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TALES FROM THE GAS STATION

Or, “Why Small Towns Have All the Fun”

By ElliottThomasStaude, author of Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

May 25, 2019: The gas station at which certain tales take place is a vista with a very promising future for its journalistically-inclined chronicler. The enigmatic Jack Townshend has a commendable level of quality in giving life to thought, an obvious passion both for a quasi-epistolary ripped-from-the-diary style of storytelling and the campfire story, and an unusually good balance between those odd siblings horror and humor. Very few criticisms apply to his compendium of accounts; a scant handful of slips of the printed tongue here and there in the form of misplaced punctuation, one observed instance of “your” rather than “you’re” (hiss) – highly infrequent problems of this nature. The biggest circumstantial frustration for many – and the necessity for this isn’t totally unreasonable – will probably come in the form of the writer’s inclination to take the concept of “closure” and frequently kick it off the side of a cliff. Well, that and the fact that the layout of the gas station’s tales isn’t quite as intuitive as one might like, but trouble in navigating something is by definition liminal.

Now, what kind of zoo is this collection of tales? To put a single kids-these-days-appropriate name to the entity: creepypasta. However, it’s less of what that typically entails, and more of a Stephen King thing with Groucho Marx glasses. There’s a gas station by the edge of the woods in an undisclosed place in the continental U.S., and tale-worthy oddities permeate it like the town to which it technically geographically belongs is permeated by bumpkins of all sorts. The gas station’s primary personality, none other than Jack, is an insomniac who’s seen it ALL, and has all the self-defense capacity of a patch of rhubarb in the crosshairs of a herd of deer. He’s the sort whose main goals in life are three. One: forgetting about the forget-worthy stuff that happens around him, and which ALWAYS happens to slip from the memory and notice of everyone else in his vicinity. Two: taking care of the station for which he is clerk, steward, shepherd, and occasional exorcist type. Three: documenting the nonsense that happens around him, from drugs that cause spiders to plants that grow human hands, from big mutated raccoons to people who uniformly refuse to stay dead, from pagan deities seeking influence to uninvited bathroom guests. He’s not a hero, and he’s okay with that, and you want him to keep going just so he can help the next clueless Johnny walking in the door deal with their haunted mustache or something.

Presentation-wise, the experience is messy, in that you’re running along the inside track of the mind of a flawed narrator – and that’s great! A few other personalities pick up the thread at times, but your general feeling from the whole is a suffusion of raised eyebrow garnished with lots of chronic weirdness, a surprisingly frequent and genuine inclination toward laughter, a bunch of times where the raised eyebrow becomes a rolled eye toward “trying too hard” with the paranormal, and a handful of occasions that legitimately and lastingly raise the hairs along the spine. Even so, there’s an artful and occasionally savage elegance to the turns of phrase that breathe life into these altercations. Maybe not written by someone who loves English like a paramour, but at least a person with whom English went out on a dozen dinner dates and that still occasionally receives flowers. So far, after several major arcs, the storytelling manages to remain enjoyable even when unpleasant or slightly off-putting. The real humdinger of Jack’s polished work, on the other hand, is the frequency with which answers are deliberately withheld. Of course, there are as many people who like that sort of coy or oblique style in writing, and to its credit there’s not an instant that this seems to be born of malice or suckering in of the audience (with one glaring possible, exception involving an investigator in the back of a van very specifically NOT being told anything of substance). It’s more that the author obviously grasps the idea that people find things more unsettling when they’re caught from the corner of the eye rather than walking up wearing a spinning bow tie and a neon top hat. Furthermore, for such a small town and a small gas station, it’s obvious that standing around and just giving the audience all pertinent information would take quite a while, and what answers one does eventually receive are thematic puzzle pieces carved to fit a much greater cohesive whole.

In short: if you like feeling something spoopy from a midnight recounting of a well-told yarn, laughter at the most outlandish of times at a slightly twisted sense of humor, and can tolerate the deferral of some mysteries’ resolutions indefinitely, it’s more than worth your while to visit a certain establishment. Just don’t forget change if you need to use the phone, don’t forget to say hello to the hardworking people behind the counter, and don’t go into the woods.

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PYREBOUND

Doldrums, Horror, and the Odd Beautiful Thing

By jmassat, member

May 17, 2019: (note: this review covers Ch. 1-3!)

Pyrebound’s world captivates me. Just the first two paragraphsmade my mind buzz with possibility. Immediately after reading that, I skimmed the glossary, and . . . ugh . . . so many strange ideas. There’s an ever-expanding list of Kur’s grotesque creatures, who pour into Ki, where humans (and some other strange things) are native. But there are also the deep ties to fire that humans have—physical fires, spiritual fires, fires that live, that inhabit objects and people. A human settlement protected by a sort of great fire-tower is called a hearth; a year is a bloom, and the term refers to blossoming flame; the world itself, with its deserts and two searing suns, might as well be on fire.

This story manages to introduce its world and concepts smoothly—though there’s a lot to get through, it doesn’t condescend, nor does it flit past things. . . . Well, okay, I do think that the first “night of dark dreams” went by way too fast, and too vaguely, for my liking, but the night in Chapter 2 made up for it. There are also lots of concepts that I’m dying to see more of, but I know that the author (Brayton Cole, or “The Red Sheep”) is playing the long game . . . and that this is a review of three chapters. It feels like more than that because each chapter is itself split into five parts, but, y’know.

But that’s just the setting—or some idea of it. What’s the story? We follow Ram, who’s hardly more than a boy and is, more or less, ordinary. His life is a hard one, but so is everyone’s on Ki. Even before his father’s injury forces him into the military of a city he doesn’t even know, Ram has to fight reshki, some of Kur’s comparatively less warlike horrors. Chapter 1.1 comes out swinging, literally and metaphorically, as Ram takes to the grim and even complicated task of dealing with foes that are not just seemingly amoral and, like, gross, but infectious, death-carrying. The scene where he kills a resh and disposes of its body is brutal, not in a blood-and-guts way so much as in the sense of “this is life—rough and tedious.”

That’s also some of my favorite stuff: the warfare. There’s no glory here, just brief and breathtaking times in which the nightmarish forces of Kur run up against Ram.

In some ways, the story reminds me of the manga Berserk. Berserk’s demons, though, aren’t outright alien. I also would never be tempted to call Pyrebound’s intro “edgy.” In fact, I find the fact that Ram isn’t constantly ramming his sword into faces—and that his face isn’t receiving the same from constant world injustice—refreshing. Heck, while his mother and father don’t have kind words for him and are clearly condescending they treat him with some level of respect, and may be as nice as parents in this world come. All this gives Pyrebound’s first three chapters an interesting tone, and a rhythm: town and family life that is often frustrating but can also be calm, punctuated by the long, exhausting times of war. It can get, I daresay, gentle.

The way the story unfolds doesn’t always grab me. I love the slower, “gentler” reveals of gods and murrush, and the vague, disarming mention of moonchildren long before their first appearance. But there’s a part in Chapter 2 that introduces a lot of fresh faces and clarifies some terms, and to me it feels like a muddle. Revealing moonchildren like that, in a busy street with a brief exchange, was like poking a hole in a soufflé. Falling just as flat was that chapter’s humor—humor is 0.05% of Pyrebound, and there have been maybe five jokes across the whole thing so far, but I still wanna say, it has never gotten me. (Before you ask, yes, the more I read Berserk, the less I like Puck.)

Also . . . I dunno if this currently-minor character is worth an entire subheading or even paragraph for himself, but . . . he bothers me so much I’ve just gotta do it. What’s the first stereotype that comes into your head when you think “eunuch?” Well, that’s Gelibara. He’s on the respectable side, and he’s a friend to men as well as women, but isn’t he still about the first thing you’d come up with—honey? Seems uncreative to me.

I remain aware that the author’s playing the long game. Still, the pace and emotions of the story I had in my head and the story that’s here on the screen are so different that I feel . . . kind of disappointed. What do I—what did I—want from Pyrebound?

For sure I wanted to see interplanetary politics—but we have every indication that those politics are coming. Critically, I wanted more of what I will call phantasmagoria, a nightmare sense, and the point at which nightmares infest the body. Going forward, I think I want more of Ram’s inner life, and to “feel” the experience of hardscrabble life in Ki more and more.

I’m excited to see more from some of the characters in the big street-meet in Chapter 2 I mentioned (and complained about). It’s about time Ram got personalities he can really bounce off of. Plus, the more characters enter the fold, the more chances we have to explore the inner-life stuff I was just talking about. Maybe we can learn the intimate experiences of someone inhabited by a fire-spirit, eh? Or maybe something even more off-putting?

This is a promising read, and there’s every indication that The Red Sheep will explore his glossary to the fullest. So far, Pyrebound gets a shab contorting into the shape of a wheel to steamroll soldiers out of five.

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WINOC THE TRAVELER

Potent, robust fantasy. Itty bitty living space.

By RM Hamrick, member

May 11, 2019: I don’t get into a lot of fantasy because I don’t have the patience to sit with a thick book for weeks.

Winoc the Traveler has wonderful fantasy elements—a beautiful and diverse world, unique characters, a stupendous other worldly structure—compressed into consumable chunks that leave you happy, but also wanting more.

I encourage you to apply this POP of fantasy, liberally and repeatedly, to your routine life as needed.

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