Thursday, May 25, 2017

A surreal fairy tale

Moon Snake

Kirsten Alene

Publisher: Eraserhead Press 

Pub. Date: June 1, 2017

Rating:4 out of 5 stars


Moon Snake consists of two novellas that are part literary landscape and part magical fairytale, Kirsten Alene has an unique style that transmits a strange surreal innocence. Her worlds are her own with talking mastiffs, pear blossoms, avocado houses, dream ships, and many other strange things and entities . It's hard to compare her to anyone else but I kept envisioning the mystical worlds of Tanith Lee combined with the deceptive simplicity of Banana Yoshimoto. What brings Alene to the forefront is the fairy tale abstractness and characters that strive and develop in the forever changing imagery of a world foreign to anything we may know..

The title story starts with a red bridge being built to completion to a place that is feared. The place is Moon Snake and what the entry into Moon Snake will mean to the denizens of the author's fantastical world appears to be the question. The narrator and her friends, including Pecan Black, Lion James, and the shaman make up the bulk of the characters but the real joy of reading it is in the poetic but stark style of the author. I am not sure if there is a theme here and I find that to be a distraction. But it is easy to get caught up with the author's turns of phrases and the creative imagination that went into the telling of this story.

As much as "Moon Snake" both entertained and confused me, the second story fared better in my mind. "Cathedral Bone" seems to have a more direct connection with our own emotions. Again, we have an unnamed female narrator. She works as a volunteer for a cathedral and has talking mastiffs, lots of them, as companions who follow her around. There are also two men who are connected to her but she feels a bit wary about them. The mastiffs are dwindling and become scarcer. One mastiff bites one of the men and the dog is caged and starts to shrink. Again we have a story that seems elusive in meaning yet rich in imagery. But I sense a more emotional connection here. It appears to be a story of family and loss of family, the need and fear of intimacy and also what occurs when trust is lost. So many paths, so many possible connections.

Of course I may be wrong and this is both the strength and weakness of such a surreal style. The imagery is beautiful on its own. This book can be read for that alone. But Alene's writing goes beyond that , she is getting at something past the innocence of style and she makes you work for it. It so happens to be the type of labor I can love. Others may find it to be too challenging to seek meaning. To those readers, I simply say let yourself wander like the dream ship in the book and simply let the language wash over you. If you pick something up, great, Nurture it. If you don't, you will still sense the beauty of an imaginary world if nothing else.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Ghost in Beijing

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story

C.M. Saunders


Publisher:  Deviant Doll Publications 

Pub Date: April 14, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jerry has taken a job as an English teacher in Beijing, China. It is pretty much everything he wanted and expected except for one thing. His apartment is haunted.

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story is, in a way, an old fashioned horror story that builds up slowly and ends with a shock. No fancy word plays and no secret message. It entertains by its sparse and direct storytelling. It is a refreshingly straight-ahead ghost story. C. M. Saunders spent time in China so he is able to portray the area quite accurately and catches a lots of the nuances of both Chinese culture and the traveler’s struggle with an unfamiliar environment. The perspective of the narrative is mainly through Jerry but the ghost story is feels quite Chinese in many ways. It has many of those little details that show up in Chinese ghost tales; strange hair in the sink, moaning ladies, apparitions in your dreams and in your bed, flickering lights and a few others. These should be familiar to anyone familiar with Asian horror films or literature, especially that of China, and the author incorporates them well. We also have the Chinese sidekick who helps Jerry understand what is going on, a blind fortune teller who “reads” palms in a very weird way, and the ubiquitous apartment employee that has seen and heard it all. The importance of the numbers “14F”, which I am assuming is accurate in the way the author describes it, was also fascinating to me. Throughout it all, there is a nice build-up of eerie events that lead into the surprising climax. It is a quick read but one that will stay with you… perhaps even in your dreams.

This is a revised version of Saunders’ story that was originally published in 2009. He includes an essay titled “Inside Apartment 14F” that explains the creation and evolution of his story as well as adding a mildly cautionary tale about editors and publishers. Also included is a work of short fiction titled “Little Dead Girl”. It is a much shorter ghost tale which is quite good but suffers from the inclusion in this book due to the similarities to the main event. But if seen as icing on the cake, it becomes a nice exclamation point to the very entertaining Apartment 14F and the essay that followed. Overall, a good read and a recommended one for those who like fiction about ghosts and China.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Strange things in Oregon

Starr Creek

Nathan Carson

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press

Pub Date: November 15, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


 Nathan Carson's debut novel Starr Creek is a very ambitious book despite its under 200 pages length. There is a lot going on in it and succeeds in some areas very well. Let's discuss where it succeeds.

The author has created a very interesting Oregon environment of tune-outs, drop-outs and turn-ons. Some of them are the exiles of society and others are just teens stoning out for the ride. While none of them grabbed me as essential and fully developed, they are all meant for the plot and speed it along nicely. Carson seems to have a counter-cultural sensitivity and it shows well here. His style is quite poetically descriptive and memorable lines keep popping out at the reader. I sense a little Brautigan here and the residents of Starr Creek seem be similar to the eccentric population of Christopher Moore's Pine Cove with a much darker sense of humor. But Carson's horror and Lovecraftian elements shine through too. The author has seized upon a fine plot where the residents encounter strange beasts and strange occurrences without really knowing until the end where they are coming from and what their intentions are. And of course, every character sees and react on this based on their individual motives. It's a nice bit of plotting.

It is also a frustrating piece of plotting. In Carson's ambitiousness he seem to be spreading out too many characters. There are a lot of intriguing dudes and scoundrels here but none are given enough room to really shine. Kira comes the closest but there just isn't enough rounding out of character even for her. It basically comes down to great writing and insufficient structuring for so many ideas. It's a common error in debut novels and it really shows here. But still, there is a good sense of environment and atmosphere that keeps me reading.

Then there is the end. I loved the build-in to it. But without giving it away, it ends suddenly. My big question is : is it a definitive ending that makes any thing else in this story moot or a cliffhanger. I'm kind of hoping it is a cliffhanger because the Starr Creek gang with all their flaws have real promise.

You probably noticed I said little about the actual plot. This is because if you do read this it is best that you go in with little knowledge to get into the atmosphere and to let the surprises sneak up on you. Carson is clearly showing off his counter cultural experiences and has his own unique perspective. Wherever he goes in his writing, Starr Creek is a good if incomplete example of his work and can only get better.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A matter of survival

Final Girls

Riley Sager

Publisher: Dutton

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The term “Final Girl” is a movie term referring to the final woman to confront the killer and survive in a slasher/horror movie. It is a well-known cliché that is prevalent in slasher films like Halloween, Friday the 13th and countless others but in real life it is virtually a non-existent event. Certainly it is common to anyone who has ever seen a slasher film. In the book of the same name by Riley Sager we are invited to contemplate the existence of three final girls and how the events afterward will affect them.

In Final Girls, Quincey Carpenter went to a cabin five years ago with five friends. She becomes the only survivor of a gruesome bloodbath. Before Quincey went through her nightmare, there were previously two similar but different incidents where two other women, Lisa and Samantha, survived a psychotic killer to be the only survivor. The media dubs all three “Final Girls” and, although they never met in person, there is a sense of unity and support between them as members of a club no one wants to be in. Quincy appears to be surviving well with help from her boyfriend and Coop, the police officer who saved her that night and became a sort of guardian for her. However her safety net starts to unravel when Lisa is reported to have committed suicide and Sam shows up on Quincey’s doorstep unannounced and for reasons not clearly apparent.

This sets up what is so far the best thriller to see light in the year of 2016. It is beautifully paced, constantly riveting, and pulls the reader into a tangled relationship that is not clearly revealed until the final chapter. Quincey is both strong in her willingness to survive but also fragile. She does not remember entirely what happened that night and has avoided confronting it, preferring to hide herself in her baking blog and letting her boyfriend and her guardian cop protect her. When Sam arrives it is both welcomed and questioned. Both of them are tough but not totally stable and the reason why Sam has chosen this particular time is constantly on Quincey’s mind. Yet they seem to connect because they went through a similar hell. Sam does indeed have an agenda but what it is will become slowly apparent as various twists and turns occur. Sam seems to be eager to get Quincey to remember the event of five years ago while Quincey feels safe and guarded in her loss of memory. The game between Quincey and Sam deepens while the reader is given flashbacks to Quincey’s horrific night five years ago. These flashbacks gives us more clue to the connection between past, present and the final girls.

I cannot overemphasize how deeply this tale of suspense grabbed me. Quincey is a beautifully complex character with levels of conflicts that one would see in anyone who went through such a nightmare. Sam is more of a mystery but she still rings true as one whose past is overwhelming her. The question forming the mystery are several. What really happened in the death of Lisa? What really happened five years ago at Pine Cottage where Quincy became the only survivor? And what is Sam’s real reason for showing up in Quincey’s life. The answers to these and other questions will probably not be the ones you expect but that is the wonder of a suspense mystery like this.

Final Girls is probably destined to be compared to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train but that may be unfair. I became fascinated by both Quincey and Sam in a way I did not in the other two best sellers. The twists and turns of Final Girls came on swift and natural but surprisingly. It is a clockwork of suspense hitting all the right alarms in your head. I feel comfortable in saying that we are looking as not only the big summer hit but one of the best, if not the best, thriller for 2017.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Lovecraft meets Hip-Hop

Kanye West - Reanimator

Mash-ups are curious creatures. I would be hard pressed to call them anything but a novelty. We can blame Seth Grahame-Smith for the literary mash-up..or at least for its popularization due to the mystifying success of Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. I am still precariously on the fence with such endeavors. At best they are delightful diversions bringing out the best of the genres and authors they salute

Kanye West - Reanimator is somewhere in between. It is definitely funny and entertaining and it does an admirable job of blending H. P Lovecraft's style with the peculiarities of hip-hop. Yet even at its much less than a 100 pages length, it feels too long. The author had fun with this, using Lovecraft's serialized fiction, "Herbert West - Reanimator " and turning Mr. West into the rapper/beatmaster Kanye West as he uses the beat and the mixes to revive dead bodies. There is a lot of references to the need for fresh beats and quite a few musicians and rappers take a beating, so to speak, from Biggie to Paul McCartney. Maybe this is an acquired taste.

And I think i may have hit on the issue. I love Lovecraft and I am a bit of a music freak from rock to jazz to soul. But I honestly know little to nothing about hip-hop. I did really get into the earlier days with Run-DMC, Public Enemy and up to NWA but then I tapered off. There is clearly a number of in-jokes here .and I think too many of them went over my head. Plus I took points away whenever anyone mentioned Kim Kardashian.

So this is my recommendation. if you are into rap and Lovecraft both, this might be "Da Bomb". if not, it will be a risky endeavor. But again, let's give credit to the author for a noble attempt and some very funny turns of phrases. As for me, I am best off waiting for a classic rock version. Maybe...Leslie West -Reanimator?

Friday, May 12, 2017

Hap and Leonard and a midget vampire (maybe)

Rusty Puppy

Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Muholland Books

Pub. Date: February 23, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


We are now to the 12th installment of the Hap and Leonard series by Joe R. Lansdale and they just don't seem to wearing out their welcome. If they were real I would invite them to every party I held. Hap and I seem to be kindred spirits in our cautious liberalism and Leonard would keep the party lively assuming he doesn't kick the ass of everybody else at the party. I would just have to be careful I didn't provoke him into his habit of indiscriminate urinating...But I digress.

The last couple of books were fun but there was signs of a formula showing through. That isn't in itself a bad thing. All mystery series have formulas. But if it starts to show too much it doesn't feel fresh. Rusty Puppy feels fresh. There may be a number of reasons for this. First, Lansdale has added a new character in the form of Hap's daughter Chance. While her role in this book is minor, she still gives Hap something to reflect on and reveal new sides of him. Then there was that very close shave with death in Honky Tonk Samurai. I don't think it's just me to think Hap is a little more cautious and aware of his mortality (and others) in this book. Leonard is still Leonard but that is what makes him a delight in every single novel

The basic idea here is that a black womanwho lives across the street persuades Hap to investigate the murder of her son. At first he and Leonard simply plan to question a potential witness who claims he saw the police kill her son. Of course it gets much more complicated as they come to task with corrupt cops, an old acquaintance of Leonard who once beat him in a boxing match ("By points" Leonard reminds everyone), a vindictive bartender, and a four hundred year old vampire midget (or maybe just a foul-mouthed little girl)

As for the varied and sundry things that show up in every Hap and Leonard novel that gives it uniqueness, everything fits like a brass knuckle. The Lansdale wit is there, the dialogue is as snappy as a Texas turtle, and minor characters like Marvin Hansen shines when the time comes.

Oh. And Leonard has a new boy friend from an unlikely source.

Rusty Puppy is one of the best in the series and proves that there is still plenty of life in the East Texas odd couple. If you are already into the series you will not be disappointed and if you are not...What's holding you back?

Monday, May 8, 2017

A different kind of possession

The Time Eater

Aaron J. French


Publisher: Journalstone

Pub. Date: January 27, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Roger Boroughs and his friend James Steiner has been estranged since an incident in college when they summoned forth a strange and powerful entity they call the Time Eater. Many years later, Roger is requested by a woman named Annabelle to visit Roger, possibly for the last time since Roger is dying of a terminal illness. There is a great separation between them, much having to do with their two ex-wives as neither seemed to have really resolved their separation and hold many regrets. But Roger has discovered something even more disturbing, the Time Eater has possessed James and that may not only threaten their reality but shatter their very existence.

In The Time Eater, we basically have an exorcism story but it is not one that is typical of the usual type of demon exorcism. The demon Roger and James are confronting is a powerful entity from other dimensions or perhaps independent of all dimensions. They refer to it as a time eater because that appears to be what it mindlessly devours. Aaron J. French has cleverly combined an exorcism tale with huge chunks of Lovecraft and many other authors of the same era and before, such as Blackwood and Machen, who created a form of metaphysical horror. In the author’s prose, it comes out more like an existential horror since it questions our existence and sense of reality on our limited realm.

It can also be called psychological horror. The mindset of James and Roger, not to mention other characters, is basic to the plot and the tension. As we will see, the very identity of some of the characters become in question. French has built a sort of a Jenga game regarding the delicate interactions interaction of the protagonists It is a miracle the various twists and turns doesn’t topple them over.

In fact, I can see some readers faulting the author on this. When we get to the apparent final resolution, others may feel the need to read back and wonder if some things look a little too definitive and pat to be believable. I have called other authors on this very thing. But here it works because French has developed a very original and creative idea and placed the reader in a reality that stretches and boggles the imagination. The parameter of the story makes the reality of the characters believable even with all the twists and turns. Using an appropriate cliché, we accept it hook, line and sinker.

I have always admired Aaron J. French’s works but at the same time I wondered if he was too steeped in the esoteric to catch on, primarily the somewhat old fashioned and elusive metaphysical horror of his influences. The bio on the back pages of his book states he is pursuing a PhD in religious studies and I can’t say I’m surprised. Yet this is his best and most accessible work to date. It is the one by him I would most highly recommend.