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‘Ugly Little Things’ by Todd Keisling – Book Review

For brief moments earlier this year, I caught some of the social media regarding Todd Keisling and his contribution to the Lovecraftian King in Yellow mythos in the form of The Final Reconciliation. Being somewhat a scholar myself on all things esoteric, the front cover of the book and the sigils caught my attention. So when Pophorror gave me a copy of Keisling’s Ugly Little Things, I was intrigued to know what was actually on the inside.

The book opens with a forward by Mercedes M. Yardley, which will intrigue any fans of Yardley’s work.

The first story, A Man In Your Garden, brings to mind the famous song by Henry Rollins called “There’s A Man Outside.” The story is incredibly short and tight, and uses the second person POV perspective which, as any writer will know, is a real mother to pull off. At first, I found the story quite difficult to get into… the usage of “you” always makes one think of the Choose Your Own Adventure tale, which I actually loved as a kid. Engaging the reader using paranoia can be a bitch — the writer is always trying their hardest to keep the reader interested without boring them to death. A Man In Your Garden does well in regards to the second person POV usage and does well to keep the reader submerged.

The second story, Show Me Where the Waters Fill Your Grave, is a tale of enduring love and does really well to tap into the male character’s melancholy. Keisling knows something of the human condition and longing, using the rainy weather as a metaphor for emotion, which brings to mind a lot of Japanese ghost fiction. The importance of this story is in the not knowing, which reads wonderfully.

Radio Free Nowhere reminds me of the film White Noise, or even a short story that would sit nicely in King’s Night Shift anthology. Incredibly short perhaps, even too short. A couple traveling down a lonely stretch of highway pick up an unknown signal drawing them to a lake in the middle of nowhere. Unaware, the woman is drawn to something ugly beneath the lake.

Whilst the fourth story in Ugly Little ThingsThe Otherland Express, is a tale of transformation, loneliness and despair. Keisling makes use of the main protagonist, a boy called Gregory, who is clearly not comfortable in his own skin. “Skin” is clearly a metaphor for leaving the darkness. After his abusive father catches him with his pants down during a live video chat with another boy, Gregory pack his bags and head west. The idea of shedding skin makes use of some of Clive Barker’s earlier efforts and recycles them into something fresh and exiting. These analogies play excellently upon the themes of the outcasts of society finding common ground.

Saving Granny From the Devil seems to be a personal piece about a grandmother and her grandson. The young man is even called Todd. When Todd doesn’t listen to his nana’s wise words about the mercurial devil’s trickery, he learns in hindsight the importance of good and evil, and how such a construct within human society is not so much black and white as it is an entwined nature within all of humanity. As the story progresses, Todd learns something of this life. He learns the importance of perception. Saving Granny From the Devil is both a coming of age tale and story of the ghost of youth.

The Darkness Between Dead Stars is like a crackling, retro episode of the old black and white TV series Outer Limits. So many people are quick on the fire to say every new piece of short horror fiction is like a lost episode of Twilight Zone… why not the Outer Limits? Within the void and the vast solitude of space, we feel the isolation of one man, while in Human Resources, the story plays out like a suicide note to an unforgotten God – trapped between the cracks of cyberspace. Let the sacrifice commence.

House of Nettle and Thorn – what’s not to love… a female plant cult dedicated to the harvest uses the internet as a place to lure in college boys. Going to this house party is the worst thing Jim and Nick could have ever done. House of Nettle and Thorn is like a lost Roald Dahl-esque, weird tale that could have spawned right from the pages of Playboy right here in Ugly Little Things.

When Karen Met Her Mountain is indeed the perfect character’s story. We, the reader, can feel her ordeal and her struggles within her fears and her psychosis. Some critics are claiming other writers as an influence here, but this story brings the best of Joe R. Landsdale to the table in the ultimate survivalist horror. The story is gripping and dripping in poetic violence. Another personal favorite of mine and a great tribute to the splatterpunk.

The Harbinger is a wicked final story in Ugly Little Things. The story centers around Toys in the Attic reporter Felix and a strange mysterious town called Dalton. The story has a slow build and takes strange turns when Felix interviews Miss Maggie Eloquence, a unique doll manufacturer. People travel far to the mysterious Dalton where the dolls are made of porcelain – which adds further to the eeriness. Rancid smells haunt Felix, and Keisling creates a wonderful feeling of suspense, adding flaws to the main protagonist as a former alcoholic, a trait that also lends further tension to the lead weakness and fears.

An added bonus to the anthology is Todd Keisling’s novella, The Final Reconciliation, which has its roots in Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow mythos. The novella references weird fiction from a female gypsy named Carmilla Birece – clearly a reference to Ambrose Bierce, which will have any weird fiction fan in awe, as well as too many references to name here.

In a nutshell, the story is cross between a serious version of Spinal Tap in a love affair with Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images. The novella is clearly a love letter to the weird fiction genre and it certainly feels that way.

Having a lot of experience from a filmmaking perspective, the initial thoughts I had about The Final Reconciliation were that the novella would make one hell of a horror movie – and if I was a director looking for a project to direct, this would be my pick for the year. The structure makes use of the mockumentary format in such a way you never want to put the book down.

The story is as follows… It’s been thirty years since the rock band The Yellow Kings performed on that fatal night. Only one survivor remains. Aidan Cross, the former lead guitarist of The Yellow Kings, is ready to share his story with interviewer Miles Hargrove. Aidan takes us down a dark path leading up to the tragic night when the band members were horrifically killed while performing a private performance of their first and only album.

Like many heavy metal rock groups, The Yellow Kings struggled to make a name for themselves, playing local gigs in the hopes that the band would get a break. Armed with their manager, Reggie Allen, the band slowly began to break through the veil, and then came along Carmilla, a mysterious gypsy groupie who latched onto the group’s lead singer, Johnny Leifthauser. The novella is wonderfully laid out like a stunning rock album, each track lending a title chapter to quintessential brilliance that only fans of rock and metal can respect. Revamped and modernized, Todd Keisling lends his own haunting ideas to the mythos fueling the original work into a Lovecraftian doom sombre.

Although the ending can be seen a mile off possibly due to the interview narrative, the story never bores. As the novella moves forward, we learn of Carmilla’s malicious intent for the band to play, opening a celestial gateway to the great god Hastur. This type of selective weird fiction is really difficult to pull off as many imitators who play in the weird fiction sand box have learnt.

As for us at Pophorror, we have to say that Ugly Little Things is possibly the best novel of this nature written in a long time. Using progressive rock or metal was indeed a very wise and near on impossible feat for Todd Keisling to perform, but he does. As a tribute to the novella, here is a personal quote for the book.

“It has been said that music can be language of the Gods… it could also very well meant then, that The Yellow Kings’ music is the language of demons.”

About lfmccabe

Lee Francis McCabe is a British born aspiring Author/screenwriter who began writing at a young age. He commenced professionally at the age of 21 in the form of screenplay writing, resulting in three films produced in the UK, and two films produced in Cape Town / South Africa. His favourite authors include Ramsey Campbell, Bret Easton Ellis, William S. Burroughs, Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark and Richard Matheson. When he’s not talking film or literature, he’s busy writing fiction and chasing surrealism whilst trying his hardest not to sound like an enlightened asshole. He holds a degree in Media and Journalism, as well as Screenplay writing and Filmmaking. Lee resides in Cape Town/South Africa and is working toward becoming an established author.

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