Red Cells: A horror novella

Red Cells by Jeffrey Thomas science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRed Cells by Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas’s new novella, Red Cells, is set in his PUNKTOWN universe full of mutants, odd species, and humans, and the good, bad and ugly of each.  Red Cells deals more with the ugly:  Edwin Fetch has earned himself a six month term in the penitentiary for possession with intent to sell purple vortex. Specifically, he’s to be shipped to the Trans-Paxton Penitentiary, known to its inmates as the Wormhole, a transdimensional prison carved out of the planes between existence. But Fetch has a better idea. He hires Jeremy Stake, a mutant whose condition is called Caro turbida, to serve the time for him. Stake’s mutation allows him to assume the shape of another if he concentrates hard enough on it, and Stake has had a tattoo of Fetch (holding a gorgeous woman for verisimilitude) inked on his arm to keep him focused. Stake is a former soldier in the Blue War, which ended fifteen years ago, and he finds himself at loose ends now, not making enough as a private investigator to make ends meet.  All of this is nicely set-up in a prologue that puts the reader in the middle of the story with a minimum of infodumping; Thomas’s style is straightforward story-telling, which works well for the complex worldbuilding he does here.

The inmates at the prison are a mixed lot: mutants and humans and other species all mingle and form gangs based on different criteria (not always on the basis of race, either). The guards are a mix, too; half of them are robots. Everyone in the place seems to be on edge because a few prisoners have been killed in their cells, and no one knows who’s doing the killing or why. The murders seem especially brutal, as if the men exploded; there is little left except blood. No one has seen anything, and the omnipresent cameras always seem to go on the fritz when a murder is committed.

Stake is found out almost immediately, when Fetch is arrested for dealing purple vortex just about the time Stake arrives at the Wormhole. Naturally, Stake isn’t released, but is charged with helping a convicted criminal elude captivity; the warden thinks he can get even more creative than that, drumming up a charge for accomplice to a drug dealer after the fact, abetting a fugitive, and a lot more. The mutant gang sees an opportunity in Stake’s continued incarceration and his background as a soldier and a PI, and makes Stake a proposition: we’ll take care of you and keep the other prisoners off your back if you figure out what’s killing people around here.

It’s in the nature of a mystery that you’ll want to hear nothing more about the plot.  It also in the nature of a mystery set in a prison that you’ll find some of the usual sorts of characters who have inhabited such stories since they were first told:  the corrupt warden, the sympathetic prison guard, the psychotic prisoner and the disabled prisoner with a heart of gold. The horrific murders provide few clues for Stake to go on, but the experienced mystery reader will likely be able to figure this one out. Thomas plays fair with his readers even as he deals in horrors that H.P. Lovecraft would have been happy to have invented. I read this novella in one sitting, happily engrossed in a classical mystery structure with a science fictional setting.

Red Cells is one of a series of novellas released by the relatively new independent publisher DarkFuse, which specializes in dark fiction, modern horror, suspense and thrillers, many in low-priced electronic format only, though it also publishes limited edition hardcovers and trade paperbacks. It offers subscriptions to its offerings in the various formats as well. I’m impressed with what I’ve seen thus far. The books are well-edited, properly formatted and completely proofread — which ought to go without saying, but in the present e-book publishing climate are worth noting with approbation. I’m looking forward to reading much more from them.


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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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