“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a saying that has a ring of truth to it…unless it’s being used to describe Keith Minnion. In his case, the saying could be changed to “Jack of all trades, master of all,” and I’m not just blowing smoke up his arse when I say it.
Keith is probably best known for his detailed drawings, which I first came across in the early 2000’s when I started purchasing magazines and books from Cemetery Dance Publications. While I became familiar with numerous artists once I purchased literature via the small press, Keith’s artwork remained my favorite, able to perfectly capture scenes from the stories that were his inspiration.
Years later I was reading an anthology – probably one of the Shivers installments from the aforementioned Cemetery Dance Publications — when I noticed a short story by the one and only Keith Minnion. Intrigued, I read it and enjoyed it, after which I started tracking down the other short stories he had published during his career.
Over the years, I’ve “bumped into” Keith at various message boards I frequented. During that time, we bantered back and forth on topics of mutual interest, enough so that when I co-edited a fiction series at HorrorDrive-In.com, Keith was one of the first people I contacted. Graciously, he accepted, not only sending us an original short story entitled “So Much For the Competition,” but also allowing me to conduct an interview with him (both pieces can still be read here; I would encourage you to check them out – the story is short and sweet [referred to as flash fiction], and the interview touches on a bunch of topics that are different from the interview below).
Illustrator. Writer. Painter. Publisher of high-end, hand-crafted chapbooks via his White Noise Press imprint. Woodworker. Home restoration expert. You name it, Keith has likely done it, and done it well.
About a month ago, Keith published his second short-story collection, entitled Down There and Others (his first collection, It’s For You, was published back in 2010 or thereabouts; you can read my review of it here). Containing sixteen short stories – many of which are original to this collection – and a long excerpt from an upcoming novel, it is a treasure trove of new material for fans of his fiction. As an added bonus, Keith also did original illustrations for many of the stories, showcasing his incredible talent when it comes to drawing.
What I appreciate most about Keith’s fiction is that he hasn’t been pigeonholed into one genre of storytelling. His previous collection presented stories that effortlessly moved from science fiction to fantasy, mystery to suspense, the straight to the strange, and Down There and Others provides more of the same. Just like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get as you flip from story to story in a Keith Minnion collection, which makes for a wondrous experience as a reader.
Below is a list of the stories that were standouts for me:
“The Holes” – In this coming-of-age’ish tale, the reader meets a trio of young boys who call themselves The Red Rangers. Like any close-knit group of friends, they spend time together at every opportunity – watching TV, reading comics, talking smart, and especially hanging out in the underground fort in an abandoned lot behind one of their houses. When a recycling center comes to town and opens for business across from the fort, the boys see themselves as “the last line of defense” for the neighborhood, using their home base to get within slingshot distance of the facility and pepper it with marbles. Soon after the establishment opens, the boys start noticing small holes in the basement walls of their homes as well as the tunnels in their fort. Upon further investigation, the boys find more than they bargained for…
“The Blue Cat” – While perusing the items in a thrift store, a woman finds a glass figurine of a cat and purchases it to fill some space on her mantel. Almost immediately upon bringing the statue home, trouble befalls the poor woman as strange incidents pile up and drive her to the brink. This one brought to mind an aspect of Frank Darabont’s “Walpuski’s Typewriter,” a story which I thoroughly enjoyed; in this case, Keith does it even better.
“Runners, Running” – One of the shorter tales in the book, it manages to pack a lot of story into a small space. While a woman laments her boyfriend’s smug attitude and incessant canceling of dates, she notices a man running around a track outside her residence. Each time she finds herself getting frustrated by another memory of her boyfriend’s behavior, she resumes watching the runner, bringing herself back to a place of peace. This one is a quiet story, and a bit of a departure from others I’ve read by Keith, but it really is a beautiful bit of writing.
“Little Sister” – When a boy’s sister hurts her leg, he is determined to carry her on his back and beg for enough money to bring her to a hospital. Reading about the boy’s dedication to his sister — the determination he exhibits on her behalf — makes the ending that much more powerful. “Little Sister” is one of the more heart-wrenching stories I’ve read in a long time. Very, very good.
“Moons For My Pillow, Stars For My Bed” – A man and his daughter embark on their weekly trip to the laundromat. Once there, they strike up a conversation with an old man. The daughter soon becomes mesmerized by a set of bedding the old man is washing, the sheets and pillowcases of which are covered in moons and stars. When the man finishes his laundry and leaves, the little girl notices that he accidentally left one of the pillowcases behind, after which she decides to keep it safe until they see him the following week. As with “Runners, Running,” this is a charming and moving narrative that stuck with me well after finishing it.
“The Wampyr” – I’m a sucker for flash fiction. It’s no easy feat to tell a story in a couple hundred words, yet Keith hit a home run with this short tale that packs a nasty punch.
I could go on and on – from the story of a hunter forced to scavenge for food in a world gone awry in “On the Hooks” to another great piece of flash fiction entitled “So Many Hats” – because the collection is that entertaining. In fact, the only negative thing I could say about the book is that a couple of the stories aren’t as fleshed out as others or ended more abruptly than I was expecting, leaving me wanting more. In the case of “Under the Wing,” it felt more like a fragment of a longer tale than a story in its own right. Also, in the title story, “Down There,” the build-up was detailed and ominous, only to have the finale thrust upon the reader in a rush, creating this breathless feeling that left me thinking, “But…but…I want more!”
Looking back at the review I wrote in 2010 for It’s For You, I compared Keith’s writing to that of Dan Simmons when it comes to his ability to straddle multiple genres and excel in all of them. Down There and Others reinforces this notion. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection, and think you will too.
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View Keith’s gallery and purchase his artwork here.
Much Ado About Nothing: Hello, Keith! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
When I introduced you at the beginning of this piece, I did not mention that you served in the Armed Forces. With Veterans Day recently in our rearview mirror, I’d like to open by saying thank you for your service. Would you mind giving an overview of your experience?
Keith Minnion: I was originally recruited to train to be a Naval Flight Officer, or NFO. He or she’s the person who sits behind the pilot in F-14s or next to the pilot in A-6s, handling all the navigation, communications and weapons systems duties to leave the pilot free to fly (the ‘Goose,’ if you catch the reference), but I washed out after they determined the depth perception in my eyesight wasn’t up to standard—a harbinger of more eyesight problems to come, I guess—so I was sent to Surface Warfare Officer School in Coronado, CA to become a surface warfare officer—a ship-driver, essentially. I had duty on two ships—USS Seattle (AOE-3) and USS New Jersey (BB-62)—and two shore stations, one at a Naval Air Station on the Aleutian island of Adak, the other at the Naval Aviation Supply Office in Philadelphia, over the eight years I served on active duty. I was glad and proud to serve.
MAAN: In your collection’s title story, “Down There,” you mention an airport in Alaska. Did you travel through it during your time in the military? I chuckled when I read about the polar bear. My dad traveled there during his stint, and he talks about that bear all the time. Is it really that big?!
KM: Yes I did, and yes it is! I was stationed in Alaska for a few years (see above) and I passed by that stuffed polar bear a few times. The entire trip described in that story—from Heathrow in the UK all the way to Adak in Alaska— was one I once took, so that portion of the story was taken strictly from memory, including the little girl in the plaid dress who turned down my offer to share my breakfast because, “I never eat anything with a face.”
MAAN: Switching gears, when you agreed to do this interview, I was prepared to ask about White Noise Press and what its future held. Between then and now, you notified customers that the press was going on hiatus. What went into your decision, and do you see yourself coming back to it down the road?
KM: To be entirely honest, I never made a profit with any of the chapbooks I published in that second period of 2014 through 2017. I used premium materials, paid my authors on acceptance at the going professional rate, and always mailed to customers at the 1st Class rate. Even at $18.00 per chap, I operated at a loss. I could not see charging any more for what was really just a single short story, no matter how fancy the production values, so, caught between that rock and a hard place, I decided the best thing to do was to fold. I am not a fan of ‘Kickstarter’ or ‘GoFundMe’ ventures, so I don’t see resurrecting White Noise Press for anything further at this point.
MAAN: For those who don’t know, you recently illustrated a collaboration by Stephen King and Rich Chizmar. Prior to the project, you were semi-retired from illustrating. I assume the opportunity to work on King’s project was just too good to pass up?
KM: Well, yeah! I had these unfortunate infections of both my optic nerves in 2011 and 2014 which resulted in my eyesight being down permanently to about 50%. I was told that all my detailed illustration work would put too much of a strain on my eyes, and I had to quit. So I did. Then this past January I got an email from Rich Chizmar, something like, “I know you’re retired, but I have this project, a new King novella he and I wrote,” something called “Gwendy’s Button Box”, and after about ten seconds or so I replied, “I’m in.” I made it a stipulation, though, that I needed about two months to do the work, to keep the strain on my eyesight to a minimum, and Rich said that would not be a problem. So I did it, and it was a lot of fun.
MAAN: Did you ever hear from King regarding his thoughts on your artwork?
KM: All of my contact for the project was with Rich Chizmar. I had been doing projects for him and CD since the early 1990s, so it was all fine, but Mr. King and I never had any contact. I did learn through Rich, though, that King liked the work I did, which was nice to hear.
MAAN: So King is off your Bucket List. Is there anyone else out there whose work would draw you out of retirement if you were given the chance to illustrate it?
KM: The chance of me doing another project with anyone is almost non-existent: doctor’s orders! But, that said, if Ursula K. Le Guin came out of her writing retirement to do another Earthsea book, and she asked me to draw her dragons, I would seriously consider it!
MAAN: One thing I love about your Facebook page is watching your woodworking projects (a skill I’ve always admired in people, being I have absolutely no talent in that area). Where did you pick up the ability to craft such wonderful items?
KM: My dad was a public school industrial arts teacher. He built nearly all of the furniture in our house when I was still a kid. He was truly a great cabinetmaker and craftsman, and a great teacher as well. My brother and I used to help him with his projects sometimes, and he taught us how to use and respect most of the woodworking tools and machines I use today in my basement workshop. So you can blame him for all the awkward, odd things I make down there these days!
MAAN: You’re currently at work on a new novel, entitled Dog Star (an excerpt of which is included in Down There and Others). Can you give a brief synopsis of the story, as well as an update on where you are in the process?
KM: I had a scene in my first novel (“The Bone Worms”) where the main character detective was called down to the city morgue to see something ‘odd’ found in the autopsy of one of the murder victims. The Medical Examiner showed him the meninges caul—the tissue sack all of our brains reside in—and an apparent ‘message from the dead’ written in the tissue in blood capillaries. I ended up deleting that scene from the novel, but the idea stuck with me long enough for it to become the centerpiece ‘supernatural’ element of the new novel. A university art student dies of an apparent suicide, but her boyfriend, another art student, thinks otherwise. He had been unofficially drawing cadavers (like Da Vinci once did) in the basement dissecting rooms of the university’s medical school all along, and one evening he sees a recently harvested caul pinned flat in a dissecting pan, and sees what he thinks is a message from his late girlfriend, telling him who murdered her. So this is, if you can believe it, a love story/murder mystery/supernatural mystery set in a large university in the mid-1970s. Oddly enough, I was an undergraduate painting major at a large university in the 1970s, and I had a friend who was a pre-med major who snuck me into the dissecting rooms beneath the Medical School so I could draw from the cadavers there. Anyway, the first draft of “Dog Star” is done and the ms. is sitting in a big loose-leaf binder on a shelf for another month or so before I return to it to do a thorough re-write. Whether any reputable publisher wants to take a chance on it, we’ll see.
Right now I am fourteen chapters into a military thriller set in the Aleutian Islands on a Naval Air Station (where, as I described earlier, I was stationed for two and a half years in the early 1980s). And that big stuffed polar bear at Ted Stevens International Airport even makes a brief appearance in it!
MAAN: Last question: Let’s say money was no object and you could travel anywhere you wanted. Where would you go?
KM: I would probably return to the United Kingdom, and tour all of the Neolithic and Roman archaeological sites in England, Wales and Scotland. And I would also be sure to sample as many real beers and real ales on tap in whatever pubs I found along the way!
MAAN: Thanks again for your time, Keith, and best of luck on all of your projects!
Until we meet again…
(All artwork copyright Keith Minnion)