Book Title: Night Portals Boxed Set – Books 1 – 8
Author: Ernie Howard
Publication Date: Feb 26, 2019
Indie Athenaeum Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
This “Night Portals” box set collects eight dark tales that are this author’s equivalent of “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror”, telling darker tales about humanity and exploring “what if this happened” scenarios. Each one is united by their dark theme. Some of them have supernatural, apocalyptic or science fiction elements but all of them are memorable and remarkable for the way they tell a story. Read one to find out more about each one, starting with:
“Aida” – George is head over heels in love with Aida. She’s his sweetheart and George knows it. Working hard to earn the money to buy something special for her, he goes to work, dreaming of their life together. But something is amiss, and George’s good mood begins to dampen. Why is this happening?
In this short story, I could feel the love they have for one another as if it was my own and it immersed me in their relationship in a very personal way. The strange things going on for George also seem a little off kilter and they snuck up on me very subtly. Once I realized what it all meant, I was blindsided by the reveal. As for the ending, my jaw dropped open and I emitted a soft “wow.”
“The Old Couple” – Pete and his wife are going to visit his parents, though it’s been a while since they’ve seen each other. But something strange is going on in his parents’ home. When they get there, what they find is surprising and unusual. Why is this visit stirring up such memories for Pete and what is going on here?
It is a visit that evokes strong thoughts from his past as well as a sense of dread. Dealing with his parents has never been an easy process for Pete and we learn more about his upbringing as we go. Why it takes the reader down memory lane is important, as this knowledge grows in importance the further you read the story.
There is another storyline going on as well, with the peculiar events going on in his parents’ home. When I saw why and how the dual storylines dovetailed together, I was blindsided by the reveal. It was beautiful, heartbreaking and sorrowful all at the same time.
Once again, the author immersed me in his tale. With so few words, he painted a complete picture on an enormous canvas in my imagination that simultaneously engaged all five of my senses, made me wonder, created a mystery and pulled on my heartstrings by the end.
Do yourself a favor – once you’ve read the story, read it through again beginning to end, with the full knowledge of what’s happening this time. I did. This tale takes on new meaning as a result and made me appreciate the additional emotional depth this story conveyed during a second reading.
“Immune” – The front desk clerk working in a motel admits a father and his boy, who’s coughing a lot. Thinking nothing of it, the clerk goes home to his girlfriend and his pleasant, yet average life. However, little does he know that this is the beginning of something that will change his situation forever. What is going to happen and how will it impact him?
As we observe the day-to-day activities of his usual routine change into something more horrific and ominous, I felt the despair at his situation and how it evolved over time with each passing moment. It’s dark and depressing tone got under my skin and seeped into my bones with its quiet menace as I read it. Despite that feeling, I had to know what was going to happen next.
This tale placed me in the narrator’s shoes and each time things got worse, I found myself wondering how I would react if I experienced the same events as the narrator did. That thought by itself creeped me out and gave me the chills. And the ending was especially poignant and completely unexpected.
This tale of apocalyptic proportions keenly narrows the story down so you see it through the eyes of our narrator, making it feel highly personal despite the magnitude of what’s going on around him. It’s also the journey of someone going through their own personal hell as he realizes what his future is going to hold for him.
“Earthbase” – Burk is an astronaut in space studying her expertise: the shifting weather patterns of Earth. She feels homesick and talks to her husband and two children often. But when the weather goes wonky for no reason she can discern, can she protect those she loves and maintain her sanity with the craziness happening on Earth?
In just a few short sentences, I felt for Burk’s plight, the sense of helplessness and the loneliness she feels being alone in space for six months. I even felt fortunate that I was on Earth as a result. The story intensified rapidly and goes into a surprising direction which seemed weird at first but eventually, it made sense. After that, all was made clear to me and I marveled at the short but sweet journey that I took as I read it. Well done!
There is also a nice, subtle connection to the author’s novel “The Pool”. You don’t have to have read that to understand this short story, but it’s nice to see the continuity between them.
“Bike Ride” – It’s the first day of summer and thirteen-year-old Ryan is excited at the possibilities. Going to see his best friend Jen, whom he has a crush on, he takes his bike out to her home. However, a friendly rivalry turns darker when choices are made that put them in danger. What will happen next?
This one turns up the wistfulness factor, adds in the strength of a crush that’s never been spoken aloud and then adds in hints of something darker. There is a revelation which caught me by surprise, and it changes the tone of the entire story. When I reached the conclusion, it was difficult not to feel something strong by the time I read the last line of the story.
This one hit me in all the nostalgic feels by bringing forth my own carefree summer days without a plan in the world and endless possibilities for fun. The author really knows how to take me back to my younger days and then infuse them with tinges of sadness as the story continues. It also really highlights how powerful love can be between two people who know each other so well, they are the best of friends too. It can be a very primal feeling when this happens and the author captures all of that beautifully in the story.
“Nurse Doe” – Jeff is a terminal cancer patient, his life slowly ebbing away. In the hospital, he has a roommate named Steven who is also terminal, even worse off than him. But when Steven receives a mysterious visitor in the dead of night, somehow Jeff finds something he never thought he would have again: hope. Who is this visitor?
The explanation for these questions was something I never would’ve thought of in my wildest imagination. It swept me away into its tale, the cruelty of what was happening becoming apparent. And then its startling conclusion choked me up with how it all unfolded, with plenty of surprises.
One of the authors many talents is to place you firmly in the point of view of the story’s protagonist. I could feel my own life withering in a hospital bed myself as I read this, desperation and depression dominating my thoughts. This sense of hopelessness in Jeff’s situation also felt more intense and personal because of how it was written.
“Fresh” – Max is a man haunted by a disturbing event from his past. Sitting in a bar attempting to drink his sorrows away, he spots someone who looks really familiar to him. Sparking something within him, Max stalks this person, his anger simmering with each passing moment. But what is their connection and why does it bother him so much?
The despair that Max feels at his losses and how he holds this person responsible is just part of the surprises in store here. And the rage Max feels explodes into something horrific by the time all my questions were answered by the end. I could feel all those emotions and more coursing through my veins with their raw power.
Once again, the author causes me to drop my jaw at the revelations. Having read plenty of the author’s stories in the past, I know the ending is going to hit right me in the feels, but I just don’t know how he’s going to do it. And then when he does so, I’m so swept up in the suspense of the story, I still can’t stop reading it and still can never guess at how it’s going to end. This continues to be a hallmark of his tales as well as an indication of his storytelling prowess.
“Leap” – Today is Charlotte’s Leap Day and she’s nervous. Her entire tribe is celebrating this event and Charlotte has some questions about what it all means and how it will affect her life. But this ritual is not what it seems to her and she is hesitant. What is the significance of The Leap she is about to make and how will it affect her life from here on in?
As a young lady, Charlotte was raised with certain beliefs and those are thrown into question as the reality of what she faces is palpable. I felt her hesitation in her faith and how she questions what she was taught. The emotional impact of this moment in her life hit me in the gut and I experienced pain as the key moment in the ceremony approached with growing dread. The mystery of what was happening held me in suspense and I couldn’t wait to see what surprises awaited me.
The scenario Charlotte faces felt like other apocalyptic futures I’ve read before but yet dissimilar in its approach. But the real difference is how it’s depicted and the conclusion it leads to, which is one of the author’s more unusual and startling endings.
At first, it made me laugh, then it made me think and then it made me ponder the implications of it. Once it did so, the power of it caught my breath as I realized what really happened. The payoff from an ending like that was risky but it was worth it with its unpredictability and the unknown possibilities that it opens up.
I’ve read this author on many occasions and one of the traits I admire the most about his writing is that he can reach into my psyche and drop me into the lives of his characters in a very rich and fulfilling way. I also admire how he can bring happy sunshine into a story with just a few sentences. Then, he slowly inserts darkness into it, distorting the sunshine and warping it to a point that the contrast between light and dark creeps up on the reader and creates a foreboding sense of uneasiness that traps you within it.
Some authors can write so many short stories and they all feel stylistically like one another, eventually making them feel stale and predictable. But there is such a variety of tales being told here, it completely avoids this pitfall and instead, continue to engage and delight me.
As I read through the Night Portal stories, I’m more aware of the author’s storytelling style with each new one I read. Even though I’m aware of that style, he’s still able to surprise me with the twists and turns he puts in and in how he concludes the story. To me, that ingenuity is something to be admired.
This “Night Portals” series collection consists of eight short stories that are this author’s equivalent of “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror”, telling darker tales about humanity and exploring “what if this happened” scenarios. Each one is united by their dark theme. Based on this story and the previous works I’ve read by this author, I continue to look forward to reading more of the author’s stories as they are published.
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Previous Indie Athenaeum book reviews about stories by Ernie Howard include “Melody 8 – Book Two: The Musical Witch of the South.”