Randy Stafford


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Smashwords book reviews by Randy Stafford

  • After Dinner Mint & Other Stories on Dec. 04, 2012

    These are slick stories, and this is a slick production. The prose is polished, glib, and smooth. The dialogue is particularly believable. There are no typos and no clumsy prose. Four of the five stories have fantastic elements and the fifth plays off such notions. In particular, two are engaging and light-hearted. “In the Snow” has Rita and her too serious boyfriend, a medical student, getting a surprise when she forces him to lighten up and make some snow angels. “Compliment” is a short-short about a man conversing with a beautiful woman – painted on a canvass. “A High Level of Achievement” has med students gradually revealing odd powers and an odd situation as they dissect cadavers. “After Dinner Mint” – an occasionally funny tale about an uneasy and hostile dinner party that ensues when parents meet a prospective son-in-law. “The Will” is also built around rancor – that of rapacious siblings gathering to see what they inherited. The youngest walks away sans the riches of the others, but that is not the end of matters. It is perhaps the highlight of the collection if somewhat predictable in the manner of the classic The Twilight Zone. Like the titular candy, these literary treats were pleasant enough but utterly forgettable. [Review copy provided by author.]
  • Cemeteries of the Heart and Other Stories on March 31, 2013

    It’s not just cemeteries of the heart. It’s hostels of the heart, rehab centers of the heart, hospitals of the heart. These are fantastical tales on the snares of love and sex – and the need and, in one tale, the well-nigh commandment to connect with fellow humans in intimate ways. They are also often tales on how circumstances and our innate natures frustrate that connection. Palmquist knows how to keep your interest even if he doesn’t always know how to adequately end his stories. He almost never diagrams an ending out for you. They’re usually ambiguous, elliptical, and require some thought. And, in a couple of instances, I don’t think the endings work even after contemplation. He’s also given to some stylistic tics. Windows are often “yellow squares”. Guns are usually 9 mms. Texas, usually Houston, is the frequent setting. The title story is set in one of those horrific extrapolations of our present day, ludicrous and implausible, and there to make an emotional point via metaphor and not provide realism. In a future Houston of such rampant street violence that the hero routinely sees rapes and killings every day on his work commute, Palmquist’s work hell has the hero literally shackled to his desk where, if he looks out the window or flags from his duties (randomly creating tax code, a satirical bit I found very amusing), his masked boss flogs him. Deserted by his wife and son, he, in the tradition of dystopian stories, becomes the lover of a co-worker. “Lullaby” was one of my favorite stories. Its hero must cope with being newly widowed – by the deformed son his wife died giving birth to. He begins to think the child has defects of the soul as severe as those of his body. Constant appearances by his dead wife suggesting he just kill the kid don’t help. Or, maybe, stress has rendered him paranoid and crazy. I think I understand what’s really going on in “Parting Sorrows”. The story certainly conveyed the loneliness and desperation of its 60 year-old narrator who goes to meet the 22 year-old woman he has been conducting an online affair with. The ending is horrific in images and action, if not entirely clear in motives and cause and effect. Still, I liked this one too. “Aphelion” has a narrator who is having fugue moments after he sees a popup on his computer screen, a popup a complete stranger in a bar says shows him pleasuring himself while being strangled by a man. The plot hinges on, for me, an effective conceit, but I think the ending is marred by an unnecessary coda, making it the most unsatisfying story here. “Burn Victims” is another story of desperately seeking love and companionship, here a man and a woman each in their own ways mutilated. It has its own fantastical elements but a resolution much different than the other stories. “Flaming Butterfly” seems, perhaps, a tale of existential terror or, more precisely, existential judgment by unknown forces. The protagonist is dragged out of his bed one day, told his life makes no contribution to life on Earth, and then dragged through a portal where he works as a shackled field hand. I’m not sure I quite understood the ending, but the image, themes, and idea behind the story will definitely stick with me and make this another high point of the collection. The narrator of “Stanley” claims that a childhood with his beautiful sister sucking away all attention has left him unable to relate to women. (Or so he sees it. He may not be the most reliable narrator regarding his sister. This book features several narrators with questionable powers of reporting and explanation.) To compensate, he takes pictures of women in public – but only from their kneecaps to neck – and constructs fantasy faces and personalities for them. He starts seeing one of these fantasy constructs in person. In a book of mostly horror stories, “Taenia Solium” is the most straightforward. As you would expect from the title (which refers to a type of tapeworm that infects humans), it’s about parasitism and also effective. There a higher than average number of memorable stories in this collection despite some problematic endings. If I was going to quickly convey a sense of Palmquist’s work, it would be a Thomas Ligotti style writer cut with a modern sensibility of specific settings and realism which concentrates on the need, recognized or not, to have others in our lives.
  • The Case of the Phantom Legion on Sep. 29, 2014

    A malign, invisible, chanting entity attacks a doctor in the woods outside Arkham. He is seeking the help of Baron von Klarnstein. The doctor's home, the logging town of Lone Pine, Michigan, is under assault by a legion of ghosts. The Baron and the centuries old order he heads, the Athenodorians, decide to investigate. The Baron, his beautiful and chaste warrior daughter Orestia, and other members of the Athenodorians will encounter an old menace from history, one whose past is recorded in the weird fiction Thomas is a student of. The origins of that menace and the tantalizing glimpses of the pasts of various Athenodorians are all quite enjoyable as is Thomas' take on ghosts. This is Thomas' contribution to the occult detective sub-genre. The Baron posseses Holmesian powers of deduction as well as occult knowledge. The human resources of the Athenodorians and those who owe them favors reminded me a bit of Doc Savage's crime fighting network. I even liked Orestia and found her a winning variation on a character type I'm tired of, the warrior babe. And I loved the historical origins of the mystery.
  • Azure on Sep. 30, 2014

    The novel starts out with a bang, several really, as our hero Asher Cain sees a mass shooting in a bar. The time is ripe for the "perfect end", thinks Cain, his mouth gratefully wrapping around the barrel of one of the shooters' weapons. But fate -- and fate is a big thing in this book -- intervenes in the form of an undercover android cop. His life is turned upside down, the veils fall from his eyes, and he gains new friends. Pretty standard stuff for a dystopia. What worked in Palmquist's short fiction, the ambiguity, the vagueness, the ludicrous, and the implausible, doesn't work in a longer length. Palmquist isn't surreal here. The violent action scenes are diagrammed competently if somewhat lifelessly. There is no doubt about the ultimate outcome of the ending, but the details of how we get there are sketchy.The pace is a bit slack in the last third before a rapid wrap-up of Cain's story. Palmquist, though, has other strengths. His dialogue is believable and crisp, and he gets to use that talent at greater lengths than a short story would allow. The book's main problem is that the dystopia seems neither plausible, in terms of historical and contemporary totalitarian societies, nor to serve any allegorical or satirical end. I even thought, at one point, we would get sort of a religious fable, but that didn't happen either. (I'll concede the term "dystopia" may have been devalued enough in the past 10 years to the point where it just means "a crappy future world" not the extrapolated outcome of some present and growing danger.) Certain images and ideas are drawn from science fiction, history, and the modern world more to provoke certain associations and emotions than for any world building plausibility. We have the modern symbol of surveillance (and sudden death) in the numerous drones, including some of the insect and animal variety. Ridley Scott movies give us not only flying cars but also androids that bleed a sort of milky white blood. History gives us workplace floggings and a dictator (perhaps an android) with a name reminiscent of an American president, James Pole (James K. Polk – a president important in the history of Palmquist's home state of Texas). Asher Cain, in his job, running a police drone and occasionally gunning down alleged criminals, is literally manacled to his desk. Those are very evocative images. But they don't add up to a believable political order. And the plot ends up on one of the paths you would expect a dystopia too. As I said, fate is a major idea here. The novel opens up with the Dante epigram: "Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift". The characters of the novel briefly and intermittently grapple with questions of whether Heaven or Hell exists exist. Ultimately, Cain opts for a fideist position -- better to believe despite the evidence.
  • The Case of the Blue Man on Sep. 30, 2014
    (no rating)
    Another enjoyable installment in Thomas’ Athenodorian series. The year is 1953. Baron von Klarnstein visits England and the estate of the late scholar Roland Carruthers. Dead dogs, drained of blood, have shown up after Carruthers’ death. Strange claws have been found. Local tongues say the Blue Man, a local vampire, is back. Carruthers’ great-nephew, inheritor of the estate, is understandably nervous. The Baron’s powers of deduction are as keen as always. This time he has the help of his granddaughter, Boadicea, every bit as interested in weapons as her mother. (Readers of the earlier The Case of the Phantom Legion will be understandably curious as to how Boadicea came to be.) Not quite as enjoyable, because of its short length, as the earlier story, this was still an entertaining installment in a series I hope Thomas will continue.
  • Green Grow The Rashes And Other Stories on Dec. 29, 2018

    This collection succeeds as a sampler of Meikle’s work. There is science fiction-horror, a post-mortem fantasy, humor, magic, and a gothic tale. My favorite story, partly because of its background of Scottish music, was the title story. It has a burned out folk singer from Scotland, his audience and his voice fading and his wife dead and too much liquor poured down his throat, seeing a shadowy figure in the crowd one night. Somehow, after singing it thousands of time, he finds new life in the Bobbie Burns’ song. A nice tale of rebirth, rededication, and optimism that uses well the lyrics of Burns’ “Green Grow the Rashes”. Also gentle, if not so hopeful, is “In the Spring”. Its 78 year old heroine is a widow tired by her family fussing over her and complaining about, compared to her earlier life, rather paltry “hardships”. To be honest, this story was a bit too subtle for me. I’m not completely sure what happens at the end to the widow. “Too Many” is a straight up “so now you’re in Hell” story. As an Assistant Deputy Demon goes through Sheila Davidson’s sins with her, he thinks there may be a mistake. Then again, maybe not. Humorous and short enough not to wear the joke out. Also humorous, in a dark sort of way, is the bad-day-at-work story “The Sweller in the Dress Hold”. Robin Fraser, a young dock worker, learns from his older foreman just how unglamorous unloading ships can be. Especially, if it’s a decrepit ship from Haiti with a fungus problem. This one works as horror too. “The Dark Island” is a nice gothic tale. There isn’t a trouble house, per se, but there is a troubled island in a nearby loch and a family curse. And is a notorious medieval necromancer buried on that island? Its narrator isn’t going to wrap this all up in a comforting Ann Radcliffe-kind of way. Horror in cloistered settings and buried secrets also play a role in “Out of the Black”, a straightforward science fiction horror story. Three hundred and fifty years in the future, Earth is iced over after the sun dimmed. Humans barely survive underground, and the fuel for warmth is running out. So is the food. Our narrator is sent above ground to find some more fuel. Probes point to an island in the South Pacific as a possibility. There he finds what’s left of another human settlement. There’s nothing overtly Lovecraftian, but it may remind you of some of his tales of human degeneracy. “The Just One” is part of a sort of Meikle mythology since we’ve seen the titular “deity” mentioned in Meikle’s The Job, and we get some background behind that name here. This is a nice bit of lighthouse terror. When the supervisor keeper is away, his assistant begins to hear chants over the storm winds and seal-like creatures gathering below. With the exception of “In the Spring” which was a bit too obscure for me, this is a good (and cheap) sampler of Meikle’s work.