First published back in March of 2010, US horror author John Prescott’s first publication, a collection of his horror short stories entitled Stories Before Sunrise, offered up a healthy appetiser for the delights that were to follow from this exciting new talent.  The collection consists of fourteen short stories, together with a purposefully mood setting introduction and a rather interesting concluding chapter entitled ‘How It Came To Be’ which offers up a story-by-story insight into their creation.

As a whole the collection is a varied and in places a somewhat chaotic mix of stories, with strong influences shining through in many of the shorts.  Prescott’s admiration and passion for the work of Stephen King is not only instantly apparent from the praise filled introduction and the book’s dedication, but also in so much of his actual writing throughout the entirety of the collection.  There’s an immediate warmth to his tales that captures the mood and overall ambience within seconds.  These are genuine and honest horror stories, written from the heart, often exposing elements of the author’s inner-self and emotional baggage.

What you get in abundance from the outset of each short is a torrent of energy and enthusiasm for the writing.  The author clearly loves horror stories, loves writing them and loves exploring the depths of his mind for inspiration.  The end result is an elaborate mix of stories, with a multitude of subject matters, ideas and characters on show.  Inspiration for these tales came from a hectic variety of places and instances; many of which have been detailed within the insightful ‘How It Came To Be’ chapter. 

All in all, the collection shows great promise of talent, with an obvious potential for creating some truly breathtaking (and creepy) tales of horror.  The short stories are nowhere near as accomplished and captivating as with the author’s debut full length novel ‘Pray’ (2011).  Indeed, what becomes startlingly obvious when reading Prescott’s shorter fiction is that his strengths really do lie with the more accomplished and in-depth storylines, which comes with a lengthier tale.  His short stories still hold their own merits, but fall short quite considerably when held up against the outstanding storytelling that Prescott is clearly capable of with a larger page count.

As a final note before I go on to a story-by-story breakdown (for those that like to read these in-depth reviews), I feel compelled to at least mention the disappointing frequency of occasional typos that sadly litter the text throughout the collection.  Maybe I’m just a little too easily nudged out of a tale by such accidental and trivial oversights, but personally I find their presence has an incredibly detrimental effect on my enjoyment of a story.  If truth be told, a little extra proofreading to completely eradicate these mistakes would enhance the collection as a whole quite dramatically.  A further tightening up of the odd story here and there, and the collection would be an absolute winner.  But maybe that’s just me...

The Guest – 9 Pages
It started off just as a few quiet noises from within the wall cavity.  Frank and his wife Betty were convinced that it was just a rat at first.  And so they sent in their cat Frostbite to sort out the matter.  But after just seconds of being in the wall cavity with whatever it is lurking in there, Frostbite came hurtling out, it’s hair raised and scared witless.  The sounds coming from behind the wall started to get even stranger.  The noises louder and louder.  And then it all suddenly stopped.  For now anyway…

Kicking off the collection, Prescott’s Lovecratian tale of lurking weirdness plays with the simple concept of “what if…”.  Indeed, what if there was a creature lurking within your walls?  What if something could breed a new form of life there?  Its beauty is in its direct simplicity and the creeping suspense of uncovering what the hell it is behind the wall.  Once revealed, the short pumps up the horror-mayhem and unleashes a finale of savage monster-licious action to put a grin on every good Lovecraft fan.  A fitting opener for the collection.

Chicken Bones – 14 Pages
Wade Richardson was a natural pitcher at baseball.  And so when he tried out the ten-pin-knock-over game at the annual county fair, he found that he was a natural at this too.  The vendor was none too impressed with losing twice in a row though.  So he suggested that this man of luck go and get his fortune read by the fair’s fortune-teller.  A fortune-teller who seduces young Wade and then thrusts him out of her tent with death surrounding his very soul.  For Wade is about to see more than just the thrills and spills of a fun-packed fairground…

This elaborate short is pulled together from a bizarre patchwork of interlocking stories, which together form a surreal storyline of curses, hallucinations and a good-old-fashioned vengeful hag.  It’s all squeezed in there, like a fairground version of Eugenio Martin’s ‘Horror Express' (1972), the short is a head-spinning affair of horror for no other reason than for the sheer excitement of it.  Unfortunately the tale does suffer a little from a weakly visualised ‘hag’ character that terrorizes the final few pages of the tale.  That said, it’s still a high-adrenaline piece of mind-altering horror fiction to well and truly get the blood pumping.

The Box – 8 Pages
Chloe Harrington was finally doing it.  She had finally gotten away from her now ex-husband Tom, and was making something of her own life once again.  From the dingy confines of her one bedroom flat, she was now moving in to a beautifully done-up new house of her own.  And better still, Tom would have no idea as to where she would be living.  And now that the morning of her big move to this amazing new life had finally arrived... why the hell was she feeling so tired and subdued?

The short is certainly a mystery-wrapped puzzler.  From the start it keeps the reader guessing.  You know something odd is going on.  The subtle hints are there, nudging you as you read about the mundane trivialities of the young woman’s life.  However, the truth of the matter is always just out of your reach... that is, until the very last page.  Then it hits the reader with the full force of a sledgehammer.  It’s a cunning twist and a smug little stab at turning a tale on its head at the very last opportunity.  Executed nicely, but overall the short does lack in characterisation and pace.

Rise Up The Animals – 27 Pages
Kyle Davidson is an incredibly successful and wealthy man.  Having spent much of his life ensuring that he was ahead of the game with the advances in technology and the like, Kyle now lives a rather lavish although slightly eccentric lifestyle.  After learning of an experimental new growth treatment for reptiles known as ‘Repti-Smart’ - a drug that not only dramatically increases the size of the reptile, but the reptile’s intelligence levels too - Davidson confides his plans to use this new miracle formula on his pet retiles to his dearest and closest friend David Stansford.  However, Stansford is more than just apprehensive about such a plan.  He’s downright petrified of the consequences.  And for good reason…

Another slow burner of a short, ‘Rise Up The Animals’ gradually builds up this science fiction-horror crossover plot with a careful attention to detail that is unlike many of the other shorts in the collection.  Premise and plot is slowly but methodically established, with good solid characterisation laying down the backbone for the reader/character connection.  Indeed, the first-person perspective delivered via Stansford’s written account on the matter produces some nice inside elements to the progression and final outcome of the tale.  Although the storyline does veer towards the wacky, the tale is an enjoyable and gripping one which although lacking in horror, does make up for it in the potency of the surreal turn of events.  The short was followed on by a surprising sequel at the end of the collection entitled ‘Sweet Vengeance’.

Enders Field – 10 Pages
Reggie Walkins is a man who‘s passionate about his hunting.  So much so, that upon finding out about a perfect spot where a litany of recent deer tracks have been seen, Walkins goes out in his cab in the torrential rain to shoot himself a good deer.  It’s daybreak and he’s trudging across Enders Field in search of the exact spot where the deer are thought to be gathering.  A spot you can’t miss due to the goliath redwood that dwarfs all the trees in the local vicinity.  A gigantic tree that must be hundreds of years old.  A tree that suddenly seems all too threatening…

Atmospheric and tense – two emotive words that have made this short a glorious piece of horror fiction.  Prescott has managed to produce an incredibly gripping, compelling and suspense-filled tale which sucks in the reader almost instantly with its powerfully thick and oppressive atmosphere.  The short throbs with tension, building towards a finale that although callous and downbeat, seems a little bit of a let down from the excellently executed build-up that Prescott achieved prior to this ending.

Terror at 2:47 a.m. – 8 Pages
It’s the middle of the night and Harry Ollington has dragged himself out of bed to look after his newborn son – Oliver.  It’s his turn after all, so he can’t really complain.  But whilst trying to shake off the grogginess of sleep, he starts to detect slight movements in the very structure of the house.  Living in the Deep South, it couldn’t possibly be an earthquake!  It now sounds as if something is trying to force its way into their house.  What the hell is going on?...

Prescott’s eerie tale of a horrifying supernatural presence sets out with a powerfully atmospheric setting for the story, building with tension and suspense, until the grandiose realisation of what has infiltrated the sanctuary of the Ollington’s home is revealed.  This is very much another science-fiction-cum-horror crossover, with a truly gritty and downbeat ending.

The Stranger From Out Of Town – 28 Pages
Dorian Searls is a local artist residing in the backwoods of Mississippi.  After both of his parents die in a tragic accident, he moves back to their old property and lives a quiet life painting and slowly making a name for himself with his exceptionally good artwork.  And that was how his life was going, until one night a stranger walks into Searls’ local bar - The Cove - and expectantly buys the young artist a drink.  The two get talking and soon enough the conversation moves on to the stranger’s proposition.  This man – Aaron Klee from a small town named Lexumgraft in Germany – wants Searls to do two commissioned paintings for him.  The first of which is of Lexumgraft, the second is far more important.  For the second painting will save the whole of humanity from a horrendous evil that threatens to destroy all of mankind.  Dorian Searls’ paintings may just save everyone…

Very possibly the most inspiring and captivating addition to the collection, Prescott’s emotionally charged short pulls together mystery and supernatural madness on an epic scale.  The author has managed to achieve an immense amount of darkness and imaginative wonder within such a short space; setting down a thoroughly gripping and exciting plot that puts humanity suddenly on the brink of utter annihilation.  So very Clive Barker-esque with its imaginative unlocking of all hell, the storyline is flooded with the wildly creative and powerfully suggestive.  An incredible addition to the collection.

Dark Legend – 9 Pages
Kevin is exactly what an older brother should be – a friend, a companion and someone to look up to.  And that’s what he is to eight year old Jerry.  So when Kevin asks if Jerry wants to go out for a drive to pick up some of Fatty’s signature ribs, Jerry jumps at the chance.  Young Jerry always loves taking a ride in his older brother’s 1977 Camaro Z28 Rally Sports car.  And he loves looking at the new pictures that adorn the walls of the Fatty’s restaurant and bar.  But whilst waiting for their food, one of these pictures instantly grabs his attention - a photo of a haunting old building that’s not too far from where they are.  When Kevin dares Jerry to take a ride past the house, the young boy can’t show how scared he is, so he agrees.  After all, what’s the worst that can happen?...

As the author states in his ‘How It Came To Be’ dissection of the shorts, the tale is a personal one, incorporating real childhood fears together with a strong loving bond between two brothers.  The emotion of the story is there from the start, brought to the surface by the author’s connection with the tale.  This works magic on the way it is told, bringing an instant life to the two boys and there plummet into a dark legend that pulses with adolescent fear.  Gripping, exciting, emotionally tense and pure edge-of-the-seat suspense.  It’s amazing how truthful an author can make a legend when it has such a connection with their own past.

Black Waters – 33 Pages
When the news of a massive Category 5 hurricane named ‘Grace’ hit the small town of Paux Dristian, Harold Greensfield knew his best course of action was to get out – and quick.  But everything quickly went pear-shaped when his car packed in before he’d even gotten anywhere.  His only chance at survival now rests with the supposedly Cat III & Up Hurricane-Proof hotel named ‘The Sands’.  But no matter how ingeniously designed a building is, there is always room for the unknown to strike.  And when it does, a collapsing building quickly becomes a false salvation.  Especially when within the depths of the incoming tidal surge lurks an equally terrifying threat…

Based on his own personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina from 2005, Prescott delivers a non-stop edge-of-the-seat monster of a short which expertly yanks at the reader’s nerves from the outset.  As the tale progresses, the almost palpable desperation of the few survivors left in the hotel mounts with almost every sentence.  The suspense, tension, drama and emotional response is incredible.  Here Prescott really has achieved so much in such a short space of time.  Bringing together Mark Morris’ ‘Deluge’ (2007), with Walter J. Williams’ ‘The Rift’ (1998) with a good helping of Stephen Baxter’s ‘Flood’ (2008) series and you’ve got the impact and adrenaline rush of the tale.  However, Prescott doesn’t end there and thrusts in another new threat for the survivors to contend with, creating something that Lovecraft would have conjured up or indeed pulling in the beast from John Wyndham’s version of ‘The Kraken Wakes’ (1953).  As sudden and unexpected as this new threat is, it only ever manages to maintain the levels of adrenaline that had already achieved thus far.  However exciting and intense the short has become, here sadly Prescott quits the race, ending the short in a unusually weak and disappointing fashion.  Although the conclusion is somewhat of a gigantic let down, the short as a whole does offer a glimpse of what this fresh face in horror could well have to offer in the future years.

I Am Justice – 7 Pages
Abner Potts didn’t care about anyone.  No one but himself that is.  Wealthy with greed and dishonest to the very core; Abner would do whatever he could in order to gain more money.  But when digging up some pre-planted arrowheads to sell on ebay as real archaeological finds, Potts discovers a strange bottle containing an age-old message.  A message that speaks of a warning.  A message that tells of justice…

This short sharp shock of a story quickly sets down the premise, paints the picture of our principal antagonist – Abner Potts – with deliberate (but not compromising) haste, and then delivers the simplistic twist of the character’s eventual comeuppance.  An enjoyable and dare I say charming read from start to the quick-to-arrive finish.

Night Runners – 9 Pages
Gerrard Harper is head-over-heels in love with his girlfriend.  Just as soon as he can get together enough money, he’ll be out of the hellhole that is his home with his drunken father, and living with Cheryl who he plans to marry in due course.  But until then he endures the hostility of his father by the glimmers of hope that are the occasional moments he gets to spend with his true love.  And tonight is one such moment, when they go off to watch the much talked about new horror movie.  A movie that shows monstrous beasts savagely killing those that they encounter.  Beasts that Gerrard starts to see appearing around them on their drive away from the cinema afterwards…

This strangely semi-formed short with no clear explanation is a fun piece of horror fiction that jumps back to the fondly remembered pulp era of the 70’s.  The characterisation is oddly very, very well formed, with a lot more emphasis put towards the characters than was really that necessary for the pulpish plot.  When the tale finally gets to the beastly-action, the story stutters around the monster threat and then abruptly quits (admittedly in a fine display of horror) before the reader has become properly acquainted with the monsters.  This is certainly a shame if nothing else.  However disappointing, the short does give you an exciting glimpse at a beast-chasing-scenario that would later re-appear (of sorts) within Prescott’s superb post-apocalyptic novel ‘Pray’ (2011).

Gram – 16 Pages
The killings started in what seemed like an unconnected and random fashion.  In such a small outback community in the humid summer climate that you get off the Mississippi River in Louisiana, these killings were not what the locals would call a usual occurrence for them.  Frankly, they like to keep themselves to themselves, and this sort of thing is only going to bring out-of-towners over to their small neck of the woods, digging their noses in where they’re not wanted.  So it’s down to the local sheriffs to sort this mess out...and the quicker the better.  But the horrific mutilations keep on coming, one after the other.  What the hell is going on?…

Written in the first-person-perspective of our lead character, this Stephen King-esque tale is so very ‘Southern’ through-and-through.  You can almost feel the humid heat, smell the sweaty staleness of the characters, and breathe the blisteringly-hot air all around them.  Prescott has excelled himself with setting the atmosphere of the tale.  The plot itself merely plays out with the passing of time (which is perfect for this type of story).  The twist finale is far from unpredictable, but nevertheless smacks the reader squarely in the face with the twisted horror of it all.  The ending itself is perhaps a little loose and hurried, but nothing to really bring down an otherwise triumphant horror short story.

The Dare – 13 Pages
Richard Garrings had just finished work and gotten himself home, only to find his good friend Evan Brewster beered-up and waiting for him.  Brewster had himself had a hard day, so he was there to let off a little steam with his mate…and why not?  After all, having a near-death experience does kind of ruin your day.  So to take his mind off it, he asks Garrings if he’s ever experienced anything that’s cut him up so badly.  And so Garrings tells him a little story of when he was young and sent out on a dare to a haunted shack in the middle of nowhere.  A dare that still haunts him to this very day…

The premise of the short is quite simple and almost fairy-tale-like in its carefree yet callous nature.  The character of Richard Gearings is strangely portrayed with a lot more depth to him as an adult rather than whilst he was a child, even with the majority of the tale taken up by the creepy story he tells from his childhood.  This is an odd decision to take, and does make the short a little lopsided in favour of the bookended structure.  The tale is also perhaps a little too haphazard with its stuttered pace, but all in all, it still delivers plenty of horror delights for the reader to bask within.

Secret Vengeance – 29 Pages
David Stansford needs answers…answers and closure on how his good friend Kyle Davidson came to die.  And to do that he knows he must travel to the cold, hard mountains of Colorado where Dysan Laboratories is producing its miraculous serum for animals.  He will travel alone, with one goal in sight – to uncover the truth and finally lay his friend’s memory to rest.  But simply surviving can be a dirty thing…

This follow-up short was initiated when the author realised that there was still much to be resolved from his earlier short ‘Rise Up The Animals’.  The tale itself is almost in two distinct halves – the after effects of a gritty mass homicide in a small outback town, which is abruptly followed on by an action-packed sabotage of the Dysan Labs.  The haphazard finale unfortunately comes across as a wildly over-the-top exaggeration of the likes of Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Chimera’ (1982).  The short does wrap up well, but sadly this overbearing finale remains too loose and chaotic to leave the reader satisfied with this final tale.  A little tightening up of the final few pages of the short could well have avoided the disappointing feeling that is felt with this frustratingly disjointed ending.  However, as a final note it must be said that “surviving can be a dirty thing” is one hell of a catch phrase to sign off with! 

The novel runs for a total of 228 pages which includes the 6 page ‘How It Came To Be’ chapter.

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