2011 may still be very young, but it is absolutely safe to say that Ronald Kelly's After The Burn
is one of the best books you will read all year. Brutal, nasty, sick and twisted; this book has a little bit of everything for everyone, and absolutely no issues with pushing the boundaries. This is as balls-out-bizarre as horror fiction gets
It was a picture-perfect Fourth of July; one that heralded both celebration and pride for millions. Folks enjoyed parades and cook-outs, the playful laughter of children and a velvet sky alive with fireworks. Afterward, they went to sleep, happy and contented, without a care in the world. The at midnight, the sun came up, brighter than a billion sparklers and hotter than Hell unleashed.
They called it The Burn. The senseless detonation of nuclear devices across the face of the earth; randomly scattered, without rhyme or reason. Civilization as we knew it was consumed in the fire that day and, from it's ashes, rose a horrifying phoenix of boundless evil and depravity. Those who had once clung to the shadows, because of law and moral restraint, now stepped boldly forward to stake their unholy claim...
For one, it should be known that this is a collection of short stories, but not so short that the reader would feel that they would go too fast. I walked into this thinking that it was novel, but that's what happens when you don't read descriptions properly. After The Burn actually contains 8 short stories of varying length, subject, and brutality. The one thing that the reader can depend on throughout the book is the reassurance that you're in very capable hands. Kelly writes with incredible aplomb, and doesn't hesitate to take the reader to places he or she never planned to go. Ever. But with Kelly at the helm, you'll be glad you did.
A Shiny Can of Whup-Ass is the lead off story, and my god is it a ride.
An elderly handyman battles one of the most heinous serial killers in history as his picturesque small town becomes a violent nightmare come true.
If every book started off the way this collection does, things in the literary world would be a hell of a lot more exciting. Kelly jams this first story full of violence, mayhem, and a brilliant twist that will make the reader's mouth drop open in a way that only well placed kick in the balls can deliver.
Meat Is Life comes next, and gives the reader an interesting look what happens to someone with a special look on life when society as they know it comes to an end.
A well-known TV chef of culinary delights finds herself stranded and struggling for survival in the wilds of Virginia with her only friend, a stray dog named Compadre...and soon discovers that hunger and betrayal goes hand-in-hand.
The idea behind this story is awesome and hilarious. Watching a TV chef go through the backwoods of Virginia, starving and terrified, only to wind up the way that she does in the end, makes this a great cultural and societal commentary. This is the weakest story in the collection, but don't let that dissuade you. This story is leagues above most other short fiction pieces out there, and could only have possibly been delivered by someone with the imaginative power that Kelly offers up in spades.
The Happiest Place In Hell, the 3rd story in this collection, is at both times painful and hilarious. The hell that Kelly puts his characters through comes to a head with this story, and transforms the Happiest Place on Earth into a terrifying place of torment.
A band of unlikely survivors take refuge in the castle of an abandoned theme park, attempting to ward off an army of crazed lunatics who have come there in search of the only sustenance they crave...human flesh.
Like I said above, this story is painful and hilarious. Painful, in that it contains some of the most terribly sad back stories I've ever read in a short piece, and hilarious in the action and description of the characters once they've reached their current situation. Kelly really amps up the "adventure" aspect to this collection in this story, as well. The characters, while somewhat cookie cutter, are incredibly entertaining, and instantly memorable. Kelly's style takes on a bit of sarcasm with this one as well, lending a much needed brevity to such a dark collection without losing any of the horror at all.
In what is quite possibly the best, and most emotionally intense piece in the collection,Popsicle Man really grabs the readers' attention and rivets it to the page. If one were to read only one story from this book, this would definitely be my suggestion.
Two children strive to escape the evil clutches of a band of rapists and child molesters. They listen for the happy music of the ice cream truck and pray for the arrival of the Popsicle Man, a white-clad vigilante who has only hatred and fury for those who would prey upon the innocent.
This story reminded me of a very twisted play on The Warriors, replete with marauding gangs of murderers and rapists in different costumes and uniforms, and instantly securing a place as one of my favorite stories ever. It's an absolutely disturbed tale, wildly imaginiative, and screams to be read. Be warned though, the subject matter is not for the faint of heart. The imagery that Kelly uses in this story is as pitch black as it should be, and incredibly close to perfection.
Evolution Ridge is an incredibly weird story...but weird in a good way. This is what I can only imagine as Kelly's mind on a seriously terrifying LSD trip, while driving in the back country, or through an early american settlement. It also proves to be one of the more "out there" pieces, and brings a welcome intermission to the carnage that precedes it. This story is far from tame though. Very far.
A farm family attempts to forge a solitary life in the lofty mountains of the Tennessee Smokies. That lonesome pursuit for normalcy and peace is derailed when radiation mutates the wildlife and vegetation of their beloved home into their worst enemies...and threatens to evolve them into something less than human themselves.
The creatures that inhabit this story are the stuff of nightmares. I had a blast reading this story, as it was one of the most fully imagined pieces in the whole collection. Kelly really doesn't hesitate to get weird with his fiction, and just takes it that much further when you thought things were weird enough. The end of this story is absolutely beautiful, and really makes this a treat to check out.
Continuing the weird fiction trend, Kelly unleashes a tale that will make you question what you're reading. A couple pages into Taking Care Of Business, and after laughing at the sheer confidence and audacity that the writer displays with one very well-placed (and perfectly written) character from our musical history, this piece becomes the sort of story that could be easily translated to a Comic Book or Graphic Novel.
A middle-aged housewife and an Elvis impersonator journey to Memphis to pay homage to a long-dead rock and roll legend...and discover that iconic ghosts sometimes hold the true key to survival.
This is one of those outlandish tales that one hopes was as fun to write as it was to read. From the start, this piece is brimming with a sarcastic and funny air, and quickly introduces a character that will make the reader laugh out loud. I wasn't expecting Kelly to "go there", but he did, and it was 100% worth it. Both Action/Adventure and Survival Horror story, this is certainly one of the most fun reads in the collection. Very fast paced, re-readable, and very daring.
Flesh Welder seems to be the serious piece here. The premise is something reminiscent of the real life horrors faced in most 3rd world countries, but adds a character that has the ability to fix the broken bodies of the victims of this regime. Wonderfully written, and incredibly moving at it's core, this is the story that should be cementing Kelly as a writer who sets the bar high.
The survivors of Ruin Town must face evil in the form of a sadistic military commander known as The General. Their only hope is a man who can repair their broken bodies and, through a unique blending of medicine and mechanics, make them whole again. He is the healer supreme. The medico grande. The Flesh Welder.
This is the most powerful story in the bunch. It just resonates with the dark realities faced in a war torn society, a place that we, as Westerners, can only find in literature and on the screen. Kelly manages to transport the reader straight to Ruin Town, and away from all of the simple safeties that we take for granted. The Flesh Welder himself is an incredibly sympathetic character that will embed himself in the reader's mind, and make for an incredibly memorable journey. The final act in the story has a very "Twilight Zone" feel to it, as well, and was very welcome to this reader.
The Paradise Pill wraps up the collection with a heart breaking tale of sacrifice, loss, and pain. Kelly ups his game and delivers a very harrowing tale, tightening his grasp on the reader's heart strings, and giving them a severe emotional beating.
A woman and her daughter seek to escape the horrors of an inner-city Hell, strife with murder, torture, and rape, by partaking of a drug which transports them to their own private Heaven. But they soon discover that a chemically-induced paradise is limited in the protection it can provide.
The overall emotional outcome I felt after this story was just absolutely brutal. The mother and daughter characters are so sympathetic, so sad, that it almost overwhelms the reader with sorrow for their circumstance. The world that Kelly envisions for this part of the collection really isn't that far fetched, and that's what makes it so terrifying. The fact that there are people who partake in psychotropic drugs in order to escape terrible lives. Kelly really out-does himself with this story, smacking the reader in the face with a terrifying taste of reality, on LSD.
Kelly's handle on the subtle nuances of life is incredible, and his descriptions are brilliant. Why Kelly isn't being heralded as a master of the genre is beyond me. This is an author that needs to be a household name. His prose is often dark and sarcastic, but Kelly also proves capable of hitting on several emotions while still entertaining on a high level.
This collection of stories is a must have for all readers who enjoy "weird" fiction, and really anyone who likes wildly imaginative fiction. The subject matter is often very dark, and twisted in a "I can't believe he actually wrote that" kind of way, but nonetheless brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable.
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Personally, I can't wait to check out more of this author's work. His voice is very original and welcome. His words flow with beauty and brutality, making this reader a very satisfied new fan.