Chances are, if you haven’t been a big reader of horror fiction over the last 20 years, you’re not going to know James Kisner’s name. And frankly, even if you have been a big horror reader — he may have flown under your radar. Thorughout the 80s and 90s, James wrote eleven novels (most under his own name, with a couple under the pseudonyms Eric Flanders and Martin James) and dozens of short stories.
On June 26, James Kisner and his wife Phyllis passed away in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning. But while he may be gone, it’s never too late to familiarize yourself with an author you haven’t read, particularly one who wrote one of the most quietly terrifying short stories of the last several decades…
James was one of those rare horror authors whose works could easily, effortlessly swing back and forth from gruesome, bloody horror to whisper-quiet spine-tingling terror. I first became a fan with his very first published short story — “The Litter” (from the mind-blowingly brilliant Masques II anthology edited by J.N. Williamson). To this day, “The Litter” leaves me unnerved, even though it’s a relatively uneventful story. But it’s a pitch-perfect example of how to build dread in a story — dropping you comfortably into a scenario that has you thinking “Man, this is my life” and has you ending the story thinking “Man, thank God this isn’t my life!”
Of all his novels and short stories, “The Litter” remains his best-known work, having been reprinted in numerous anthologies. In fact, before I continue, go track down an anthology that has that story in it. Go on…I’ll wait. Here are a few that I know have it…
- Dark Masques edited by J.N. Williamson (this is probably the easiest to find)
- Masques II edited by J.N. Williamson
- Urban Horrors edited by William F. Nolan and Martin H. Greenberg
- Short Sharp Shocks edited by Julian Lloyd Webber
Welcome back. Anyhoo, I got to know Jim about a decade ago when I was running a horror website called HorrorNet.com, and looking for original fiction to publish on it. While Jim had pretty much retired from writing, he did tell me that he did have one story that was deemed too “out there” for the Night Visions series and had never been published, with a warning that it may be similarly “too much” for HorrorNet.
This was a pretty intriguing statement. Dark Harvest’s legendary Night Visions series was where three horror authors were selected for each volume (two “big name” authors and one rising talent) and all were pretty much given license to provide fiction that might have a hard time getting placed elsewhere. So for a story to be too “out there” even for Night Visions was a statement in itself.
Upon reading this “lost” story, entitled “Puffers,” I knew that I had to have it. I could see exactly why Night Visions left it out of Jim’s volume — it was a shocker. For lack of a better way to describe it, it was what would happen if you dumped the movies “Frailty,” “Slither” and “Teeth” into a blender. That said, the writing was amazing, and while such extreme content would fail in the hands of most authors, Jim brought a charm to it that reminded me of Joe Lansdale’s dicier tales.
Jim was thrilled that I opted to buy and publish the story online, and it went on to be the second-most-read story we ever published on the site.
But even better than that, it gave me the chance to know Jim a bit. While I never met him in person, I exchanged correspondence with him over the past decade. He was a warm, friendly, and talented man, and I’m deeply saddened that he passed away at the much-too-young age of 61 before I could realize one of my dreams, which was to someday publish a collection of his best short fiction.
You can see a list of most (not all) of his short stories and novels.
Why not start with “The Litter” and give him a whirl? Maybe follow it up with the novel Strands or the short story “Ground Water.” Or dig up a used copy of Night Visions 9. You won’t be disappointed.
Rest in peace, Jim.