PHONE CALL FROM HELL | REVIEWS

Sex, Violence, Treachery And Malice . . . Tied Together By Brilliant One-Liners

You might be able to tell from the title that this collection of short stories are from the darker end of the pulp genre. The phone call of the title is from none other than the craziest of the crazies – Charles Manson. The stories – 17 in all -  are set in exotic but lurid locations both in the tropics and on the back streets of big cities in the United States. Sex, violence, treachery and malice are tied together by brilliant one-liners such as: “A wave of lust oozed over me like the melted cheese from a perfect enchilada.” And all that’s washed down with enough drugs and alcohol to fuel the 1960s over again. The collection will be available from New Pulp Press on 20 April. - David Prestidge, Crime Fiction Lover

Horror And Gruesomeness, As Well As A Solid Visual Impression

A criminal twilight zone reminiscent of the classic television series meets hardcore realism in this jaded twist on human nature. Jonathan Woods delivers his characteristic sardonic view of gritty life in seventeen stories that will make hiding under the bed a comforting thought. Phone Call from Hell: And Other Tales of the Damned may be a masterpiece of noir fiction—organized insanity at its best.

Subtler than the work of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino yet similar in tone, these literary trips into fits of madness expose the dark side of the psyche. Bizarre protagonists, helpless victims, and frightened participants all make an appearance in this shuddering glimpse of hell. A carefully weighed balance of descriptive words and heart-pounding action propel these devilish plots—excursions that lead to unsettling conclusions, endings that often have the psychological impact of a car crash.

Ominous titles such as “The Handgun’s Tale,” “A Bad Day for a Barbecue,” and “Hearing Voices” hint at what will follow, goading the discovery of just how evil these experiences will get. The pivotal story, and decidedly among the most outstanding, is “Phone Call from Hell.” This spine-tingling, raunchy nightmare follows an unbelievable call from incarcerated killer Charles Manson. Still looking for people to do his bidding, Manson guides the actions of a hapless man from a distance, talking him into seeking the company of a prostitute presumably for vicarious thrills.

Woods establishes a scene using concise sensory details that often create a pungent, gagging reaction, as well as creating a solid visual impression: “When I unlocked the cabin door and pushed it open, a wave of trapped air washed over us, thick with the odors of mildew, sperm and old cigarette smoke. An ancient pig iron floor lamp with a yellowed velum shade cast a fake warmth. While I fumbled with the controls of an electric space heater, the girl paced around the single room, poked her head in the tiny bathroom.”

Jonathan Woods is a lawyer whose work has appeared in numerous literary publications and anthologies. Phone Call from Hell is his third collection of short stories. Wickedly humorous, Woods has managed to set a precarious edge throughout this crazy collection. Like the threat of falling off a cliff into an abyss, he keeps readers clinging to the rock face, unable to let go. Excellent timing and pacing make each “yarn” a sophisticated pulp thriller. The aftereffects will linger long after the story is over.  - Julia Ann Charpentier, ForeWord Reviews, Apr 20, 2014

17 Outlandish Excursions Into Neo-Pulp

In Phone Call from Hell & Other Tales of the Damned, Woods offers 17 outlandish, often violent and raunchy, excursions into neo-pulp.  The title story involves looking for a date on the suggestion of a random phone call from Charles Manson.  In “Writer’s Block,” Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene hunt for action in 1959 Havana.  “FTS”—well, the title says it all.  Some of the yarns are not so much short stories as micronovels—“The Other,” an intense hunt for serial killers; “Crash & Burn,” an explosive opus on the Texas-Mexico border.  Trademark wild-ass similes and metaphors emblazon almost every page: “The imperious tropical sun beat down relentlessly like the cat-o-nine-tails of the Marquis de Sade”; “the moon burst above the eastern hills like a floodlight on a prison break”; “Her eyes glowed like burning German cities after a B-17 night raid.”  You want it brazen and loud, Woods really knows how to bang that gong. - Publishers Weekly 02/24/2014

Woods’ Style . . . Never Falters

"Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned is not disappointing one iota…A real standout in the collection is “Swingers Anonymous,” where a sexual escapade takes a rather deadly turn, forcing the narrator into a world of paranoia where he most likely will find happiness through a classified ad…[these Tales of the Damned focus on the edge of society, where…life [is about] ‘if no one finds out’ and ‘cash can pay for anything, including killing.’  Woods’ style throughout the stories never falters.” - Bruce Grossman, Bookgasm.com

Suspense And Mystery Short Fiction Is Alive And Well

"It is a given that when a person makes a declaration about something, Life, the internet and everything will smack you upside the head. This happened to me when in a recent review of Jan Burke's short story collection Apprehended, I remarked that the mystery/suspense short story is a critically endangered species. Not soon after I wrote that, I received a index from someone that listed all the markets for mystery short fiction. Most of them were internet or very indie magazines, but the case was made. There is still a demand for mystery short fiction. Then a friend clued me to Jeff Strand's darkly funny Stalking You Now, to which I gave a nice review to. As if I wasn't chastised enough, New Pulp Press, a small but hearty bastion of literary crime noir books, sent me a copy of Phone Call from Hell & Other Tales of the Damned by Jonathan Woods. OK, I get the message. Mystery and crime short fiction is doing fine...but you have to know where to look.
 
If you are looking for short thrillers, you can't do better than Jonathan Woods' new collection of literary crime noir. It isn't really mystery. I don't think there is a real whodunnit in the stack of 17 short stories. But these are rough and gritty pieces of crime noir that equal anything coming from Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, or any other major writer in the genre. Woods even gives the contemporary crime noir writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Charlie Huston a run for their money, although his style is a little more hard-nosed and more retro partly because he seems to like settings and exotic eras like corrupt tropical countries and sleazy LA underbelly environments. I noticed that the author christens his works as "Southern Noir" on his website but I didn't see anything exclusively southern about them although there is definitely a strong sense of influence from writers like Flannery O'Connor and David Grubb. The stories are the kind that will have readers swooning over Chandleresque lines like: "A wave of lust oozed over me like the melted cheese from a perfect enchilada," or "She was as drinkable as a Black Russian on a slow night.” While many of his stories have little twists at the end, they are usually of the intelligently subtle kind that makes the reader think, "I better read that again.” And others are more like character studies that examine a certain type of loser mindset. I say 'Loser" not because these people are unlikeable, although they often are. It’s just that they are people who you wouldn't want to be or, at the very least, wouldn't want to be in their shoes.
 
It would be impossible to cover all 17 tales so here's a few that will give an inkling of the range and quality in this collection. The opening tale, "The Handgun's Story,” is a short and sweet perspective of murder by the gun's perspective. It's a clever answer to "Guns don't kill people. People kill people.” Perhaps those people had a little help, don' t you think? "Writer's Block" is one of those character studies involving Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene dealing with the title problem. As far as pure reading enjoyment, this is one of my favorites. "The Old Man" is also a favorite mainly for the buildup and unexpected ending. "The Other" features escape and a manhunt that not only go beyond expectation but is maybe the best story of a superlative bunch. For some reason that I am not sure why, but "The Other Suitcase" reminds me of John Huston's film Beat the Devil, perhaps because they both seem like parodies of The Maltese Falcon. Finally the title story and "Hearing Voices" are especially interesting because they straddle the line between an implausible reality and madness, letting the reader to decide.
 
It's safe to say that Jonathan Woods doesn't take it easy on his readers. He expect them to work at reading these slightly crazy and dark suspense tales and he doesn't expect them to come out indifferent and detached to what they read. That is a major strength. These are the type of crime noir tales that will be read for decades and they will make sure there are readers still around for this seedy but insightful form of entertainment. OK, I relent. Suspense and mystery short fiction is alive and well as long as we have writers like Jonathan Woods stirring the pot." - Marvin Vernon, The Novel Pursuit blogspot, 11:45 AM 

A Mix of Jim Thompson and Hunter Thompson

Phone Call from Hell is the latest release from New Pulp Press and follows the author’s short story collection Bad Juju and his novel A Death in Mexico. The publisher has also been making its name by releasing Roger Smith’s dark South African crime novels Capture and Dust Devils, Les Edgerton’s existential noir The Rapist, and CJ Howell’s almost unclassifiable The Last of the Smoking Bartenders.

Like many of the above, Phone Call from Hell has only a partial connection with crime fiction. In pretty much every story a crime occurs – as well as plenty of things which should be illegal, even if they aren’t – but crime isn’t usually the focus of each one. Certainly none of the stories could be described as mysteries.

Many of these 17 stories feature rich lazy people and have that highly combustible mix of privilege and ennui. They are spoilt and bored, even though they don’t seem to recognise it. In the story A Lucky Man, a rich executive blows off a night for his wife’s charity to go whoring and bone fishing with his dissolute son in New Orleans. Once there, a mystic foretells his death but he is able to beat fate through ingenious means. This is one of a number of stories that subvert the usual rules of noir by having the antihero get away with it.

Some of the stories have a literary bent. The Other Suitcase is a humorous search for Kafka’s lost erotic novel. Writer’s Block features Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway in a search for sex and inspiration in Havana. The former proves easier to find than the latter. Hidden away in the story is a subtle and incisive exploration of the fear a writer feels as they recognises their talent is abandoning them. Dead Heat has an unknown menace killing off contenders for the Nobel Prize until the committee are forced to give it to Michael Connolly.

Two of the stories could be considered weird fiction. Hearing Voices uses the old noir trope of a good man seduced into doing bad things by a femme fatale, only this time the siren is the recorded voice of a lift. The Old Man, and for my money the best story in the collection, could have been written by such modern masters of the dark fantastic as Laird Barron or John Langan. An old artist, who has not finished a painting in years, is menaced by his younger partner and her lover. When the rumour goes round he has finally finished a new work, they decide to kill him and steal the picture. But instead of riches, this ever changing portrait presages death.

There are a couple of occasions where the author falls flat. Usually, as in A Bad Day for Barbecue, this is because the story never seems to go anywhere. In some, endings can feel a little hurried. Phone Call from Hell won’t be for everyone. His style brings to mind a mix of the stranger side of Jim Thompson, such as The Golden Gizmo, and Hunter S Thompson if you can imagine him having written for Playboy (sex is everywhere in this book) rather than Rolling Stone. But I would urge everybody who thinks this might be worth a read to give it a go. It’s highly likely you won’t read anything similar this year.