Jack’s Magic Beans by Brian Keene

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Jack’s Magic Beans

Author: Brian Keene

Type of Book: Novella, short story collection, extreme horror, zombies (kind of)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There are some scenes in this book that classify as extreme horror, which I always consider odd when compared to mainstream tastes.

Availability: Published by Deadite Press in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Let me begin Day Four of Zombie Week by reminding everyone that I am giving away a free copy of every book I discuss this week to one lucky reader. That’s right – five books, one box, you could totally strike it book-rich. How do you enter to win? Easy as pie. Just leave me a comment on any of my Zombie Week book discussions. If you want to increase your chances to win, leave me a comment on each of the five book discussions. I count each comment each day as a separate entry, with a maximum of five chances to win. All you have to do is make all those five comments (or two of four or however many) by 9:00 pm CST, 4/1/11.

Now, let me begin this discussion by saying outright that this book very likely cannot be considered a zombie book by purists, and even I, a zombie novice, am reluctant to call the characters in Jack’s Magic Beans anything but berzerkers. If you have read One Rainy Night by Richard Laymon, you might consider its rain-demented characters to be very similar to the violence-bound, utterly mad characters in Keene’s novella. People acted upon by an unseen force become unspeakably violent, and while the character motivations and victim/hero situations are different, that was one of the best references I could think of in trying to explain the lunatic berzerkers in Keene’s novella.

Why did I read this and include it, then? Well, couple of reasons, really. I had Zombie Week planned out for about a month in advance, only to realize that one of the books I had selected was so short and shallow that, even in my most verbose state, I would have to pad a 200 word discussion. Okay, replaced it at the last second with another book. Then I went online to buy the copies I am giving away and realized the Keene book I wanted to discuss, The Rising, is out of print and I needed to read something else fast or I would be screwed. I had a copy of Jack’s Magic Beans on hand already, so I just decided to go with it. I do these “weeks” for my own benefit, so don’t imbue much nobility in what I am about to say, but I infinitely prefer it if my efforts here produce sales for the authors whose work I discuss. That won’t happen with The Rising because of Keene’s travails with Dorchester Press/Leisure Books, which have made for horrific reading in and of themselves.

If I discussed that very excellent zombie book of Keene’s, a book that is most decidedly a zombie book, he wouldn’t have received a cent if anyone bought it, and he wouldn’t have received a penny if I managed to find a new copy for my giveaway. Worse, there is every likelihood a e-book sale could in some manner enrich Dorchester Press because despite restoring his copyright, even for electronic books, Leisure Books still continue to sell his e-books illegally across various venues. Keene is not the only author who has been exploited by Dorchester. In fact, Brian Keene got his rights returned to him in exchange for unpaid royalties and yet Dorchester continues to sell works they no longer own the rights to. Because of this, I will not purchase another new book or e-book released by Dorchester Press or any of its imprints and I urge others to do the same. I generally do not participate in boycotts because it all too often only hurts those who can least afford it. But this time, it’s pretty clear that those at the bottom, the authors themselves, will not be receiving any money anyway. Dorchester’s been stiffing their writers since 2008 and any money given to the press cannot be relied upon to make it into the writers’ pockets. This is one of those boycotts where the people who get hurt are going to be hurt either way, and in such a case, why give the company a dime?

Much of the recent news of Dorchester’s wrong-doings came out after I decided just to discuss berzerkers under the wide banner of zombies, because as I perversely maintain, my site, my judgment call, but it also felt good to do this one little thing to help out an author whose work is excellent and who, by my own personal experience, is a good man. Yes, I met Brian Keene and if he remembers it, it is because he either feared for his well-being or just has an excellent memory.

I met him at Staples 2007. Staples is an independent media conference that in the past was comic-heavy but is sliding into other avenues. I am not known as a person who does well in crowds. Or in public. Or in small spaces or in places where you can’t rely on people all walking in the same direction. I won’t go so far as to say I have OCD or agoraphobia and whatever it is when you just cannot bear being around people, but I am pretty nuts. I’m actually a lot better now. I can make eye contact without screaming and I can navigate the supermarket without crying. But in 2007 I was a complete mess.

My poor spouse, a comic book nerd, wanted to go to Staples and I decided to go because I thought, “What can happen in a room full of comic nerds? I’ll be there with him, I can walk around in a relatively safe space and maybe I won’t vomit on myself. Again.” (Note: I am exaggerating for comedic effect. Slightly)

This was a good plan. In theory. But in public, I am also easily distracted and I got separated from my beloved because it was a lot more crowded and unruly than I had expected. One second I was looking at a comic about a Squirrel Girl, and the next I was alone in a sea of hipsters. Mr Oddbooks thought that I would have enough sense to keep close to him, you know, given that fact that I am the one with the issues and all. But no, I didn’t and there I stood, gawping at Squirrel Girls, wondering if I could literally die from panic.

I did my best not to just freak the hell out but if you have ever seen a feral cat locked in a bathroom, you know what I looked like. I sort of ricocheted around, looking for Mr Oddbooks and doing my best not to make eye contact with anyone lest I scream or cry or do anything else unseemly. I glanced around me at knitted cthulhu hats, comics about crap, comics about nothing, and had anyone asked me my name I would not have been able to answer. And then I saw in an ocean of stuff that meant nothing to me an oasis of calm. There was a table with books on them. Paperback books.

I wandered over and there sat Keene. I looked at the books, I looked at him, and then the fliers with his picture and pictures of the same books on the table and said the most intelligent question that all authors love. “Did you write these books?” I blurted like a complete asshole.

“Yeah,” he answered. And from there I remember nothing. You know how you talk to a dog and all they hear is tone? And you can basically call your dog an asshole to his or her face and they have no idea as long as you are talking sweet to it? Well, Keene could have been telling me I was an idiot and he planned to have me killed later, but he did it in a such a nice, avuncular tone that I calmed down and was able to talk for a few minutes until Mr. Oddbooks found me. I say “talk.” I’m pretty sure I babbled. I do remember one thing. I assume Keene knew he was dealing with an advanced case of anxiety because I seem to recall his eyes getting a little crinkly, the way people do when they are vaguely amused but not willing to completely crush a weird person’s dignity. Chances are, in that mass of weirdos, I was utterly unremarkable and he has no idea that as a kind book man in a room full of very young, very loud people, he was a calming presence that kept me from running amok until my husband tracked me down and more or less held on to my shirt tail until we left. But he did. And I appreciated it. And though I remember very little of the few minutes he talked to me, I remember enough to think very highly of him. I mean, for all I know, zaftig, panicked, incoherent women were the order of the day, but never fail to underestimate how the smallest kindness can impact someone.

Yeah, that’s right. That crazy woman you’re kind to could someday begin a small book blog and speak highly of you. Let that be a lesson to all of us.

Mr. Oddbooks had spent all our cash on HP Lovecraft art and collections from that guy with the drunken crow and sock monkey and that other guy who uses old drawings and creates wildly inappropriate captions so I was unable to return to Keene’s table and buy his books. But when I got home I bought three of his books off Amazon and I know this whole tale of my sorry mental state and tendency to romanticize casual encounters with normal, polite folk means some of you may think I am going to give this book a five-star review. Well, I am, but my uneasy mental state also forces me to be sickeningly honest. If it had been a bad book, I would have given it a crappy review. I would have agonized over it, but it would have happened. But this really is an excellent book.

Jack’s Magic Beans has the novella of the same name, as well as four additional short stories. I will discuss under a cut the short stories that accompany the berzerker tale so as not to annoy those readers who came only for the zombies and want me to shut the hell up about thieving publishers, my irritating but ultimately charming mental illnesses and anything that isn’t at least close to being zombie-related.

If you have read Brian Keene, you may not think him that odd – and mostly his work isn’t – but the extremity of the content ensured that even if I did not have a Zombie Week, his works would have ended up here. He straddles a line between regular horror and extreme horror, but my arbitrary metrics are that if it might gross out my mom, who is a sturdy old broad in her own right, the book is a good fit for IROB. Much of Jack’s Magic Beans would have given my mama pause.

Though the average reader will likely sense what is going on by the fifth page in the book, I’m going to be very cagey in my review because I really do not want to spoil this book. If you don’t win the copy I am giving away, you need to order this book, so I don’t want to ruin anything. However, like in Agranoff’s The Vegan Revolution… with Zombies, a common but sometimes controversial element of modern life is involved in a zombie-like armageddon. In Agranoff’s book, this element, Stress-Free meat, causes the zombie apocalypse. In Keene’s novella, the plot element saves a few souls from the madness that grips people and turns them into insane killing machines.

In Jack’s Magic Beans, people are going about their day as they notice the people around them are getting tense and angry, tenser and angrier than people become even in long grocery lines and in traffic. Then everyone snaps. Everyone outright snaps and begins to kill violently and indiscriminately. Four people find themselves unaffected by the madness that is gripping the slaying madmen around them, hiding in a walk-in freezer in the back of a supermarket and they eventually discover what it is that they have in common, a shared trait that is the reason they remained sane when everyone else lost it.

This is one of those stories that I wish was longer. Why everyone lost their minds is likely not important, but damn it, I want to know. And we get only a brief look at the world that remains when the survivors step out of the freezer. It’s hard to know the world ended but not see how the survivors maneuver in what remains of civilization. But sometimes you got to love a story for what it is and not what you want it to be. I always find it to be a slightly backhanded compliment to wish that a story was more than what it is, but in this case, I think it is just a natural reaction to reading a good story.

Zombie purists may snert at the idea of berzerkers as zombies but Mr Oddbooks, who is much more knowledgeable in these matters, explained that there is, in one particular zombie mythos, an actual class of zombies that are called “berzerkers.” I have not investigated this myself but he insists that zombie berzerkers are sadistic and relentless. He also mentioned they tend to be solitary but it really doesn’t matter much because as I go on, I am increasingly discovering that there really is no one mythos and the reactions to canons come fast and quick. The berzerkers in this book are definitely not undead, are mortal, and are capable of higher thought though that thought is focused exclusively on killing. They also don’t eat their kills. But they are nearly unstoppable and violent in disturbing ways. But even if you are not here just for the violence, this book will satisfy your need for intelligent horror. There is a subtext in the book, a sort of unstated social commentary about the state of sanity and how useful such a state may or may not be when the worst happens.

But it’s also loony, in a good way. Take the opening sentence:

The lettuce started talking to Ben Mahoney halfway through his shift at the Save-A-Lot.

Don’t let yourself go astray. The title isn’t Jack’s Magic Blotter Acid. What does the lettuce say to Ben?

…when he saw the old woman squeezing the peaches and the lettuce told him to kill her, Ben agreed. It seemed like a reasonable idea.

I once worked in a supermarket. I managed Candy City at the Westlake Hills Albertsons for three horrific months. And every time I saw customers reach into my bins with their fucking hands, I secretly killed them in my head. But I didn’t need the violated Jelly Bellies to tell me to do it (and yeah, if you value your health, don’t buy bulk foods that come in scoop-able bins – take my word, people).

“Go on, Ben,” the lettuce urged. “Make her bleed.”

“How do you know my name?”

“We are the lettuce. We know everything. It has always been thus and always will be. The lettuce is wise. Now kill that old bag.”

It was hard to argue with lettuce.

And with the first couple of pages representing, it’s hard to argue this isn’t going to be one helluva story.

We go from some humor into full-force, vomit-worthy bloodshed. Gorehounds will want this book. Keene doesn’t pull any punches with his violence. There was a scene in this book that set off my “Oh, hell no!” response, the same response I had when I first realized there was a baby in The Hills Have Eyes.

A little boy lay sprawled on his stomach in front of her. Blood trickled from one of his ears. As she passed by, he reached for her, his tone pleading.

“Please help me.”

Sammi paused, but before she could act, an adult grabbed the child’s feet and dragged him away.

“Come on, kid. Let’s get you on the butcher’s block.”

If Keene is willing to go that extra mile and have kids slain in this book, rest assured that fans of extreme horror will not be disappointed with the rest of the content.

I also like that Keene does not mind getting all meta with it. Take this quote, for example, from when the four survivors, Jack, Angie, Sammi and Marcel, are tossing around theories about what could have caused the horror they find themselves in:

“Terrorists.” Marcel got to his feet. “Al Qaeda, or maybe some homegrown group like those Sons of the Constitution motherfuckers. Maybe they dropped some gas on us.”


“They could have used a crop-duster or something, Like what happened in that little town in Pennsylvania a few years ago. That chemical got released from a hot air balloon and made the rain purple, and then everybody died? Supposedly they all went insane before they were killed. Remember that?”

“I do,” Sammi whispered. “I had nightmares about it for weeks. Those poor people…”

Yep, that’s totally a reference to Keene’s story, “Purple Reign.” Which also may be why I thought of Laymon’s book about black rain that made everyone go berzerk. Good writers can mine similar veins and still create works that aren’t derivative (also think Stephen King’s The Mist). And god help me, Keene fans who read here, but I know I have read at least one reference to the Sons of the Constitution in one of Keene’s short stories but I have no idea if they are a peripheral group, part of an idea that he will eventually revisit or if I just haven’t read enough of his works yet.

This next little bit of meta was sort of sad, actually, considering the whole Dorchester debacle, and the very real fact that writers have a whole world of worries aside from just having to come up with unique ideas, write and write well, edit and then find a paying market for their work. This scene occurs before the shit hits the fan:

Tom Brubaker had a headache and shouting made him feel better. After he was done hollering at Ben Mahoney, he shouted at the cashiers and the butchers and the baggers and a delivery guy and the little old Asian woman who ran the grocery store’s Chinese kiosk. Then he yelled at Jeremy Geist, the short, pudgy kid who was re-arranging the book and magazine display.

“Damn it, Geist. How many times do I have to tell you? Every book should be faced out. People are more likely to buy the fucking things if they can see the goddamned covers.”

Mr Brubaker arranged the books on the shelf so that the front covers were facing outward. “See? How hard is this?”

I have no idea if, perhaps, Mr Keene has seen a few really disorganized displays that featured a few of his books, but it does make you wonder. These meta quotes are also a good example of the sort of muted but clever undertone that frequently shows itself in the book. Nothing smarmy or overly cute but definitely a sense that you will be rewarded if you read closely and have a few of Keene’s books under your belt.

But then there are moments that are outright funny. Continuing on with the book display, and Mr. Brubaker’s demented anger is just getting worse.

Brubaker’s headache vanished. He glanced back to the shelves. Each of the paperbacks had the same title: KILL ‘EM ALL.

It was very sound advice. After all, these were bestsellers written by important authors who knew what they were talking about. Oprah said these books had meaning and value. Oprah said these books would enrich your life. You couldn’t argue with Oprah. That was crazy.

So he didn’t. Instead, Brubaker wrapped his hands around Jeremy Geist’s throat and squeezed.

I am almost certain I am not the only one who likes my unspeakable violence mixed with some humor, no?

So you’ve not got a wholly zombie book here, but that shouldn’t bother you. You have berzerkers causing the apocalypse. You have two scrappy survivors with two unsteady survivors facing the horror locked in a freezer and then struggling in the bloody aftermath. You have some really in-your-face violence with some muted but sly and some not-so-muted but amusing humor. You’ve got four bonus stories I will discuss briefly under the cut. Best of all, where my pedantic heart is concerned, this book is the best edited effort to come out of Deadite and I hope this is an example of a trend to come of finely edited books. You want this book. If you don’t win the copy I am giving away, you should pony up the bucks and buy it yourself.  And then you should check the Deadite site and note when The Rising is going to be re-released and buy a copy when you can.  It’ll then be clear why it was my first choice for Zombie Week.

Okay, tomorrow we end with another hybrid, with intelligent zombies, a fine line between what it means to be a human and means to be a zombie, a truly frightening apocalypse, and a dwindling food source. You don’t to miss that book, and be sure to leave comments so you have a chance of winning a copy.

There are four short stories that accompany Jack’s Magic Beans. And the hell of it is, it’s hard to talk about any of them without spoiling them. But I’ll share as much as I can without ruining them.

“Without You” was the weakest of the four. It’s the story of a man who is sick of his life but takes very seriously the promise he made to his wife many years ago, that he would die without her. The only reason I consider it the weakest is because it’s a little predictable but that’s a small criticism because the characterization ensures that the reader feels the protagonist’s misery in a palpable way.

“‘The King’, In: Yellow” is another story of people being made into creatures that are separated from their mind. A play featuring characters who may or may not be dead titans of rock drive the people in the audience out of their minds. But there is also a couple who wander through the streets and you just know this is not a quest that is going to end up showing them anything they want to know.

“I Am an Exit” and “This is Not an Exit” are the tales of a unique killer and that’s about all I can say. I will mention that these stories were so supremely creepy that I made Mr Oddbooks, whose tastes run to graphic novels, Patrick O’Brien novels and computer manuals, read them and he agreed they were truly… eerie? unexpected? Unsure exactly how to express it but these were two of the tightest, most interesting short stories I have read in a while. Keene says he will eventually write a novel about the killer in these two stories. I will be all over that when it happens. But until then, I will leave you with a quote from “This Is Not an Exit”:

I am swift. My avatar is a hummingbird. Metaphorically, speaking. I move through the night at eighty miles per second, traveling from blossom to blossom, taking their nectar and moving on.

Knowing that this is a killer speaking should make that description suddenly seem very creepy. This sentence also shows how Keene is a writer who cares deeply about language. There is a ridiculous misconception that horror writers are pulpy, in it for the plot, the fun, the gore. Keene is in it for those three things, but he is also in it to spin artful images and scenes that transcend the experience of simply reading them.

27 thoughts on “Jack’s Magic Beans by Brian Keene

  1. So do the berzerkers fight each other, or are only the non-crazy people in danger? I am trying to figure out if it’s one of those situations where you can just wait around for the problem to take care of itself, or if you have to take action if you want to get to safety.

    1. The berzerkers fight everyone, themselves and the unaffected. I suspect if you were armed and in danger from a small group, you’d be okay, but in a very large crowd, you’d have to seek safety until they killed each other.

      There is also the problem that what keeps the survivors sane is going to run out eventually and not knowing what caused the mania in the first place ensures that the survivors may eventually face their own mania. Moreover, the thing that keeps them sane is subject to all kinds of problems – a person with a poor memory could accidentally become a berzerker and you’d find yourself subject to unexpected attack from a trusted person. And this entire explanation is just what I inferred from the text and one of the reasons this could have been a longer novel.

  2. I have been waiting all weekfor this review! I am a huge Brian Keene fan! This review made ne want to buy it even more! I am also curious about the berserkers. Like the comment before, I am wondering if they are like zombies and will eventually rot, or do they need to be killer in order to get rid of them?
    Great review and I find it awesome that you got to meet Keene!

    1. No, these berzerkers are humans who have gone violently insane so they won’t rot. What they will do is attack until they kill their prey or are killed themselves. They have to be killed like you would kill any human and you don’t have to destroy their brains. They will die from any sort of mortal wound.

      This really is a good book. I’m becoming a huge Keene fan, too!

  3. This is one that I’ve actually read, since Keene included Jack’s Magic Beans is his short story collection Unhappy Endings. It is a great story, and I do wish he’d expand it to novel length or something, because I too, would love to know what caused all this and what happened afterward.

    As far as the Sons of the Constitution go, Keene did use them in his novel Castaways. One of the contestants on a Survivor-like show is a member of the Sons of the Constitution and is planning to murder everyone else as a political statement, but doesn’t get very far because there are real monsters on the island.

    Also, from reading his Best of Hail Saten books, I know that one of Keene’s pet peeves is booksellers who put his books out with the spine showing instead of the cover.

    1. I know, I really want to see what would happen next. I know it has to be annoying for readers saying, “Needs to be longer!” but I think that’s the sign of a really good story, when it leaves you wanting more.

      Hmm… I don’t remember reading Castaways but I also could have read it in a bleary book orgy, which I have been known to do, and not recall all the details. I think I have to have read it if I recall the Sons of the Constitution because I know I read it somewhere and it stuck with me.

  4. I have read this story also. Definitely enjoyed it. It is interesting what ties them all together.
    Great story about meeting Keene.
    All or most of his stories tie together with the labrynth(sp?)thing. I don’t always notice the more subtle connections, but I do notice the more obvious ones.
    Another story that has angry people is Hater by david moody. i really enjoyed that one, but not sure if I want to read the second in the series.

    1. I love it when books are subtly tied together. It’s like the author is hiding Easter Eggs to reward loyal readers.

      Added Moody to my wishlist and reading the description reminded me of another British writer – Christopher Fowler. He has several short stories that involve a type of berzerkers and I can’t believe I forgot about them as I was reading and writing this review. His berzerkers are generally driven mad by “Smart Buildings” that are unnatural, but they are sometimes affected by other things. He’s a reliable, creepy horror and speculative writer whom I just love. His collections, The Old Devil Moon, Personal Demons, The Devil in Me, have berzerkers. I’m sure there are more. He even has one set in a grocery store – I need to pull down my copies and find out which one is which but it wasn’t until you mentioned Moody that I realized that man, I have read a bunch about berzerkers before. 🙂

  5. I’ve read this as part of a short story collection and enjoyed it a lot. Wouldn’t mind having this one just foe the extra short stories. Also I would like to note that there have been many times that I would go to the bookstore and rearrange keene’s books so that the covers were facing out. I always have felt I enjoy his writing and maybe that would help so others could too.

    1. Ha! I know I’ll be doing the same now. It makes sense. I know when I impulsively buy a book, it’s because it was fronted. Yeah, we should all do that for the authors we like.

    1. I also have a very hard time with animals. Going back to The Hills Have Eyes, I was more upset over what happened to the dog than I was about what happened to the human adults. But no, you are safe with this one – no animals are harmed in Jack’s Magic Beans.

    1. It’s a pretty fun book, Heidi. Be careful or I will be dragging you into this strange literary place I wallow in and you’ll find it hard to read lit fic ever again.

  6. Interesting for the connection between zombies and consumerism. In Keene’s world, joining the ranks of the undead is just a supermarket purchase away. Be careful of what you put in the shopping cart at the grocery store – you might well become a flesh eater by merely purchasing the wrong flesh at the local food mart. Now you know why Wal-Mart shoppers look the way they do.

  7. I’ve been following whats been going on with Dorchester on Brian’s Facebook page its horrible. I heart Brian Keene and his writing style so I’ve been looking forward to today’s review. Can’t wait to add this one to my collection!

  8. I really need to read this freaking book! Keene is tops in my book. Wish I had read this when it first came out!

  9. If there is one thing I have learned this week (and it probably is only one), it’s that I’m woefully uneducated when it comes to zombies, berzerkers etc. I thought I knew a lot about zombies, but obviously I don’t…

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed all of your Zombie Week reviews so far, but this is the book that I am definitely going to buy. It sounds AMAZING. Have you seen a indie horror movie called “The Signal”. Your description of this book kind of reminds me of it. It’s about a mysterious signal that causes everyone who hears it to go insane and violently slaughter the people they come across. It has a delightful mix of violence and black humor.

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