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This is a collection of five novellas featuring Gary Braunbeck's fictional town of Cedar Hill. I rated each novella, then averaged the ratings to come up with four-stars for the whole collection. There are a couple typos (missing punctuation, strange bold words), which might upset the OCD-crowd but doesn't detract from the stories.
I wasn't crazy about the opening story, 'In the Midnight Museum,' because it reads like literary nonsense and I'm not a fan of the genre so it's no surprise that this tale didn't hook me. How this story was put together was more interesting to me than the actual story (much like Lewis Carroll's work).
Science-fiction and supernatural horror blend together, playing off the fear of road-accidents in 'Road Mama and Daddy Bliss' while 'Kiss of the Mudman' resurrects the ghosts of musical idols to remind us how thoughts and beliefs can shape reality. A freaky Halloween tale, 'Tessellations,' has a strong Day of the Dead influence.
The closing story, 'The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women,' is my favorite story in the collection. A gruesome be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale hitting upon an issue that all women encounter at some point in their lives: body image.
I look forward to visiting Cedar Hill again in the future.
What is there to say about Gary Braunbeck that I haven't said in half a dozen other reviews already? Not a lot. He still continues to find ways to impress me, both with his skill and his imagination. I thought his novels were imaginative, but I don't think they're anything now compared to what he did with his novella collection CAGES AND THOSE WHO HOLD THE KEYS. Talk about some trippy stuff.
This collection has five novellas, all, as he says in his introduction, deal "with individuals who have locked themselves in their own cages, pig-headedly thinking that no key exists to free them. But that key does exist, and each of them has it. It's called Fear." But that description is just the beginning. What impressed me the most about these stories wasn't the inner turmoil of the characters and how Braunbeck expressed it with his words--although that was highly impressive, as well--but what really got to me was the plain and simple WTF-ness of these ideas.
The first story, for instance, "In the Midnight Museum", which was nominated for the Bram Stoker award in the category of Superior Achievement in Long Fiction. Martin is a depressed janitor on the verge of suicide who finds himself under observation in a mental health clinic where he discovers the nature of the world and how it's held together. And how it's slowly being undone by a demon who hides inside a painting.
Or there's "The Ballad of Road Mama and Daddy Bliss" where, in Braunbeck's reality, there are no road "accidents". That everyone has a fate, and that to keep order, sometimes The Road demands its sacrifice.
In "Kiss of the Mudman", it's music that holds the key for the residents of the Cedar Hill halfway house when Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and a slew of other dead musicians show up one winter night.
"Tesselations" is the perfect Halloween story as Marian returns home to check on her brother after their father's funeral to find her old imaginary friend from childhood isn't so imaginary anymore, and that he's putting out the call to everyone who comes trick or treating that a special surprise awaits everyone if they'll meet him at the cemetery later that night. And don't forget to bring your pumpkin and magic seeds.
And finally in "The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women", Amanda, an unremarkable woman who often goes through life unnoticed until she begins to gain beauty by taking it from those she sees as blessed with certain special qualities, be in beautiful eyes, a fine nose, a gorgeous mouth or even prettier hands. This was a serious trip of a story and one I think I would have to read a couple of times in order to catch all the nuanced details Braunbeck packs into it.
CAGES AND THOSE WHO HOLD THE KEYS is a powerful collection, although I found a couple of spots where I wondered if he'd forgotten what he wrote in previous stories (both Marian of "Tesselations" and Amanda of "Plain-Faced Women" recall a similar incident from their childhoods where they were asked by their mothers to go into the basement only for both girls to find the basement was dark, the only working light switch at the bottom and then behind the stairs, but at the bottom of the stairs both girls are shocked by the sight of a dead deer their fathers had hung up to drain down there, both girls screamed and slipped in the blood and were traumatized from the encounter), and as I've seen in every other Braunbeck work I've read, the typos sometimes get out of control and a little bit ridiculous. I know every published work has a few here and there, but in the case of this collection, we're talking scads of them, and it makes me wonder if this was a result of the publisher just not caring enough to give the book a proper copy edit before publication. If so, that's a real shame because work this good deserves a little more respect and attention.
But that's just cosmetic. The heart of the work is still there as well as the impact Braunbeck's words have. Nobody writes bleak like Gary Braunbeck. And when he hits his groove in a story, when the words are just flowing out of him in a cascade of wonder and desolation, it's darn near poetic. The only other working author I can think of that I've read in the past decade who's work is on the same level as Braunbeck would be Charlee Jacob. Everyone else is just struggling to keep up.
CAGES AND THOSE WHO HOLD THE KEYS is a great collection with well-drawn characters and incredibly imaginative plots in fully-realized settings. The stakes are high in every story and the climaxes perfectly expressed. This is yet another excellent offering from one of my all-time favorite authors.
Loved all five stories set in Cedar Hill. Stories of loneliness, guilt, regret. My favorite "The Sisterhood of Plain-faced Women" really touched me, left me with tears in my eyes. The first story "In the Midnight Museum" ended too soon, wish that one was a full length novel (loved the onlookers). I would really love to read more from Gary Braunbeck on my Kindle! (Keepers and In Silent Graves)
My 1st taste of Gary was his short story, Fat Man and Little Boy, from the Ray Bradbury tribute collection, Shadow Show. I was taken by his obvious love of words and persistent sarcasm... and this book brings more of the same. One could pick apart certain elements of unintentional overlap between the stories in this book, but one cannot deny the brilliance, depth, and originality of this man. DEFINITELY worth the read... I'm on the hunt for more. :)
My second meeting with Braunbeck ( after one delicious tale), and I'm completely in love. The horror is there, pulsing, but it's subtle, doesn't jump in your face. And it hurts to read him. His characters think our thoughts, the unpleasant and bothering ones, those feelings with which we meet in the dark, when the night is long and slumber slips away. It's sad, sweet and delicious. A rare author with a fine tuning. He also has the talent that I only found in Neil Gaiman, to blend reality and fantasy together in a natural and fluid manner. There you are, Jon Doe, on your average routine, suddenly a door opens and the fantastic is there, and it happens in a way that makes you think: it could possibly be like this... Great book.