"The Red Empire and Other Stories" Book Review
Written by Joe McKinney
2012, 356 pages, Fiction
Released on January 1st, 2012
Author Joe McKinney brings together top-notch horror and police procedural storytelling like nobody else in the business. In The Red Empire and Other Stories, McKinney's debut collection and the first book ever by new horror purveyors Redrum Horror, the writer offers everything from a deadly army of fire ants to a police tale with a Lovecraftian slant. Throughout the book, McKinney's knowledge of the streets, which comes from his day job as a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, shines through in his honest, gritty prose and paints each tale with credibility.
The Red Empire begins with the story that gives name to the collection. In Val Verde County, near the Texas-Mexico border, an accident on a rainy night lets loose a new bioweapon: big, aggressive red ants. While the government tries to deal with the situation, the lives of an escaped criminal with a short temper, a mother trying to get home with her recently operated blind daughter and a cop who's coping with a big loss intertwine to create a high-tension narrative full of horror, violence and the kind of action that can only come from one of our most powerful instincts: survival. Dark, violent and surrounded by a sliver of hope, The Red Empire starts the collection with a bang.
Blemish keeps things rolling with the story of Scott, a cop who's life is haunted by the ghost of an ex-girlfriend whom he failed to protect. As a result of his haunting, Scott quits the force and becomes a PI. When Julie, the love of Scott's life and the woman who's been there for him as a friend through thick and thin, falls in a hardcore depression after the death of her father, Scott begins a journey that will teach him what death, guilt, helping others and love are truly about. An unusual ghost story with a dash of noir and some very dark humor, Blemish packs a wonderful message: "It's people who are haunted. The ghosts are as real as our guilt and shame make them."
The book continues with Cold Case, a nonfiction investigative piece that McKinney wrote on the death of William Lacey, a carpenter who joined the San Antonio Police Department in 1900 and got shot during the Telephone Strike. Full of historical facts, violence, bad luck and sporting a missing grave, this one comes as a surprise and stands as a testament to McKinney's versatility.
The Old Man Under The Sea, the fourth story in the collection, can only be called entertaining and unique. Bringing together love, lust, hate, violence, a ghost ship, Ernest Hemingway and a portal to a different time, this one is fast-paced and brings a strong sense of adventure. McKinney's Hemingway is believable and the dark tension that comes from the situation he finds himself in, along with the foreshadowing and poetic dreamscapes that are mixed within the story, make this one a treat.
The Millstone, which is actually based on the first murder the author had to handle as a cop, basically brings together everything that's wrong with trailer park culture and adds a healthy dose of blood, drama and revenge. What could have been a simple story of murder based on jealousy, in McKinney's capable hands turns into a twisted, edgy narrative that deconstructs the painful process a victim goes through before finally emerging as an aggressor and, in a strange way, getting some justice.
Empty Room, which is the shortest tale in the collection, is sad and creepy. How creepy? Think late night and the sound of crying...coming from a dead baby.
Burning Finger Man has a tough-as-nails plot: a community brought together to fight a sexual predator. McKinney's familiarity with the subject and his sharp prose are again brilliant here. The story weaves its way to a violent finale that brings into question the true meaning of justice. The constant crescendo, interesting characters and the main protagonist, who's trapped between his desire to apprehend the criminal, bureaucracy and the growing do-it-yourself attitude of the community, make this one a real treat to fans of thrillers.
The book closes with Eyes Open (no pun intended), a tale of Lovecraftian horror in which visions of nightmares to come turn a cop into a rambling madman.
The Red Empire and Other Stories is a very complete collection that will satisfy fans of horror, thrillers and detective stories alike. Also, McKinney's writing is so descriptive that the book feels more like a collection of novellas than a short story compilation (with the first tale coming in at 130 pages, considering it a novella is not that far-fetched). If you like your literature rough and dripping with authenticity, pick up a copy of The Red Empire today.