Grave Men and Ill Children

Manor Vellum
5 min readMay 19


By T.J. Tranchell

Tom Piccirilli once said that writing horror was a young man’s game. I think about that often as I age and continue to write and enjoy horror fiction. Did he mean that horror lacks the complexity of the crime thrillers he would shift into late in his career or that it takes a certain youthful energy to write horror? As one looks into Piccirilli’s fiction, it is easy to see both options and even more, but what is always there whether he was writing horror, crime and mystery, or westerns, are characters that speak to the nuances of humanity even if the situations they find themselves in are somewhat pedestrian or plain ridiculous.

Piccirilli had no qualms dishing out the ridiculous plots and circumstances in his horror novels and short stories. He first gained popularity with a nameless occult detective and his demonic familiar named Self. The hero — a complicated and not always heroic man — dabbled in dark magic much like the comic book character Constantine. Like that character’s stories, Piccirilli managed to take the worst characteristics of his protagonist and use them for ultimate good.

But Pic (as he has been affectionately called within the horror community) was being published in the last gasps of mass-market paperbacks. One could find him sharing shelf space with Jack Ketchum and Brian Keene, fellow members of the midlist fallout. And that is where I discovered him.

Tom Piccirilli (1965–2015)

On the night before I started college, I was at a Borders (now defunct like Pic’s former publisher Leisure Books) in Henderson, Nevada, searching for something new. I picked up The Night Class (2000), a promising novel about winter break shenanigans on a university campus. The book reminded me why I had decided to go to school as a twenty-three-year-old high school dropout. I had much to learn about writing, as the rejection letters told me. I believe I learned just as much from reading Piccirilli as I did from my classes.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I gave away more than one copy of Piccirilli’s masterwork, A Choir of Ill Children (2003). I recommended it to friends, those studying English, and those only interested in what I was reading. I recommended it to professors, and I think the green cover with dragonflies over the mouth and eyes of a child made them wonder about my dedication to “serious literature.” I told them just to read it. One did and continued to doubt me. Another read it and began pipelining more books to me. I ended up reading a ton of Japanese horror translated into English because of that. In other words, things stayed weird.

A Choir of Ill Children is about conjoined triplets and their brother in the deep south. The triplets are connected at the forehead and can only speak one word at a time, sharing and completing sentences together. The brother is the owner of a factory left to them by their now-deceased parents. A documentary crew has been staying with the family to make a movie, but nothing goes well for any of them. It’s the perfect kind of twisted family drama that with a different publisher and a different cover might have breached mainstream popularity and been granted the semi-insulting appellation “but is it horror?”

The book is terrifying and is a reminder that despite how human flesh can go wrong, humanity still exists. And even when the body came out “normal,” the mind — maybe even the soul — can be tainted. Soul sickness, when it comes to Piccirilli’s work, is much more contagious and dangerous than any physical monster could ever be.

And that is where the genre jumps come in. In between the horror novels, there was the western Grave Men (2002), which is an early precursor of the current horror western movement. Later came the crime thrillers. What do they all have in common, besides Pic’s distinct voice, his mastery of pacing, and his despicably wonderful characters? The sickness of the soul that can’t be cured or contained. It infects even heroes like Eddie Whitt in The Dead Letters. Yes, there is a serial killer clown named Killjoy, but as we meet and follow Whitt, we see just how deep that soul sickness can go. Some things are unforgivable even when someone else is trying their best to repent.

In a twenty-year career, Piccirilli produced almost 50 books ranging from novellas and novels to poetry and anthologies. He even wrote an original Hellboy novel (2008). Hellboy is the perfect character for Piccirilli: definitely not human but decidedly humane. The battle against the dark sometimes meant living in it. Pic let some of his characters be consumed by it, but redemption was not always on the menu. Pic knew that some people go into the dark with noble intentions and never come out. 🩸



T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.

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Manor Vellum

A membrane of texts about the human condition and the horror genre. A MANOR feature. New 🩸 every Friday.