“Brimstone Turnpike”, published by Cemetery Dance and edited by Kealan Patrick Burke, is a chilling collection of five tales that deal with a commonly used motif: A ghostly stranger waiting on a lonely desert highway. In this case, it's the enigmatic Johnny Divine. Neither good nor evil, Johnny exists in all places and all times, and as portrayed by these five finely crafted stories, everyone's road eventually leads to him.
Tom Monteleone's surprisingly positive “The Prime Time of Spenser Golding” begins this collection with the refreshing theme that eventually, everyone has a choice between fortune and their own souls, and sometimes, folks actually pick the later. In this case, after jaded television reporter Spenser Golding takes a wrong turn in the fog and ends up at the broken down, deserted Joe's Gas N'Gulp – tended by a mysterious black man dressed in white, named Johnny Divine – he becomes a changed man and discovers that he can never cover the news the same way again.
“Behold the Child”, by Harry Shannon, is the perfect mix of classic Noir and the supernatural, as a maverick, burned-out cop haunted by his last city case ignores advice from Johnny after he makes a “wrong” turn en route to his retirement gig in the isolated desert town of his youth. A perfect counter to Monteleone's story, “Behold the Child” is dark, brooding, and reminds us that unfortunately, not everyone takes advantage of divine second chances.
Scott Nicholson's “Burial to Follow” is a nice change of pace which not only takes the reader deeper into the mystery that is Johnny Divine, but also muses on the intricate family ties that bind...and sometimes strangle...loved ones in times of grief. In Nicholson's tale, we learn that though Johnny Divine has many people who owe him many things, he himself is not without debt.
Mike Oliveri's “Warning Signs” is perhaps the weakest story in the collection, if only because the setup falls a little flat: that of a couple struggling over one partner's infidelity, seeking respite on an adventure into the desert wilderness. We guess very early that one will become a danger to the other, but because of Johnny Divine's warning and gift, disaster will be averted. Guessing the ending, however, doesn't necessarily take away from enjoying the ride.
The collection saves its strongest tale for last, (though “Behold the Child” gives it a run for its money), in Tim Waggoner's “A Strange and Savage Garden”. In it, Lauren is a wandering, lost young woman called to a home she fled for her father's funeral. Once there, old memories and other deep, hidden things bubble to the surface, as she slowly begins to suspect that nothing around her is what it seems. Also, a menacing thing stalks her in the night, hungry for her blood. As the strangeness grows, so does her realization that nothing about her life is what she believed it to be. In a fine touch, “Savage Garden” also ties off a narrative arc connecting all the stories.
An excellent collection of fine talent, this limited edition, signed hardcover is still available from Cemetery Dance, but order now, while supplies last.