Ronald Kelly? Hrm. Never heard of him, I thought. Until I took a look at the list of stories in this collection and realized not only had I heard of him, I liked his stuff. And I had a few stories of his on my bookshelf, thanks to Cold Blood, Shock Rock and Borderlands 3. So what started out as just another review turned into a sort of fact-finding mission to see what else he has going on. The result? Midnight Grinding is a fabulous collection of tales well told that may keep you up at night either checking under the bed . . . or tucked firmly under your covers too scared to even take a peek.
From the italicized introductions to each story in Midnight Grinding, I cobbled together that he had written quite a few stories back in the ’90’s, but had stopped writing horror fiction at around the turn of the new millennium. This may or may not have had anything to do with his “finding religion” at around that time. He has since started writing again (the excellent and supremely creepy “Grandma’s Favorite Recipe”) and I for one rejoice at that. Kelly has a quiet, cool storyteller vibe in his tales, like you’re sitting on his front porch with him and he’s entertaining you after a hard day’s work. Almost all of these stories have a solid EC Comics feel to them, and with the tendency toward hack, slash and “oh looky, a surprise twist that you saw coming for miles!” in most horror today that’s a welcome change indeed. You can sense the long tradition of oral history that runs in his blood, and his descriptions of life in the deep south have the ring of truth to them, probably because he was born and raised in Tennessee.
I’ll get my one problem with this collection out in the open right now, so we can move on to the good stuff: the intros take the surprise out of a good number of these stories. Don’t get me wrong, each one will definitely creep you out, and/or have you checking over your shoulder, but he does show his hand in a few of these introductions. Otherwise? I’m a huge fan of the pre-story introduction, so I gobbled them up right along with the stories.
And the stories, you ask? Like a carney would say, step right up and see what he’s got for you; there’s something for everyone, even you little missy. There are monsters, ghosts, skeletal hands that reach for you and serial killers waiting patiently for your arrival. Success here often depends on forces outside of the good Lord’s domain, and that cookie may just do more than wreck your diet.
Good, better, best? That all depends on what type of stories you dig. I like the creepy ones that scare me and fun blood-fests that gross me out. But with Midnight Grinding even the stories that you would normally skim so you can get to the genre fare you prefer are worth a really good look, so picking favorites is a tough job. To make it easier, I’ll just say that the stories you need to drop everything and Read Right Now include the child graveyard story “Forever Angels,” the bittersweet almost love-story “Dust Devil,” the horrific what-if tale “Bookmarks” and the delightfully surprising “Grandma’s Favorite Recipe.” That particular story is his first toe-dip back into horror fiction, and although there looks to be a good decade between his earlier stuff and this story you wouldn’t know it. “Grandma’s Favorite Recipe” is just the promise of more frightening things to come from this author, and it’s good to see that his power of storytelling and flat out talent is still at full strength.
Though I’m a die-hard horror fiend, the story that left the greatest impression on me isn’t exactly the creepiest story around; it’s a quiet horror, one that lasts and digs at you. “Impressions In Oak” is the story of a man that drinks too much, fights too often and has a wife that isn’t exactly into the “forsaking all others” part of the whole marriage thing. When his past unfolds however, you find that the worst things in life may be the tales we leave untold, because the scars are always there, waiting for you to rediscover them. That story haunted me for days after I read it, truly the mark of an excellent, well-told tale.
The majority of stories in the first half of the book are quick and dirty flashes of horror, but they get longer on average around the halfway point, with the quality never wavering for a second. “Tyrophex-Fourteen” is a horrifying look at how corporations look out for themselves (even scarier with the Senate hearings on bailouts and such, even though this story was originally published in 1994). And “Depravity Road” is a what-if look at a real-life monster through the eyes of a worn-down family man.
Though there isn’t a weak story in the bunch, a few other favorites that bear mentioning before I wrap things up include:
- “Whorehouse Hollow”: success on the football field leads to one night of passion for the players . . . and a lifetime of ennui afterwards. Coincidence?
- “Oh, Sordid Shame!”: A former slave tells of kindness at the hands of the family who had owned him, and the terrible secret that family has tried to keep hidden for generations. The former slave, now a free man, gets his freedom writ in blood, indeed.
- “Black Harvest”: Kelly’s turn at storytelling ala “The Lottery” or “Dark Secret of Harvest Home.” Excellent story, but again, the introduction to this story lets the cat out of the bag. I think it would have been much creepier if you didn’t see the payoff coming.
Ronald Kelly is a storyteller, plain and simple, and with Midnight Grinding, he proves that plain and simple is just plain old good. Here’s hoping that he jumps back in to writing horror fiction with both feet. He’ll need to, once horror fans get a sample of his work and start clamoring for more.
(Cemetery Dance, 2009)