Number 121 to Pennsylvania, The (Book)
Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Kealan Patrick Burke
Published by Cemetery Dance
For many horror authors the best thing in their cannon in terms of both style and effectiveness are their short stories. Though a novel is the great American dream, more often than not you’re going to find most of a writer’s power in his abbreviated tales of terror.
The Number 121 to Pennsylvania shows off the strengths of Irish write Kealan Patrick Burke quite well; this is a solid collection of stories about everything from ghost trains (the title story) to body-hopping killers (“Mr. Goodnight”) to how badly mankind can be affected by what he sees (“Empathy”); indeed there isn’t a single weak link in this chain, though obviously some stories are stronger than others.
”Saturday Night at Eddie’s” being the strongest, so of course it’s the last (second-to-last if you count the script for “Mr. Goodnight”, which is also included), allowing the reader to go out on a high note. The tale concerns the denizens of the titular townie bar who every Saturday have gathered and every Saturday one of them has been forced by the local preacher, whom they believe to have some divine force, to kill in order to repent. Things get more complicated than usual when a couple shows up brandishing a weapon and a bad attitude, and soon some very uncomfortable truths are revealed.
“Saturday Night at Eddie’s” is solid, one-location storytelling that just drips mystery and dread from the first few sentences. We’re spending time with the damned here; souls so lost there may be no way back for them. Burke puts us in the head of just one of the men who’s got a very unique perspective and his own demons to deal with, and crafts a solid page-turner with seemingly little effort.
For a more subdued, but just as creepy, tale look no further than “Peekers” (which was recently adapted by filmmaker Mark Streensland into a short film that you’ll see in Video Dread very soon!). One morning a man’s neighbor asks him to come over to his place to see if he’s imagining things; if his wife is in Cleveland visiting their kids, why is she also standing at the top of his stairs, peeking around a corner? “Peekers” is a lean story, for sure, but damn effective more because of what it doesn’t tell you, such as what the hell is going on, than what it does.
“High on the Vine” is a good example of Burke at his light-hearted best. It tells of a man named Jack who married the wrong woman and has a life he can’t stand, but possesses not even an iota of an idea of what to do about it. That is until he comes home and finds a gigantic beanstalk has grown out of his front yard, reaching so high that the FAA takes issue with it. Eventually Jack realizes the stalk is there to save him, to take him out of this horrible world he finds himself in, and starts to climb. Obviously this is a twist on “Jack and the Beanstalk” but done with enough maturity and just the right amount of gallows humor to make it work perfectly. Definitely a highlight.
But then, as I said, there’s not much in The Number 121 to Pennsylvania that wouldn’t be considered a highlight. This is exactly what a short story compilation should be like; nothing but the strongest shot-form work from a very talented writer.
4 1/2 out of 5
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