Sunday, April 29, 2012

"30 Days of the 5-2" Keith Rawson's "$25"

First off, big thanks to Gerald So for his tireless devotion to supporting noir poetry, and for inviting me to blog as part of "30 Days of the 5-2" crime fiction poetry tour.

When he asked me to pick a poem to write about, I didn't have to think twice.

Keith Rawson's "$25"

Keith has long been one of my favorite new writers, and his stuff keeps getting better over the years. It's dark, twisted, psychotic, warped -- but also funny as hell, and deeply moving. There's a sadness and grim reality at the core of his writing that just rings so true. There's something genuine to the pain in his writing. Keith doesn't write fantasy. Even when the violence is on the fantastic side, the emotions and social circumstances driving the characters are very real.

His poem "$25" really resonates with the current economic situation in America. It's about someone donating plasma. Not out of good will, not to feel better about themselves, and not to help someone else -- but just to get by.

I'm too lazy to work
for $7.50 an hour
rent is

in two weeks

and giving blood is easier
than sticking a gun
in someone's

That last stanza is cold. There's no love for humanity, no generosity, no hope. Like Tom Piccirilli with Every Shallow Cut, Rawson takes his main character to the brink of a crime, and leaves him there. Something might happen -- but it hasn't yet. If it doesn't, we're not going to be surprised, nor would we really blame him.

Look at the way that "in two weeks" is offset from the rest of the poem. There's still more time for things to get better, or for things to get worse, for desperation to take hold.

It's the resonance of worse things to come that makes "$25" so damn chilling.

Keith, I'm a big fan of your short stories, and I'd love to see a full-length novel by you, but if all your poems are this good, get back to the keyboard and bang out a chapbook of noir poetry asap.

Follow the rest of "30 Days of the 5-2" here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"The Criminal Kind: Voyeuristic Pleasures" at The Los Angeles Review of Books

My latest column for the Los Angeles Review of Books was published last week. The article was called, "The Criminal Kind: Voyeuristic Pleasures." Here are the books I reviewed:

Kings of Midnight by Wallace Stroby
"At their best, crime novels provide more than the voyeuristic pleasure of looking in on a lifestyle that us law-abiding citizens will never know first-hand: they offer a refractive glance back on our own world. In her own way, Crissa Stone is a modern-day hero for an America still recovering from the economic collapse. There’s an honesty and integrity to her work ethic that separates her from the fold."
And She Was by Alison Gaylin
"A moody, densely layered mystery whose emotional notes are as affecting as the plot points are enthralling. Gaylin excels at getting us into her protagonist’s complex (and crowded) mind."
Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
"Imagine the literary love child of Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, but way more twisted, with a penchant for dismemberment, and a hell of a lot funnier. That’s Joe R. Lansdale’s Edge of Dark Water in a nutshell."
The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson
"Don’t let the exotic Peruvian backdrop fool you: this is in no way a picturesque walk in the park — or through the Incan ruins, as the case may be. From its doom-laden opening line (“Standing at the edge of the mountain, I imagined what it would feel like to let go”) to its unexpectedly savage finale, The Next One to Fall is driven by the noir impulse towards oblivion."
Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm
"Dead Harvest is a wild and unpredictable ride that only gets more bold as the narrative unfurls, and now that the foundation for the series is set, I’m excited to see what hurdles Holm has set for Thornton in the sequel, The Wrong Goodbye, already slated for October 2012."
Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg
"What saves the book from becoming an orgy of excess, however, is Silverberg’s stylistic restraint, and his attention to detail and craft. Blood on the Mink is by no means as extreme as something by Mickey Spillane. Silverberg’s style, at least here, is more reminiscent of the cool precision of a Peter Rabe. When it comes to action, there’s a remarkable balance of clarity and brute force to his choreography"

Monday, April 2, 2012

"Man vs. Beast at High Noon"

I wrote this story as part of Patti Abbott's "At the Zoo" Flash Fiction Challenge. Thanks, Patti, for hosting the event. Check out her blog for more details and other participants.

“Man vs. Beast at High Noon”

by Cullen Gallagher

Chase Klorfine had just about finished tying Pastor Jack to his pulpit.

“Folks always say a pastor should be tied to his job,” Chase said.

“You’ll pay for this, Chase Klorfine. May wild animals tear you limb from limb for all eternity in the pits of Hell!” Pastor Jack said.

“Now that’s just downright mean.” Chase pulled the rope tighter and Pastor Jack winced. “When my time comes—a long time from now, and far away from this stinking Kansas cowtown—I’ll deal with the Lord one-on-one. I can be quite the charmer. Just ask the nice old lady who plays the organ—once she regains consciousness.”

“You beast!” Pastor Jack struggled futilely against the rope.

Flashing a wicked grin, Chase tugged the rope one final time and spat a thick glob of tobacco juice in the pastor’s face.

“Just watch yourself, Pastor, or you’ll soon be joining all those saints you talk so highly of.”

As Chase stormed out of the church, he passed dozens of parishioners, all of whom were hogtied and stuffed in the aisles between the pews. Some of them squirmed hopelessly, while others prayed out loud. The collective rumble of their devotion raised even the hairs on the back of Chase’s neck.

“Keep your religion to yourself!” Chase roared, and emptied his pistol into the rafters. Dust and splinters rained on the churchgoers as Chase stepped out of the musty church and into the blazing noon heat. The outlaw’s underlings—lieutenants, he called them—were lined up in the middle of the street, standing at attention.

“Lieutenants, report!”

One by one, they stepped forward and spoke.

“The sheriff and all his deputies are locked in their cells, sir!”

“Telegraph wires are down.”

“The bank manager and tellers are locked in the safe. We got over ten grand.”

“All the merchants are locked in a cellar. The door is locked, and there’s a couple hundred-pound barrels of grain on top. No chance they’ll escape from there. All in all, five hundred and some change.”

“Every last townsfolk is corralled in the town hall. Heff and his crew are guarding them now. Got roughly seventy-five and some small change from the wallets and pocket books.”

“And Madam Fifi and her girls are all ready, waiting, and willing—provided we reimburse them for services rendered, of course.”

Chase frowned at that. He’d have to show Fifi some of the old Klorfine Family Charm. 

Only one lieutenant hadn’t reported.

“Vega! What about those snake oil peddlers?”

Vega stepped forward. “You mean Doc Delaney’s Wonders of the Wild West and Beyond Traveling Zoo, Medicine Show and Universitarium, sir!”

“I don’t care what in tarnation they call it, it is still just some has-been charlatan hawking booze behind medicine labels and parading some pretty white lady covered in mud pretending to be an Injun princess.” Chase shot a torrent of tobacco between Vega’s legs. “Despicable. A whore house is more educational than that.”

“This one has animals, sir!”

“Critters, you say?” Chase stroked his goatee. 

“The most wondrous and dangerous creatures in the world. Boxing kangaroos from Australia …”

“Go on …”

“… elephants from India, poisonous snakes, more deadly than anything to be found in the desert …”

“Psssh. That’s all? I thought you said dangerous.”

“But wait, Chase, there’s more. The star attraction is a real African lion. The king of the jungle. The biggest killer of them all. No lion has ever met a foe in the wild that it couldn’t kill yet. This one is even rumored to have killed its former owner, Christian Charlie.”

“Who’s that?” Chase asked.

“Christian Charlie, as in Christian Charlie’s Trick Pony and Circus Sideshow, Sponsored by Christian Charlie’s Religious Elixirs and Spiritual Rejuvenation Products. You might not believe it if you haven’t tried it yourself, but his elixirs really did wonders for my spirit.”

Chase stopped rubbing his chin.

“Just ask my wife!” Vega said.

Chase lobbed the whole gob of tobacco in Vega’s face.

Vega let the wad drip down his face, and then continued. “There’s a trick, though, sir. Christian Charlie told me this after drinking a little too much of his own elixir. The lion is hypnotized, so he’s actually as friendly as a kitten, even though he’s roaring and clawing like a wild animal. But just say the magic word, and he goes back to killer mode—for real this time. Charlie never did tell me the magic word, though. And it sure would come in handy now because, well sir, something happened.”

“Vega, I’m going to give you just five seconds to tell me how much money we got from those circus freaks. One …”

“Nothing, sir!”

Chase hadn’t felt so dumbfounded since his schoolhouse days. And those ended when he was six.

“Come now, Vega?”

“That is correct, sir. No money. The lions got it. Doc Delaney, he hides it in a chest in the lion cage so that no one can get it.”

“So why didn’t you go get it, if the kitten is so friendly?”

“Well, sir, you said yourself those snake oil salesmen are a bunch of charlatans. What if he was lying about the whole hypnotism bit and the lion bit my head off?”

Chase’s hand went to his gunbelt, resting on the butt of his Colt.

“You know how we do in this outfit, Vega. You don’t get the money, you get one chance to shoot for your life. You remembered what happened to Billy, and Goat, and Rooney, and Chick, and Dallas. Do I need to go on?”

Chase snapped back the hammer on his Colt.

“But, Chase! I can still get it from the lion, just give me a chance!” Without reaching for his guns, Vega’s hands flew up in protest.

Chase’s Colt exploded twice. Hot iron bore holes through both of Vega’s eyes, the force of the bullets throwing him backwards into a trough.

“Now let’s go kill us a lion and get the rest of the money and get back on the trail. If we ride all night, we can be in Topeka by tomorrow morning.”

Doc Delaney’s Wonders of the Wild West and Beyond Traveling Zoo, Medicine Show and Universitarium was set up on the outskirts of town. The two-dozen wagons formed a circle, inside which the performances and lectures would be held. Some of the wagons had signs like “Fortunes Told” and “Anatomy Lectures—No Females or Children,” and these had small steps leading into the wagon. Other wagons were little more than cages on wheels. Sure enough, there was a kangaroo, an elephant, and even wicker baskets that hissed and rocked back and forth. Chase had no interest in snakes, however. His eyes were locked on the cage in the center of the circle.

The lion. And in the middle of the cage, a large wooden chest.

“There it is, boys. Now watch and learn.”

Chase stalked back and forth in front of the cage, mirroring the lion’s movements inside the cage. He stared the beast in the eyes, locking their gaze, never blinking or looking away. 

Chase’s lieutenants formed a semi-circle around the two warriors. They whispered back and forth, impressed with their chief’s almost instinctual rapport with the lion.

Chase and the lion had stopped pacing, and were staring fiercely into each others’ eyes. Chase’s eyes were cold and steady.

And then the lion lay down, resting its large jaw on top of its folded paws.

“See? Nothing to it.”

Chase opened the cage and walked circles around dormant beast and the treasure chest.

“I told you those snake oil peddlers were just charlatans. The lion’s as harmless as a female. Now to get this treasure chest out of here. It sure is heavy. Must be full of money!”

Chase crouched behind the treasure chest, getting ready to push it out the cage door. Unfortunately, he got careless and stopped paying attention to the lion. Specifically the lion’s tail. Right before he shoved the treasure chest, he lifted his foot and stomped down hard for extra momentum. It was a good idea, except he crushed the lion’s tail, arousing the angry killer within the beast.

Outside the cage, all the lieutenants watched in horror as the lion stuffed Chase Klorfine’s entire head into its mouth, and then ripped his limbs from his body like an angry child with a ratty doll. 

So entranced were the lieutenants that they failed to register as the lion stepped to the edge of the cage door, hind legs poised to pounce, front claws fully extended.

The lion jumped out of the cage and into the dumbfounded outlaws, fatally crushing two of the lieutenants with its five hundred pounds of pure man-eating muscle.

One of the remaining lieutenants instinctively reached for its pistol, but the lion was faster on the draw, and swatted the gun out of the outlaw’s hand with one paw while ripping out his throat with the other.

The two remaining lieutenants both ran towards the exit. With one giant leap, the lion landed in front of one of the outlaws, deafening the man with its mighty roar and sickening him with its nauseating breath. The last sound the human ever made was a girly shriek. Then the lion clubbed him across the head and dug its teeth into a feast of human entrails.

The lion had forgotten about the remaining human until a poor shot kicked up dirt into its face. The beast, its regal mane streaked with blood and tufts of human hair caught between its razor sharp teeth, turned around to see the last remaining lieutenant standing in the center of the entrance. His gun drawn and ready to fire.

The lion calmly rose and strode towards the lone gunman. 

The man fired.

The shot missed.

The lion walked was getting closer and closer.

Another shot.

Another miss.

The lion kept coming, slow but steady.

Two more shots, both of them wild misses.

The gunman was panicking.

He raised the gun to his lips, kissed the piping hot barrel, singeing his lips as he whispered a prayer.

He never did finish that prayer before the lion slashed with its claw and ripped the last lieutenant’s lips from his face. The beast then proceeded to devour the rest of his head.

Alerted by all the gunshots, Heff and the remaining outlaws ran to the zoo to see what all the commotion was about. They found the arena littered with the dismembered, disemboweled corpses of their leaders. 

By the time they realized the lion cage was empty, it was too late. The beast was in the air, roaring its magnificent war cry. There were ten outlaws this time, but that was nothing compared to the battles it had fought—and won—in the jungles back home. These human didn’t stand a chance against the king.

Inside the church, the pastor and his parishioners—all still tied up—heard the blood-curdling screams.

“Let us pray. God, grant us mercy,” Pastor Jack said, roped tight to his pulpit, “and give us a gust of wind so that the church door will close and protect us from beasts, whether human or animal.”

The screams stopped, and the lion’s roar came closer and closer, growing steadily louder.

The Pastor held his breath, and waited for his prayers to come true.