(Editor’s note: SHORT SHOTS is a column where I review short stories from horror anthologies, collections, and zines.)
In her short story “Wreckers,” Florida author Kenzie Jennings delivers one of the most chilling horror moments of 2022.
The standout opener in her 12-story collection titled Always Listen To Her Hurt, “Wreckers” is the dispiriting tale of a dangerously devoted cult that originally appeared in The Avarice: A Seven Deadly Sins Anthology presented by D&T Publishing and edited by Dawn Shea.
The author of Splatterpunk Awards-nominated books Reception and Red Station, Jennings addresses greed and overpopulation in “Wreckers” by creating a murder-suicide cult called The Square. It believes our sinful country is ready for a spiritual cleansing. The cult’s weapon of choice to deliver its punishment is the automobile, the ultimate symbol of American exceptionalism.
“Wreckers” opens with a pair of popular Instagram influencers named Jasper and Taylor as they pick up their new Ferrari. However, Jasper’s decadent joy over driving the car is short-lived as we discover Taylor owns a traumatic past as well as a revolver.
The story then shifts into the first-person point of view of the protagonist, an investigator named Kit who is particularly motivated to stop the cult from fulfilling its mission. A wife to Waylon and mother to son Marbles, Kit is dealing with her own childhood trauma.
On the scene of one of the cult car accidents, Kit overhears a trio of rubberneckers mention a name – Geraldine Haines – and starts researching the local librarian. Is she the cult leader?
When police detective Cortez calls to say they’re holding Geraldine at the station, Kit responds with dire warnings: “Whatever you do, don’t let anyone talk to her if you can help it. … If anyone brings her coffee or anything else, they go in in pairs.”
Geraldine doesn’t sound like your typical small-town librarian, does she? Kit asks her husband to take their son Marbles to school because she’s going to work early to interrogate Geraldine. On her way, Kit receives another call from Cortez saying Geraldine specifically asked for her and was wanting to know if Kit had made her popular seven-layer cookies. Already anxious and now paranoid, Kit wondered if Geraldine had bugged her home or if there was a mole at the police station who was a member of The Square. How else could she know about the cookies?
By the time Kit meets Geraldine face-to-face, the apprehension is palpable as the author has expertly ratcheted up the tension. A battle of two strong minds, the interrogation takes an uncomfortably personal turn before Kit asks, “What’s happening tomorrow, Ms. Haines?”
Geraldine replies, “It’s not what happens tomorrow, sweetheart. … It’s what’s happening today.”
The sentence following Geraldine’s revelation is when THE CHILLING MOMENT happens for the reader. It’s a seemingly harmless and innocent observation that’s delivered at the perfect point in time. It reminded me of another perfectly timed scene in Jennings’ novel Reception when the protagonist Ansley looks out the window in the middle of her reception speech and sees the unimaginable. On the road of unsettling horror, “Wreckers” is a 15-car pileup with fatalities.