Monday, June 30, 2008

"Midlisters" by Kealan Patrick Burke

Cover Art and 5 Interior Illustrations by Keith Minnion.

Fear is the stock in trade of the horror writer. But what horror does the horror writer (or any writer for that matter) fear most?

The blank page?

The neglected lonely spouse who keens for the company others? How about the over zealous fan, the one with the psychotic glint in their eye? Or worse, the indifferent fan who shows up at a conference much preferring to meet a certain writer, not you? Have you ever lugged boxfuls of books to a signing and then faced the grim prospect of hauling that unchanged burdensome weight back home? What about the loathed rival, the lauded man with the glamorous author photo, the guy who turns out to be an unrecognizable sad sack of an ordinary man (a disappointing image much like the one that looks back from the mirror)? Ever cross paths with a femme fatale at a conference, the man-eater determined to lure you into a dangerous hook-up?More frightening is the stark fact that however good a writer you are, there’s always some other writer who’s better, whose prowess with the prose makes you want throw your computer out the window and get a job at McDonald’s.

But there’s another, far greater fear that haunts writers.... All these and more are the subject of Irish-born horror writer, Kealan Patrick Burke’s illustrated novella, Midlisters. Main character Jason Tennant has a small but loyal fan base for his violent horror novels, stories full of “the graphic, the grue, the gore,” but his career is permanently stuck in close-but-no-cigar purgatory; he’s a writer with just enough success that justifies hitting his head again and again against the glass ceiling of being not quite good enough; in other words: a midlister.

If only Jason had the critical and commercial success of erotic science fiction author Kent Gray, a writer whose cache is all the more enhanced by the rarity of public outings, along with his literary high-brow disdain of Hollywood film options, whereas Jason “would gladly have donated one of (his) balls if it meant some fresh-faced cocaine-snuffing fuckwad at Paramount would even glance at something with (his) name on it.” The catalyst that brings Jason and Kent, midlister and best seller, face to face is an invitation to the upcoming Aurora Science Fiction & Horror Convention in Baltimore. Hard up for funds, Jason decides to pocket the allotted plane ticket allowance and drive to the conference instead. On the road, in spite of the blustery cold weather, Jason ignores his guilt pangs and decides not to pick up a conference bound hitchhiker, remembering too well a scene from his own novel where a hapless salesman picks up a hitchhiker.

Eager to press on and distance himself from imagined dangers, Jason hits the gas only to have a tire not just blow out but shred. He’s too busy cursing the fact that his left behind wife with the Triple A card in her wallet is not answering her cell phone – again - and why not, he wonders, is she with another man? – to notice that hitchhiker has crept up behind him. Realizing he’ll not get the car on the road without the young man’s help, Jason offers Walt a ride in thanks. After identifying himself as a conference panelist and expecting the usual awestruck reaction upon meeting a genuine author – any author - the midlister’s ego is deflated when Walt tells him he’s just dying to meet Kent Gray. Not wanting to seem an ingrate, Walt displays interest in the boxed books crowding the back seat. Jason gives his newest fan several freebies. When asked to sign them, a pathetic Jason makes Walt wait until he sees the midlister seated beside Kent at the conference to come up and ask for his autograph.

Upon arrival at the conference hotel, the two men part company. Here Mr. Burke gives the reader a spot on portrayal of a science fiction/ horror conference and its denizens; the faded film stars hawking their wares, photo-crazed Asian teens, the geeks in goof ball antennae head gear, and the Goth girls with their pale skin and black lacquered lips. But the action mostly takes place at every desperate writer’s favorite conference spot – the hotel bar. Jason’s flirtation with conference coordinator, Audrey Vassar, is disrupted when an unkempt conference attendee meekly complains about the toilet in his hotel room. Taking in the man’s bulbous nose, weak chin, and thinning, badly died combed-over hair Jason doesn’t realize that it’s this great man himself standing before him, Kent Gray. Relief and envy subside as Jason gets to know the famed science fiction author over a drink; he sees that just like h
im – and every other writer – that Kent Gray puts his pants on one leg at a time.

So caught up am I with all these writerly insights, and with such subtle deftness does Mr. Burke lay out the clues and cunningly introduce the killer, that I've forgotten that murder's afoot here.

And after the shocker, lurid slaying, the biggest demon Jason must wrestle is his perceived responsibility in this tragic event.

Written with muscular, lean prose by a consummate storyteller, and with its delightful illustrations, Midlisters will be appreciated by all who write, and by those many readers who enjoy a terrific yarn, one that ends with a wicked and thought provoking plot twist.

Born and raised in Dungarvan, Ireland, Kealan Patrick Burke is an award-winning author described as "a newcomer worth watching" by Publishers Weekly. Some of his works include the novels Currency of Souls and The Hides, the novellas The Turtle Boy (Bram Stoker Award Winner, 2004), Vessels, Midlisters, and the collections Ravenous Ghosts and The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others. Aside from his accomplishments as an author, Kealan also edited the anthologies: Taverns of the Dead (recipient of a starred review in Publishers Weekly), Brimstone Turnpike, Quietly Now: A Tribute to Charles L. Grant (International Horror Guild Award Nominee, 2004), the charity anthology Tales from the Gorezone and Night Visions 12 (also recipient of a starred review in PW). You can learn more about Kealan and his books by visiting