Friday, August 29, 2014

Or is it Doctor Whom?

Doctor Who: The Crawling Terror

By Mike Tucker


Publisher:  Broadway Books 

Pub. Date: Sept. 9, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


I was first introduced to Doctor Who in the 70s. At that time we Americans were getting the episodes of Tom Baker as the fourth doctor. Tom Baker was pretty much responsible for taking Doctor Who from an obscure BBC import on PBS to an legitimate cult phenomena in the states. To most of my generation, Tom Baker will always be The Doctor. But the fans still keep up and now thanks to BBC America, we are now enjoying the 12th doctor (or is it 13th? That turn with John Hurt has me confused).

I even went to the first U.S. Doctor Who convention (1978?) in Los Angeles. While I was there, I loaded up on the the novelizations of the TV episodes that were only available as British imporst. Terrence Dick wrote most of them and he was the primary script editor of the show. All in all, they were very disappointing, aping the dialog and action in a rather pedestrian way. They also seemed rather childish which makes sense since Tom Baker's episode were in many ways the bridge from thinking of Doctor Who as a children show to a cult show loved by adults. It basically led me to believe that the original script writers were not very talented when it came to writing books. But of course there is always an exception as in Douglas Adams who fooled everyone and wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Now it is 40 years later. The Doctor Who franchise is stronger than ever. The series can not in any way be called children TV and the plots and themes are complex and they are not even afraid to throw in a few innuendos now and then. So here I am, holding another novelization, this time about the 12th doctor and his sidekick, Clara titled The Crawling Terror. I am holding it with both excitement and dread.

I have to say. Not all good but not bad. Douglas Adams should be proud if not overjoyed. The dialogue is true to the show. I have not seen the episode The Crawling Terror so I can't say for sure but i would not be surprised if the dialog is pretty accurate. Friends who have seen the new doctor tell me this book catches his personality well. More importantly, the author Mike Tucker is a galaxy better than the older novelization and he moves both the action and interplay between characters well. The novel reads fast and will entertain you for a couple of hours max.

The plot? This is where I am a little fascinated with it. Doctor Who and Clara land in a village in Wiltshire where there are giant insects and zombiefied villagers. There is a stone ring involved, mad scientists and even Nazi collaborator. (The TARDIS is a time machine, remember?) The fascinating thing is that, for my first pick at a recent novelization, I seem to pick an episode that feels like a throwback to the old doctors: Buggy monsters, military allies, those nazi scientists, and a misquided earthling. But I still enjoyed it.

The bottom line is, if you are already a Who fan you will enjoy this. But no way it is essential. If you do not know The Doctor, this little novelization may be a good introduction since you do not need to know much back story to be entertained by it. But the TV show is really where to start. First read up on the Doctor's background (Wikipedia may do the trick) so you can understand some of the complexities and intricacies, then flip on the show and munch on some popcorn.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A quarterly horror bonanza

Dark Discoveries - Issue #28


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Disclaimer No. 1: I write book reviews for Dark Discoveries. In fact, one of my reviews appear on page 102 of this issue.

Disclaimer No. 2: I am not above bragging about it.

OK. On to the review.

Dark Discoveries is a quarterly magazine devoted to the horror and fantasy genre and published by Journalstone, LLC. The first thing that hits you is the professional allure of the magazine. there is a catchy cover that features a provocative looking female running from a zombie. Dark Discoveries magazines as of late seem to have a fondness for provocative and sexy females but I must say I enjoy the mildly camp but slick cover style.

But there is nothing campy about what is between the covers. Dark Discoveries includes both fiction and non-fiction, usually covering a specific theme per magazine. This issue, number 28 has a zombie theme. Most of the articles relate to that theme in one way or another. This is the kind of magazine I sit down with and read from cover to cover in one continuous session. It is that good.

It is the fiction I read it for. It offers only original material and the six stories for this issue are by Graham Masterson, Kevin J. Anderson, Gene O'Neill. Harry Shannon, Brett J Tulley, and Tim Waggoner. They are all worth reading but Gene O'Neill's psychopathic (and non-zombie) delight titled "On the Right Side of the Road" is perhaps the best of the lot. TIm Waggoner's "The Talking Dead" comes in a close second with its unusual take on the undead. The only disappointment was Graham Masterson's "Unholy Ghost" not because it was not good but because it was not a short tale but an excerpt from his upcoming novel, Plague of the Manitou I must admit though. It really sells the novel.

But let's not downplay the non-fiction. There are interviews with Graham Masterson, Doug Bradley, Jeffrey Combs (one of my favorite B-movie actors), Troma's Lloyd and Pat Kaufman and Native-American horror writer Owl Goingback. I also enjoyed the retrospective look at Italian zombie films. On top of all this, you will find an ongoing comic series by Joe McKinney and Patrick Freivald. There are also plenty of regular features written by such luminaries as Yvonne Navarro, Jonathan Mayberry and others that cover cryptozoic creatures, YA novels, movie monsters and other things that go bump in the night. Last but not least are the book and movie reviews which are selected from the Hell Notes web site, also owned by Journalstone, LLC.

Overall, there is a lot of entertainment and information packed in 110 pages. Just like its predecessors, Dark Discoveries Issue # 28 is sure to be an enjoyable read as long as you have that yen for horror fiction and movies.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The first modern anti-war novel

All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Classic Flashback #2

Back in 1986, a friend of mine, who was a Vietnam War veteran asked me to go see the movie Platoon with him. As we walked out of the theater, he was unusually quiet but asked me what I thought of the film. I responded that I thought it was excellent but I also admitted that I thought parts were confusing for a war film. "Often I couldn't tell who was shooting at who." I said. He grabbed my arm and said excitedly."THAT IS WHAT IT WAS LIKE!"

Every war has its own uniqueness. It has its unique horrors but also share universal horrors with other wars, not just those of physical destruction but also mental and even spiritual destruction. Erich Maria Remarque's classic war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front has two great achievements. First, it takes us to World War I and allows us to see its unique horrors in the eyes of the combatants. It is an riveting almost documentary style accounting of the combat of war. Second, it addresses the universal horrors for the young men caught in its grip; the lost of innocence, the exploitation, and the suffering, physical, mental and existential. But it is also perhaps the first great ant-war novel. The author takes us into the war through the narration of a young student who, with his closest classmates, volunteer at the urgings of their patriotic and romantic professor. What he experiences is nothing like the visions of his elders and his nations' leaders. Remarque has an astoundingly powerful style that excels in both descriptive observations and the ability to make clear the most harrowing feelings. In one portion of the novel, the men have been bombarded with bombs for days, never seeing their attackers. Then they move forward and meet them face to face...

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down, Now, for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and be avenged.

Remarque does not ignore the power of war in the most quiet moments...
To me the front is a mysterious whirlpool, Thought I am in still waters far away from its centre. I feel the whirl of the vortex sucking me slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself

And this may be the most powerful statement describing the lost of innocence during war I've ever read...
We are like forlorn children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial. I believe we are lost.

All Quiet of the Western Front should be required reading for all high school students. Its meaning and power is as strong as it was almost 80 years ago. It is the very definition of a enduring masterpiece.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A quietly powerful masterpiece

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

By Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Knopf 

Pub. Date: August 12, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Tsukuru Tazaki has four close friends, two men and two women. They all have names that means colors; Red, Blue, White, and Black. Tsukuru is colorless. His name means “Builder”. But he sees himself as colorless in other ways. He perceive his friends as having special talents while he thinks he has none. He sees himself as drab only finding meaning with his friends and wondering what they see in him. When his friends suddenly drop him from their life with no explanation, it is devastating and he falls into a suicidal depression for months. While he recovers he never does totally, wondering why his friends abandoned him. It is now 17 years later.

That is the basic plot of Haruki Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami has essentially two types of books. There are the surrealist magical realism novels like Kafka by the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Then there are his more intimate and realistic novels like Norwegian Wood. His last novel 1Q84 was somewhere in between. With Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, he returns the real world and writes a very down-to-earth chronicle of a very troubled man. While I prefer the more surrealistic novels I think Tazaki (as we shall call it so I don’t wear out my fingers) is the best of his other type of story. The book starts out with an almost morbid description of Tazaki’s depression to the point that the reader may wonder what he is getting into. But as we learn more about Tazaki we understand him and worry about him. Tazaki wonders why he cannot hold on to relationships and his current girlfriend Sarah thinks he will need to confront his ex-friends from 17 years ago in order to move on. Sarah is an abnormality in a Murakami novel; a woman who is a strong stable influence and is not disassociating over something. It is a nice exception to Murakami’s cast of insecure seekers.

This is a strong work for Murakami. It features some of his most intimate and personal writing. I always felt Murakami puts a lot of his own seeking and insecurity into his novel but I have no doubt here that he is writing a very personal tale even if it is totally fictional. He seems to be exploring the effects of relationships; not only what they give to us but what they take away. It also explores our sense of identity in how we see ourselves and why. Despite its depressing beginning, it is in a lot of ways the author’s most positive novel. Plus he still has the sparse but exquisite way of making the simplest observation a cornucopia of wisdom. It is probably a compliment to say the only weakness to this new novel is that the author does not include any cats! Murakami always give you a new way of seeing the world, the ones who mean most to us, and ourselves.

Tazaki may not be a masterful epic like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or 1Q84 and it may not have the magical complexity of Kafka on the Shore. However it is still one of his most powerful novels and if you like your Murakami down-to-earth, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will be a fine recommendation

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The fine line between reality and fantasy

The Sleeping Dead

By Richard Farren Barber


Publisher:  DarkFuse

Pub. Date: August 12, 2014

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 5 star


Every writer of science fiction and horror seems to have an apocalypse. But Richard Farren Barber's version may hit too many people too close to home. In The Sleeping Dead the world is hit with a suicide epidemic. people are killing themselves and those who do not actively commit the act will sit down and waste away. These are the ones our protagonist calls the sleeping dead. The two survivors Jackson and Susan battle against the voices and their suicidal urges using their short term goals goals and the support of each other as their only weapons.

This is a short novella where its strengths and weaknesses end up battling each other not unlike its two protagonists. On one hand, the author is skillful in putting to print the thoughts of a suicidal person and the conflicts that engulfs them. On the other hand, it may be a misstep to take a struggle many people live each day and place in in a apocalyptic setting. With the suicide plague unexplained, the reader may wonder where real life begins and the horrors ends. Or maybe there is no separation. Perhaps that is Barber's point. Yet I found myself hoping for and never receiving an explanation. In some apocalyptic novels , the lack of explanation works well. Here it doesn't. There is an incompleteness to this novella that conflicts with the excellent emotional description and skillful prose. To put it bluntly, it's a good start to a longer story. I find myself wanting to recommend it for what it is and simultaneously wishing it was more. Overall, it doesn't hit the three star level so I am l left with a two and a half star tale.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

When zombies attack!

Z Plan: Blood on the Sand

By Mikhail Lerma

Publisher: Permuted press

Pub. Date: July 23, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It should be noted that Z Plan: Blood on the Sand is the first book in a series. There is nothing more annoying to me than a novel than has a cliffhanger ending when the author does not warn you it is the first book of a series. So when Mikhail Lerma and his publisher avoids this trap and lets the reader know this from the beginning, I become extremely grateful.

But it also gives me another challenge. No longer is the review just about whether I like the book or not. it also becomes: Is it good enough to warrant investing time and money to the rest of the series?

Let's hold off on that question and consider the first one.

Blood on the Sand starts in Iraq with US army soldier Cale involved in his tour of duty and missing his family. However a unexplained plague of zombies cuts him and his friends off from the rest of the world when the creatures invade the army base. With the base virtually destroyed, Cale and three of his friends make a Zombie Plan; to leave Iraq and head to the Mediterranean where they hope to catch a boat to go home to America. Technically they are deserters but with the rest of the world on the brink of extinction, it seems to be a moot point.

One of the best things about this novel is how the author uses his military experience to write a very believable scenario, except for the zombies of course, involving the attack on the base. The first third of the novel is a creative blend between a military novel and a zombie tale. Lerma's zombies are pretty much straight out of Walking Dead; mindless and always hungry. However the author does the very wise move of focusing our attention on one character and his reason to survive. Cale is likable and determined but no superman. He has his weaknesses and doubts which makes me want to root for him even more. We feel his pain when he needs to make a decision that has no easy answers. The ability for the author to make his main character a good man in a bad situation is what makes this zombie novel different from the rest of the pack. The action segments are very well written which again attests to the author's focus on the military aspects and the reality of combat even as our heroes leave Iraq to go on their journey.

There are some aspects to the book that tells me this is a first novel. For instance, the changes in perspectives seems a bit awkward and there are some lulls in the book that break up the tensions more than necessary. But these are minor things considering how well most of the book moves and how the author keeps the reader involved in the story. Overall it is a formidable debut

But what about that cliffhanger? Am I ready to invest emotionally in the series?

In a word, yes. When I got to the end, even knowing that it would be continued, I felt I read a complete first part of the series. The ending, which of course I won't reveal, was a satisfying first installment that had me looking forward to a more revealing second installment. That is the way a series should work.

Those who crave the Zs (Zombies) and want a series whose Z Plan (Zombie Plan) has a determined and realistic protagonist will enjoy this novel. Hopefully the rest of the books will be as intriguing as Blood on the Sand for it is a very promising start.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Death served cold

The Frozen Dead

By Bernard Minier


Publisher: Minotaur Book

Pub. Date: August 12, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Bernard Minier's complex novel The Frozen Dead is a page turner. Its mystery starts with the grotesque murder of a horse and proceeds to a number of other murders of the human variety that seem to be connected. It is the job of Minier's stubborn detective Servaz and his team to place all of the clues together As you might imagine, Servaz is not necessarily thrilled to be assigned a killing of a horse as a homicide case but since the horse was the favorite steed of rich industrialist Lombard, he is pretty much stuck with it. Then the DNA of a infamous serial killer is found on the horse's corpse and he becomes very interested. The problem is that the serial killer is locked up in a nearby institution for the criminally insane and there is no way he could have escaped. Switch over to Diane, a psychology student who just started working at the same institution. She quickly becomes suspicious of some of the staff and the footprints of people wandering at night does not alleviate those concerns.

The Frozen Dead continues with these two narratives, switching from one to the other. Yet Diane's viewpoint is second fiddle to Servaz's and we spend most of the time "watching the detective", to quote a song by Elvis Costello. This is a wise move since Martin Servaz is easily the most dimensional and interesting character in the book. He comes with his own baggage and a heightened sense of perception that rivals those of other fictional detectives. For the most part this is a riveting two-thirds of a novel. Yet at that point there develops too many false leads and too many coincidences to justify the somewhat disappointing conclusion. In a way Bernard Minier may be the French Harlan Coben in that he starts out like gangbusters and then pulls together too many improbable events at the end to warrant the "suspension of disbelief" that is often necessary in a good thriller. However he does have a gift for description that really puts the reader into the time and place of the story.

Overall, this is a nice introduction to a writer that has all the skills and hooks to become an exceptional mystery author. Despite a not-so-exceptional ending, I do recommend this novel and advise that you keep an eye out for this author in the future.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Literary horror on the Texas border.

The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World

By Brian Allen Carr


Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press 

Pub. Date: May 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Brian Allen Carr's The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World features the author's sparse but very literary style in a short novel of about 120 pages, yet managed to fill each page with jarring descriptions and fantastical imagery enough for 10 books. He seems to enjoy flash fiction styled chapters that teases the mind and delight the eyes evidenced in the first paragraph (and chapter) of the novel...
"Scrape, Texas - far from fame or infamy - appeared on maps, was passed through by travelers. A blink of crummy buildings, wooden households - the harsh-hearted look of them, like a thing that's born old."
And on to the next chapter.

Scrape, Texas is indeed a desolate blink of the eye. Its residents might be called losers but they never appeared to have been anyplace but Scrape and never had the choice of either winning or losing. When Carr's bizarre apocalypse arrives, you can almost hear the sigh of "What now?" coming from the town's inhabitants. The author evokes a number of Latin American mythologies in his very literary end of the world, appropriately so since the fictional town of Scrape exists close to the West Texas-Mexico border. Many sections are fittingly disturbing and horrific. But I am not sure this should be called a horror novel. From the first few pages, Carr have created an eerily accurate description of small town desert life with its drunks, gun aficionados, directionless teens, and a endless sense of resignation. It takes Mexican apparitions like La Llorona, disembodied hands and the whip-ladened El Abuelo to truly pull Scrape's inhabitants out of their present indifference.

The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World is best read as a painting in prose; a look at taken-for-granted ennui placed on its head and shaken. It is a beautifully odd and quirky vision. There may be some hidden meaning to life in this work but if there is, Carr is going to make you work for that meaning. Yet it is unarguable that this thoughtful work reads quickly and effortlessly in a way that keeps the reader both entertained and pleasantly, if disturbingly, disoriented. The only minor issue is with the ending that comes abruptly, leaving the reader thinking, "And then what?". But it fits. There is nothing ordinary about this novel. If you are looking for something different in literary fiction, you found it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Sci-Fi Terror


By Tim Curran

Publisher: DarkFuse

Pub. Date: August 19, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

This seems to be Tim Curran's year. First with the superlative Nightcrawlers, then the almost as good supernatural thriller Deadlock, and now with Blackout, Tim Curran has surfaced as one of the new masters of horror. Unfortunately I seem to be the only one trumpeting his name from the forbidden towers. If there is a Lovecraftian ancient one somewhere under the ground listening to my exhortations, I predict I will not be the only one saying this very much longer. Curran has a gift at making the most horrible creature into a dark vision of poetry even as they are terrorizing the novel's hero.. and usually doing worse.

Take his new book Blackout. It is a short novella slightly over 100 pages. But in only a few of those pages, the author has set up a normal suburb, a normal average set of neighbors, and then rudely tears them down with a deliciously grotesque invasion featuring tentacled machines and bat like creatures. Blackout is essentially a science fiction alien invasion story yet it is interesting how Curran adds a decidedly Lovecraftian feel to the description of his monsters. Blackout is full of creep-out moments along with the more overt moments of terror. Despite its sci-fi overtones, this is essentially a pure horror tale.

Tim Curran is one of those writers who doesn't take prisoners. He seems to like stories that focus on the nature of the horror. He tends to meet his plot head on and not in detours about secret meanings and characterization. If there is any weakness to his novels, it is that his characters do not stray very far from the moment and we do not get what could be call a three dimensional look at them. Yet in the context of the plot, his characters are very real. I guess if I was dealing with tentacles falling from the sky, I would not necessarily be thinking about puppies and Samuel Beckett...well maybe about Samuel Beckett.

So the conclusion is that Blackout is a short but thoroughly tense and enjoyable horror tale from one of the best writers of the genre out there. Give it a try and if you like it, graduate to the deliciously terrifying Nightcrawlers.