PULL NO PUNCHES
By Christopher Golden
Compared to John McIlveen, I’m a lightweight. Over the years I’ve written my share of gruesome scenes, not to mention my share of scenes in which I set out to inflict emotional pain on both characters and readers. The darkness awaits us all, and I never flinch from pointing out the doorway that leads into it. Sometimes I’ll open the door and show you what lies beyond. Occasionally I’ll step over the threshold and take a few tentative steps beyond, shine a light into the worst of it just to let you know how bad it can get. After that, I retreat as quickly as I came, but I don’t do that just for me. It’s not purely out of cowardice. I retreat because I know that’s what most of you want me to do. It’s the best thing for us all.
John McIlveen never retreats. I won’t say he lives in the darkness. Anyone who has met him will realize that’s impossible, that a man as kind and aw-shucks genial as John McIlveen can’t possibly live in the darkness.
But he does rent a little apartment there.
Just a cute little two bedroom place, a fourth floor walkup with hot and cold running sorrow and a lovely view of the fiery rivers of Hell. He likes it there. It’s his getaway from the world, a quiet place where he can forget about his troubles and ruminate on the ugliness so many of us encounter—or carry beneath our skins—every day. John’s not afraid, you see. He pulls no punches. He doesn’t turn his back on the horrors that spring from humanity, he forges mirrors and holds them up, forcing us to look.
You need go no further than my favorite story in this collection, the vengeance tale “Paint it Black,” or the apocalyptic “Desolation” to understand what I mean. The author is never afraid to gaze into the abyss. It may gaze back, but John is unflinching. In all of those horrific news stories, reporters interview neighbors who say “He seemed like such a nice man.” If any of John’s neighbors dare to read this collection, they will most certainly be saying the same thing. He seems like such a nice man.
He is, my darlings. That’s why it’s called fiction.
He’s also got a wicked sense of humor, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Back to the pain. “Infliction” is an brutal tale about dark secrets, a theme which recurs throughout this collection. “Roundabout” is a haunting story that puts the telescope onto the worst sins of the father, and “Portraits” is a close cousin. The darkness in these stories bleeds over into the twisted sexuality of “Succumb” and “Make a Choice,” the latter of which also blurs the lines between horror and humor.
“Jerks” is full of humor and horror, tragedy and comedy. “Playing the Huddys” and “Saddled Vengeance” are just all kinds of wrong. They say that comedy is seeing someone slip on a banana peel and tragedy is when it happens to you. “The Bore” walks on the razor edge between them quite artfully, making you laugh even as it fills you with a sense of real sadness. It’s one of the most sorrowful stories I’ve ever read.
I’d not intended this introduction to tick off the stories one by one, but the urge to do so is almost overwhelming, because what makes John McIlveen a terrific writer is not just his skill as a storyteller but his range. “A Mother’s Love” and “Smokey” and “Nina” all have themes of abuse, of broken people and a culpability that echoes through their lives. There is love and humanity underlying the horror of these stories. But in these pages you’ll also find masterfully clever short shorts like “Simon Says,” the beautiful sweetness of “Hope,” the perfectly executed be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning of “Finding Forever.”
Some of these stories will make you laugh and some will hurt you, possibly at the same time. Little parts of you, tender bits deep inside, may be broken. But they’ll heal. If you need any help healing them, save the heartfelt and lovely “Devotion” for last. I won’t say it isn’t a sad story—it’s about love and family and a plane crash—but somehow McIlveen makes it all okay.
Which makes me wonder if that isn’t what he’s been doing all along as he’s written these stories for magazines and anthologies over the years. He may hold up the mirror to show us the darkest, ugliest parts of humanity and ourselves—and sometimes it can be so hard to look into that mirror—but maybe it’s that he knows someone has to do it. Someone has to have the courage not to look away so we never forget how vicious the darkness can be…but also so that we know that even when things are at their darkest, we’re not alone.
It’s all going to be okay. Trust me.
Trust John McIlveen.
He won’t protect you. Not really. But he’ll pick you up when you fall and he’ll put you back together again if you break.
The best writers always do.
October 11th, 2014