pages, Weagly manages to pack enough raw emotion into his stories that it keeps the reader enthralled. Even in short pieces such as “Nocturnal Divorce,” which is actually no longer than fifteen lines, Weagly holds the reader’s attention and never lets go. The characters are well-drawn for being in such tight quarters, and most of the plots are not the same tired stories that horror readers have been cursed with for many years.
However, even brilliant horror has its shortcomings. In the case of Undertow, those shortcomings spring from the length of the stories, or lack thereof. In many cases, the stories could have been expanded to, if not novel-length, at least feature-length fiction. While the reader will enjoy the tales, many end so abruptly that the reader may have to pick himself up after falling flat. The first story, “Ruffled Feathers,” could definitely benefitted from a couple of dozen more pages to hold the suspense and the mystery in, as could have “Smilin’ Jack’s Donut Shack.” Oddly, however, this problem doesn’t exist in the short and to-the-point “Nocturnal Divorce.” It is a complement to Weagly that his stories can make readers want more, but there is so little in this collection that, rather than leave the readers hungry, he leaves them starving in many cases.
The best stories in this collection showcase Weagly’s emotion depth and his sense of humor. In “Gorgeous George and the Ring Rat,” a case of breaking and entering and stalking turns into true love, and allows him to feel once again like the in-ring hero he once was. “Revolt of the Zombie House Cat,” however, is something that any cat-owner will appreciate as hilarious. In the story, Simon tries to figure a way, through Voodoo no less, to get his cat to obey him.
Though short, The Undertow of Small Town Dreams is a good read. The stories do not take long to get through, and will, in most cases, leave the reader with a smile or a shiver. It will be interesting to see what Weagly can do with a longer piece.
3 1/2 out of 5