John Everson, Needles and Sins (Necro Publications, 2007)
You’ve read the reviews. You may have even already read Charlee Jacob’s intro. You don’t need me to tell you that Needles and Sins is a barnburner, the kind of book of horror shorts that will keep you up at night munching on chips and finishing just one more story the same way EverCrack had you finishing just one more quest. So what am I going to do different? Everyone else is focusing on the horror stories here. And they’re good, though I’m not quite sure some of them are all they’re cracked up to be (“Mutilation Street”, in particular, which Jacob singles out in her intro, strikes me as a gimmicky one-trick pony that could have been so much more than it is). I’m going to focus on the two non-horror stories here, which are, perhaps not coincidentally, the two stories that kick this book up from being good to being in the realm of Greg Gifune good and Vincent Sakowski good and Thomas Ligotti good and Richard-Christian-Matheson-when-he-wrote-“Red” good.
The first is “Spirits Having Flown”, and if I had to try and pigeonhole it into a genre, I’d call it an urban fantasy story, but that would be doing it a great disservice, in that it’s a fantasy that takes place in an urban (and distinctly grungy, which is an atmosphere at which Mr. Everson excels in creating) setting, but it has none of the hallmarks you’ve come to expect if you’ve read half a dozen novels tagged that way. No, this is more “urban fantasy” like Gifune writes, mythical creatures that intrude on the lives of us normal folks, but without the whole us normal folks finding out we’re half-faerie or whatever the hell. Specifically, in this case, “Spirits Having Flown” focuses on a pair of down-and-out drunks, one of whom has just shuffled off this mortal coil and is being mourned by his family—who didn’t know he still existed, or those few that did didn’t give a tinker’s—and his best friend/housemate, who absolutely did. I wish we’d gotten more about these two guys than we did, especially the narrator, whose tale of “how I got to this state” is as perfunctory as they come, but there’s no denying the emotional power this story packs.
The second, and one I haven’t seen mentioned in a single review (and why, for the love of ink?), is “You Never Got Used to the Needle,” the best piece in this book by a country mile, and the fourth installment in the five-story cycle that finishes the book, a loose collection that surrounds a down-and-out, increasingly-desperate circus endlessly touring the American heartland. At the end of “Birth and Death”, Talman, its protagonist, has skirted certain death by joining up with the circus as its tattooed man, looking for a better life than the one he left behind. “Every town was the same.”, the omniscient narrator tells us from Talman’s POV. “Every town had a tattoo parlor that blared its trade in neon screams and called to young and old to decorate the skeins of their lives in garish ink.” (–225) But Talman finds that Parkville, Illinois is not the same at all, and the tattoo artist who fills the space just above his heart unlocks gifts that Talman didn’t know he had (yep, you can call this one another urban fantasy, though it’s more in the current-definition vein), and tasks Talman with the choice of whether to use those powers to do good, do evil, or try to spend the rest of his life burying them. You’d think it would be an easy choice. But Talman, as damaged as he is, is not one to embrace the role of superhero lightly. I’ll admit it—I shed a few tears at the end of this one. It’s one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve read in the last few years in any genre.
(And without trying to be spoily, this, as well as the other three stories that precede it in the cycle, sets up the grand-guignol finale in “Irrelephant in Anathzebra”, and while I know in my heart that my desire to fling the book against the wall halfway through this story, cover it in kerosene, and burn it means the damn thing was doing its job, it makes me hate John Everson not one whit less for being so effective, and I’ve spent the last four days adjusting the rating on this book between 2.5 and 4.5 stars because “Irrelephant in Anathzebra” pisses me off so much. Which was, of course, exactly the reaction Mr. Everson was looking for. There’s even an extra-nasty twist of the knife towards the end that will scrape bone if you have children.)
If Everson ever ends up turning out a book of shorts that all have the same attention to character development, pacing, and plot as “You Never Got Used to the Needle,” it will be one for the ages. Until then, Needles and Sins will do very nicely to tide you over. Most of it’s good. Some of it’s damn good. And some of it’s great. ****