Cold, Black, & Infinite
Todd Keisling
Cemetery Dance (September 26, 2023)
Reviewed by Nora B. Peevy

We pride ourselves on our individuality in western culture, but what brings us together as human beings is our shared emotions. We celebrate our achievements, smile even though we’re hurting, and repress the darker emotions inside ourselves because depression, anger, and vengeance make people uncomfortable; we don’t know how to react to these emotions, but if we face these feelings festering inside us, we can inoculate ourselves against the sickness infecting our psyches. Todd Keisling explores the darker side of humanity and these forbidden emotions in his new collection, Cold, Black, & Infinite.

Are you a “lonely traveler?” Board the Valley View Ferry on the Kentucky River in Midnight in Southland and listen to your favorite radio host, Gus Guthrie. You might just find a place almost like your real home where you won’t be lonely anymore. Life will have meaning and purpose and you can stay as long as you want, or meet the night security officer and the strange traveler in 2:45 to New Mexico. Maybe, you’d like to board a bus to a place where “reality runs threadbare in places” and “it’s all about the time between,” those liminal places where you can travel to your new life and be whomever you want to be, but you must admit you’re unhappy with life to go. But if those two choices don’t work for you, you can always join Angela and return to Happytown for the holidays. You can go home, but will you be able to leave once you witness The Happy Yuletide Massacre? Maybe, what you always wanted isn’t really what you always wanted, or maybe, you’re trapped in a reality of your own creation. You know when you get that sudden feeling that nothing is real and you might just be a pawn in a government experiment? How do you know if you’re crazy or they’re crazy? The FBI could be telling you there’s no Coffin Worm and you didn’t really save humanity from insanity during Y2K, but do crazy people really know they’re crazy? In Y2K you can find Elliot’s answer. Maybe, it will help answer your own questions about your sanity. Is insanity worse than being oblivious to your reason for existence? What if we are all “locked in an endless cycle. Work and spend. Produce and consume.” What if we’re all mindless zombies and we don’t even have the functioning mind power to know if we are going crazy? George Romero tackled this question with his zombie movies and Todd Keisling pays tribute in Black Friday. It all starts with the happiest and most revered Christmas character of all-time, Santa.

Maybe, you’re not a fan of zombies. I get it. The gore isn’t for everyone, but maybe, you can relate to being bullied, for being the odd kid at school like Tommy Slone in Tommy the Destructo-Bot Vs. The Bullies from Future Street, which is one of my favorite stories in this collection because I was one of those weird kids. Tommy loves comic books, has a stutter, and a lift on his shoe to correct his one leg. The neighborhood bullies love picking on him, but one day something snaps in Tommy. He visits Lady Future who offers to help him beat the bullies for a price. Revenge always comes with a cost, but it feels so sweet, if we let that dark demon out to play. Speaking of dark demons, Karen in Afterbirth, is lonely and longing for a child. There is no act too dark she won’t commit to summon a child from the bucket of biological goo she steals from work. And she is such a Karen, that stereotype we all love to hate, but there’s a little bit of her in all of us, that complaining, nagging person who feels they’ve been wronged and are owed their due. We’ve also all experienced heartbreak. Annie’s Heart Is a Haunted House is the modern fairytale where the sleeping beauty, Annie, the bullied odd girl from school, dreams a mansion, but will the boy who rejected her and bullied her, the boy of her dreams, be able to wake her from the nightmare he’s trapped in before he dies? The moral of the story is to treat everyone the way you wish to be treated or you might meet their dark side. Oh, revenge for a scorned lover can feel so sweet. In The Gods of Our Fathers, we meet Mary who is sexually and physically abused by the males in her family after her mother and grandfather die. She’s forced to choose between the old ways and her father’s religion, but she must give in to her dark side and sacrifice something precious to get what she wants. Would you sacrifice something precious to get vengeance on those who hurt you? Are you still a good person, if you do something bad or if you do something bad to someone bad does that make you a bad person?

If you’re not into vengeance, bullies, or violence to get what you want, maybe you’d like Solve for X where you meet a creepy kid let in by the babysitter with bad intentions. Maybe, you’d rather work at The Smile Factory where everyone wears a mask. If you could lose yourself in your work, literally, give up all individuality, but have everything you always wanted, including eternal life, would you give up your individuality? How important is being “you” to you? Look in the mirror. Would you sacrifice your own child for secret knowledge from the Nameless Void and follow the ghosts of a cult from the other side? Just how deep does the darkness run inside your soul? Find out in Holes in the Fabric, as you visit Devil’s Creek. We’ve All Gone to Crooked Town teaches you to be careful what you wish for because you can wish for an idyllic town and The Crooked Man will grant your wish, but it might not be exactly what you wanted. You might find yourself playing God and discover you like having the fate of people’s lives in your hands. How egomaniacal is that? If you could take a pill, but it might have nasty side effects, would you do it do rid yourself of your depression? Would you take an experimental drug? Would you take Happy Pills? Gethsemane gives you a chance to peek inside Judas’s mind and discover the motivation for why he sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Was it really a betrayal or was he saving the world from something darker? Would you let evil win to save your beloved Son of God or would you let history paint you as a “Judas?” And finally, go to the magic show in We’ve All Gone to the Magic Show where the entire town disappears and you have the chance to become the magician. Do you play God or do you walk away? This is another favorite of mine in the collection. What darkness lies in your soul?

Todd Keisling writes with a grim and twisted humor that cuts deeper and sharper than barbed wire to expose the soft underbelly of humanity. He confronts our darkest desires and the truths we cannot tell ourselves; that we want to run away from ourselves and the realities we live because we are so unhappy and feel so alone; that we feel like cogs stuck in a mindless machine; that we want to hurt those that have hurt us first and vengeance feels liberating; that playing God makes us feel powerful and righteous; that sometimes we will do horrible, shocking, and unspeakable acts to be happy; and that we will betray our friends to save ourselves. This collection will haunt you when the lights go out. Will you recognize yourself or someone you love? Read at your peril, if you dare.

About Nora B. Peevy

Nora B. Peevy is a cat trapped in a human’s body. Please send help or tuna. She toils away for JournalStone and Trepidatio Publishing as a submissions reader, is a co-editor for Alien Sun Press, the newest reviewer for Hellnotes, and has been published by Eighth Tower Press, Weird Fiction Quarterly, and other places. Usually, you can find her on Facebook asking for help escaping from her human body or to get tuna. Tuna is nice. Cats like tuna.