Tag Archives: regional interest

Scary Short Stories Hit Close to Home

CBR_Logo2State of Horror: Illinois
Jerry E. Benns, Editor

Ghosts and zombies, abundant nods to real-life, presumed haunted and cursed places in Illinois, serial murder, a flesh-eating toilet, and a phantom Chicago pizza parlor are just some of the elements that come together in State of Horror: Illinois, a spine-tingling, geographically inspired collection of original horror tales.

State of Horror: Illinois was the first in what is now a series of similarly titled, state-based horror anthologies. Recent releases include Jew Jersey, North Carolina, and two volumes set in Louisiana. Upcoming installments in the State of Horror series are set in Tennessee and California.

state_of_horror_ilDrawing on the eerie associations with the number thirteen, there are thirteen short stories in State of Horror: Illinois, ranging from about five to about fifteen pages long.

The storytelling found in these pages is of variable quality, though mostly good to high quality, and are well varied, with stories about teens and adults and skipping around the state, from Chicago, to Springfield, to Alton, to historical Vishnu Springs. The authors take us to haunted train tracks, remote lakes and natural areas, abandoned towns and crumbling houses, and neglected, century-old cemeteries. We go up military watch towers, down inner-city alleyways, and through the tall heights of an upscale, residential, downtown Chicago high rise.

The book does have some problems. Inconsistent proofing and editing, beginning with a garbled table of contents page and continuing with intermittent punctuation and usage errors, sometimes mars the reading experience. Some of the stories start on different pages than listed in the index, and, mid-way through, a succession of pages are all listed as “page 103.”

“Drowning in the Hazel,” by Eli Constant, about a scuba diver who encounters an underwater monster, stands out for its exceptional scene-setting. The author demonstrates an intimate, personal knowledge of scuba diving and the depths of a deep lake, which helps to bring the story to life.

Creativity soars in “In Chicago, the Dish Is So Deep No One Can Hear You Scream,” by Frank J. Edler, set in a phantom pizza parlor, complete with ghoulish waiters and talking, menacing food.

“My Porcelain Monster,” by Eric I. Dean, also follows a wonderfully creative direction, with a flesh-eating toilet in a home’s guest bathroom, which terrorizes a succession of families who live there.

Stories about ghost-ridden haunted houses pepper the book, all well written. Perhaps the strongest such piece is “Ritter House,” by A Lopez, Jr. It is a palpably terrifying tale with a wickedly good conclusion. Readers will feel like they are experiencing a night alone in a haunted house alongside the protagonist, who is a modern-day horror writer researching his genre.

The prize for the most horrifically realistic contribution goes to “Chicago Mike,” by Della West, about a serial killer’s repurposing of his victims’ body parts in a suburban mall costume shop. “The shopping public will, it seems, pay a great deal of money for a costume if the mask is incredibly life-like,” West deliciously pens.

Quality sometimes slips, however. “What’s Eating the Mob,” by P. David Puffinburger, sinks into poor taste as a story about flesh-eating zombies turns to genital mutilation and excessively relies on coarse language and heavy gore.

Many of the anthology’s tales are set in and around Illinois tourist destinations, and/or in places long said, in real-life, to be haunted. That makes State of Horror: Illinois a great road map for curiosity seekers and tourists looking to pad a summer road trip with some creepy side trips. More information about the actual places referenced in the State of Horror: Illinois can be easily found on the Internet.

The short length of each piece, and associated minimal time required to get through each, makes this a great backpack book, readable in quick spurts on a dark night in a tent, cabin, or around a campfire. The series is also available in audiobook, perfect for long car trips.

On a broader level, the series, set largely in the nation’s midsection, is collectively a great, scary, longer road-trip stepping-off point.

Overall, this is a collection that weaves together fun, terror, shivers, and usually just the right amount of gore to make you shudder but not blanch. Some fine authors and fine storytelling elevate State of Horror: Illinois to a well-worthy read.

Three-Star Review

August 2014, Charon Coin Press
Fiction/Short Stories/Horror
$12.99, paperback, 246 pages
ISBN: 978-0692-2737-6-0

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann


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Suburban Goodfellas and Godfathers

CBR_Logo2The Neighborhood Outfit:
Organized Crime in Chicago Heights
by Louis Corsino

The pairing “Chicago crime” is one so common it rolls off the tongue without hesitation. Not that it’s a cliché entirely without merit: Although today one might think of rampant shootings on the South and West sides, Chicago has been associated with epidemic levels of crime for a century if not longer, thanks in large part to Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio.

Of course, crime stretches well beyond the city’s borders, clawing forth in all directions, its twisted fingers reaching into the suburbs and beyond. One of the suburbs perhaps most associated with crime, particularly the type of organized crime usually associated with Capone and Torrio, is Chicago Heights.

corsino outfit 9780252080296North Central College professor Louis Corsino, a product of Chicago Heights himself, looks into the history of organized crime in his hometown in The Neighborhood Outfit, an examination of a small but integral part of the larger Chicago Outfit, the notorious branch of the American Mafia that ran bootlegged booze, drugs, guns, and women.

But beyond a mere history of the Chicago Heights connection to the Outfit, Corsino focuses in on the “boys” who ran the neighborhood, particularly the Italian immigrants who made Chicago Heights their home. Corsino, whose own family history is linked to the Outfit, looks at the connection between Italians and organized crime, using Chicago Heights as the sample for his study and examining the cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social forces that drove the Italian residents of Chicago Heights toward illicit activity. In doing so, he relies on a variety of sources, including first-person interviews, government documents, contemporary newspaper accounts, and family history to explore the connection between community, culture, and crime.

The Neighborhood Outfit is less a history of gang violence in Chicago Heights than it is a study of Italian Americans in that suburb and the perception that they somehow have an inherent predilection to organized crime. As such, the focus in the pages of this study is less on the notion of Chicago Heights as a breeding ground for criminal behavior than it is on the question of whether Italian immigrants in particular have been predisposed to living lives of vice.

In studying these questions, Corsino looks at the evolution of the Italian community in Chicago Heights, focusing primarily on the twentieth century. He provides a historical overview of organized crime in the suburb; an examination of cultural, social, and structural constraints that particularly affected Italian immigrants; and a broader discussion of the interrelationship between ethnicity and organized crime.

Corsino’s treatment of the topic hovers somewhere between an academic thesis and a popular study. At times the text reads like an objective dissertation; at others it feels like a more personal narrative. Various data-filled tables and charts are interspersed with black-and-white photographs from the early 1900s. As such, it’s difficult to tell who the author’s intended audience is: scholars and academics? amateur enthusiasts of organized crime or local history?

In the end, the book leans toward the more serious end of the spectrum: Readers looking for a rollicking history of Chicago Heights’s colorful past will not find it in these pages. Rather, The Neighborhood Outfit is a sociological study peppered with some interesting personal anecdotes. It’s more textbook than theater, which might dissuade fans of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But for those looking for a well-researched social history of a microcosm of organized crime, The Neighborhood Outfit is an informative, nuanced study that raises some interesting questions.

Two-Star Review

December 2014, University of Illinois Press
$25, paperback, 157 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08029-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Chicago by Camera

by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer

Award-winning photographic artist Larry Kanfer’s colorful photographs glow in nearly three-dimensional relief in his new book, Chicagoscapes, a collection of images of our fair city.

Kanfer, who earned a degree in architecture from University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has teamed up with Alaina Kanfer to assemble a fine collection here, images that capture slices of the city from north to south. Readers will find images of iconic Chicago attractions, from Navy Pier to North Avenue Beach, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Field Museum, from The Berghoff to The Wiener’s Circle. (Unfortunately, many readers won’t know what they’re looking at because there is a dearth of caption information. A list of illustrations at the back of the book provides some details, but many of the descriptions are merely catchy phrases rather than helpful information.)

chicagoscapes 9780252034992More than a hundred photographs are in these pages, a slim volume fit for giftgiving or the coffee table. Some of the images show the expanse of the city in impactful two-page spreads, some encourage the reader to look more closely, diving in to an array of smaller images assembled on a single page.

Kanfer has captured the city in a unique way, focusing his lens on familiar sites but revealing them in a new light. Although the images are lovely, it’s the colors and post-production techniques in them that captivate. Kanfer often uses soft focus to draw the reader’s eye to particular details: a column of balconies on one of the city’s residential high-rises, a bunch of skaters on the ice at Millennium Park. Many of the images focus tightly on details, rendering a common site abstract. Bridges, “L” staircases, and the Marina City parking levels become a collection of color and light and shadow and lines and angles. As such, Chicagoscapes is atmospheric and moody—quiet somehow despite the fact that Kanfer has photographed one of the busiest cities in the world.

Indeed there’s something almost anathema about this collection when one contrasts this subtle quietness with the verve that is Chicago. In his short introduction to the book, “Our Chicago,” Kanfer writes about the “big city, with all its noise, hustle, and bustle,” and, yet, many of the images were clearly taken at odd hours, rendering Chicago something of a ghost town devoid of people and traffic. For instance, an image of Devon Avenue appears to have been taken very early in the morning: Only one car prowls the street—a street usually so packed with cars and pedestrians that it can take forever to drive just a few blocks in either direction. An “L” stop reveals no one waiting for a train. A lone little boy playing at the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park belies the fact that the area is usually jam-packed with children and adults all summer long. Plenty of images do, though, capture areas of the city full of people—beaches, parks, the lakefront trail. Even so, the Chicago in these pages feels quiet. Sleepy. Dreamy.

While some readers will find these images moody and magical, photography purists might well rankle at the post-production techniques used here. Some of the images are rendered in such a way as to appear as illustrations or paintings. One image in these pages has been pointillated à la Georges Seurat; it’s a beautiful, interesting look at the city, but it’s also a bit jarring as it is the only such doctored image in the collection.

Kanfer’s approach isn’t so much photojournalism as it is art photography. Most of the images here capture the beauty of the city, the pretty parts. Even a photograph of a graffiti-covered wall is colorful and artsy rather than gritty and edgy. A handful of black-and-white photographs grace these pages, but those that do are innocuous and safe. Readers will find no images here of the gritty South or West sides, no images of street upon street of foreclosed houses, no photographic insight into run-down CHA projects.

But that’s not what this book is about. Chicagoscapes is a love letter to what is magical and romantic about the Windy City. Kanfer has in these pages captured this beautiful city through atmospheric lighting, interesting angles, intriguing composition, and great timing. Although some readers might find some of the images a little snapshot-y or postcard-y, Chicagoscapes is full of great moments in a great city.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, University of Illinois Press
Photography/Local Interest
$34.95, hardcover, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03499-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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