"Shoebox Train Wreck" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Lethe Press

shoebox train wreck john mantooth poster large

Written by John Mantooth
2012, 226 pages, Fiction
Released on 13th December 2020


Hank Early has been on my radar for several years and both books two and three of his superb Earl Marcus Mystery series, In the Valley of the Devil (book two) and  Echoes of the Fall (book three) both feature strongly in two of my annual Horror DNA top tens. If you are interested in ‘Appalachian Noir’ or ‘Hillbilly Noir’, then this detective trilogy set in the mountains of north Georgia is unmissable, and I hope Hank has another Earl Marcus outing in the pipeline before too long. Hank is the alter ego of John Mantooth, whose debut Shoebox Train Wreck was first released back in 2012 and it is great to see Lethe Press republish this highly original and distinctive collection.

John Mantooth, or whatever name he pens under, is a terrific writer and the difference in style between his two author voices is impressive, with the common denominator being the fact that his downtrodden characters are always vividly drawn and often struggle with the trials everyday life throws at them. Whereas Hank Early is principally a detective novelist, Mantooth is a short story specialist who has featured in numerous year's best anthologies and publications which include Fantasy Magazine, Crime Factory, Thuglit, and the Stoker winning anthology, Haunted Legends (Tor, 2010), among others. I would also highly recommend The Year of the Storm (2013), which is the only novel he has written under this name; a superb blend of fantasy, coming-of-age tale and horror. It is by far the most supernatural of his fiction and the republished 2018 version has the cool blurb “Stranger Things with a southern gothic heart.”

Hank Early’s detective novels are set in the backroads of Georgia and Shoebox Train Wreck is similar in that many of the stories play out in equally remote or desolate places, featuring characters from the wrong sides of the tracks, alcoholics or those broken by the harsh realities of life, often existing in trailer parks and await the next shit-sandwich heading in their direction. The stories are united in the beauty of their bleakness, guilt, missed opportunities and the trials the protagonists often have to go through. Do not go looking for many happy endings in these tales, they are in very short supply. These snapshots are so far from the American Dream, most of the players will never have heard of it. However, along the way there are occasional glimmers of hope, but if the broken-down detective Earl Marcus from Heaven’s Crooked Finger kicked off a bar fight in one of these stories, he would not be far out of place. He would probably lose too. After all, this book is full of losers, or those given little chance to climb out of their rut or personal hell.

A number of the stories have the main character looking back at an earlier, pivotal, moment in their lives and often with a guilty conscience; the underlying question being, ‘What could I have done differently?’ However, second chances are in short supply within these pages. Two of such examples are built around journeys on a school bus. In "A Long Fall Into Nothing", there is a point in the road where the bus driver needs assistance in backing up very close to a ravine and then savagely turning around. The junction and overhang are so vividly drawn, I could feel the bus clipping the edge of the ridge. The narrator has always helped the driver with this task until new kid Larry takes over the role, with the two teenagers having previously hung out together with unpleasant results. In "Chicken", we return to the school bus, which is ruled with an iron fist by a fearsome driver who shouts at anybody who stands up at an inappropriate moment. The narrator is a senior who impresses the younger kids with his stories (lies) until he meets Davy, who takes the game of chicken to extremes via a confrontation with the driver. Both these stories are outstanding looks at adolescence gone wrong.

Guilt threads through many of the stories, and none more so than "This Is Where The Road Ends", where Jonas sits with Wanda in a diner preparing to tell her his deepest and darkest secret. An event which has been eating him up, she is unaware it relates to her in the most horrible of ways. Guilt also dominates the superb title story, "Shoebox Train Wreck", a tale of being unable to forgive yourself and having a secret which dominates every waking moment. A drunken train conductor can never forgive himself for his part in a crash after his train ploughs into a bus stalled on the track. Redemption is in very short supply.

To say some of these stories are bleak is an understatement and when poverty, alcoholism and family strife are thrown into the mix, we head into a world of pain and darkness. "Saving Doll" initially promises a respite from the darkness with aspiring runner Missy, who when she is sixteen is given a new pair of trainers, which are three sizes too big for her. The story develops around her difficult family situation involving her loser mother and sleazy drug-selling brother and ultimately broken dreams and betrayal. "Slide", with a thirteen-year-old narrator, continues with the recurring theme of how alcoholism can ruin families and "A Sojourner’s Guide to the Black Warrior River Bottoms" has the reader join a group of teenagers on a night out. Are we destined to repeat the same mistakes of our parents by not having the imagination to break that cycle? If this story is taken as gospel, we might as well give up now and begin the journey of drinking ourselves to death. "The Spirit Moves" returns to the theme of family feuds and revenge, which bubbles under the surface of many of the stories. Halloween Comes to Country Road 7 is within the same ballpark, with Martin and Doug selling meth from a trailer until one of them violently cracks.

Although this terrific genre-bending collection does not have many traditional horror stories, "Walk the Wheat" is the closest to a supernatural offering. Cody and Davy live in a trailer with their single-parent mother and things go from bad to worse when her latest (very violent) boyfriend Bobby Jackson moves in. He quickly makes his mark by beating the crap out of Cody until one kicking goes too far, but then Cody returns to project his little brother. "The Cecilia Paradox" is a quirky post-apocalyptic set 193 days after some sort of disaster, with a motley group of survivors stuck in an underground complex, including a sex addict and a guy who starts his own religion, all written with a wicked sense of humour.

The collection concludes with two beauties, "James" and "The Chicken Farmer and His Boy", both of which are oddly moving. If we think about it, we all know or remember somebody like James, who could be anybody on the fringes of our friendship group, the outsider everybody laughs at, or the kid you would like to have been friends with, but you’re scared what other people might think. The story looks at James, aged twelve, at 29 and finally at 47. Whatever happened to the James in your life, and could you have been a better friend to him? "The Chicken Farmer and His Boy" finishes the book with a bang and with a strange style of narration, possibly from beyond the grave. It has the feeling of a parable, telling the story of Tucker, whose father is a chicken farmer who employs Hispanic men to look after his land, treating many of them badly, but the story is really about the relationship between Tucker, his father and his sexuality.

Shoebox Train Wreck is an awesome short story collection populated with characters whose bleak circumstances have set them on the road to nowhere, with the reader being a spectator on their journeys into despair and grief. John Mantooth AKA Hank Early has a unique imagination, which shines the light on the underdog and the disenfranchised. The sheer variety of tales included makes this collection sparkle with light, despite the darkness.


Overall: 5 Star Rating Cover
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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
Other articles by this writer


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