Twisted: Tainted Tales kicks off with “Footsteps” which, aside from being one of last year’s Splatterpunk Award finalists, is about a group of women meeting a deadly monster in the wilderness. Heavily influenced by monster movies, the story turns out to be a good introduction to a collection that never strays far from horror convention, but nonetheless strives to give each familiar concept as punchy an execution as possible.
“I Want to Break Free”, written from the perspective of a woman who is being held captive but has no idea where or why, is a good example of this ethos. While it uses stock genre elements – namely, vampires and werewolves – its disorienting opening and consistent focus on its characters’ gut-level emotions mark it as a particularly visceral treatment of its themes.
Author Janine Pipe is not shy about acknowledging her influences, either in the stories themselves (the characters namecheck such writers as Stephen King, Jack Ketchum and Brian Keene) or in the authorial notes that come after each story. Television’s Supernatural is a recurring reference point, and a number of her stories take place in that familiar urban fantasy landscape where all of the famous monsters of filmland can be spotted loitering in dark alleyways. When the detective in “Maneater” investigates the deaths of three people who were mysteriously drained of blood, we all know from the start which supernatural being is responsible; yet there is still pleasure to be had in seeing the pieces fall into place. There can also be an element of surprise as to which order the monsters turn up in: “Tainted Love” not only has the twist that its female stalker is a vampire – it has a second twist revealing that a very different sort of monster is involved with her MO.
Twisted: Tainted Tales features stories from across the author’s career, allowing us to see how she developed over time. Her early phase is represented by “When Doves Cry”, a brief period piece riffing on the Bluebeard narrative – solid, but not remarkable. From here, we see many of her chief interests as an author start to emerge: vampires and werewolves; eighties horror films and novels; and EC Comics-style twist endings, as when a predatory man tries to hook up with a drunk woman in “Addicted to Love” only to find the tables turned.
The results of this combination are not always successful. The eighties-reference-laden “Lost in the Shadow”, about children going missing, has its effective moments but the twist ending is too predictable. Such misfires are less common than successful efforts, however. “Living on a Prayer” is a very EC-esque story in which two boys on a camping trip are visited by the ghost of their dead mother, who turns out to be far from happy. Pipe’s referential tendencies are on full show – one boy, Mikey, is named after a character from The Goonies; the other is a fan of King and Ketchum – and the story does a good job of recreating the atmosphere of its reference points within a short, tight narrative.
Many of the collection’s stories deal with bygone childhoods, either taking place in a nostalgic eighties setting or, in some cases, having an adult character face up to memories of the past. The latter category includes “Sweet Child O Mine”, in which a woman confronts her strange recollections by taking her daughter to a farm that she used to visit as a child. The premise is strong, which makes it a shame that the story ends just as it is getting started – an example of the author’s fondness for zippy twist endings letting her down.
Also common is the eighties-childhood setting (more Stranger Things than Supernatural). “They” takes place against a backdrop of Hulk Hogan and Thundercats, and happens to be one of two stories in the collection that mentions accidents involving He-Man underwear. The main characters are a group of preteen boys who, eager to win a kiss from a local twelve-year-old girl, try to show their bravery by entering a dark tunnel – which, of course, contains a monster. This is one of the longer stories in the book, and its monster (along with the after-effects of the monster’s attack on its victim) are described in more detail than is typical. A more subtle visit to a similar setting is “it’s a Sin”, a good ghost story in which a boy befriends the new kid in town but soon learns the extent of his new chum’s family problems.
Janine Pipe shows a particular knack for writing adolescent boys. “Paradise City” (influenced by James Newman and Mark Steensland’s novella The Special, according to the author) is about a gang of pre-Google teenagers who use a tree stump as a hiding place for porn, until a new member of the group gives them a nasty surprise. The brilliantly-titled “Bones of Boarded-up Baby Bodies Behind the Bath-panel” has a similarly convincing description of early-adolescent culture, although the chief setting is this time a purportedly haunted house rather than a porn-filled tree stump. Pipe shows that she can also write about youngsters from a parent’s perspective in “Nobody’s Fool”. This story, which opens with the observation that “[a] lot of new parents could win first prize at a Mumm-Ra cosplay contest”, introduces us to two parents trying to deal with the nightmares that prevent their thirteen-year-old son from sleeping. They resort to medication to solve the problem – but as this is a horror tale, his bad dreams turn out to be grounded in terrible reality.
Although the collection spends most of its time pivoting between Supernatural-esque vampire-haunted streets and Stranger Things-style ghost-haunted childhoods, it does make the occasional departure. “Love is a Battlefield” is set in a post-revolutionary society where formerly rich people – including the protagonist – are forced to take part in deadly games. While the author’s fondness for referentiality is as strong as ever – Running Man, Hunger Games, Saw and Fight Club are all mentioned directly – the story is ultimately a comment on society, rather than genre fiction. The lethal games are identified as taking place in disused sporting fields, millionaire sports stars having been among the first to perish in the revolution.
Despite this foray into the future, however, the collection shows far more interest in the past – and some of its most interesting moments come when Janine Pipe brings something of her own past to it. “Running with the Devil” involves a local legend about a ghostly carriage; in her afterword, Pipe explains that the legend is one that she heard from her father, and led to her subsequent interest in the supernatural. Meanwhile, Pipe presents “School’s out Forever…” as an (admittedly embellished) autobiographical narrative, detailing an incident in which she broke into an abandoned and supposedly haunted reform school as a teenager. As is typically the case with “true” ghost stories, it is tame when compared to outright fiction, but it remains solidly-written and an interesting companion piece to the likes of “Bones of Boarded-up Baby Bodies Behind the Bath-panel”.
Most of the stories in the collection are named after songs, and even the exceptions have accompanying tracks suggested in a Spotify playlist included at the back of the book. This is a fitting analogy: while the stories may not be the most original contributions to horror that you will come across, nobody plays a mixtape to discover something groundbreaking. Between its vampires, its werewolves, its haunted houses, its EC twist endings and its nostalgically-remembered eighties childhoods, Twisted: Tainted Tales samples many of the greatest hits – and the author’s enthusiasm alone should be enough to get the reader’s toes tapping.