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Hard Roads / Steve Vernon

thcat_hardroads.jpgGray Friar Press / July 2007
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

Steve Vernon is a hard writer to pin down. And that’s a good thing.

Take Hard Roads, for example. Two tales, two very different facets of this emerging voice in genre fiction. Both novellas are distinct in tone, but there’s enough connective tissue to make it clear these images and ideas have sprung from the same imagination. While some readers might prefer one side over the other, I can’t imagine anyone not satisfaction in one of these tales.

Start with “Trolling Lures.” This is a campfire tale on speed, a heady cocktail of remorse, discovery and the quest for redemption, couched in equal parts bedtime story and fever dream. It starts in a fairly straightforward manner: Morgan Hillman is dying of cancer, running away from the pain of his disease and of some terrible incident, the memory of which he has mostly blocked out. He’s got the spirit of a dead woman riding in the backseat, and he’s heading for the hills where he plans to commit suicide.

That’s when things go decidedly off-kilter – both for Hillman and for the reader. We’re talking possession, undead Mounties, talking coyotes, and trolls. This is surrealism personified, and if you’re into that sort of thing, Vernon has a treat for you. If you’re not, skip ahead to the second half of the collection, “Hammurabi Road.”

“Road” starts out with four guys in a pickup truck – three crammed into the front seat, and one duct-taped and tied in the back. This is where Vernon’s natural storytelling ability really shines – he perfectly captures the crass and crude voices of a bunch of working stiffs out to get them some frontier justice.

Tyree, the unfortunate fellow who’s hog-tied and along for the ride, is a suspected arsonist, allegedly responsible for a hotel fire that killed the brother of one of these men. Satisfied with the evidence but disgusted with the lack of retribution, this batch of railroad workers head out for an isolated stretch of track deep in the wilderness, where they have a sentence of their own to carry out. But God (or fate, or perhaps Mother Nature) has other ideas, which are soon manifested in the form of a big black bear.

There are touches of the supernatural in this tale, but for the most part “Hammurabi Road” remains grounded in realism. The dynamics of the group and their single-minded pursuit of revenge are fertile ground for suspense, not to mention a few doses of deftly handled humor. By the time this tightly wound group of would-be executioners begins to unravel, Vernon has snared the reader in his trap. Like all four of these unfortunate souls, you’ll have no choice but to march through to the bitter end.

For this reviewer's money, “Hammurabi Road” is far and away the best offering in Hard Roads, and may be the best thing Vernon has published thus far. This story alone makes the collection a worthwhile purchase.

Purchase Steve Vernon's Hard Roads.


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