Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Koontz's best thriller in a decade...or more?

Ashley Bell

By Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam

Pub. Date: December 8, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Dean Koontz’s new thriller, we are introduce to Bibi Blair, a 22 year old author with a critically acclaimed book to her name. Her life looks like it is just getting started until she finds she has a rare and especially vicious form of cancer. There is little to no hope that she can be treated effectively, yet she wakes up in the hospital the next day in total remission. Through an odd form of divinization she discovers the reason she was miraculously cured: to save the life of a teenage girl by the name of Ashley Bell.

With that idea, Dean Koontz takes us into a whirlwind supernatural/science-fiction thriller that we have not seen from him since Watchers or Lightning There are all the usual Koontz gimmicks: sadistic villains, deadly cults, a taste of the paranormal and a resourceful young innocent throw into chaos. . Thankfully though, in this one he kept the noble golden retriever at minimum sweetness level. Yet this is the first time in a very long time that I did not think Koontz was sleep walking through it. The author takes an intriguing premise and makes it complex and befuddling in a good way. Bibi Blair is one of his best characters and one whose full importance and talents are very slowly revealed. The story only spans a few days yet the 600 plus narration plays with it, adding important reveals from her past and vague characters whose roles are not clear until the information is needed. Much of the tension, and pleasure, comes from Bibi’s own thought process as she puts together the clues to her new purpose and evidently the surprise turn near the end.

Recently I reviewed The City and stated it was a change from Koontz’s usual, yet I criticized it for not being different enough. Here we have the author going back to the horror thriller that he made his reputation but finding new ideas and ways to express them that will keep even the stalwart Koontz reader interested. Ashley Bell is not the usual roller coaster ride of a thriller. There are times it feels a bit slow but the attentive reader will realize that those slow parts often provide the most important materials to the mystery. Sometime Koontz’s characters can feel a bit thin but Ashley Bell may be one of his best since Odd Thomas. I have purposely stayed away from revealing anything but the bare bones because every detail is important and knowing it in advance may take some of the pleasure out of the reading.

So what we have in Ashley Bell is Koontz’s most interesting novel since Odd Thomas and one of the his best since Watchers and Lightning. If you have soured toward this prolific writer in the past, it is time to check him out again.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Have a fearful Christmas!


By J. G. Faherty

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pub date: May 5, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I went through my list of possible books for review, which is way too long, and I found this one that was sent to me by the author after the World Horror Convention in May. I remembered thinking I would save this for the holidays, then putting it out of my mind. So now it is that time of year and I am glad I was checking my list (and checking it twice) so I could find books that were naughty or...well...mainly naughty. Fortunately Winterwood was novella sized so I put everything aside so i could finish it before Christmas.

I am glad I did for Winterwood is a decidedly naughty and dark fairy tale introducing us to the legend of Krampus and his realm of Winterwood. I am not as up on the Krampus stories as I should be . Let's just say they are a dark version of Santa Claus with evil elves and a wicked cat instead of reindeer. Regardless of any questions on the authenticity of the mythology, J. G. Faherty makes me believe. In Winterwood, an old man, who as a boy was almost taken by the evil elves to the kingdom of Winterwood, tells his grandsons about the old ways much to the chagrin of their parents. But the two boys are indeed kidnapped and the grandfather and the boys' parents must enter Winterwood before they are cooked and served as the main course in Krampus' yuletide feast.

I like the modern take on this story. We are also introduced to an evil witch that was the inspiration for Hansel and Gretel. In the story, the grandfather explains that the innocent fairy tales of old were not so innocent and used as warnings to children. Anyone who have read the original Grimm's Fairy Tales know this is true. Faherty takes it one step further and asks, "What if they are not just warnings but actual incidents? What if they can still happen?" It is a fun game and the author plays it up very well. We get a scary kidnapping, a rescue, an adventure and a chilling escape. Not bad for about 80 pages.

This would be a fun book for older kids who want something more than the sanitized Christmas tales we are used to. It is great for adults who can indulge their childhood fears. In fact, this book is part of the Childhood Fears series by Samhain Publishing that allows us adults to do exactly that. Overall, this is a fun scary read that may make you think twice about elves.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Weird Tales meet private eye

The Dream Beings

By Aaron J. French

Publisher:  Samhain Publishing, Ltd. 

Pub. Date: January 5, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



I have always liked Aaron J. French's writings but I often fear he is a bit too esoteric for the mainstream reader, even those into the supernatural and horror. He is clearly influenced by the Lovecraftian Circle and in particular, with his love of parallel worlds and dream states, exhibit more than a taste of Clark Ashton Smith,. A good example of this is his previously published Aberrations of Reality, a collection of short fiction that highlights both his love of dark dimensions and his sometimes florid, even metaphysical style style. But I always wondered how far an author can go by clinging on to that Lovecraft element and not slamming into the contemporary "real life" dead on. I love Lovecraftian and Weird Tales fiction but it is a bit on the fringe, so to speak.

I can now relax a little . The Dream Beings is both a modern tale and one that melds his parallel dimensions and other worldly demons into what is ostensibly a suspense story and a hunt for a killer. It starts a bit like a detective story with the ever threatening serial killer. When Private Investigator Jack Evens is called to the scene of a murder , he is shocked to find that his name is written on the walls. It appears someone is calling out to him and that someone is a serial killer who not only likes to kill women but has "partners" from the dreamworld. Evens has psychic ability and this be what attract the killer and his new creature friends to him . Throughout this all too brief tale, we find out more about Jack and why the Dream Beings are so obsessed about him.

There is a good level of excitement in the story. jack Evens is an very interesting character. So interesting I am hoping that he may show up again in future stories. We have the hook , the chase and the pay-off all nicely laid out with just the right amount of tension to keep the reading glued to the pages. French manages to create not only a likable and sympathetic hero but also deservedly hateable villains. Overall, we have a story that pleases the suspense and horror reader but still stays in that multi-dimensional, mildly Lovecraftian world that the author is fond of. I hope the author will continue wth stories like this. He is an excellent writer so matter what world he is in but I hope he visits this combination crime noir/ dream world mixture again.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Of love and monsters

Monsters Don't Cry

By Shane McKenzie


Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: December 8, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Shane McKenzie specializes in extreme horror . Much of what he writes can be described as "body horror", that strange sub-genre that centers on the mutilation, transformation, and destruction of the human form. With Monsters Don't Cry I include in the many variations of that theme, the natural and psychological development of a grotesque person whose deformity influences her own terrifying way of interacting with the world.

Natasha was deformed and hideous from the moment of her birth. Her parents kept her imprisoned in her room. Her mother was physically and verbally abusive to the extreme. The only one who seemed to care about her was her timid and ineffectual father. Her only solace were the glamour magazines that told her there was a fairy tale existence for those who were beautiful and it was something she yearned for more than anything. When she finally escapes from her prison, she goes looking for that dream and her Prince Charming. She will destroy anything that gets in the way of her quest.

One of the things that keep bringing me back to the writings of Shane McKenzie is that he can mingle very explicit kink and violence with emotions and issues that affect us in the "real world". In Muerte con Carne there is an awareness of the throwaway status of illegal aliens and the lower classes in society. In Mutt he writes of the assumptions we make of appearances and ethnicity and the need to belong. Once you get past the immense gore and cruelty of Monsters Don't Cry there is an unmistakable message about the illusion of beauty in our culture. Natasha is a sympathetic "monster" . She is a naturally made Frankenstein who will always attract the torch carrying villagers. She is also an innocence, raised with everyday violence and abuse yet struggling to understand how she can obtain the same goals that her beautiful people in the magazine have. She wants to have love and caring shown to her but violence seems to be what follows her. When she escapes into the world, It is a revelation to her that beautiful people can be just as cruel as monsters as she thinks...

"She's a monster. She's a monster just like me. But she's beautiful.

I didn't know monsters can be beautiful."

It is that conundrum that sold me on the grotesque and alternating beauty and ugliness of Monster Don't Cry. But with all the exquisite mingling of horror and pathos, the characters seem to be a little too comic book at times. Natasha's potential Prince Charming is fairly pathetic when you get down to it. The villains are deliciously horrible yet no one really comes out as admirable. The only really likable person is the novel is ...well...don't get attached to her. Yet despite that, it is Natasha that rules the story with her underdeveloped understanding of the world and her narrowly focused and woefully childish need to be simply loved.

So Monsters Don't Cry manages to be a gruesome roller coaster of a horror novel yet also a look at the fragility of emotions and dreams. Does Natasha finally get her Prince Charming or is it dismemberments and bloodletting all the way ? You will have to read the book to find out. Either way I highly recommend this terrifying exercise in extreme horror.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Have a scary Christmas!

Fright Before Christmas: 13 Tales of Holiday Horror

Edited by Richard Ankers

Publisher: Leap Books, LLC 

Pub. Date: December 11, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bah humbug!

Don't take that wrong. I love Christmas. But I also love Halloween and horror stories. And all that treacle and sweetness agitates my Diabetes. I'm not alone in this . In fact I have pretty good company in Charles Dickens whose A Christmas Carol is unapologetically a ghost story...and was probably fairly horrifying to the Victorian set.

Fright Before Christmas: 13 Tales of Holiday Horrors is in that tradition even though most of the stories do not have the positive ending that Dickens settled for. The best way to describe this entertaining anthology is that it is more in the line of Goosebumps!. It is geared toward middle grade children yet some of them are a little on the gruesome side so the parent should screen it first. Personally I think the level of fright and horror is just right .

There are many avenues of scare in these stories. If anything, it shows that anything in the Christmas tradition can be pushed over to the dark side. We have killer nutcrackers (that one especially frightens me!) Steampunk Santas, zombie snowmen, even Bigfoot makes an appearance. I especially liked "Machete Santa" by Medeia Sharif, where a splatterpunk video game becomes too real. Most of the stories are brief. In fact, if there is one complaint I have it is that many of them are single punchlines. I wished for a more extended story on some of the ideas but I didn't get it. I guess I was naughty this year.

So if you are the type that think Santa could use a little more red in his costume, you might like Fright Before Christmas. Yes, the tales are meant for middle grade but I enjoyed them too. So will you.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Memoir of dreams and journeys

M Train

By Patti Smith

Publisher Knopf

Pub Date: October 6, 2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Rock singer, writer and poet Patti Smith states the basic dilemma of her new memoir M Train in its very first sentence. Her book, for the most part, happens after the death of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith of the rock group, MC5. It is a deceptively simple but full life filled with cafe visits, constant reading, travel, and much reflection on where she was and where she is. It is time with friends and the occasional inspirational moment from a literary hero. It is an endless pot of coffee, her drink of choice. Patti Smith is far from the typical rock idol and M Train is not your typical memoir. The line at the top is spoken by a cowboy in a dream. The cowboy becomes a form of muse and spirit who accompanies her into the waking life at odd moments. It is an atypical muse for a very atypical writer.

M Train is a journey where dreams and real life intersect. Despite her rock and roll credentials, Smith is foremost a poet and it shows in this descriptive, almost musical prose that weaves dreams, memories, and her daily life in a lyrical reminiscence of life, regrets and longing. Whether she is at her favorite table in her favorite cafe, writing in her ever present notebook, visiting the grave sites of famous writers, discovering a Murakami novel, or even buying a house that will soon feel the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, her nothings turn into exquisite somethings that may change the way you see the simple things. Her writings has a timeless quality, an adjective with two meaning: a book that will withstand the test of time but also a memoir that challenges the definition of time, merging past and present in a solid event that emphasizing that our past does indeed make our present. In our dreams, there is no separation between past and present. This is what I believe the author is attempting.

There is much that I envy about Patti Smith, her rock and roll notoriety and fame being the least. I envy her effortless way with words, her child-like wonder which has only been slightly aged by her experiences and the wisdom of maturity, and her freedom and courage to take on the whims that often evolve into meaningful quests. Yet I find we have much in common too. We share the love of literature, great art, and the give and take of brilliant minds. She has that strange and wonderful urge to hunt down the impossible. For instance she becomes obsessed with finding the house Haruki Murakami describes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles with its bird statue and mysterious well, knowing it probably only exists in Murakami’s mind. To many it sounds like a silly adventure, a bit of nothing so to speak. But the description of her quest sent me into throes of nostalgia for the time I stood standing and staring at a boarded up under construction tenement in London enchanted by the idea that this would have been where 221B Baker Street would be if it really existed. And then, there is coffee.

Travel is a central theme in her book. Yet each travel is linked to her past, or a memory, or a quest of inspiration and fulfillment whether it is looking for an imaginary house or having a beach house of her own. Travel, dreams and memory are three themes yet they all merge into one with a dreamlike sense of imagery suiting for a poet.

There is one more ingredient to this verbal tone prose. Fred Sonic Smith. M Train is just as much a tribute to her late husband and to their passage together in life. For those who read her marvelous Just Kids, you will remember her experience with Robert Mapplethorpe which resembled a romantic but tragic tale of youth and coming of age. M Train speaks of a different type of love; a partnership where two can be themselves but steady in the idea that they complement each other. While Just Kids spoke of coming of age, M Train speaks of accepting the arrival of coming of age, albeit an older age, and sharing it with the one you love the most. But it also speaks quietly and with contemplation of the crisis of loss when that essential person is no longer there.

If you choose to read M Train, I suggest you read it slowly, contemplating every sentence. Ideally it should be read while in a cafe but simply sitting in your reading place with a cup of coffee will suffice. I consider the coffee important. It is definitely a cup of coffee read. But however you choose to experience M Train, I assure you it will be an experience.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The best ten novels of 2015 and more

2015 is winding down to an end and, as usual, I present my top ten best novels of the year. I also threw in some honorable mentions underneath the list . It was a fairly good year for fiction. My picks are as weird as my reading habits going from the mainstream publishing companies to the tiny little tributaries of indie press. Number one is my pick for best novel of the year while the other nine are in no special order.

1. Brother by Ania Ahlborn
2. Slade House by David Mitchell
3. Mutt by Shane McKenzie
4. Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
5. The Wonders by Paddy O'Reilly
6. White City by Seb Doubinsky
7. GodBomb! by Kit Power
8. The Truth and Other Lies by Sasha Aranga
9. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
10. White Knuckle by Eric Red

And the honorable mentions...

Best short fiction collection, multiple authors
Surreal Worlds edited by Sean Leonard

Best short fiction collection, single author
Our Love Will go the Way of the Salmon by Cameron Pierce

Best non-fiction
M Train by Patti Smith

Best YA Novel
Alive by Scott Sigler

Best chapbook
Baby's Breath by Sydney Leigh

Best Magazine or Journal
Lazy Fascist Review by Cameron Pierce

Best book from 2014 that I read in 2015
I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking by Violet LeVoit

Best WTF! novel
Vampire Strippers from Saturn by Vincenzo Bilof

Publisher of the year 
Eraserhead Press and all her evil children.
 my best wishes for the new year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Beware of iron doors in alleyways

Slade House

By David Mitchell

Publisher: Random House

Pub. Date: October 27, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have no doubt that David Mitchell's wildly inventive haunted house novel, Slade House will be considered a classic of the genre. It certainly fits nicely in the long tradition of British ghost stories and haunted house settings even though Mitchell places his own unique spin of it.

The small iron door to Slade House only shows up for a very brief moment in a nondescript easily missed alley once every nine years. It welcomes in a special guest who is then trapped in its lair. Why this occurs and what happens to the unlucky persons is the key to the novel's intriguing plot. Just as intriguing is how the author sets it up. The novel is divided into five segments covering events in 1979, 1988, 1997, 2006 and 2015. Each part has a narrative by a main participant in the reoccurring phenomena. Each narration gives us further clues that help us decipher the mystery of the house. It is an interesting Rashomon-like telling that, instead of giving us different interpretations of a single event, gives us interpretations of a single phenomena over a period of time that eventually glues all the pieces together. The first segment is in the third person narration of young Nathan Bishop who is escorted to Slade House by his mother and starts the tale in almost an English fairy tale perspective. Yet this changes and we eventually perceive the house and the occupants for what it really is. The other three segments uses first person narrative for equally effective insight.

In many ways Slade House is a simple tale but also a complex one. That is what makes it so compelling. Mitchell borrows from the great classic writers of the supernatural yet only uses their influences not their direct ideas. It could be said that this may be to haunted houses what The Turn of The Screw was for ghost stories. I also appreciated Mitchell's use of British occultist history and theories that play into his own form of fictional mysticism. The plot feels a little old fashioned, perhaps even a little Victorian, due to that influence but it comes together as different and contemporary.

Overall, Slade House is a splendid addition to the haunted house canon in literature. it is bound to be one of those books mentioned alongside The Haunting of Hill House and the aforementioned Henry James masterpiece. And for some it may be just as revealing as often is the windows of imagination that great writer can open to the unsuspecting reader.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Funny, Shocking, and Amazing

I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking

By Violet LeVoit


Publisher: Fungasm Press

Pub. Date:  October 19, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

First of all, Let's get right to that title. It is rude, crude and offensive and I loved it. Tell the truth. You laughed didn't you? You may have hated yourself for laughing but you did laugh.

I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking is fortunately more than just a clever title. The title communicates the range of weirdness and basic nonconformity in the 14 pieces of short fiction (15 if you count "Discussion Questions for Book Clubs" as fiction which I do) that make up this unusual collection. One thing for sure, I don't have to warn you this is not a book for everyone. You probably got that hint from the second word in the title.

Violet LeVoit is one amazing writer. She can carry a lot of baggage in a few short pages. Her stories are not easy reads. She can go into a word orgy that is as disorienting as finding a pickle in a dildo display yet just as tasty. I found myself having to read some of the stories a second time even a third time, fortunately they tend to be brief, and sometimes still not getting the gist. Yet they all pack an emotional punch perhaps speaking to our id or just our need to revel in a primordial soup of words poured over uncomfortable topics.

I have not read LeVoit's first collection, I am Genghis' Cum but I am told the fiction in it is centered around the perception of birth. This new collection takes on the theme of death with scenarios and set-ups that are worthy of the Grim Reaper and any self-respecting anarchist. The author has a feminist's slant on many things with stories that take on abortion, anorexia , mother-daughter relationships and more. This is not a random mixture of stories. They seem to be tailored picked to trigger all aspects of angst and dread about our personal destruction, psychologically and physically. Yet with all the darkness, they are often as darkly funny as the title that umbrellas them.

It would be difficult to give a analysis of some of these stories, so I will try to briefly tell you my favorites. "Air, Trees , Water, Animals" is a nice warning of what you are getting yourself into with the opening line, "I look like the abortion of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra". "Warm, in Your Coat" is a story on eating disorders which is surreal and disturbing. "White Man Rental" turns the idea of white privilege on its head. "Live Nude Girls" is one of those stories where the author is in literary "word angst" right to the shocking finale. Yet two stories really stood out for me. "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" is one of the more straightforward tales yet still packs a punch. It could be called a nightmarish fairy tale. Finally "I Bite into Your Lit and Spit out Two Frank Pieces" is an examination of the creative process that tells me I would rather read about the author's mind than be in it.

Looking through these stories, I realize that they do not all work for me but they are all impressive. This is Bizarro literature at its best and most surreal. They tend to have a rock and roll take-no-prisoners feel; Patti Smith and Valerie Solanas mugging William S. Burroughs in an alley, so to speak. But they are true literary marvels and as shocking, disturbing and hilarious as they get, They will stay with you. Call them Surreal, Bizarro, or just weird. That is the best complement I can give.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Creatures in the Suburbs

The Beast of Barcroft

By Bill Schweigart


Publisher: Hydra

Pub. Date: November 17, 2015

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


I think the monster novel is making a comeback. There seems to be a lot of literary creature features this year. Perhaps the vampire has finally ran out of blood and the zombies went on a brain-free diet. It is time Cryptozoology had a chance to lord over the horror novels for a time. Mythological creatures, Bigfoot, Sea creatures ...they all need a day in the sun.

The Beast of Barcroft is a novel about one of those creatures. Which one cannot not be said for the author Bill Schweigart takes a long time to name the monster in his novel. We are given a lot of choices though. In the beginning of the book, when down on his luck glass-half-empty Ben sees his dog killed by the creature, he is pretty sure it is a mountain lion. Except mountain lions are almost non-existent in the Washington DC suburb of Barcroft. There is a strange woman next door to him whose passion for collecting animals causes a neighborhood rat problem that that pales next to the increasing body count of the creature. From there on, The Beast of Barcroft develops into what could be called a monster mystery. What is the killer creature the resident fear and the officials scoff at? Is someone behind its appearance?

It's a nice plot and the author does follow with some nice imagery and scares. Yet the mystery wanes through a good part of the book. We do not even get a hint on the identity of the creature until about halfway through and perhaps that may not even be correct. By the middle of the novel, it feels like the plot is looking for a purpose and not finding it. The characters do not really help to find that purpose. Even Ben, despite a number of misfortunes, seems to be one-dimensional. When the Cryptozoologist arrives I am looking for a little eccentricity to relieve the ennui but none is found except for a few mild play of words on mythological terms. When we finally get to the true identity of the monster, it falls flat as does the expected climatic battle. If you spend so much time and drama to get to the payoff, I expect more than loose change.

But The Beast of Barcroft is still a pleasant horror tale. It just doesn't rise to the top of the food chain. Perhaps the zombies and vampires will one day have a worthy opponent from the loads of horrible creatures waiting in the literary wings but it won't be The Beast of Barcroft

Friday, November 27, 2015

Quality short fiction of the unusual and bizarre variety

Answers of Silence

By Geoff Cooper

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: September 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The fifteen pieces of short fiction, including a novelette size effort, in Answers of Silence involves a wide range of plot and emotion. All of them are on the dark side and most have a horror or supernatural element. Yet Geoff Cooper always goes for the unusual and the surprising making the tales constantly entertaining and unique. I have never heard of Geoff Cooper before this but he seems to have a reputation for quality writing among the indie writers and the lovers of the grotesque. His output is slim and this short story collection, a reprint released this year by Deadite Press, appears to have a range of his works from early to recent. That usually means uneven but each of the works has its strengths.

It starts with an especially strong one titled "A Question of Doves" that both scare and mystifies. It is one of those tales that doesn't have to explain everything to pack a punch. In other words, it is intelligent horror as most of the stories here are. "Incentive No. 43" is a powerful serial killer story that is simplistic in plot yet complex in characterization. It is one of the pieces with no fantasy element. I thought "Mo 3:16" was going to be more non-supernatural psychological suspense but it threw me a curve near the end that made it one of the most disturbing of the stories. "Badgetree" is almost old fashioned like a cross between Brothers Grimm and Algernon Blackwood. "The Sheriff of Pense Avenue" is one of the earlier works and the author, as noted in his afterword, seems a little embarrassed by it. He shouldn't be. It may lack the maturity of some of the other fiction but it is still creative and daring. "Strangers, Good Friend and a Bottle of Wine" is the type of tale that would have felt at home in the old Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine and shows a little humor in the tension.

And so it goes until we get to the last and longest story in the collection: "One Eyed Jack". It is also the most recent and the best. It starts out like one of those old men's magazine stories with its macho World War Adventure theme, swerves a little into Heart of Darkness territory, then goes head first into Weird Tales times twelve. Exciting, mystifying and thoroughly worth the effort.

Geoff Cooper is certainly a talent. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next. It also appears that there may be a bit of a wait due to his small output but I hope not. Good intelligent writers of strange fantasy and horror are sorely needed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not your ordinary exorcism

A Head Full of Ghosts

By Paul Tremblay

Publisher: William Morrow 

Pub. Date: June 2, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What the world needs is a good exorcism. Send a couple priests up into space. Let they spray three trillions tons of holy water or whatever on Planet Earth and let them exorcise the hell out of the rock. If eighty percent of the population bursts into flames or smoke out as in a Supernatural episode then so be it. Whoever is left, after the demons that are screwing up this world are vanquished, would then be free to fix the place up and perhaps they will get it right for once. I mean, really! Can this planet get much worse? But since that is not going to happen, it is going to be one exorcism at a time. Tedious but what are you going to do? It's a nice fantasy, whether you go single file "Get behind me, Satan!" or planetary exor-fest.

Of all the varieties of horror themes, I believe exorcism and the idea of demon possession is the one that scares people the most. It also may be the most cathartic. With the wide range of atrocities mankind can inflict on one another, the idea of "The Devil made me do it!" can be as comforting as demon possession is horrifying. In A Head Full of Ghosts Paul Tremblay is dealing with demon possession and exorcism but he is also dealing with the labyrinth of natural inner demons that even the most innocent may have within them.

The Barretts are a family in crisis mainly because of the odd schizophrenic like behaviors of the oldest daughter, Marjorie. Despite her regular visits to a psychiatrist she continues to get worst. Her religiously inclined father seeks the help of a priest who is convinced she is demon possessed. As the family is in serious financial trouble, they agree to have the exorcism televised in a virtual TV series titled "The Possession".

That is the start of A Head Full of Ghosts. What follows is a deviously clever mix of The Exorcist and We Need To Talk About Kevin. The tale is told by the younger sister Meredith aka "Merry" 15 year later and is told through a interview she gives with a writer who wishes to write a book about her family and the incidents that befalls the TV show. We also get some insight by a blogger who goes under the name of Karen Brissette. Merry was eight years old at the time of her sister's possession and the telling through the eyes of the adult Meredith allows a deeper dimension than if the story was told at the time by 8 year old Merry. And here is the rub. Merry adores her sister yet Marjorie is very manipulative and more than a little sadistic. It is a form of manipulation that confuses the young girl Merry but is still haunting the older Meredith. When Marjorie develops the symptoms of demon possession she tells Merry she is faking it. But is she? Marjorie is either truly possessed or a very disturbed and psychopathic teenager. The suspense lies in finding out which one it is. Yet the tension of the telling resides in Merry's own childish confusion about what is happening and her own precarious position as the youngest member of the family which places her in a terrifying role as the drama unfolds.

I was totally enamored by A Head full of Ghosts; the structure and the plotting, the characters, and most of all, the clever mingling of horror and family psychodrama. The biggest achievement was how Tremblay told the oft-told exorcism story in an unusual way that turned some of the gimmicks on its head. The author is of course well aware of the gimmicks of the standard exorcism plot as cemented in our culture by William Blatty's book and film, The Exorcist. In fact, the movie is often referenced in the book not only to set a foundation but perhaps also as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the traps Blatty has set up for future writers in the genre. Tremblay takes those traps head on and make the story his own. However you think the story will unfold in the end, I predict you will be surprised. Head Full of Ghost is a strong entry in the psychological horror division and may be the best book to take on the idea of exorcism and demon possession since Blatty's seminal novel. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Strange topic, worthy message

Animal Suicide

By Alexandro Chen


Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 

Pub. Date: November 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

What a strange and lovely book Animal Suicide is. With a title destined to chase away a few people, Animal Suicide turns how to be a bitterweet tale about the meaning of life and the frailty of relationships. Li-Mei is going to commit suicide but decides not to after her mother calls to say her Chihuahua died. He was found hanging from his chain in a tree. With no motive or suspects, Li-Mei determines that the dog killed himself and discovers that suicides among animals are not unheard of. The topic of animal suicide becomes an obsession for her and, as you can figure, doesn't really do much for her social life. That is until she meets two other people interested in the topic and joins the Animal Self-Destruction Observation Club to explore her obsession.

The author Alexandro Chen uses this slightly uncomfortable topic to craft an odd but humorous tale that is not really about animal suicide as much as figuring how what life is about and why life become so meaningless to some people as to contemplate ending it. Each of the three people have a reason for being interested in this strange topic. Li-Mei is not really sure why she is suicidal. She has a good if dull and isolated life. The novel is presented through her first-person narration. What starts out as a strange tale of obsession with death becomes an equally strange but comforting romance. During the club's field trip we are given little hints about what the hell everything is about but what kept me going was Li-Mei's own development as she finds a connection with De-Shi, the boy who started the club. What develops and how it ends gives this somewhat simple story its heart and soul.

This short novel is one of those quirky but brief tales that stay with you. The somewhat neurotic approach to relationships and romance gives it a Haruki Murakami edge while the very dry humor that creeps up in the most unpredictable times reminds me of Vonnegut. What it also have in common is an on-the-fence nihilism which is eventually overcomed by an humanistic light. Animal Suicide may not provide anyone answers to the meaning of life but it may shed some light on why people like Li-Mei keep on going despite confusion and chaos. Animal Suicide turned out to be a pleasant surprise in the massive outpouring of publications this year. Hopefully enough people will pick up this book and get the word out. Alexandro Chen is not only a gifted writer but one who is willing to try to make sense out of the insanity called life. Whether he will succeed in that endeavor is highly doubtful but that just means he is as human as we are.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The last issue of a notable literary journal

Lazy Fascist Review #3

Edited by Cameron Pierce

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press

Pub Date: August 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

First, we have the good news. The bi-annual Lazy Fascist Review is continuing to improve in presenting some of the newest and most talented writers around. It has succeeded in finding its unique role in the precarious and quirky literary journal world.

The bad news? This will be the last issue.

Yes, Lazy Fascist Review will be no longer, as recently announced by the editor Cameron Pierce. It is more than sad since the journal started impressively but tenuously and matured with each issue. In Issue number 3, there is not one bad story in the six pieces of fiction between the covers. Authors include Tiffany Scandal. Allison Floyd, Nick Mamatas, Daphne Gottlieb,and Tania Terblanche. South African author Berblanche has two works which is appropriate since her writings seem to be very brief but loaded with the type of prose that invites another look and another read. One of the great things about this journal is that LFR and the contributions within defies easy labeling. If anything, they have eschewed the Bizarro /Horror label of its parent publishing company, Eraserhead Press and dived deep into the waters labeled literary with a capital L. Some of the fiction can be label existentialist or surreal yet it is not the strange surreal of the dadaists or the Bizarros but the everyday surreal of a Cheever or Pinter. The stories invite several readings in order to really get the emotional power they possess..

Pierce also continues the quirky twist of having beer tasting reviews and pairing each story with a beer. This is the type of move that makes this journal different and down to earth. While LFR is a serious endeavor, it is not so serious you can't enjoy a brew or two. There are also intelligent and thoughtful reviews of various books.

One big different between this and the first two issues is that there is one non-fiction essay. Somewhat surprisingly, i found it to be the best article in the journal. Nick Carson, the drummer for metal band Witch Mountain, writes about his recent road tour with an intimacy and insight rarely seen.

I strongly recommend that you buy this book to see how a literary journal can and should be done. You might as well get all three so you can brag you have the full set.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Pagans, sex and clothes hangers

Ritualistic Human Sacrifice

By C.V. Hunt

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub Date: October 15, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Nick Graves may be one of the most selfish, unlikable persons in literature. He lives in a loveless marriage egged on by his self-centeredness, sexual selfishness, and failure to mend. He is ready to tell his wife that he is leaving her and getting a divorce. Then his wife drops a bomb on him. She is pregnant despite the fact that they have agreed not to have children. Nick's response is to buy a house without her consent and move them to a place away from her friends and any of the pleasures she get from life. The way he figures it is that if she make one decision without him, he gets to make the others and control her. But what Nick doesn't know is, as terrible as he acts, there are things that are even worst and he has no idea what control is.

The novels of C. V. Hunt are miniature masterpieces of transgressive fiction. Her protagonists are not your model citizens. They are often selfish, filled with hate and sometime simply insane. Yet in her mastery of dark fiction, she manages to always find something worse than her characters. What is strange and wonderful is that I found myself hating and rooting for Nick at the same time by the end of her latest novel, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice. The title gives you a hint of where it is going and that is confirmed with its three section: The Preparation, The Ceremony, and The Sacrifice. Yet that doesn't begin to describe the gory and violent turns that will be discovered. The story is full of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. In fact, it is a little hard to think of what she left out in its approximately 200 pages. But this is what C. V. Hunt does well. She places the reader in the most depressive and terrible situation and makes the reader's experience liberating. It is the reason horror novels work for many people and this is definitely a horror novel. But I think Hunt's novels are more than just visceral horror. I have compared them to the existentialist writers before and I still think it fits. Clive Barker once told me that he wanted to depict Evil existing without the need for a Good. I think Hunt takes this idea further. But as dark as her novels can get, it doesn't mean there isn't good and nobility out there. A character named Morgan hints that there is nobility hidden out there somewhere. Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is not without its glimmer of light. Yet, as Nick learns in uncomfortable ways, there is always a bigger asshole than you.

Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is one of the most disturbing and controversial novels of 2015 even for horror. It is also one of the best. While I still have a soft spot for the novelette Baby Hater, this new one shows that the author gets better with every book and every twisted idea. Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is not for the squeamish and certainly not for anyone who complained that 50 Shades of Gray was too kinky, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a masterful story told by one of our strangest and darkest storytellers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An intelligent but tense mystery from France

The Circle

By Bernard Minier


Publisher:  Minotaur Books 

Pub Date: October 27, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From what I can tell, Bernard Minier appears to be one of the premier French writers of mysteries in the last couple of years. His first novel, The Frozen Dead was a best-seller in France and crossed over into the English language market last year revealing an very intelligent author who doesn't sacrifice thrills and surprises for his complex plotting and distinctly literary style. This year we get the second of his novels featuring French police inspector, Commandant Martin Servaz. As much as I enjoyed the first book, The Circle far surpassed it in pretty much every way possible.

Martin Servaz is thrown into another murder case. This one is at the request of a long ago friend whose son, Hugo, was found drugged and disoriented at his teacher's house. The body of his teacher is found drowned in a tub. Everything points to the boy committing the murder but Servaz is persuaded to investigate by Hugo's mother who Servaz knew when he went to school and shared a troubling relationship. There is also the fact that some of the evidence appears to be linked the incident to a serial killer he has been tracking.

While the murder mystery of the novel is stand-alone from the first novel, much of the story is not. Many of the main characters including the serial killer Julian Hirtmann and the Commandant's troubled but loyal staff are included in this novel and they all come with back stories started in The Frozen Dead. You can read The Circle as a stand-alone but it is best to read The Frozen Dead first. But The Circle is still a stunning work encompassing a large cast of characters, plenty of sub-plots and red herrings, and a ton of psychological angst, especially in the character of Martin Servaz. It doesn't help that he still feels for the mother of the suspected murderer or that his daughter is going to the school where the murder took place or that the killer Hirtmann seems to be leaving messages threatening recontact with either Servaz or someone he cares about. The Circle is as much as a psychological thriller as a detective novel. It is the intricate plotting that makes this work. Once you think you have one character figured out, something else arrives and throw you off your game. In The Frozen Dead I criticized it for having too many sub-plots and false leads but here, that is actually a strength. Minier is weaving each one together as soon as they appear and we can see and admire the artistry of this literary weaving of plot on plot and character flaw on character flaw. Minier's talent for distinct and beautiful descriptions of environment and atmosphere is still evidenced too. As for the character's development from the first to the second novel, I found all the character's fascinating even though Servaz remains the most involving. We also get to see more of a glimpse into the elusive killer, Julian Hirtmann who, in this and presumably subsequent novels, appears to be giving Hannibal Lector a run for his money.

Minier has now written two eloquent detective novels and has developed a strong personality in Martin Servaz. This is a novel that I not only recommend to the mystery lover but to anyone who likes their mysteries on the intelligent side with lots of psychological tension. I will be keeping my eye out for the next one.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The supernatural with a human touch

Tall Tales of Gods, Demons and Superstitions

By Ari Abraham

Publisher: Antipodes Press

Pub Date: January 15, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ari Abraham titled his recently published short fiction collection, Tall Tales of Gods, Demons, and Superstitions. Despite the lengthy title, he may have wanted to add "and the human condition." For even though his supernatural tales do contain a spirit or a devil or simply something hinging on the supernatural, they really are about humanity and our inner conflicts. His book contains 14 short stories in a relatively short collection of 100 plus pages. While one can call these tales supernatural or fantasy, they all seem to be focusing on human problems of an existential nature. The endings tend to have a slight twist at the end but it is usually a mild mannered turn, sort of O Henry meets The Twilight Zone. Some are downright philosophical as in "Death was an Ornery Bastard" where Death gives a constant seeker of truth a bit of advice. Others touch on various stage of life issues with a deft sensibility. "Christmas Eve", where a child finds unusual assistance in facing disillusionment for the first time is one of those gentle but imaginative stories. Surprisingly one of my favorites is "Missing Hank", a dog's perspective on death. I say "surprisingly" because my regular readers know I don't usually go for the heart-warmers but I am glad I had some Kleenex handy for this one.

That isn't to say the author doesn't have a wicked side. "A Promise Kept" is a rather sneaky little tale and "Halal", my second favorite tale, is a sly take on a more sinister theme in horror. Yet even these focus on the human side rather than the supernatural setting or dilemma. Another nice thing about these tales is their geographical setting ranging from New York to Kuala Lumpur, Abraham's seemingly multi-cultural background adds good variety and insight to the stories.

Tall Tales is a very good collection of short fiction. The fiction's down side, not really a down side for some readers, is that they tend to be deceptive. Some of them seem to cut off quickly without the punch or thrill one might expect in dark fantasy. But the quick and subtle style will leave one with a feeling that there is much more going on than meets the eyes. And they will be right. It is a Banana Yoshimoto "so simple it is deep" style of storytelling. This is a collection for those who enjoy short fiction that deals with the supernatural yet is centered on a too human existence. If you like your fantasy with a dash of darkness but lots of heart, this will be the book for you.