Skip to main content

“Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was…”

Burning Down the House is an anthology of crime fiction inspired by music from the Talking Heads and edited by Michel Lee Garrett and T. Fox Dunham. The anthology features all-original stories by both editors, as well as Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award-winning author P.D. Cacek, Best American Mystery and Suspense author James D.F. Hannah, and eight additional authors including both well-established and early career writers. The title of the anthology, Burning Down the House, doubles as a reference to global warming, and 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this volume will be donated to help fight climate change.

Burning Down the House

Each of the twelve stories is named after a Talking Heads song. “Psycho Killer” is curiously missing, but perhaps that would be a little too obvious. While officially a crime fiction anthology, the stories blend across different genres, including magical realism, dystopian fiction, and horror.

The anthology opens with “Road to Nowhere,” James D.F. Hannah’s story about a local band struggling to make it big. One of the bandmembers, Paul, is intimidated by his father’s hypermasculinity and determined to forge his own path forward, by any means necessary. James D.F. Hannah adeptly captures the sentiment of the Talking Heads lyrics, “And we’re not little children / And we know what we want / And the future is certain / Give us time to work it out,” as Paul convinces his bandmates to go to extreme measures to secure their future. But Paul discovers he may have more in common with his father than he’d like to admit.

The next story, “Ruby Dear” by Libby Cudmore, is inspired by the fourth track from the Talking Heads’ final album, Naked. Cudmore brings Ruby vibrantly to life as a young woman caught in the crosshairs between sexual abuse and the moral hypocrisy of religious and political leaders who seek to control women’s bodies. Will Ruby find a way to break free, or will she continue to spin “‘round and ‘round” in this seemingly endless cycle?

Michel Lee Garrett, co-editor of Burning Down the House, contributes the eponymous short story of the anthology. She embraces the theme of “Burning Down the House” on two parallel levels: global warming of our collective home planet and the breakdown of one particular family living in a dystopian near-future Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love fails to live up to its name, as corporate greed and climate disaster cause the return of diseases from Oregon Trail times, and normal citizens fighting for justice are treated like terrorists. Against this apocalyptic backdrop, mourning sisters viciously point the finger of blame at each other following the death of their father. In this family fractured by addiction, poverty, disease, and broken trust, one sister seeks retribution for the crimes against her father and the good people of Philadelphia. The action burns to a fever pitch as any remnants of family solidarity are left as cinders. “Burning Down the House” is a story I will not soon forget.

Lucas Franki’s contribution to the anthology, “Electric Guitar,” takes a supernatural approach to the title object, with a talking, floating Fender explaining to its owner how they will do great things together, but first they must stop a planned massacre of guitars at the end of an upcoming music festival. Lucas Franki channels Haruki Murakami-type vibes with this musical tale of magical realism. “Electric Guitar” is a quirky gem, just like the Talking Heads song for which it’s named.

In “Give Me Back My Name,” Bobby Mathews constructs a psychological thriller around a case of voyeurism, where something intangible has been stolen from the apparent victim. Mathews adeptly captures the spirit of the Talking Heads song, as the voyeurism is intertwined with identity crisis and paranoia, all set against a backdrop of office politics and sexual harassment.

P.D. Cacek’s contribution to the Burning Down the House anthology, “Life During Wartime,” is a terrifying warning about the return of fascism. The protagonist, Rosemary, is a widow living in perpetual fear, trying her best to follow the lessons of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Rosemary is haunted by the past while living in a neofascist future, replete with a sneering gestapo who act as judge, jury, and merciless executioner. P.D. Cacek’s story is a haunting and timely warning about the twin evils of antisemitism and fascism, serving as a powerful reminder to never forget the hard-learned lessons of the past.

In “Slippery People,” Jessica Laine transports us to the Great Lakes region in the 1890s, with a corrupt pharmacist peddling opium-laced health tonics. He later secures a position as a live-in handyman with a widow who is the perfect trifecta of young, beautiful, and rich. But our philandering pharmacist gets more than he bargains for as “Slippery People” descends into the realm of aquatic horror reminiscent of Cassandra Khaw’s harrowing The Salt Grows Heavy.

Rob Pierce’s story, “Found a Job,” features a debt-ridden gambler looking for his next job: not an office job, mind you, but rather a quick hitjob to pay off his debts and start gambling again. Enter the story’s femme fatale, Catalina, who captures his heart while also providing his next assignment. “Found a Job” has a classic noir feel and kept me guessing till the end.

The next story in the Burning Down the House anthology, “Crosseyed and Painless” by Kimberly Godwin, begins as a more traditional crime story with cops investigating the death of a detective as they mix personal and professional relationships. But this seemingly straightforward crime story takes a supernatural turn that creates more questions than answers.

“Girlfriend is Better” by J.B. Stevens centers on Kristi, a Las Vegas stoner who performs magic shows with her controlling husband, who claims to be impervious to fire. Is this just a Vegas act, or has her husband achieved some higher state of being?

Burning Down the House returns to a dystopian near-future in “This Must be the Place,” written by co-editor T. Fox Dunham. The drug-drenched streets of Philadelphia and Ocean City seem to have engulfed the region, including the formerly peaceful Amish enclave of Lancaster. “This Must be the Place” is perhaps the most nihilistic story in the anthology, leaving the reader with barely a trace of hope.

The anthology closes on a lighter note with “Once in a Lifetime” by Gregory Galloway, which features a first-person narrator plotting a robbery during her sister’s wedding. However, her plans are interrupted by feral dogs and suspicious family members. The story is certainly lower stakes than the others in the anthology, but it’s still a fun and satisfying read.

Altogether, Burning Down the House is an outstanding anthology in support of a highly worthwhile cause. Each contribution captures the spirit of the corresponding Talking Heads song while delivering unputdownable stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I especially enjoyed the diversity of styles and blending of genres featured throughout the anthology. The overarching theme of global warming and its impact on individual lives hits home hard. More broadly, Burning Down the House is a devastating account of how humanity repeats the same cycle of mistakes but with ever more catastrophic consequences.

5/5

Cover art by Mary Siniscalchi. Cover design and layout by Ron Earl Phillips.

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

Burning Down the House

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

Leave a Reply