This is the second collection of previously unpublished short stories by Gil Brewer from Stark House Press, following Death is a Private Eye in July, and although some of the themes are revisited, this anthology is markedly different. Undoubtedly Brewer was a master of the short format, and his ability to capture a bleak moment, a strong emotion, a world view in a few short pages is remarkable. Clever plots, sharp writing and pinpoint-accurate character motivation make the darkness, emotional intensity, despair, confusion, anger and violence here plausible. Brewer’s vision of the world was always dark, reflecting on the corrosive nature of dysfunctional relationships – sex, jealousy, obsession, and murder. These stories, twenty-three and half in all (one incomplete), come from the late 60s and the 70s and they are darker than anything else Brewer wrote. They seem to be touched by personal psychological trauma around his health, chronic alcoholism and penury. They are also a reflection of the times: Vietnam, Manson, the end of the hippies, Watergate, economic downturn, the oil crisis, etc. Some of the stories are more sexually explicit than those published in his lifetime, again this was the 70s, certain words could be used, this was often the reason stories were sent back by publishers (nothing that wouldn’t have made a mainstream thriller these last thirty years). The sex is not particularly well written, it’s a bit self-conscious, but it does make a point in each of the stories it features, here’s a taster:
‘Nepenthe’, April 1974. Meg and Timothy are arguing at a motel, she’s ending their relationship. Her husband has found out, he’ll kill them both, he capable, it has to end. Tim doesn’t want to accept that, deep down he knows this is just sex not love but he’s addicted to Meg. Later, she won’t take his calls, Tim leaves town, starts wandering, drinking, sleeping in motels. Maybe he should go to Key West and drive into the Caribbean? Then, in Atlanta, there’s this girl, at a motel, she looks like Meg, she oozes sexuality, but this meeting of two damaged souls won’t end well.
‘Clean Sweep’, March 1976. Farnol watches from the window of his cabin. There’s a man out there, a rug or something over his shoulder. He drops it, picks up a shovel and begins digging. When the hole is ready he puts the rug in it and buries it. Farnol waits for the man to go, waits a full hour to be sure. Then he gets his own shovel and begins digging:
“It wasn’t a rug. It was a stiff tarpaulin, wrapped around something bulky. He dug and brushed, hurling rocks and sand out of the cavity, and turned up a flap on the tarpaulin. He yanked the flap back and the diamond coloured moonlight palmed a pale girl’s face, eyes open, mouth open.”
She looks about fifteen, Farnol should tell the police but he’s scared, he has a reason to be… An ending that s as clever as it is sad.
‘I Had Sex with a Martian’, May 1976. A witty take on the kind of stories floating around at the time about alien abduction.
‘Friendly Persuasion’, late 60s. A man sits on a bench in the wrong part of town on a dark night. Love Me Too approaches, warns the guy about the dangers of getting mugged being alone at night. The man is totally distracted, Albert Dickerman’s life just fell apart. Love Me Too asks for some grass for his girl, Blue Lips. Albert doesn’t recognise the danger and Love Me Too isn’t listening to what Albert is saying. It won’t end well…
‘The Invalid’, early 70s. Clunky title but this this is the story of Gregg and his girlfriend, Helen. They plan to get married, Helen wants to wait until then, Gregg is frustrated. Then Helen announces that her sister is coming to stay at her flat, she’s just broken up with her husband. Agnes isn’t like Helen at all.
‘Escape to Never’, late 70s. Dom Alechi’s guys jumped Steve in the Quickie Supermarket carpark. Quirt Quilligan and Fruit Eyes stuff him into a Cadillac. They take him to a hangout while they find out what Dom wants:
‘She had been Alechi’s woman. Darlene Jesus was her name. What he called, “My Mexican twist, making the big time, up from Jalisco.” Then that nasty laugh. “I just finished taking the dungdust off her. What you think? Say something!”
Her beauty made your heart ache. But that’s all Alechi saw in her. He never knew the woman underneath.’
Dom killed Darlene and now Steve would get the treatment. The gang treat all women as ‘whores’. One of the girls is sick of being used, Steve may be the way out.
‘Caprice’, early 70s. Peruzzi is in the kitchen, Angela comes out of the bedroom, she’s sixteen, she’s going to marry his boy, Sesto. She asks if he likes her dress. This is all wrong, for Sesto’s sake he going to kill this girl.
‘Die Once–Die Twice’, early 70s. William Dexter is chauffeur for Loretta Brady and she’s been rummaging through his things, found out he used to be an LA private eye. He left because of memories of Norma, the death of his wife still haunts him. Loretta says people are threatening to kidnap her stepdaughter, Penny, if $500,000 isn’t handed over. Greed, double dealing and betrayal
All tales of misunderstanding, obsession, repression, desperation, desire bent out of shape, the confusion between love and sex, and conflict. Emotionally raw and edgy, sometimes fragmentary, but essentially honest. Each story has a power but I would say four or five are really strong. The formulaic sex is, no doubt, meant to catch the liberalism of the times, women want it, men lust after them, it doesn’t detect from the truth. There is something of the black dog that afflicted Brewer here. Most of these tales concentrate on one key pivot, a shock ending, or a sharp observation.
The tragedy of Brewer’s life is that he never knew how good he was. He suffered from depression occasioned by alcohol and his life eventually span out of control. His long-suffering wife divorced him but never stopped looking out for him, calling in on him and paying his bills. That is, until the day in 1983 when she found him dead in his apartment. As is the way of these things it was shortly after Brewer’s death that his fiction began to be re-evaluated, its exceptional quality recognised. He was included in anthologies and reprinted to general acclaim, his titles made appearances on the best of all time lists. Stark House Press have released six double headers by Brewer in recent years and, now, two collections of unpublished stories. Every self-respecting pulp noir fan should read these stories.
Paul Burke 4*
Die Once–Die Twice: More Unpublished Stories of Gil Brewer
Stark House Press 9781944520885 pbk Jan 2020