Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 4 – The Drama

The aforementioned Laura (1944) is as much a drama as a detective movie and as Film Noir is not a genre bound by plot or setting many of its entries are genre pictures with noirish attributes. The interest in ordinary people in extraordinary situations was the stomping ground of author James M. Cain whose novels The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity all became classic films noir. Eschewing the intricacies of the crime caper or the mystery of the detective or psychological thriller, dramas focus solely on the relationships of their characters. The dual nature of mankind and the light and the dark within every person makes for plenty of dark tales of jealousy, resentment and obsession.

 

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“I’m ready for my close-up” – Gloria Swanson as the deranged has-been in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Mildred Pierce (1945) was a bold adaptation of James M. Cain’s tale of the titular single mother (Joan Crawford) struggling to provide for her two daughters. One of them – Veda (Ann Blyth) – is a complete brat who resents her mother’s blue collar status and ends up in a relationship with Mildred’s second husband. Despite Mildred’s desperate attempts to always do right by her children, the viewer can tell from the opening scene that murder is on the cards. In spite of the California beach houses and apple-pie restaurants, Michael Curtiz’s expressionistic direction provides a decidedly dark overtone for what is essentially a domestic drama.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was another James M. Cain adaptation and, as in Double Indemnity (1944), the plot focuses on the doomed relationship of a man and a woman who plot to murder the latter’s dull husband. Where it differs from Double Indemnity is in the smoldering chemistry between drifter Frank (John Garfield) and roadside waitress Cora (Lana Turner). The title is a clever allusion to the inescapability of fate. It is more than the Hayes Code at work here preventing the protagonists from getting away with murder.

Narrated by a dead man, Sunset Boulevard (1950) tells of down on his luck scriptwriter Joe (William Holden) who befriends faded actress Norma Desmond (played by real silent star Glora Swanson). Persuaded to aid in her futile comeback attempt, the penniless Joe moves into Norma’s crumbling mansion and a twisted and doomed relationship develops. As well as being a darkly tragic tale of loneliness and alienation, Sunset Boulevard is also a snide attack on the new Hollywood system and its treatment of yesterday’s fading stars.

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My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 3 – The Psychological Thriller

What sets Film Noir apart from other crime films is the psychological depth of the characters. Whether the protagonist is a troubled anti-hero facing an existential crisis or a criminal driven insane by the bleak and cruel reality of the world, it is the psychological motivations that trump the quest for monetary gain in the best noirs.

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The surreal dream sequence in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) was achieved with minimalist sets and creative lighting.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is perhaps the first real noir and it’s one of the best both visually and psychologically. Mike (John McGuire) is a reporter who wrongly implicates a man in a murder trial resulting in the death penalty. When Mike’s loathsome neighbor is murdered in a similar fashion, he begins to doubt his own testimony. To top it all, Mike then comes under suspicion for both murders (as he found both bodies), igniting a nightmare in which even his own sanity is thrown into doubt.

Detour (1945) tells of a hitchhiker (Tom Neal) who is picked up on a lonely Arizona highway. When his driver suddenly dies, the hitchhiker assumes his identity to avoid being pinned for his murder. Unfortunately he picks up femme fatale Vera (Ann Savage) who recognizes the stolen car and immediately pegs him as an impostor before ruthlessly trying to blackmail him. Told in flashback and by a mentally unhinged man on the run, it is not guaranteed that the version of events being portrayed is even the truth.

In D.O.A. (1950), accountant Frank Bigelow takes a short vacation to San Francisco. While at a bar, somebody slips him a poisoned drink. The doctors tell him he has only days to live and Bigelow decides to use them to find out who killed him and why. When the protagonist is handed a death sentence in the opening act, it’s hard to raise the stakes any higher. The plot is complex involving gangsters, adultery and stolen iridium and Bigelow’s increasing frenzy as the inevitable climax approaches turns him from a dull every-man into a gumshoe of Bogart’s ilk.

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 My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 2 – The Crime Caper

In defiance of the private dick blueprint, some of the best noirs are told from the crook’s point of view. Crime is the linchpin in Film Noir and the good guys (if there are any) are often mere supporting players. In these films it is the danger that threatens the protagonists after they fall on the wrong side of the law that holds the audience’s interest. If the fun in a detective movie is watching the protagonist’s struggle to solve the crime, then the joy in a crime caper is seeing if they will get away with it.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944) tells of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and lonely housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who plot to do away with her dull husband and score big on the insurance pay out. There’s precious little romance here. Walter and Phyllis barely seem to like each other but the film is a thrilling cat and mouse game and the tension is racked up when Walter’s shrewd boss (Edward G. Robinson) begins to smell a rat but has no idea that the guilty party is his friend and protege.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) focuses on a group of hoods planning a heist. The criminals are low-rent professionals but they are given much more depth than the hoods in most films of the era. The desperation of their circumstances make the viewer root for them despite their plan to rob a jewelry store. Perhaps the quintessential caper movie, it has been an inspiration for countless movies including Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Usual Suspects (1995).

Much has been written about the sexual symbolism in Gun Crazy (1950); a Bonnie and Clyde type tale about two young lovers embarking upon a bank-robbing spree. The weakness of gun fetishist Bart (John Dall) and his manipulation by femme fatale Annie (Peggy Cummins) can be seen as an allegory for the returning war veteran finding his place in society usurped by the working woman. Annie does most of the gun work as Bart lacks the stomach to kill and any Freudian will tell you what that means. But armchair psychology aside, Gun Crazy is one of the finest hoods-on-the-lam flicks you’ll see.

1942-complete-cover-2

My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Retropulp Covers: Crime

If you haven’t seen my previous post on horror covers, check it out here. Again, I’m not reviewing these books, just pointing out their fantastic cover art.

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott

In October 1931, a station agent found two large trunks abandoned in Los Angeles’s Southern Pacific Station. What he found inside ignited one of the most scandalous tabloid sensations of the decade.

Inspired by this notorious true crime, Edgar®-winning author Megan Abbott’s novel Bury Me Deep is the story of Marion Seeley, a young woman abandoned in Phoenix by her doctor husband. At the medical clinic where she finds a job, Marion becomes fast friends with Louise, a vivacious nurse, and her roommate, Ginny, a tubercular blonde. Before long, the demure Marion is swept up in the exuberant life of the girls, who supplement their scant income by entertaining the town’s most powerful men with wild parties. At one of these events, Marion meets—and falls hard for—the charming Joe Lanigan, a local rogue and politician on the rise, whose ties to all three women bring events to a dangerous collision.

A story born of Jazz Age decadence and Depression-era desperation, Bury Me Deep—with its hothouse of jealousy, illicit sex and shifting loyalties—is a timeless portrait of the dark side of desire and the glimmer of redemption.

Easy Death by Daniel Boyd

’TWAS THE WEEK BEFORE CHRISTMAS…
…and two robbers hired by a local crime boss manage to heist half a million dollars from an armored car.  But getting the money and getting away with it are two different things, especially with a blizzard coming down, the cops in hot pursuit, and a double-crossing gambler and a murderous park ranger threatening to turn this white Christmas blood red.

 

 

 

Naked Friends by Justin Grimbol

People call him Boner. Boner PI. This is the story of his first case. A local misfit is being harassed and threatened by strange men. Boner has been hired to investigate. It seems straightforward enough but he gets caught up in a whirlwind of booze, fancy minivans, death, and ass grabbing. It all becomes overwhelming and Boner wants to quit just like he has all his other jobs. But he can’t. The job has gotten into him and it can’t be purged.

 

 

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Shaft’s Revenge by David F. Walker

Like an unstoppable force of nature, private detective John Shaft is back with a vengeance. Ernest Tidyman’s iconic detective returns in the first original Shaft novel in more than forty years, and he’s as bad as ever. When the Godfather of crime in Harlem reaches out to Shaft for a favor, the hardboiled detective finds himself caught in a web of violence and murder. No one is safe as the bullets start to fly and the bodies start to drop, leaving Shaft with only two options: kill or be killed.

From the writer of the award-winning graphic novel Shaft: A Complicated Man, comes the critically acclaimed return of the black private dick that’s a sex machine with all the chicks. It’s a two-fisted tale of revenge as Shaft cuts a bloody path through city, settling old scores and faces the demons of his past.

Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 1 – The Detective Movie

The private eye, lit by a solitary street lamp, tailing crooks down dark alleys and asking questions in sleazy nightclubs has become the poster boy for Film Noir but it is a mistake to think that all noirs are detective movies. As I said in my previous post, the genre is not defined by plot or setting. Film Noir is more about style, mood and a set of shared themes. As such, there are several mini-genres that can be discerned within noir’s gloomy shadows.

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Humphrey Bogart epitomized the noir detective in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946)

The Detective Movie

Let’s start with the obvious choice. Detective stories have been around since Poe wrote about Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle perfected the genre and Agatha Christie led the way in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction; a period in the 1920s and ’30s where novels about people bumped off for money in wealthy country houses were extremely popular. But Film Noir took its cues from the Hardboiled fiction of the pulp magazines rather than the cozy parlor whodunnits of the inter war years. Hardboiled  detective yarns generally don’t invite the reader to join in the puzzle and are less concerned with ‘whodunnit’ than ‘why they dunnit’. This interest in the psychological (and often sexual) motivations over murder for profit is inherited from the gothic novel; the 19th century craze for brooding anti-heroes and characters with dual natures.

In The Maltese Falcon (1941) Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) pursues the titular gem-encrusted bird through a murky San Francisco, encountering gangsters and lowlifes including the ever creepy Peter Lorre as a psychopathic homosexual foreigner (nobody said these movies were politically correct). That the bird eventually turns out to be a fake doesn’t matter. It’s the dealings between the four double-crossing competitors that holds the viewer’s attention, not the recovery of the titular MacGuffin.

Laura (1944) perfectly showcased the switch from the romantic pre-war films of upper class elegance to the downbeat, blue collar tone of Film Noir. Visually, Laura isn’t particularly noirish but the plot involving a detective’s developing obsession for the dead woman whose murder he is investigating is a twisted and dark tale that surprisingly got past the censors.

Out of the Past (1947) is mostly told in flashback as a brooding gas station attendant’s murky past catches up with him. Once a private detective Jeff (Robert Mitchum) fell in love with a gangster’s runaway moll only to be double-crossed by her. Now the gangster has tracked Jeff down and blackmails him into doing one more job for him. The triple-crosses and veiled vengeance make this one of noir’s finest detective movies.

In my next post I’ll be taking a look at things from the other side of the law…

1942-complete-cover-2

My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

The Film Noir Cocktail

Film Noir – that group of shady, black and white crime flicks from the ’40s and ’50s – is notorious among students of film to pin down. Dissertations have been written on the subject that struggle to define it. The problem is that Film Noir is not a genre in the way Westerns or gangster pictures are; genres defined by plot and setting. Film Noir movies can be about anything and set anywhere. It is style that defines them regardless of setting. Some movies fit anybody’s definition of noir. Others land in a gray area and are hotly contested.

The term is usually credited to the French film critic Nino Frank who wrote an article called Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle, (A new police genre: the criminal adventure) which appeared in the film magazine L’écran français in August 1946. He applied the term to certain American movies made during the war which hadn’t been available to French audiences under the Nazi occupation. When these movies did reach French cinemas en masse in 1946, audiences noticed a marked difference in tone to the Technicolor epics and musical extravaganzas of pre-war American cinema. These films were tough, violent, raw and above all, dark.

Shot in black and white with emphasis on expressionism, the subject matter often dealt with the ugly flip-side of the American dream; organised crime, drug trafficking, prostitution and adultery. While tame in comparison to Hollywood’s output today, these films caused quite a stir in France and there was a degree of moral outrage at their content.

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Double Indemnity (1944) was one of the original films noir Nino Frank alluded to in his article.

Nobody in the 1940s set out to make a Film Noir as the term hadn’t been invented. They were more often than not known as crime pictures or melodramas, leaving it up to Nino Frank and future generations to band them together into a loosely defined group based on a set of shared characteristics. There’s plenty of blogs that list ‘top ten noirs’ or try to untangle the knotty problem of definition. Instead, I’m going to list a few influences and archetypes of Film Noir. These are the ingredients of the Film Noir cocktail; a stiff drink with a bitter aftertaste of revenge, indulgence and the streets.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) is perhaps the most famous example of German Expressionism.

German Expressionism and Gothic Literature

German Expressionism evolved during a period of cultural isolation in Germany directly following the First World War. With a ban on foreign films, German filmmakers developed their own surrealist style. Geometrically skewed angles, shadows painted on backdrops and themes of insanity and murder reflected a psychologically disturbed nation reeling in the wake of a horrific war. The rise of Nazi Germany sparked a cultural emigration that saw many German filmmakers (largely of Jewish descent) flee to America. Directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger brought this distinct European style to Hollywood and it was well suited to both horror movies and the emerging Film Noir movement.

German Expressionism – and by extension, Film Noir – owes a debt to Gothic Literature; a genre popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that blended the erotic and the macabre with much focus on decay, corruption and madness usually in an aristocratic setting. Death is never simple in novels like Wuthering Heights or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe in which psychological motivation takes precedence over murder for profit. As with Film Noir, Gothic Literature is more concerned with why people kill rather than how they kill. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray are concerned with man’s duality and play with the idea of light and dark/good and evil fighting for dominance within. These themes which were so evident in German Expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) were handed down to American crime films of the 1940s. The decadent aristocratic family of the Gothic novel can easily be seen in the Sternwoods of The Big Sleep (1946) and the surrealistic nightmares of many a Byronic hero translate well to the troubled man spiraling into insanity as in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). The hopelessness and bleak outlook of Gothic literature are so recognizable in Film Noir that the movement could almost be called ‘Urban Gothic’.

blackmask1948-07Hardboiled Fiction

There is a reason Film Noir is almost exclusively an American product. The situation in the U.S in the 1940s was perfect for it. A relatively new country, the U.S. had experienced an economic boom that saw vast cities rise up in record time. The Depression knocked America for six and stripped many of their fortunes leaving a bitter, world-weary and cynical nation. Prohibition caused a second boom; this time in organised crime and the corruption it bred.

 The Depression created a need for cheap, lowbrow entertainment and the pulp magazine was the perfect medium. Lurid tales of sex and violence made the anti-hero the protagonist of choice and the frontiersman of the wild west that had been so popular in the dime novels of previous decades quickly morphed into the American private detective in magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. The stories of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and others were a stark contrast to the cozy English detective stories of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that preceded them. These detectives were working class tough guys pursuing leads into the dark corners of the American city; a bleak landscape inhabited by gangsters, corrupt cops and villains of all sizes and perversions.

Hardboiled novels were popular in France around the time Nino Frank christened Film Noir and there was once a wide held belief that he was referencing a publishing imprint called Serié Noire. This series of crime paperbacks made a name for itself translating the works of American writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain into French. But as this article states, the series didn’t get into its stride until after Frank’s article was published and none of the Noir-associated authors mentioned appeared in the series until 1948 meaning that the name of the imprint was probably a coincidence.

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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). Low budgets forced filmmakers to make the best of sparse sets and minimal lighting.

The Cost of the War

Color films began to appear just as war broke out in Europe. With America’s involvement came budget cuts and studios were forced to revert to the cheaper black and white format. There were other restrictions too and sets were made on the cheap and in some cases, barely finished. Thus, the lighting style of German Expressionism fulfilled a utilitarian purpose as well as an artistic one. Deep shadows masked shoddy or incomplete sets and the simple setup of a lamp and a table in a confined studio set provided atmosphere on a tight budget.

The style may have evolved out of necessity but it covered up its flaws well. Some of the best noirs were B-movies like Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and Detour (1945). The more polished noirs of the ’50s like The Big Heat (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) showed a degree of self awareness. Whereas early noirs used deep shadows and simple sets out of necessity, these films actively sought out crummy locales because they had the budget to film on location and reveled in the gloomy atmosphere established by early noirs.

The Returning Veteran and the Femme Fatale

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Robert Mitchum in Crossfire (1947)

Films noir are generally known for their bleak endings. Although the production code with its insistence that all criminals had to pay for their crimes on-screen is responsible for a part of it, there are other reasons too. Disillusionment, alienation and a sense of unease were all symptoms of a generation of men returning home from the war and struggling to find their place in a country they no longer recognized. Whether it is Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) in The Blue Dahlia (1946) who comes home from the war to find his wife sleeping with another man and subsequently finds himself accused of her murder, or Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) in Crossfire (1947) telling a cop the only killing he’s done is ‘where you get medals for it’, the noirs of the late ’40s often showed the returning veteran at odds with the society he went to war to defend. Cynical of American values which have become ever more materialistic in his absence and distrusted by the very people he fought to protect, the returning veteran is a man outside of society and perfect as either a protagonist or villain in Film Noir.

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Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) – the classic image of the Femme Fatale.

One cannot talk about Film Noir without touching upon the concept of the Femme Fatale. Much has been written on the psychology behind the phenomenon. During the war women were needed to work positions traditionally filled by men. When the veterans returned they found a female workforce that had got used to earning a dime and in some cases were reluctant to go back to their roles of housewives. This rejection of gender roles is key to the Femme Fatale who is traditionally depicted as a ballsy, seductive and deadly woman enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Manipulation of men is her general game and prime examples are Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson who convinces a hapless insurance salesman to commit murder in Double Indemnity (1944) and Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy; the deceitful murderess in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Perhaps the best example of the post-war generation’s feeling of emasculation is Gun Crazy (1949) in which Annie Laurie Starr (played by Peggy Cummins) literally outguns her fellow bank robber Bart Tare (John Dall) who only ever commits one murder in the movie (hers) and pays the ultimate price for it in the movie’s desolate climax. It invariably ends badly for the Femme Fatale with most noirs stripping them of their freedom or their life before the credits roll. It is debatable if this is a criticism of women who stray from their traditional roles or an attack on the oppressive patriarchal society that forces them to break free and embark upon such self-destructive journeys.

1942-complete-cover-2Film Noir was an important influence on my newest novel, Curse of the Blood Fiends which blends the noirish private detective story with the monster movies of the 1940s. Private detective Rosa Bridger is on the trail of a drug-addled Hollywood starlet for her fiance’s movie mogul father. But something is lurking in the shadows of the City of Angels far worse than the hoodlums and hop-pushers she is used to dealing with…

Further Reading 

Blaser, John. “No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir” and “Film Noir’s Progressive Portrayal of Women.”

Retropulp Covers: Horror

I have a bit of a thing for cover art inspired by pulp and grindhouse. Here are four horror novels I’ve come across with great covers. I’m not commenting on the novels themselves (as I haven’t read all of them – yet), just showcasing the fantastic cover art.

Children of the Dark by Jonathan Janz

Will Burgess is used to hard knocks. Abandoned by his father, son of a drug-addicted mother, and charged with raising his six-year-old sister, Will has far more to worry about than most high school freshmen. To make matters worse, Mia Samuels, the girl of Will’s dreams, is dating his worst enemy, the most sadistic upperclassman at Shadeland High. Will’s troubles, however, are just beginning.

Because one of the nation’s most notorious criminals—the Moonlight Killer—has escaped from prison and is headed straight toward Will’s hometown. And something else is lurking in Savage Hollow, the forest surrounding Will’s rundown house. Something ancient and infinitely evil. When the worst storm of the decade descends on Shadeland, Will and his friends must confront unfathomable horrors. Everyone Will loves—his mother, his little sister, Mia, and his friends—will be threatened.

And very few of them will escape with their lives.

savages_front_large-683x1024Savages by Greg F. Gifune

It began as a vacation to the Cook Islands. But when seven friends are lost in the South Pacific after their boat goes down in a storm, they must survive at sea for several days in a small raft. Blown miles off course from their original position, and deep into open waters, they eventually encounter a small uncharted island.

Grateful to be alive, they begin their quest for survival, hopeful they’ll be rescued sooner than later. But the island is not the paradise it appears to be. Instead, it is a place of horror, death, torture and evil, of terrible secrets thought long buried and forgotten.

And they are not alone.

Something guards those horrible secrets, something evil and relentlessly violent, an ancient horror born of rage and vengeance, a blood-crazed predator that lives to kill and will stop at nothing to protect the island from those intruding upon its dark legacy.

The savage is loose, and there is no escape.

SAVAGES, the new novel from Greg F. Gifune

18 Wheels of Horror by Various

Psychotic killers, devious ghosts, alien monsters, howling storms, undead creatures, and other dark forces haunt the highways and the truckers who drive them in these 18 chilling tales!
A ghostly voice on a trucker’s CB radio knows more about his life than it should… Two drivers find their cargo gives them inhuman appetites… A boy in a truck stop encounters a supernatural force that threatens to destroy the world… The hypnotic singing lulling a driver to sleep might not be coming from the tires… A fender-bender between a big rig and a four wheeler is not as accidental as it seems… The sinister cargo lurking in a rock and roll band’s fleet of trucks is unleashed at their final show…

Hit the road with this anthology of trucking horror fiction!

Contains the 2016 Bram Stoker Award winning short story “Happy Joe’s Rest Stop” by John Palisano.

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Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

Bizarre radio broadcasts luring dissolute souls into the dark woods of Western Massachusetts. Sinister old men in topcoats gathered at corners and in playgrounds. A long-dead sorcerer returning to obscene life in the form of an old buck goat. Welcome to Leeds, Massachusetts, where the drowned walk, where winged leeches blast angry static, where black magic casts a shadow over a cringing populace. You’ve tuned in to WXXT. The fracture in the stanchion. The drop of blood in your morning milk. The viper in the veins of the Pioneer Valley.