Horror being, among other things, the genre of subversion, it stands to reason that the authors working in this mode should frequently take the landscapes that make up their homes and their travels and introduce elements of the fantastic to both accentuate and complement the darker qualities inherent in those landscapes. Mer Whinery has managed to do this with his first collection, staging his sordid dramas in the lonely country heart of the eponymous Little Dixie, the greasy twilight zone of Oklahoma.
Having immensely enjoyed Whinery’s story “The Projectionist” in the anthology High Strange Horror from Muzzleland Press (also collected in the author’s Phantasmagoria Blues), I eagerly took the opportunity to explore this collection of formative stories working in the same dirty, brawny style as that excellent little tale. While Whinery’s laconic, homespun voice is in evidence throughout the collection, progressing through The Little Dixie Horror Show reveals that, at the time of publication, the author had yet to fully develop the considerable talents that were on hand in “The Projectionist”. Two of the five entries, “Last Halloween” and “Only Shown at Midnight,” don’t quite satisfy as full-blooded narratives; it’s less noticeable in the latter, which works as a “historical” account of a grandiose movie-house that has more than its fair share of ghostly patrons and blood-spackled walls, but both stories feel as if they’re attempting to cover a lot of ground in a fairly short amount of time, leaving some threads dangling. This is especially felt in “Last Halloween,” which starts out with the incredibly queasy scene of two young siblings being lured into a murder den whilst trick-or-treating, later picking up strong resonance with the grown brother’s visions of his dead sister’s spirit before becoming slightly derailed by a subplot involving an age-old sect of violence-loving demons. The interactions between brother and sister could’ve been enough to fuel the story and put the reader through an emotional wringer, and the mission of vengeance that occurs halfway through distracts us with B-movie dynamics from what could’ve been a tale of great despair and longing.
This is not to say that B-movie dynamics are not appreciated, as Whinery is clearly an ardent fan of grindhouse cinema and wields the tropes of same with the appropriate enthusiasm. “The Little Dixie Butcher Barn,” which name-checks Lucio Fulci and includes a cameo appearance by the severed hand with glitter nail polish from “The Projectionist”, acts as Whinery’s ode to the monster-fests and exploitation classicks that he holds so dear. The novella shoots for the grand scale alluded to in the aforementioned stories, pitting the Texan drag queens of The Flirty Cock against a ravenous horde of gut-munchers and a towering mummy-king known on the first-name basis of Daddy. It’s a tale with some flashes of assured writing and wonderful insights—a memorable line compares the zombies’ snarl to a lawnmower low on gas sputtering to a stop—but for large chunks it still feels like an outline that needs to have the finer details filled in. It’s when Whinery works consciously in established tradition—like an old timer’s standard issue spooky backstory explaining the history of the story’s evil—that Whinery tends to stumble, but it’s in the moments when the author trusts his own instincts and goes for scenes that could’ve only come from his own imagination, such as the practically pitch-perfect chapter when our hero is kidnapped by the smiley Reba McEntire-lookalike den mother of the Butcher Barn and faces the prospect of being “tenderly” loved by her randy undead sons like the shattered-pelvis cadaver of the former abductee, that Whinery reminds us of his unique prowess to disturb.
“Girls of Rebel Run, 1976” and “A Box to Hide Yer Bones” fare better because they have the benefit of the author’s patented brand of Southern fried weirdness and a shorter length to better focus on and strengthen their central conceits. “Girls…” finds a seasoned truck driver taking the enigmatic suggestion of a foul-smelling girl and inadvertently pulling into a dilapidated speakeasy haunted by the moldy ghouls of former flappers, nailing that middle-of-bumfuck-nowhere desolation and vibe of rusty ruin paramount to these surroundings just right. The slight air of melancholia to the trucker’s recollections is resumed by the protagonist of “A Box…” A divorced, jobless father struggling to earn enough money for Christmas presents that won’t provoke further disappointment from his children literally stumbles upon the chance of a lifetime when he comes upon a storage space housing a pristine muscle car and some cool cash. Unfortunately, the space is the property of two black-tongued agents who work for a shadowy figure and delight in supping on fresh bodies. The title becomes an allusion to our hero’s recurring disengagement from the bizarre and bloody events that unfold around him, a means of keeping his eyes on the plentiful prizes offered by his new job and away from the screaming faces begging for mercy, a place to store away all the lives he’s broken in his ascent to the peak of a mountain of sorrow. The tale effectively straddles the border between high strangeness and low brow pulp horror, setting the action to a dungy winter terrain that acts as barren limbo for the lost souls who filter through.
The print edition from Literati Press suffers slightly from its Courier typeface and multiple instances of typos and grammatical errors, mostly noticeably in “The Little Dixie Butcher Barn.” Even in the face of these deterrents, the stories in Whinery’s freshman effort manage to glow with promise for the demonic craft that he is assuredly set to bring forth in his future efforts. If you happen to be passing through Little Dixie, keep an eye out for him. He’ll be the grim-eyed man sitting on the porchside cracker-barrel with the soft weeping sounds coming from inside. If you have the time, sit down and listen to him awhile. He’s got a story for you.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.