The protagonist, Charles Hewer, is a young man who's gone to Hell for doing dreadful things. As we find out, he lured other young people into the clutches of his older mentor who then tortured, sexually abused and killed them. Most readers will recognize it is clearly based on the Elmer Wayne Henley - Dean Corll relationship (Corll was a serial killer responsible for the deaths of at least 28 male teenagers and men in Houston and Pasadena in the early 1970s, assisted by Henley and David Owen Brooks).
Rouner, a frequent contributor to the Houston Press who has written for years about his own intense interest in video games, imagines a Hell in which Hewer becomes the Hwerp, an easy villain for game players to kill. The Devil informs him he is to be stomped to death over and over again, complete with painful agonies.
Besides punishing Hewer for his sins, this is a way for the good people up in heaven — "ascended souls" — to feel well, good, about Hwerp being punished, the Devil says. The additional twist is that Hwerp can earn credits by accepting his role often and well. And what would he use these credits for? Better living conditions in hell and ultimately, a possible chance at redemption?
Yes, in a Hell run by a somewhat whimsical Devil and against the wishes of the Heavenly directors, Rouner's story argues that there are possibilities of second chances for even the most irredeemable of souls. Certainly not everyone will agree with this, but Rouner lays out his arguments in clear, thought-provoking and often humorous style.
"How to Sell a Holiday" is just fun — well maybe not for the one victim who didn't heed warnings — in its construction of a store so determined to record record sales that it enters into an agreement with alien beings who are a-ok to be around, as long as their desires aren't thwarted. Anyone who has worked on the front lines of a retail job will recognize several true situations, however taken to extremes in this account.
"Just a Kiss Away" takes on the desires of men at strip clubs head-on, or actually in a headless way. After all, if what the patrons are most focused on are the women's breasts, butts and pole climbing talents, why should it matter if an exotic dancer doesn't have a head?
The title of the story "Earworm" pretty much telegraphs its intensions. It's a not uncommon horror trope in books or on TV: the music that sticks in your brain and moves past a petty annoyance to a destructive controlling presence that ruins the lives of anyone who happens to hear a few bars.
In his forward to the book, Rouner explains his interest in horror fiction, particularly during these depressive COVID times.
"Every day as a journalist, I had to cover a plague that was Biblical in its devastation. For months, nearly every single story I filed had the word 'coronavirus' in it." Horror he says, helps us deal with the acknowledgment that things are we once knew them may never be the same again. It also meant a release of tension and anger without living out those stories in real life.
"Horror is a kind of rock bottom by proxy where you're free to consider the worst in a playground of the mind and within a safe narrative structure."
Rouner has always had an intriguing mindset and a good writer's way with words. The stories in this book compel the reader forward, interesting in both characters and unexpected plot developments. And they may well take your mind off the real horrors existing in our world, at least for a while.
By Jef Rouner