Monday, December 5, 2016

Mental unease


Edited by Brad C. Hodson & Benjamin Kane Ethridge

Publisher: Dark Regions Press

Pub Date: May 22, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I kept thinking of a cinematic comparison while reading Madhouse. There was a movie in the 70s called Asylum. It had a screenplay by Robert Bloch and featured a number of stories set in the confines of a mental institution. There was also a framing story that very loosely tied all the others together. It is one of the better horror anthology movies that you will find.

Madhouse is a little like that. It also has a connecting framing story about the patients and staff who are isolated in an Arizona mental facility during a sandstorm. These "chapters" as they are called, are written by the editors Brad C Hodson and Benjamin Kane Ethridge. Between these chapters are 20 pieces of short fiction contributed by a number of horror and fantasy writers including John Skipp, Scott Nicholson, Lisa Morton, Rena Mason, Jeff Strand and others. As I understand it, all the authors were given a layout of the fictional Golden Canyon Behavioral Health Center to keep the stories consistent with the shared world environment. Whether they knew of the on-going narration before they wrote their stories is unknown to me. However the characters in the chapters do show up in the stories and there seem to be some consistency with characters as well as the confines of the center.

That part about how much the author worked within the confines of the connecting narration is what troubles me. I think they knew little beyond the bare basics because, for the most part, it feels like a jumble. That makes it confusing to follow. Because of this, no one story stands out and makes the collection work. There are some very good tales here. I especially like those by John Palisano, John Skipp., and Jeff Strand. Not so much the chapters by Hodgson and Ethridge which is unfortunate because that is the thread that supposedly binds them together. The full sum of the parts just didn't work for me.

What does work is the overall design of the book and the illustrations that accompany the collection. Dark Regions Press has a stellar reputation for the design and appearance of their publications and Madhouse does not disappoint in this area. There are lots of gorgeous and creepy illustrations from Aeron Alfrey that are worth the price of the admission alone and they do add a great bit of atmosphere to the accompanying stories.

But it doesn't really gel together in the literary department despite the quality of writing. It's a noble experiment but, as a screenwriter and sometimes critic friend of mine would say, "It's a interesting failure."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Another novella diversion with Hap and Leonard

Coco Butternut

By Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Pub date: January 31, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


The saga of Hap and Leonard continues with this barely-a-novella, Coco Butternut. In case you are wondering, Coco Butternut is a dead dachshund. Its body has been dug up and held for ransom to be paid by the previous owner of the dog. To be more precise, the son of the previous owner who was his deceased mother. It seems like a simple task for the lads; pay the ransom and collect the coffin and the canine "pickled"corpse ("Embalmed and wrapped like a mummy..Not pickled" says the dog owner's son Farmer to Leonard). But something doesn't seem right and when they complete the deal, it becomes obvious to them why it doesn't seen right...

As far as Hap and Leonard stories go, this is a barely inconsequential one. I am tempted to call it my least favorite book but my least favorite Lansdale work is still better than 90% of other writer's best works. It is short, sweet and simple...and doesn't really give us any new insight to the duo and their extended family. We now have Chance, Hap's daughter, in the gang but nothing is really added here except maybe that Chance is spending too much time around Leonard and picking up a little attitude. There is nothing amiss with the story either, except we really do not learn much of what happened after Hap's flirtation with death in the last substantial novel, Honky Tonk Samurai. I think we may need to wait for the next substantial novel, Rusty Puppy for the details.

Basically, the Hap and Leonard novellas that has recently bridged the gap between novels are diversions. They are entertaining and well written as is anything Lansdale puts to paper. But they are not essential. This one may be the least essential of them all. It still merits three stars. I love this series and can't even think of rewarding it less but I really hope no Hap and Leonard novice starts with this book. That would be dismaying.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

To kill a cyclops

Cyclops Road

By Jeff Strand

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC 

Pub. Date: September 19, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

In the prologue of Cyclops Road we see a side of Jeff Strand that isn't always obvious. We are introduced to Evan and his memories of his recently deceased wife. It is a head on assault into the experience of grieving and a profoundly emotional start to what will be mainly a humorous novel. Yet it sets the stage to understand Evan and his unusual decisions as the novel progresses.

It is this grief that is the reason he impulsively insults his boss which gets him fired. While in the park mulling his brash actions, he spots an attempt robbery . He tries to intervene but it is the potential victim that ends up saving him. He discovers that she is on a mission to go to Arizona and slay a cyclops. Most people would think at this point "OK. Bye crazy lady." and that is what Evan initially does. Yet in his vulnerable condition and his concern for Harriet the potential cyclops slayer, he offers to drive her partway to her destination...just for a little more distance to get her closer.

Of course, a little more distance isn't the way it works out and we are soon deep into a modern fairy tale. Harriet is operating by some kind of mental GPS and needs to find her three allies for the adventure. We are now in classic Jeff Strand territory with a cast of eccentrics and a accompanying dialogue that is witty and fun. The prologue rounds Evan out enough to explain his participation in a scenario that could easily have stretched the reader's disbelief too far. Harriet is an excellent foil to Evan's skepticism. She is an innocence in the ways of the world but wise and loyal to the needs of her quest. The other characters fill out the novel and present clever commentary and comic relief to the plot. I wish I could say the same about a group of villains who suddenly show up and are eventually dispersed of with only a vague explanation for their existence.

But even with a strong main protagonist, the plot falters. Even though it is a modern fairy tale, sometimes the action and motives seems a bit forced. I can blame his last couple of great novels for this. Kumquat and Blister had a similar main character who connects with a girl who has issues but brings out a strength in him. In other words, Cyclops Road tells the same story with a fantastical edge and that edge really doesn't add much. It's a great theme told by Strand that I have already read. I think I may be too harsh here since the ones who comes to this novel uninitiated to Strand's previous novels will probably go "WOW!" and several of the reviews of this book bears that out.

But it's Strand, which means you are going to read something by a skilled storyteller who has a true talent with clever dialog and wears his heart on his sleeve. That is why I liked it and give it a recommendation.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Horrors from San Diego.

San Diego Horror Professionals: Vol. 1 

By  David Agranoff, Robert Essig, Bryan Killian, Chad Stroup, Ryan C. Thomas, and Anthony Trevino

Publisher: Grand Mal Press 

Pub Date: October 11, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Writing is a local affair. Put aside the dubious achievement of the internet for a minute. Take a look at the development of many great writers and you will see the influences of regions and groups. Locales are is in the names of many legendary groups or the organizations are associated with a locale; The Bloomsbury Group, The Algonquin Round Table, The Inklings(Oxford) etc. Writers benefit by contact and the intimate exchange of ideas that can't be found over an email.

Now I am not saying that the San Diego Horror Professionals are ready to ascend into any of the heights of the previously mentioned groups. But that essential camaraderie is provided by their contact and meetings. Plus, they have taken one tiny step to hopeful immortality. They have published what is hoped to be the first of a series of short collections showcasing their talents. In Volume I , there is short fiction by six writers, all from the San Diego area and all having decidedly awesome writers chops. All six stories work and all six stories are a hoot to read. Lets go through them...

1. "The River Kings" by Ryan C. Thomas. This has a supernatural bent at some point but what made me squirm was the gut-wrenching action as the main protagonist is caught in a deadly struggle with a wild beast. The author has a way with action and the ending was a interesting twist but it was the more natural horror of survival that caught my attention. Either way, it is a great tale.

2. "The New Music" by Chad Stroup. From its first paragraph it is obvious the author has a way with words. This is a post apocalyptic zombie tale told through the perspectives of 5 record store employees. Each character is introduced with their "playlist" which sets the stage and the attitude. This piece of fiction perhaps impressed me the most. It is a well worn theme but from a different perspective than we usually see. One line from the first paragraph, "Not everyone is prepared for their final fandango" give you a hint of what's to come in Stroup's rather substantial phrase building department.

3. "Watch Your Step" by Bryan Killian. This work feels traditional in a good way. It is very Bloch. The protagonist is a security guard in a nursing home and the horror of the short fiction comes, as does many good horror tales, from a common but unexpected source. It is simple but scary just like a good Bloch or Matheson yarn.

4. "Mister Crow Reporting" by David Agranoff. Agranoff is the only one of the six I have read before . I have always liked his work and this one does not disappoint. It is a softer piece that doesn't really hit you with the punchline until the end . Then you might say, "Wait a minute. I better read this again". I like stories like that.

5." Starving Artist" by Robert Essig. I am wary of picking a favorite out of these six works but this is a doozy. It has a delicious Twilight Zone feel . The basic plot is of a woman who falls in love with a painting by a somewhat sleazy looking sidewalk artist and buys more than she realizes. It is a little clever and a lot wicked.

6. "Good Samaritans" by Anthony Trevino. While this is a horror story, it is also the most "bizarro" of the bunch. At first, it seems like it is going to be a take off on wannabee vigilantes but it turns into something else. It is another story meriting a second read and is a meaty tale on which to end the collection.

This is the kind of collection I would like to see writers from other localities put together. it is a nice way to explore the terrain, so to speak. What I can say after reading this is that San Diego spooky thrills are not just at the Whaley House. As for those who do live in San Diego, support your local horr

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Punk Rock Fiction

Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits

Edited by Sam Richard and M. P. Johnson


Publisher: Weirdpunk Books

Pub Date: September 16, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Despite my older age, I have developed a fondness for punk rock and I have a pretty good knowledge of the bands from The Sex Pistols to Rancid. The Misfits is a band I have heard of but never really listened to. With a little research, I discovered they were one of the first and foremost bands to play horror punk, a music sub-genre that borrows deeply from horror books and movies for their inspiration. So it seems fitting that M. P. Johnson and Sam Richard would edit a collection titled Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to the Misfits.. Johnson wrote a nice but brief introduction that explains the band's appeal and their connection to the horror genre. It puts the reader into the mood for the 15 stories to follow. Before reading this, I did a crash course in Misfits tracks and, even from that brief binge, I can attest that these writers captured the mood of the music quite well.

What I don't know is if the collected fiction is actually based on the songs or themes but the rapidly paced and rude mood is certainly there. Matthew Vaughn's "Eliminate the Entire Human Race" starts out the madness with a zombie tale told from the zombie's view. "Slice-and-Grab" by Mark Zirbel is a no nonsense grunge piece where body organ stealing is a popular obsession. Almost all the stories in this collection are fast and dirty with large doses of gore and attitude. The one slightly more mellow surprise was David Agranoff's "She is on the Run" which seemed more suited for a baby boomer like me. But even then there is a evil twist to it.

All of the short fiction fits the bill. Yet they do so to the point that they have a sameness. I do not think that is necessarily a weakness considering this is a tribute to a band with a distinct hardcore style. While all the authors have clear gifts in writing and narrative, I think a better knowledge of the band and the music than I have might help to bring it all together for the reader. Nonetheless, there is some real talent here, enough to get me to check the author bios at the end to see what else they have written. By all means, if you are a horror punk aficionado , get this. If not, you still might like it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A fungus among us


By William Meikle


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub Date: january 17, 2016

Rating: 4  & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Horror and science fiction writers love to mess up our world. Whether it is a plague, an invasion, or some evil scientific experiment gone wrong, the weirder and more gruesome it is, the better. In Fungoid, the threat slated to destroy Earth as we know it is a little of all three. It seems to come down in the rain, then becomes a fungus that eat and invade any organism it can find. The idea of an invading organism coming down in raindrops gave me a few giggles as I thought of "Chubby Rain" in the movie Bowfinger. But once I removed that thought from my mind I was ready for the well written and seriously tense horror to be found in Fungoid. William Meikle outdoes himself in the world destroying plague department. Is the world eventually destroyed or do the humans manage to stumble through to a last minute save so they can live to fight another day. That is the dilemma in this non-stop action thriller that is part science fiction and part horror extravaganza. In novels like this, survival is never a given.

This is indeed action packed but the author does write some very good protagonists into the mix. There are four narrations going on that come together at the end. The most involving is the struggle of Dr. Rohit Patel as he attempts to find out what the fungus is and how to stop its dangerous spread. Meikle places little tidbits on fungus and plants through the book that add to our knowledge while we tense up for the battle between man and fungoid. There is also the two separate accounts of Shaun Lovatt who is trying to get back to his family, and his wife and children who are just trying to stay alive. Then there is Jim Noble, a member of a rapid response team who becomes part of the problem, All four stories fit together seamlessly. it's a graduate lesson on how to use multiple narratives to tell a larger story.

What the fungus is and how it gets here is part of the fun. The plot reminds me of a number of known science fiction disaster and invasion tales, Night of the Triffids, No Blade of Grass, and A Matter for Men being a few. Yet Fungoid is like none of them. Meikle's invading organism is both familiar and alien is its form and intention. These types of plague/invasion novels are usually fun but Meikle has made his story an especially neat treat of science fiction suspense and horror. I smell a movie in the future. Who knows? it would make a good one!

Friday, November 11, 2016

All in the family

Siren of Depravity

By Gary Fry

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: October 25, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I don't know If Lovecraft understood what a rich tableau he was creating with the Cthulhu Mythos when he first started putting his ideas to paper. Even in the 21th century, horror writers still find new things to add and embellish to the Lovecraftian universe.

Gary Fry is one of the newer writers in the ever-growing Lovecraftian Circle, so to speak. Almost all of the books he has written have clear Lovecraftian elements if not thoroughly entrenched. Siren of Depravity is full blown Mythos with the Old Ones threatening to emerge into reality. Harry Keyes, a college professor with a wife and daughter gets a phone call from his estranged brother Dexter. His brother always seemed a bit off in some very disturbing ways and some of it starts to make sense when he tell harry why he wanted to see him. it also helps Harry understand their abusive father and why his father focused that abuse more on Dexter than Harry, the older brother. Harry goes on a quest for the truth and the terrors that accompany that truth are not far behind.

Nothing supernatural or Lovecraftian shows up until about a third into the book. The author spends that time giving us a portrayal on Harry and his family that set up the tensions. This is what makes Siren of Depravity his best novel to date. It is as much as a family drama as a horror novel and Fry has melded both together quite well. Again we see quite a bit of influence from fellow Lovecraftian writer and Britisher Ramsey Campbell. This blending of suburban domesticity and academia is noted in Fry's other works but it really stands out here. When we do discover the "skeletons" in the Keyes family, they are revealed to us a little at a time to let the terror build up. The end is quite powerful but it is also open-ended enough to take the fear and the angst with us.

As stated, this is so far the best of quite a few novels I have read by the author. It has one of the nicest build-ups I've read in this genre and has elements of true terror. Some of it involves themes of physical and sexual abuse that may be uncomfortable to some readers but are far from gratuitous. For those looking for good horror, Lovecraftian or not, this gets a high recommendation.