Unhappy Endings is a 2009 collection of horror and horror-esque short stories and novellas (and three poems) penned by Brian Keene throughout his writing career, the majority previously compiled in other collections, as add-ons to novels, as chapbooks, and so forth. Released by Delirium Books in three editions (Digital: 9.95, Trade Paper: 16.95, Limited Hard: 65). Contains 19 stories (3 of which are about 40 pages or greater), 3 poems, introductory note, story notes for most of the individual works, bibliographic history, and author's note. Over 300 pages.
Brian Keene is a horror writer best known for his zombie novels (Rising, City of the Dead, and the unrelated except thematically Dead Sea) although he is quickly expanding his body of work to include many other horror sub-genres. He is one of my personal favorites, and I usually buy those of his books I can afford to buy without hesitation. Those I cannot afford, I do not buy, but I wish I could.
Keene seems to be a writer that needs a little room to breathe when weaving stories and building up character empathy. His novels are probably going to remain my primary recommendation if you had to pick just one work to get. However, I dig his short stories a lot and this was my second collection (my first was the instantly sold out Little Silver Book of Streetwise Stories). This one was another treat, especially since I have downed a few more long works by Keene since reading that first batch, and see him from a wider angle, now. This is not an unqualified treat, mind you, for reasons I will get to in bit, but a treat.
For those not in the know, Keene is a horror writer (he often refers to himself as a "midlist horror writer") whose storylines vary greatly but tend to revolve around the same sort of characters that the 1970s and 1980s horror writers adored: everyday folk with slight to major quirks and a conflict between selfishness and a deep-rooted love for family and duty as a mixture of otherworldly and all-to-human horror seeps into their lives. Keene's writing does not fall into what I would call the "simple writing" style, a somewhat stilted style that eschews most of the fluff of writing for straight text, which has its place but often fails to reward the reader, but he does tend to keep his prose lean and peppered with King-like pop references and enough slices of life to keep the reader grounded. Over the past couple of years, Keene has been building up a Lovecraft/Dunsanian mythos invoking multiple worlds and unknown horrors lurking in and between them. This fact is more apparent here in this collection than in his other works that I have read, with several of the stories (notably "Tequila Sunrise") actively deepening his outer mythos.
The writing quality is good to medicore, never quite shining and with a few passages coming off as awkward, but his characters work and they work well. In fact, chracterization, though lacking room to really play out character development and so therefore invoking static characters are who expanded upon by discovery, is more or less the key to this collection. Keene eschews mood-centric and often even action-centric writing here, and banks on his characters reaching out to the reader; with the stories' various comical and heartbreaking scenes delivered not as a plot point, but as a character's moment. Also, in the plus side category, Keene is unafraid to play with the pen in this collection, or to use it to lay himself on the page, salting his mini- and micro-epics with jokes about Prozac, the birth of tequila, references to powwow, cameos by underground author Carlton Mellick III, and a different enough to be refreshing take on the quickly-tiring joke about Jesus being a zombie. One story starts with the line "I shit gold" (or something close to that), another is about a mummified cat who "speaks" in stilted English, and another is about Christmas getting "stolen" by an evil otheworldly being. In other words, if you want light, accessible, horror with pockets of gore and a common thread about fear and grief over family and loss, then here you go. If you want more serious horror, then you probably want to look elsewhere.
Notable stories, if I had to pick five, would be:
With that being said, "The Resurrection and the Life", "Golden Boy", and "The Siqqusim Who Stole Christmas"—all previously published elsehwere—are also quite likely to stand out to the reader, and "Bunnies in August", "Black Wave", and "Stone Tears" each have their distinct vibe. If there were any throwaway stories, I would say it would be the two most different stories: "Fade to Null" and "An Appointment Kept". A couple of the others require previous Keene knowledge ("Take me to the River" and "The Waiting is the Hardest Part", for instance). In these cases, though, these were often stories that were part of limited edition versions of works and so, while possibly pointless for those not wanting to read their source novels, it nevertheless provides a chance for cash-strapped readers like me to go back and get some ofthe class "b-sides" without hefty eBay bids. As mentioned above, the stories are rounded out with three poems, one of which is good, one of which is sweet, and another is kind of funny in a really angry way. I am not the biggest fan of Keene's poetry, but it was insightful to read it and, frankly, if you have 300 pages of good things to read, why comlain about three "free" pages included?
My enjoyment factor was overall Good with moments of Greatness scattered around. I skipped a couple of the stories I had already read, but reread most of the "repeats". The new ones, outside of being a good time, have helped me to frame a lot of his works in a better way. The overall value, though, I am going to put at a potential Eh. Potential because some of this stuff will only matter if you are die-hard Keene fan and then you might already have a decent number of these stories. If you are not a die-hard fan, then you might not care for a few of the pieces. It worked well for my level of fandom, an established appreciator who has yet to acquire any substantial number of limited editions and chapbooks. Others may see their mileage vary.
I also wanted to point out a specific note about the digital edition. It is of the sort that requires a Digital Access Key (you have to sign up for it, but pretty much anything you want it to be username and password wise) and then it "dials" in and confirms you. It can save your access approval for up to 365 according to the website, but the downside of this is twofold. If their server ever goes down due to any number of reasons, or they feel that maintaining the licenses is not quite valuable to them, then you have pretty much a year from that date (or, possibly, if they do this, they will send some sort of life-time unlock). More specific to me, you are forced to us a particular reader (Adobe, natch, and not even Digital Editions) and all the issues that brings. I like Adobe's reader ok, but it is not my number one choice on my Macbook or my Linux desktop. At least it supports both, though, unlike some ebook readers. There is that, and also the fact that it seems to have no trouble with me logging in from both computers (laptop on the go, desktop at home) which was a fear of mine. It also has the standard ebook warnings about you cannot share it and such, those things that you could do if it were a pbook. It makes up some of it, though, by including a couple of digital extras, and it only costs half the price of the pbook.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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