Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A controversial psychological drama

Summer House with Swimming Pool

By Herman Koch

Publisher: Hogarth 

Pub. Date: June 3, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Dutch writer Herman Koch is one of those authors who write exquisite prose even if you feel you want to wash your hands after reading it. His characters are far from perfect and border between very imperfect and downright sleazy. Yet they wander amongst the privileged crowd; artist, doctors, producers who exude a shallow tide of civilization along with the well-hidden skeletons. Whatever your opinion of the uncomfortable topic which is slowly revealed in the novel, Koch's prose reels you in and immerses you into the plot like sirens off the shore.

Our narrator is general practitioner Dr. Marc Schlosser, who tends to an elite bunch of celebrities despite his cynicism and partially due to his generosity with prescriptions. We find out early in the book that he is being suspected of medical malpractice allegedly contributing to the death of a famous actor named Ralph Meier. Marc, the epitome of the unreliable narrator, takes us back to the beginning of Ralph and Marc's acquaintance. Friendship is too strong a word as we learn of the doctor's cynical view of his patients and human nature in general. Marc and his family, which includes two young daughters, are invited to the Meier's summer house and he becomes suspicious of Ralph's intention with his wife and daughters, a suspicion which is complicated by Marc's own infatuation with Ralph's wife, Judith.

There are few places where the phrase, "what a tangled web we weave" is so well practiced. Much of the delicious tension in this book is fueled not by action but by the complex thoughts and feelings our unreliable narrator places in his tale. We see everything from his perceptive. He is a very flawed protagonist but so is everyone else in the book. As we learn about the past events, we wonder many things. Who is responsible for the crime? (a crime which I won't reveal and hopefully you did not read the book's promo blurbs which shamelessly gives it and other things away too early) Was Dr. Schlosser's malpractice one of neglect or murder? Eventually we find these things out but I believe the author's focus isn't on the answers but on bigger questions such as why we as human beings work so hard to do the very things that make our lives so miserable. In Koch's world, good intentions are not paved with gold but with quicksand.

I've heard great things about Koch's debut novel, The Dinner. I have not read it but based on this second novel, Herman Koch seems to be a literary force to deal with. Credit should also go to the superb translation by Sam Garrett which appears to catch all the complexity of this involving novel.

Satiric Sci-Fi in the tradition of Harrison and Adams.

Starship Grifters

By Robert Kroese

Publisher: 47North 

Pub. Date: May 6, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Robert Kroese is one of the funniest writers currently putting ink to paper. His Mercury trilogy was a sublime mix of Douglas Adams and Christopher Moore. In Starship Grifters, Kroese turns his attention from fantasy to science fiction and shows he is still one funny SOB. Starship Grifters is a bit of a throwback to the 50s and 60s space operas. To be precise, it is a bit of a tribute to the satirical sci-fi novels of Harry Harrison, such as Bill, The Galactic Hero and the Stainless Steel Rat series. This should come to no surprise to Kroese since he dedicated the novel to Mr. Harrison. In this very funny and somewhat irreverent novel, The title also gives a tip of the pulp science fiction hat to Heinlein's Starship Troopers. The author follows the adventures of Rex Nihilo, a not so bright galactic con-man as narrated by his faithful sidekick android SASHA (Self-Arresting near-Sentient Heuristic Android). Everyone is this 30th century universe is as smart as a Martian rock so it is no surprise that Sasha narrates this with sardonic humility and perhaps a little surprised that Rex and the rest of the carbon based races has gotten this far. The basic plot involves Rex having won a planet...and a staggering debt attached to it... and then conjuring a plot to avoid being tortured for a million years on the prison planet of Gulagatraz. It's a convoluted plot that includes a lot of memory repression. (Rex: "Does it hurt?" Sasha: 'You won't remember a thing."). As funny as it is, Kroese's gift, as is Adams' and Moore's, is the ability to catch the quirks and inconsistencies of human nature. But if satiric sociopolitical commentary isn't your thing, don't fret. Starship Grifters is above all else an exciting and hilarious literary escape. Starship Grifters will be adored by the lovers of humorous sci-fi but is enjoyable for anyone who like funny satires.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Fantasy/ Sci-Fi hybrid with mixed results

Artificial Gods

By Thomm Quackenbush

Publisher: Double Dragon eBooks 

Pub. Date: January 21, 2013

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Artificial Gods by Thomm Quackenbush is the 3rd book of the Night's Dream series. Looking at the description of the first two novels, it is hard to figure out just what the connecting theme is, not to mention that the main characters do not appear to be the same. But upon reading this basically sci-fi book, I can say it works fine as a standalone novel.

Jasmine Brown witnesses a UFO in the upper New York state town of Pine Bush. Jasmine is rather skeptical of the sighting. Actually she is rather skeptical of many things including relationships and her sister, Chrys (short for Chrysanthemum, poor girl). But the next day, a visit by a couple Men in Black starts to make her wonder what is going on. Jasmine, Chrys and her friend Dylan ("He's not my boy friend!") become involved in strange incidents including fanatic UFO believers, mystical happenings, and pretty much every UFO phenomena known to man.

It's a enjoyable book but it's that "pretty much every UFO phenomena known to man" that keeps me from giving it a solid recommendation. I felt like the author thought he had to throw in everything about UFOs he knew. We have missing time, gray space creatures, cattle mutilations,...even Aleister Crowley get tossed around in the convoluted theory that drives this novel. It becomes a little too much for this reader and I felt the author was taking on too much for one novel. Jasmine, Chrys, and Dylan are interesting characters but the strange events often become far too numerous to allow me to stretch my capacity to suspend disbelief. I also wasn't quite sure whether this was YA or adult. The three teenagers felt like YA characters yet the level of drama and violence made me wonder.

There are some nice things going on. It is definitely a fun novel with lots of questions and weird stuff for the reader to decipher. That's the plus side of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. The author writes in some delightfully odd characters which may or may not be villains. But I missed any level of tension that is necessary to keep the reader enthralled; something that is essential for a darkish fantasy/sci-fi hybrid such as this. And again, literary restraint can be a good thing. The audience for this book, YA or not, would be young adults who have an interest in UFOlogy and the mystic. So if you are in this category, I would recommend it...just not very enthusiastically.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A new takeoff on the ghost ship


By Tim Curran


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: May 27, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Tim Curran is fast headed onto my short list of great horror writers. His novel titled Nightcrawlers took the theme of mutated Lovecraftian creatures and turned it into a non-stop terror fest. In Deadlock, he visits an old war horse, the ghost ship. What starts out like a variation of the "man spend the night on a haunted house" (in this case boat) becomes something else entirely. Tim Curran is not the type of writer who deals with cliches. He actually want to scare the panties off you. In this no sentence wasted short novel, our protagonist is an over confident man who never backs down in fear. He is also in debt to a crime figure for gambling debts worth $50,000. He is given the chance to repay by spending the night in a haunted ship. The crime boss who owns the ship wants to prove to his superstitious crew that the ship isn't really haunted. If you think that sounds too simple and pat, you're right. The author has plenty of nerve racking surprises, not to mention a gorgeous final twist nicely delivered in one last sentence. Tim Curran, based on the two books I've read, seems destined to be my go-to guy for creepy creatures and monsters. He has a sure hand for the grotesque and gruesome. An astute mind for action and suspense doesn't hurt either. Even though I liked Nightcrawlers a little better, Deadlock shows that the author can take one character and make him real enough, and in this case terrified enough, to carry the entire book. So far, I have Nightcrawlers on my list for one of the best horror novels in 2014 and Deadlock comes awfully close to joining the list.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Death, blood and hopelessness

Suffer the Children

By Craig DiLouie

Publisher: Permuted Press

Pub. Date: May 20, 2014

Rating: 2  & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Suffer the Children by Graig DeLouie is an interesting combination of apocalyptic epidemic tale and a vampire novel. But it made me think more of P. D. James' The Children of Men than any vampire book, especially in the first half. One day all the children in the world who haven't reached puberty falls dead. The phenomena is named The Herod"s Syndrome after King Herod who murdered all the children in order to kill the Jewish messiah. Two days after the mass dying, the children come back to life. At first there seems little outward change and much celebration from the families. But soon, they begin to have a yearning for blood. If not quenched, they begin to die again.

DeLouie centers his tale around basically three group of people. A blue-collar couple with two children, a wealthier single mother with one somewhat over-protected son, and a pediatrician and his wife who recently lost their son before the syndrome. It is a good setup and through the eyes of these families, we also see the devastation of society after an event that may mean their extinction. Yet I'm not really sure what kind of novel the author intended this to be. For the first half, it is a good apocalyptic novel like the previously mentioned Children of God where no children were being born into the world. Suffer the Children does a better job at focusing on the individual loss while Children of God is more of a socio-philosophical commentary. The first half was both sad and enthralling. Yet when the children rise again, the book seems to be turning into a monster tale. The world is still disintegrating and families are forced to do terrible things to survive. However switching from Children of Men toDracula is simply too much of a change in gears. At the end, the monster portion of the story comes into clearer focus but it was way too late for this reader. The author also tried to explain what the Herod Syndrome is but it is just too much of a out of nowhere explanation let my mind suspend belief. The open endedness typical of a author hungry for a sequel doesn't help my opinion either.

So while this is a well written tale that held much promise, However, I didn't think it held together well enough for what the author was trying to do. It would have made a great post-apocalypical story or a promising revision of vampires. But both? Not this time.

Friday, May 16, 2014

An eerie but satisfying family saga

The Chapman Books

By Aaron J French, Erik T. Johnson, and Adam P. Lewis

Publisher: Uncanny Books

Pub. Date: March 8, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Chapman Books has an intriguing premise. A group of photographs, newspaper clippings and manuscripts are found in a house of Lewis Adams' deceased aunt. The three manuscripts keep referring to a Chapman family in the late 19th century. The papers tells strange stories about this family often referring to the patriarchal Harold Chapman and includes many references to scandals, mysterious deaths and occult incidences. The manuscripts, "well, he called them manuscripts, but more accurately they were diaries of a kind", were also quite conflictual in dates, regions, and even whether there were more than one Harold Chapman. Adams, with the help of Aaron J. French, and Erik T. Johnson took each manuscript and styled them into 3 separate tales. On talking with Aaron J. French, he implied that this part about the newly discovered manuscripts was true. Having read the stories allegedly based on them, I am more than a little skeptical of that claim. But that is a moot point because the three stories that comprise The Chapman Books make for a very strange and eerie read and a spookingly pleasurable look at one of the strangest families, fictional or otherwise, to creep out 19th century America.

Aaron J. French wrote the first story titled "The Stain" and it is my favorite of the three. It appears to take place shortly after WWI. Dr. Stetson is called from his home in South Carolina to Manhattan to treat the family of a woman he hasn't seen since she was a little girl. The eeriness started quickly as the doctor is interrupted on the journey by a pig-faced man who shows him a card saying "You are going to die".

"The Stain" is an imaginative take on the demon possession story as we meet the Chapmans, or at least this version of the Chapmans, and learn their secrets. The author wastes no time in setting the environment and is quite good at giving more than a few literary scares. It has a decidedly Gothic feel and catches the feel of the early 20th century quite well. While he has good and solid characterizations, it is the pigman that stays in the mind. It will be a nice addition to your nightmares.

The second story, "The Delirium" is very different from the first and third which is a problem. Erik T. Johnson has a very unique style. It's a little like a weird cross between R. A. Lafferty and Robert Anton Wilson. He is fond of strange names, surrealistic and fragmented descriptions, and puns that are often sexually loaded. Some are thrown in so haphazardly that it interrupts the flow of the story. For instance, I am still not sure a term like "Cuntdescending" is an intentional pun or a typo. It is a style of writing I can usually get absorbed in simply for the feel of the wordplay on my tongue and mind but having been set between two shorter and different tales, it is jarring. The time frame of the story is in the 1860s and 1880s. The plot is quite fascinating. It involves an orphan, an ethically challenged doctor also named Harold Chapman, and a medicine called Etceracaine that comes in handy considering the author's somewhat psychedelic meanderings. Yet it does become a little difficult to follow due to the author's unique style. It is a fascinating bit of storytelling but it is also, in my opinion, the weaker of the three.

Adam P. Lewis's "The Remains" returns to a more conventional form of narrative. We are again introduced to The Chapman Family with the names of the family members being the same as in "The Stain." Yet this is a somewhat different family that doesn't quite mesh with the first story. This brings up an interesting conceit in this book. These are stories that do not totally gel together and are intentionally conflictual. The three writers clearly did not want to have a comfortable "everything fits together" experience but instead have created a "Chapman Mystique" that entertainingly baffles instead of explain. The Chapmans are not referred to so much as one family but as "variants" on which the authors place their own interpretations. Each author brings those interpretation to the family irregardless of continuity. It an unusual approach and in this case a successful one. In Lewis' story, a Dr. Myerburg is called to the Chapman household on a medical emergency and is confronted with a entity called a "torturing pestilence". I will leave the rest for you to experience but this is possibly the most straight-forward horror tale of the three and, if I liked the first story the best, "The Remains" is a very close second.

So overall, I really liked the stories by French and Lewis but was somewhat perplexed by Johnson's contribution. Yet the book should be rated by its ability to meld these three tales into a satisfying telling of the Chapman Saga, complete with its contradictions. By that and its successful attempt to scare and entertain, it deserves a solid four stars.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An essential zombie trilogy

The Rising Trilogy (The Rising, City of the Dead, and The Rising: Selected Scenes from the End of the World)

By Brian Keene

I recently attended the 2014 World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon. That was an vastly enjoyable event that I could write a huge article about and just might at a later time. The Grand Master was Brian Keene and in the introduction at the opening ceremony, the presenter referred to Keene’s book The Rising as, along with Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead franchise, the main catalyst for the modern zombie craze. To which Keene shouted out, “Sorry about that!”

Brian Keene in his wry way has a point. Zombies have been turned in to a bit of a literary plague. You can’t walk through the book store without bumping into a zombie book. Netflix Streaming is inundated with B through Z movies featuring zombies. Yet Keene has nothing to be ashamed of . The Rising breathed new life into old zombies, giving them a wicked little twist. It’s a twist presented at the beginning of the story and pretty much drives and dooms everything to come. But most of all it gives some interesting protagonists a fresh terror to fight their way through, turning this horror novel into a terrifying post-apocalyptic adventure.

The Rising’s slant on the zombie genre is that Keene’s zombies aren’t really true zombies. At least not the “Arrgh Urrgh” type that mindlessly limp and crawl to get to your brain. The monsters of The Rising are actually corpses possessed by an ancient demonic race called the Siqqusim. This race was exiled into The Void millenniums ago and due to a scientific experiment gone wrong (of course) have returned to Earth to possess all dead bodies and to destroy all animal life form. Keene’s zombies are actually repossessed bodies that love to torture, eat and destroy. They are quite agile, hampered only by the damage to the corpse and quite intellenigent. When the zombie body is destroyed, by the traditional means of a head shot, the Siqqusim simply leap into another dead living form. No animal is immune. Some of the more ghoulishly humorist moments involve attacks by zombie rabbits and zombie goldfish. The author’s zombie invasion is not just a zombie apocalypse but the end of the universe as we know it which is hinted at then explained in more detail by the second volume.

Keene’s cast of survivors tend to be fairly stereotypical but likeable and worthy of the reader’s support. Jim is caught up early into the zombie apocal-mess and after his brief period of disbelief and shock, his primary goal is to return to New Jersey to save his son Danny. He is joined by a variety of interesting characters including ex-junkie Frankie and conflicted preacher Martin. There are also a few human villains they need to tackle but the emphasis is on the undead variety. The leader of the Siqqusim is Ob and he is the source of our information of this ancient demonic race. The author has borrowed extensively from ancient myths and legends and have created a mythos that has a similar feeling of dread and hopelessness that Lovecraft created with his Chtulhu Mythos. But I will deal more with this when I discuss the second book.

Overall, Keene has created a realistic horror fantasy world that will entertain the most jaded horror fan. This was his first novel and it shows especially in the characters’ narrow dimensions. Yet there is a strong level of dynamic tension that goes into making a tense edge-of-your-seat horror adventure. Then there is that ending. Without giving it away, it is very open-ended. The author, in his introduction, claims he did not mean for it to be that way but it appears that his interpretation for the ending did not quite translate to the reader in print. As he explains in the introduction, this led his readers to demand a sequel and eventually he wrote City of the Dead.

City of the Dead starts exactly where The Rising ended. Jim have retrieved Danny, who has managed to survive his own nightmare of possessed corpses. Jim, Danny, Martin, and Frankie now have to battle a zombie horde and find shelter in a basically shelterless environment. But in New York City, one tower is well lit and may be the last bastion for humankind. Not only are our heroes headed there but so is Ob and his demon possessed zombie army of which its soldiers are astute enough to have tanks and WDMs galore not to mention an air force of zombie birds. The plot goes full apocalypse leading to a final battle. The author also writes well about the various human factors which is full of well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning humans and at least a couple downright wicked and perverse participants.

This takes us to an important theme not only in this book but in a variety of Keene’s other works. Referred to as the Labyrinth Mythos, Keene incorporates overlapping ideas into what he calls a meta-epic. Through subtle hints in both books we realize this end of the world scenario is taking place on Earth but not our Earth. The author is seeding his books with an idea of parallel Earths, each one of them threatened by some kind of Apocalyptic horror and most, if not all, having to do with ancient horrors of Lovecraftian proportions being unleashed. This pulls his novels together. While this was only hinted to in The Rising, City of the Dead brings out the inevitability of destruction to its awful and logical conclusion. Intentionally or not, it makes one think about the uncertainty of our own existence on our own earth. Maybe not zombies but what about meteors, super volcanoes, and our own man-made contribution, Nuclear Winter? I bet the dinosaurs thought they would be here forever too.

The third and last book is titled The Rising: Selected Scenes From the End of the World and it is basically just that. There are 33 very short tales taking place during the time of the first two books. A few have characters from the previous novels and gives us a little more insight but most are fast terror-takes: action, camera, fade-out. They are quite intriguing to read and Keene has some really memorable bits of writing in some of these stories. Yet they really do not add much to the first two books. “Pocket Apostle” does give us an insightful look at a minor character from The Rising and I really likes the idea of trapping a zombie and reading a book to him as described in “Spoilers“. Yet overall, this is a book is a light dessert. You will want to have the main courses first.

So altogether, The Rising Trilogy makes for a epic battle of man vs. zombie and is an essential read for those who want to prepare themselves for the next zombie holocaust. Let’s face it. The Zombie novel is here to stay and the influence of Brian Keene’s The Rising trilogy will be a formidable one.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Essential short fiction from Cat Brain Land

Lost in Cat Brain Land

By Cameron Pierce


Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Pub. Date: June 2, 2010

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have read two novels by Cameron Pierce before this short fiction collection titled Lost in Cat Brain Land. Cameron Pierce's talent as a writer was instantly noticeable yet his two novels, Ass Goblins of Auschwitz (2 stars) and Gargoyle Girls of Spider Island (4 stars) were so purposefully shocking that it tended to disguise the immense talent he has. That may have been an unfair assessment but it was the first feeling I had upon tackling these two Bizarro novels. Yet they left me wanting to read more by this author and that is always a good sign.

Lost in Cat Brain Land is still often over-the-top weird and it is certainly a solid contender in the strange world of Bizarro Lit as one of the most Bizarro-ness. Yet it is also one of the best short fiction collections I have ever read and solidifies Cameron Pierce reputation, in my mind at least, as one of the most innovative writers out there. Short fiction is the perfect media for Pierce. It allows him to let it surrealistically all hang out yet keeps the story focused enough to tell you there is something odd and beautiful going on here. Some of these works are flash fiction being only a page or two long. They are little snacks of words that leave you wanting more. My favorite is "Flowers". It is so short that I almost just added the entire story to this review, but I think there might be some legal issues in doing that. So you will just have to read it elsewhere than here. Others are longer but so strange you wonder "WTF!" even as you enjoy it like "The Dead Monkey Exhibit" and "I am Meat, I am in Day Care". Every tale here is strange but in the best, such as the title story and "Tea for a Mysterious Creature" seems to have an overlying theme that centers it and keeps it precariously "down to earth". I don't think it is a coincidence that both of the mentioned stories feature a person who is basically being dumped and that may be a connecting note for the reader; something we can all connect with at one time or another.

Yet the best story in the collection is also the longest. It is at once the most horrifying and the most darkly humorous. "Drain Angel" is the story of a "cherub faced earwig" that crawls out of a shower drain and begins growing rapidly. The childless and emotionally neglected Joy accepts as her child and become oblivious to its repulsiveness and violence. The tale takes the saying "a face only mother could love" to its most horrifying extreme.

The story also exhibits Cameron Pierce' biggest strength. He is not afraid of extremes. Extremes simply open up vaster possibilities for his talent to tell a story and to play with our emotions. This collection, and his novels for that matter, are certainly not for everyone. But they are excellent examples of how a fearless writer can open up new doors. And if we are not careful we may turn around, discover that the door is locked, and there is no going back. What a delicious feeling!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Southern Gothic creepiness with snakes

Blood Kin

By Steve Rasnic Tem


Publisher: Solaris

Pub. Date: February 25, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem has a nice Appalachian authenticity in style, atmosphere and dialog. The dialog sings and descriptions like "A smile like that surely'd kill a baby" speaks to its Southern Gothic roots. Yet all the authenticity in the world will not save a poor plot. Fortunately, that is not an issue here. Steve Rasnic Tem has devised a plot that grabs you from the beginning and keeps you interested through a technique of alternating time frames. This is one of those books that elevate the art of storytelling in that the art of storytelling becomes part of the plot. Michael is caring for his grandmother Sadie . He has returned home to do this with a troublesome  ambivalence about his family and his roots. Every night his grandmother clings precariously to life and tells stories about her childhood in the 1930s. It becomes clear that she is telling him these stories for a purpose, perhaps to fulfill a destiny.

Blood Kin has backwoods magic, snake handling preachers, and a mixed race group that has the burden of special gifts. There's a box in the kudzu that holds lingering menace and this tale is loaded with...did I mention snakes? The Southern Gothic influences of Flannery Connors and David Grubbs are noticeable. References to Faulkner shows up a few times in the writing. One character has a fondness for The Sound and the Fury. I also detect a nod to Manley Wellman's Silver John tales. Yet this story has a darker supernatural tint in it than Wellman's and becomes downright creepy at times. It is a delicious edge-of-your-seat form of creepy with enough dark backwoods atmosphere to let you escape into its literary creepiness. This is a novel that will not only appeal to horror fans but also will please lovers of regional fiction.