Spine Breakers, A Review: Three Great Karl Pfeiffer Stories

In the vagueness that is pop culture these days, there are names from your past. Names, that without mediation and monitoring, we sometimes forget. What I’ve always found intriguing is that in one brisk moment it can all come back to you. Through auscultation, I frequent a radio program on Thursday nights called Soul Chat. It’s hosted by the wonderful Sandiee Peters, and she has fantastic guests on all the time. (For those who are interested, you can check it out Thursday nights at 10 PM through http://para-x-radio.com/ .)

Over a month ago one of her guests was Karl Pfeiffer, which was a name at first that didn’t quite connect with me. After mulling it over for a while I came to the realization that I remembered Karl from the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy on the Syfy channel. I was always impressed with Karl’s skills as an investigator; skills that led him to “graduate” in the first season of GHA along with Susan Slaughter. He put those skills to use for a while on the acclaimed show Ghost Hunters International. These days he attends Colorado State University, where he studies writing and religion, as well as leading weekend ghost hunts at the famed Stanley Hotel. You know, the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining.

Through Karl’s website, I found that he has published three short stories; the stories which populate these reviews. These stories dabble in the horror end, and inspire genuine fear. They expand mythologies and capture the lives of children in their prime.

“Dreamland Crocotta” opens with the description of an encroaching forest which sets the tone for the story. Evil and darkness has a tendency to lurk and writhe. There is a wonderful play on colors as well; the darkness encroaching the white home of a man named Mitch. We’re also introduced to a shadow that moves within the woods. It never breaks free from the forest, but It’s always there.

Mitchell Heloa, the protagonist of this story, has insomnia; he hasn’t been able to sleep for approximately three weeks. His life has fallen apart, caused by a lost job and a wife that has left him. From the beginning, Mitch has become almost agoraphobic. He hasn’t left his house in weeks, and avoids social situations as much as possible.

The only situations he allows himself is phone conversations with his brother Dave. Mitch finds comfort in repetition and often asks his brother the same questions daily which deal with work and his wife; the two things that put Mitch in the state that he’s in.

One night, this darkness on the edge of Mitch’s property speaks to him. At first, it tries comforting him, convincing him to let out the anger. Later, this being tortures him emotionally, convincing him to come into the darkness. Every night ends with the phrase repeated: “you know I’ll just see you tomorrow.” There is great terror in being trapped in your home, to your own devices, and to one’s greater than your own.

The story culminates in a three way conversation that would drive anyone mad; Mitch, Dave, and the Darkness make for interesting phone mullings. Mind you, Mitch is the only one who can hear the being, and it keeps interrupting him while he’s on the phone. You can imagine how the conversation goes. Shortly after this, Mitch finally gives in to the darkness, overtaken, and led to nothingness.

This is a great story that invades your senses in a multitude of ways. Insomnia is often dangerous experience, and while this is extreme in its circumstances, lack of R.E.M. sleep can lead to hallucinations, mood changes, and many other problems. The being’s identity in this story is never revealed, but a clue is offered in the title to the story. Supernatural fans will recognize the reference from season three of the show. What this story offers is a great addition to monster mythology; it does what Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” did for the Wendigo.

One of the hardest things to achieve in literature is trying to capture youth in story form. If it can be captured well, it can aid the story tremendously, and here it aids tenfold. “Desertion” is the story of two boys, Max and Schwartz; brothers who know how to use their imaginations and pretend with the best of them. Among the struggles concerning young men, we often find ourselves at times, trying to embrace reality instead of making it work for us.

As our story opens, Max age eleven, and Schwartz age nine are throwing rocks at an abandoned building in an vacant neighborhood. The magic of being a child in places such as this can be a rare thing. As a child, I often thought of how I’d like to live in a mall, were I to be the last person on earth. This area was lost to flooding a few years ago, and has remained empty, much to the delight of Max and “One-Eyed” Schwartz. To get there, they must go through an area called the “Twigs;” a broken forest behind their neighborhood. Here, these boys practice military maneuvers and take out fake enemies together.

Max has a dilemma, much like all children do his age. In adolescence, there comes a time when our youth allows us to question what is real around us. Max’s is Santa, who’s existence is questioned as much as Bigfoot, with a slight age gap. Magic becomes less possible, and thus Santa fades out of reality.

While in the middle of the debacle, the boys spot an intruder in their area, an adult. The boys track him for a while, and Max has Schwartz hold back for a bit. After several minutes, Schwartz eventually catches up with Max. Max explains to his brother how he spoke with the man; he had no face/no name, and he wanted to talk to Max alone. The boys head back home, and Santa is pushed to the back, while this new man is the focus. Not of the story, but of what’s real and what’s not. We never really glimpse the man, but is he real?

Dinner conversation finds the rebirth of Santa’s reality and of magic. The boy’s mother offers up some advice, “he’s as real as you want him to be. That’s how magic works.” This is very unique advice, advice most of us never got as a child. Magic is usually taken away when most of us are told that Santa isn’t even a revenant. This story achieves in putting magic into a unique perspective, as not existing in the natural world, but living vicariously through our perceptions of reality.

The mysterious stranger becomes more of a focus for Max over the coming week; he stands outside his window at night and just stares at him. At one point, Schwartz finds Max speaking to the man in the early morning hours up at the Twigs. The man’s endgame is to get Max to come with him, to a world where magic Is real and no longer requires human perception to craft it. Imagine being told this as a child, what it would open a young mind to.

One day, Schwartz again wakes to find Max’s bed empty, only this time Max is nowhere to be found. After a thorough search of the neighborhood, Schwartz breaks the news to his mother, and the police are notified. Schwartz and his mom hold out hope, but Max never returns. Schwartz’s days of pretending come to an end as the impact of being left behind is felt, similar to those who experience death, but aren’t the deceased.

The beauty of “Desertion” is in it’s subtle focus on Schwartz. As you read, your mind is focused on Max most of the time and this mysterious stranger he see’s, but the story’s intended focus is on Schwartz, and the event that brings about his coming of age and the loss of his innocence. It’s not until that end that you realize this and the title of the story and all the other pieces fall into place.

The most recent published story from Karl is entitle “Games Children Play.” As the story opens, we are greeted by a character named Ariel, and a confession of guilt, fear, and death. In shifting perspectives, we are also introduced to her Aunt, Ella. Ella’s fears are disparate from her niece. She fears the real world after college and ballparks and playgrounds at night.

Ella, and her college friends head over to a playground; in an attempt to hang on to their long lost youth. They are at the playground to play a game of “Groundies,” drunk of course as college kids can be. Groundies is a mix of Marco Polo and Tag. The game begins when one player starts counting to ten at the bottom of the playground/jungle gym while the other players move around to avoid the “it” person. The “it” person lacks the ability to use their eyes in this game. There are two ways to become the new “it,” the first is by being tagged by the “it” person, the second occurs if one of the player jumps off the playground; if the “it” person hears them and yells out Groundies in time to catch the person before going back on the playground, that person is the new “it.”

While walking to the playground, Ella notices a man sitting on a metal table near a ball field. She seems to be the only one to notice him in her group of four others (Rebecca, Charlie, Jude, and John). The man is soon forgotten as he fades out of sight. They soon arrive to the playground, and begin playing.

Ella turns out to be the first “it” player, and goes on searching for her comrades for several minutes. She plays a little cat and mouse game with a series of breaths. When she finally touches what she believes is one of her friends, it suddenly becomes something greatly different. As she opens her eyes, she see’s that what she has touched is a black mass, complete with a rotting stench. In the moments following this occurrence, those childhood fears encroach on the darkness, and illumination is the only haven one can find comfort in.

In the time since this incident, Ella ended up with a sprain, she sleeps with all the lights on, and tries to rationalize the flame flickers of candles. A game of hide-and-go-seek ensues before an evening meal between Ella and Ariel. Another game that children play, harmless and fun. My favorite part of the story here is this rationalization of how children and pets view us leaving them. Viewed as small deaths, essentially as children and pets yearn for our return, could we be viewed as small deaths and ressurections?

As the game ensues in the budding darkness, Ella searches the first room, the nursery, to no avail. Next up is Ariel’s room; the bed is a negative, but the closet is the next logical place. Upon opening the closet Ariel jumps out, but a dark figure rises out of the closet. It goes straight for Ella and tells Ariel that this is all her fault. Ella doesn’t make it through the ordeal, but her soul remains in the house, calling out to Ariel. This dark figure also remains, and visits Ariel in the night, which she takes as punishment for the guilt she feels for “killing” her Aunt. And she does so every night, by unplugging the night light.

These three great stories get under your skin, and will stay with you for a while. I, like Ella, know what it’s like to try and rationalize everything. I think we all do in our own ways. These stories speak to our primal nature and our primal fears. These stories often succeed where horror movies fail, because the fear is in our imagination. Oh, the dark places we go, and the dark places these characters finish in.

If you’d like to check out Karl Pfeiffer’s stories and such there are a couple of places to go.

His website: http://www.karlpfeiffer.com/

Where you can purchase these stories: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/karlpfeiffer

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