Saturday, November 29, 2014

A sublime and unseen terror

Bird Box

By Josh Malerman

Publisher: Ecco

Pub. Date: May 13, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Of all the terrors that you read about in the horror genre, I believe that nothing is scarier and more suspenseful than the horror of nothing. By that I mean the horror that engulfs you in spite of having no knowledge of what it is that is actually destroying you. Lovecraft was good at this. His monsters didn't usually kill you by force but played with your mind in the most terrifying ways. That is why Lovecraft seem to love the phrase "unspeakable horrors" which implied terrors too awful to describe or to speak of. It's a mental thing. In a very different way, Josh Malerman embodies that same fear in Bird Box and takes it a step further. In this very unique and relentless dystopian horror novel, we never see the monsters and, at first, we are not even sure they exist. Anyone who sees these creatures become instantly insane and it is not long before only a few people still survive by staying locked inside with all the windows boarded and covered. When anyone goes out they go out blindfolded, which only increase the feeling of apprehension and uncertainty in the protagonist...and the reader.

At the beginning of Bird Box, Malorie and her two children, both four years old, are about to leave their house and row up a river to a yet undisclosed destination. They will do it blindfolded. As they depart, we learn through flashbacks how Malorie came to this situation and how this apocalyptic nightmare began. Malerman does an excellent job transmitting terror through emotions and dread, the horrible "things" are never really known or shown but we do find out the consequences of seeing them. This is an apocalyptic horror novel about psychological fears, whether intentional or otherwise. It is a major feat to write a novel that successfully depict a major apocalypse where the characters are either blindfolded or trapped indoors. The novel's sense of horror can be described as an exquisite form of claustrophobia where, even in the open, you are enclosed by your own voluntary darkness. The author's sleek and direct style keeps the reader involved with a effortless switching back and forth from present to past. Bird Box is an exceptional surprise in this years crop of horror novel and has flown to the top at number one horror novel published this year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A collection of mystical fantasy

Aberrations of Reality

By Aaron J. French


Publisher:  Crowded Quarantine Publications

Pub. Date: September 29, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 


Aaron J. French's collection of mystical fiction may not always be an easy read. I believe that is because the average reader has learned to strive on a steady diet of zombies, vampires and ghosts that are designed to scare and not necessarily to make you think. Aaron J. French makes you think. He eschews the easy scare and gravitates toward the confounding and inexplicable. The stories in Aberations of Reality are often as mystical and forbidding as the collection's title. But that plays into the strength of the author as his writing is as intelligent as it is otherworldly.

The stories in this collection seem to hark back to an older tradition. They are not Lovecraftian as much as they are Blackwoodian, if such a term exists. Like Algernon Blackwood, and to a lesser extent William Hope Hodgson, French seems not so much terrorized of the unexplained as in awe. All of the stories have a theme regarding alternative realities and universes overlapping into our own reality usually with devastating consequences. Most of the tales involve dreams as a important part of the plot and as a clue to understanding different realities. The first story titled "Doubting Thomas" is a fitting one as it involves a hedonistic seeker whose idol, a Alister Crowley clone named Phillip P. Vernon (uncomfortably close to another name I am familiar with, don't ya think?), who "gets religion" so to speak. It has a nice open-ended climax that keeps you wondering after you turn the page. The next story. "Dweller in the Cracks" despite its Lovecraftian title is a bit more conventional involving cats and neighbors that may not be what they appear to be. Perhaps the best and scariest story is "Whirling Machine Man" a gruesome tale involving a private investigator seeking answers to the disappearance and subsequent amputation of a young boy. I was also pleasantly spooked by "When Clown Face Speaks" mainly because clowns have always made me uncomfortable to begin with. "Golden Doors to a Golden Age" is one of those stories that reveal an admiration of the mystical as well as a fear of the unknown, as does "Tree of Life". Most of these tales uses religious symbols quite well and many of them are brave enough not to disguise the spiritual aspects of their plot. Overall, French's collection is quite strong and if there are some stories that do not work as well as you would hope, a stronger one will soon be found. I would recommend this to any lover of short fiction and equally, to any aficionado of intelligent horror and fantasy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A tight and effective P.I. novella

A Bone Dead Sadness

By Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Gere Donovan Press

Pub. Dale: August 10, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2/ out of 5 stars

Marvin Hansen is slightly different than Joe R. Lansdale's usual East Texas misfits, even if he hangs around Hap and Leonard and gives them jobs once in a while. Marvin is an ex-detective, now private investigator. His messed up leg doesn't keep him from doing his job or delivering a little physical payback from time to time. He is married but not necessarily happily since he was caught in an affair and the marriage is still healing. Marvin is offered a job by an elderly well-to-do woman to find her missing son. The problem is that he has been missing for 25 years.

A Bone Dead Sadness (great title!) also seems a little retro. While it is set in Lansdale's usual contemporary East Texas setting, it feels more like a traditional gumshoe story. Hansen is smart and tough and has more than a little Sam Spade in him. Hanson is surely not unknown to Lansdale aficionados, being a regular in the Hap and Leonard series and a primary character in Act of Love. Yet here he is front and center with a P.I.'s keen observational skills and raw nerve. A Bone Dead Sadness may feel like a typical gumshoe novella but it is a very fine one. "Too short" is a legitimate complaint for the Lansdale fan but not necessarily fair since the author sets out to write a certain story and does it well. No frills, no fat, all lean. If my rating seems a little low, it is based on a thorough knowledge of the heights Lansdale can take a reader. For the reader new to the writer's world of suspense, this would be a fine starting point.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A twisted affair

Last Winter We Parted

By Fuminori Nakamura


Publisher:  Soho Press 

Pub. Date: October 21, 2014

Rating; 2 out of 5 stars

In many ways, Japanese suspense and mystery novels are an acquired taste. They tend to be darker than American and European novels of the same genre and more likely to be inundated with strange, unlikable and, dare I say, inscrutable characters. They also tend to be amazingly imaginative and philosophically oriented. Fuminori Naklamura's Last Winter We Parted is certainly all of that. Yet as a whole it is not all that exciting.

The basic plot involves a journalist who is interviewing a man, a photographer by trade, on death row who killed two women by setting them on fire. He admits to killing them but blames the women himself. The journalist's investigation leads to the the commended man's sister and an artist that makes dolls resembling the buyer's loved ones. Quickly the journalist becomes intimately involved with the sister and is pulled into their twisted relationships. He begins to regret his involvement in the investigation. This all leads to a surprising and satisfying twist at the end.

So what's the problem? While the protagonist becomes overly involved and entrenched in the story, we do not. There is very little to involve us. All the characters are too unlikeable and we know very little about them even after a few convoluted back-stories. But the main culprit is the poor structuring of the story. There is a mix of first person narrative plus narration through letters and even Twitter. It is often nearly impossible to figure out whose perspective we are looking at. The result is a disorienting mix of viewpoints that blunt any chance for involvement. When we get to the end we can appreciated the strange twist but it is a cold appreciation of style over emotion. In foreign language novels, it is easy to blame the translation and I do think there is some blame headed that way. But mainly the author 's obsession with literary style becomes as relentless as his allegedly murderous photographer's obsession for his art. Overall, it was a impressive attempt to tell a different type of thriller yet not a successful one.

Monday, November 10, 2014

More strange wonders from Gary Fry


By Gary Fry

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: September 22, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

This is the third of 3 reviews on new releases in Darkfuse's continuing series of new novellas in the horror genre.

I have been keeping close tabs on Gary Fry's writing. He is one of those horror writers that seem to be onto something different and always experimenting. He comes across traditional but innovative at the same time. I like that. If he doesn't always hit the nail on the head he at least dents it every time he puts pen to paper.

In Mutator, he not only hits the nail on the head, he rams it through the floorboard. A professor has moved into his new country home. Problems start when he discovers a six inch hole in his yard which leads down into his basement, a basement that he finds is much larger than he thought. He finds notes and drawings that shows the previous owner was exploring this phenomenon. He also finds a six inch sphere that could have made the hole. What occurs next becomes the gist of this eerie and involving tale.

I believe this particular works really shows off some of the authors' influences. The eerie descriptions and settings of a dark mood evokes much of Ramsey Campbell's style. Most prevalent in this story is a similarity to the Lovecraftian leanings of the Lovecraft Circle. Have you ever kept thinking of a writer when you read something but you can't explain why? In this situation, I kept thinking, "Clark Ashton Smith". If Fry does not love the tales of CAS, I will be shocked. Even if the main theme of Mutator is science fiction and not supernatural, the sense of doom and dread is there especially at the beginning. But that changes. The protagonist's feeling toward the entity of the story evolves and we find ourselves involved in how that change happens. The change from a vague fear to (no spoilers) is what makes the tale different from much of the horror out there and why Gary Fry deserves to be read. Highly recommended at four and a half stars. As much as I loved this one, I am still waiting for the Fry novel that floors me. I am pretty sure it is there somewhere.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A tale of childhood fears

In the Shadows of Children

By Alan Ryker

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: November 11, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Alan Ryker is fast becoming one of my favorite writers of horror. He is one of a few horror writers that knows how to deftly balance terror with realistic human emotions. His books are often just as much about human relationships as being about the things that go bump in the night or, in this case, in the closet.

As in Ryker's amazing Dream of the Serpent, there is a theme about how the consequences of our our simplest actions can scar us for the rest of our life. It does not hurt that theme when the author connects a supernatural entity to that consequence. That fact still holds meaning for us in our natural world. In this book titled In the Shadows of Children, another of Darkfuse's long and exciting line of novellas, Aaron returns home for the funeral of his mother after a 15 year absence. He appears to have a great deal of guilt about leaving his younger brother 15 years earlier especially since shortly after that, his brother disappeared and was never heard from again. Aaron also seems to have forgotten a number of events that occurred before he abandoned his brother. In classic haunted house style there appears to be an entity in the old house that is about to remind him of those events.

Ryker in evoking a well known childhood fear here, that of the boogeyman in the closet. As children, most of us know the boogeyman and have at least a few memories of him being in the closet or under the bed. I like where the author takes us in his rendition of the myth. Yet I appreciate even more Ryker's understanding of family connections and what the severance of those connection can cause. For a short novel of about 70 pages, there is a lot of drama packed into it. The tale doesn't have the complexity of Dream of the Serpent yet it is still full with emotion and, of course, honest scares. Overall this would be a great introduction to one of the most promising horror writers in this generation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A ghoulish delight

Oasis of the Damned

By Greg F. Fifune

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: December 9, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Oasis of the Damned by Greg F. Gifune is another short fiction work published as an eBook by horror specialists Darkfuse. I will be reviewing two more in succession in these next few days. Darkfuse seems to like these novellas and so do I. So I am delighted they keep throwing them out like little French pastries for the horror fans to gobble up. Oasis at the Damned is about 71 pages of nightmare and doesn't waste time getting into the horrific groove. It starts with a plane crash in a desolate part of the North African desert. The survivor of the crash is met by another person who states he also crashed weeks ago. He takes her to a ruined fort that has enough water and food to survive. He also seems hurried to be in the fort by night. Why is quickly discovered and it brings us to the harrowing meat of this novella.

I have heard of Gifune before but this is the first thing I have ever read anything of his. His name is one of those that comes up frequently when the discussion turns to the future lights of horror and supernatural literature. It becomes obvious why that is so as I read his precise descriptive prose and realize how much he can pack in a few paragraphs. Oasis of the Damned is nothing if not frightening, riveting and a bit rough on the nerves. At first it seems like a zombie survival story yet through the use of some dream sequences, the reader gets a hint that there is more than attacks and screams to these zombie, or more precisely ghoul or ghul, story. The ending is quite satisfying. However I felt the overall affect was a little too Twilight Zone to say I was bowled over. It had the curious consequence of being a tightly knit and powerful but somewhat predictable story by a writer who can write the pants off of an ant. But there is no getting around the fact that it is an excellent story by someone who deserved to be read by anyone who loves the genre. it definitely gives me the urge to read more by Greg F. Gifune and that is high praise indeed. Three and a half stars.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Killers on a rampage

The World on Fire

By Sheldon Woodbury


Publisher: James Ward Kirk Publishing 

Pub. Date: August 16, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Louis Sedah aka the Angel of Death turns himself in after months of murder and arson. He is sentenced to death and is waiting his sentence on Death Row in a Colorado maximum security prison. He is about to grant an interview to David Milton, a troubled and disgraced reporter whose occupational slide went from the New York Times all the way down to the  National Enquirer. Milton is hoping an interview with The Angel of Death will revive his career. Yet once the interview starts, all hell breaks loose.

Sheldon Woodbury’s nasty little escapade titled The World on Fire is one of those books that evokes more cinematic references than literary ones.  Think Natural Born Killers meets The Devil’s Rejects meets Con Air. Yet Woodbury’s harrowing hell ride works well on paper as his group of the worst murderers on the planet, with hostage reporter and blonde bombshell groupie in tow, escape and indulge in the most terrible terrorist acts imaginable. It is very violent, a riveting roller coaster ride and, maybe, just maybe, there is some kind of post-apocalyptic social message of the subversive kind creeping around in all that fun and gore.

Woodbury’s pièce de résistance is Louis Sedah, a bigger than life monster whose abilities and charisma trumps his other less than human qualities. The author never lets us forget that Louis is relentless and merciless. As he and the seven criminal fugitives roam the country we find that his reach seems even more far reaching than we suspected. A character like Sedah runs the risk of becoming too unreal and unchecked in that the reader loses any semblance of reality and balance to the point that the protagonist becomes easy to dismiss.  Yet we also have David Milton, a man with his own burdens but still precariously able to keep his foot grounded in humanity. It is a nice balancing act. At some times, I wish Milton plays a more balancing role in this novel. He is essentially the hostage with little power and no control over the events yet his presence gives us an eyewitness with a conscience on the actions of madmen. We also find out that Sedah keeps Milton around as part of his plan. What that plan is becomes the payoff of this novel. There is also the obligatory lawman hell bent on capturing Louis yet, while his purpose to exist becomes clear at the end, he seems a bit of a detour. The real meat of the plot lies with Louis and his entourage.

I liked this novel. It flows like a weasel on fire, staying one step ahead of the reader and starting little fires as it darts in and out of the chaos. Woodbury has a smooth assured style that easily goes from one characters’ perspective to another without disturbing the narration. He tells a story with panache yet knows how not to give too much away too quickly.  It’s pretty much all you can ask for a debut novel and bodes well for a writer who knows how to keep you attention and scare the hell out of you. If you are looking something that reads like a grindhouse movie but also want something that kicks literary butt at the same time, you will probably like The World of Fire and the Angel of Death’s hellish alternate reality.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

How to dispose of a body and then some.


By Jeff Strand

Publisher: DarkFuse;

Pub. Date: December 16, 2014

Rating: 33 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Jeff Strand's short fiction piece titled Facial starts off sounding like crime noir albeit very funny crime noir. There is a murder, then another murder, then lots of murders. How we get to the multiple murder scenario is where the weird stuff sets in. Strand sort of specializes in writing what you think is one thing and then turning it on its head, in this case somewhat literally. When you get to the dead lion in the basement and the face coming out of the floor, you know things are getting a little loopy.

In Facial, we end up with a dark comedy with supernatural elements. I hate giving many details in what is a short story so I will leave the rest for the reader to discover. Short stories deserve short reviews. Let's say that Facial has all the Strand elements; sharp witty dialogue, galloping plot with hairpin turns, and an imagination that doesn't quit. There is also some of the coolest changes in narratives I have ever read. Yet this one didn't grab me like his work usually does. It may be because, just this year, Strand has already hit two home runs out of the park with Kumquat and I Have a Bad Feeling about This. Facial feels like his usual madness. Yes, I liked it. Yes, I recommend it to those who like their murders and horrors with lots of laughs. But I ended the tale feeling that it was not one of his best. Entertaining as hell but no real kick, so to speak. So I am leaving it at three and a half stars. Not bad at all but not at the head of the class.