I’m happy it happened this way, as the eight stories in the collection have given me a nice cross-section of what McKinney’s capable of considering they run the gamut from horror to sci-fi to police procedural and even a non-fiction entry. A solid collection from top to bottom, three in particular jumped out at me.
“The Red Empire,” the collection’s namesake, is actually a novella, and a damn entertaining one at that. In the tradition of sci-fi films of the 1950’s, “The Red Empire” finds a colony of fire ants the military has genetically engineered to be both over-sized and super intelligent accidentally set loose in a remote Texas border town during a torrential storm.
Local Amy Bloom and her daughter find themselves cut off by a flash flood and at the mercy of nature, both natural and unnatural. Further complicating things, a convicted bank robber/cop killer who’s being transported through the area uses the chaos of the storm to escape and makes his way to the Bloom residence. The events that unfold leave one wondering just which ‘creature’ poses the biggest threat.
“Cold Case” is a fascinating non-fiction entry which explores the circumstances surrounding the death of San Antonio Patrolman William Madison Lacey, who was killed in 1900 after only one day on the job. McKinney, himself a Sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, digs deep to uncover a story that shows fact is often more fantastic than fiction… complete with a missing grave.
“Burning Finger Man” was hands down my favorite of the collection. San Antonio Housing Authority Officer Ben Cortman spends his days patrolling the Nelson Courts Projects, a collection of apartment buildings with more than their share of dealers and addicts, pimps and prostitutes. There’s also the occasional crazy like old Margie Kerns who’s convinced, among other things, that little men who live in her wall sockets sneak into her refrigerator at night and drink her orange juice. The majority of the people in Nelson Courts are decent, hard-working people though, a fact which gets slammed home for Cortman when a serial molester begins targeting women in the projects.
One of his victims is Ashely, the deaf and retarded adult daughter of Margie Kerns. As Cortman watches the toll the unsolved attacks begins to have on the community, he resolves to do anything necessary to put an end to it. Things take a turn for the drastic, however, when the Neighborhood Watch also decides to take matters into their own hands. “Burning Finger Man” is a very well-written and developed exploration of what makes a community, the true meaning of justice, and just how far people are willing to go to achieve both.
Joe McKinney is an extremely versatile and talented author, and I look forward to exploring his other work. And if you’re new to the McKinney party like me, The Red Empire and Other Stories is certainly a great place to start.
The Red Empire and Other Stories is available from Redrum Horror (ISBN: 978-0984751907).