A magician in a dust bowl era town offers a devil’s bargain with mind-bending implications, a young girl encounters an Easter bunny with tattered fur, a lone traveler feels a pull to a mysterious town in the middle of a desolate field. I was thrilled to experience these tales and more in this creepy and excellent debut horror collection from L.P. Hernandez.
I first encountered the work of L.P. Hernandez by way of The NoSleep Podcast where his story, “They Have Suffered” served as an extended season finale. Apparently, L.P. has had numerous stories appear on this podcast and he is something of a NoSleep regular. Easy to see why, as the story I heard was a captivating listen, a horror story with heart and horrific imagery.
It wasn’t long after the discovery of this story that he released a brand new collection of stories, The Rat King. I jumped on it as soon as I had the chance.
The promises made by that NoSeep episode were fulfilled with this collection. The Rat King is filled to the brim with great prose, attention to detail, and creative subversions of the expected.
LP is a master of the simile. Many of his turns of phrase left me smiling and shaking my head, wondering why I hadn't thought to describe something that way. In The Rat King, a “sickle moon” is the color of “old milk.” Patches of snow are visible amidst a piny forest like "pieces of lint on a green quilt” and passions are as “malleable as warm PlayDoh.” A character is described as becoming little more than “hate wrapped in human skin.” I won’t spoil the details of his more horrific descriptions, just know that he uses this same mastery here and I was left queasy and shocked on more than one occasion.
A lot of times with collections you can get a complete grab-bag of stories, mixtures of styles and genres and qualities. I wouldn’t say that’s the case here. There’s the faintest of threads connecting these stories. For one, most of the stories take place on or around Halloween, really driving home that autumnal Bradbury vibe. Also, there are a few easter eggs scattered throughout this collection, the implications of a shared universe, details which only enhanced my reading experience.
A brief description of a handful of the more memorable stories (and I could have easily picked a handful more):
"Bad Apples"....Steeped in nostalgia, with pitch perfect details. This is an Amblin-esque tale that deals with the classic trope/experience of the new kid that moves on next door.
“The Magician”...a dust-bowl era tale of a carnival that comes to town and a little magic show that is more than it seems. This one features a haunting final line.
“The Nightmare Room”...a sardonic narrator is the owner and proprietor of a horror-themed bar and club. After hours he offers under-the-table services for the utilization of his special room.
“In the Valley of the Headless Men”...a classic set-up of a creature feature: a few semi-annoying college-aged kids decide that after graduation they will explore a remote valley in the northern regions of Canada, a valley that is rumored to be inhabited by Sasquatches. All I can say about this one is that it veered way the hell left and didn’t go where I thought it would.
"A Sundown Town"...huge Twilight Zone vibes with this story that filled me with dread.
I look forward to reading more of L.P.’s work in the future. I can only imagine the kind of world he could build with the freedom of a longer form of fiction, particularly a novel. Here’s to hoping that something comes down the pike.