Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A well structured Gothic mystery

House of Echoes

By Brendan Duffy

Publisher: Ballantine Books 

Pub. Date: April 14, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Brendan Duffy's debut novel House of Echoes appears to cover a lot of old Gothic horror and mystery ground. Ben and Caroline Tierney, torn by several unfortunate turn of events, inherits a suitably large and forbidding house in the country. It appears to be a second chance for them. They plan to make it into a bed and breakfast inn and at first things are going well. But soon strange happenings occur. Their son is spending a lot of time in the woods, eviscerated animal corpses appear on their land and Caroline's re-occurring mental condition is apparently taking a turn for the worse. Add to this an isolated township of long time residents holding on to their secrets and you have the makings of a typical Gothic novel.

Yet perhaps not so typical. While Duffy has all the ingredients, he is not content to go by the book so to speak. The author has an interest in getting into the mind of his characters especially Ben Tierney, a novelist whose second book did not do nearly as well and has given him a insecure mindset tailor-made to react to the mysteries he is about to face. Caroline is fragile but not so fragile that we cannot see her strengths. Eight year old Charlie seems eight years old, not a precocious tot going on 40 which seems to be the norm in horror nowadays. He is in many ways the catalyst to the events to come. The author blends in an elaborate story of the creation of the village and its families. He gives us letters from the original 18th century settlers to ease us into the tale but the real meat of the backstory is nicely woven through the oral memories of the modern day villagers. The heavy investment in character is what drives the novel and kept me to the end. There is a lot of atmosphere in the pages of this book.

Yet this may also be an issue for some readers as one can miss the subtleties and yearn for a little more action. There are pivotal scenes that gives us a jolt now and then but the proverbial "all hell breaks loose" doesn't come until the ending when we are bombarded by all the answers. It is a satisfying ending that rewards the reader. At the end I felt like I not only understood the Tierney family but was immersed in the mystery surrounding them. The basic feel in this modern Gothic novel is that of a mystery, but there are plenty of eerie surprises sprinkled throughout to intrigue the horror fan.

If one is looking for an intriguing and intellectual entry in the Gothic Mystery, they will find it in House of Echoes. If it does drag a little at times, it is the type of drag that still tells us about the characters and moves us along in the mystery. As mentioned, this is the author's first novel and it is an impressive first try.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Childhood fears come alive.

The Bear Who Wouldn't Leave

By J. H. Moncrieff

Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd. 

Pub. Date: May 5, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

J. H. Moncrieff's weird and possibly unintentionally nostalgic novella, The Bear Who Wouldn't Leave took me back to my childhood. We all have childhood fears that haunt us. Some of those fears stay with us even after we develop cognitively past that stage of magical thinking. For me, it was mirrors. I could not get past the strange idea that my image in the mirror wasn't necessarily turning when I turned. How did I really know? Perhaps my mirror image was starring at the back of my head. What else was it capable of doing? Perhaps I was just a weird child but then again...maybe not. I of course outgrew that childhood fear. But sometimes late at night, when I have my back to the mirror, I wonder...

In Moncrieff's scary The Bear Who Wouldn't Leave, 10 year old Josh is given a present by his step-father Michael. It is a teddy bear, Michael's own bear when he was a boy and a bear that doesn't have a very cuddly appearance. Besides the fact that Josh sees himself as too old for a teddy bear, he also distrusts Michael and cannot bring himself to accept him despite his mother's pleas. He quickly discovers he has good reason to suspect his step-father as the bear named Edgar appears to be more than an inanimate stuffed toy.

Moncrieff's little scarefest evokes those memories of childhood horrors. It is something that she has in common with Ray Bradbury, whose stories often touched on that not so pleasant aspect of childhood imagination. But in Josh's world, this is not imagination, Edgar and Michael definitely knows how to hold a grudge and Josh must deal with the fact that no one believes him, not even his mother.

That is the strength of the story. Josh's fears may have a supernatural element but his fears are often that of real children. Becoming accustomed to a new authority member in a family is always hard but when that member is abusive, you have a whole new horror going on. Michael is abusive in a real world sense and that may make this story a little hard for children and teens to deal with. I was not always sure what the audience this piece of fiction was meant for. At times it seem a bit too intense for YA, especially the scenes of abuse. Yet for adults who can relate to the tale, it may also evoke memories. Yet good fiction, especially horror fiction, should evoke memories and move the reader beyond their comfort zones. The Bear Who Wouldn't Leave may very well do that for some readers.

But once that is said, it is a scary and entertaining story that delivers on the thrills. Josh is believable as a ten year old child and Michael is suitably evil. Josh's mother comes across tepid and timid but that is intentional. It may make you feel for her but may also make the reader unsympathetic. The story works because of that emotional tie we may feel for the characters. Throughout there is a nice build-up as the consequences become more dire. The ending may bother those who want everything tied together but I thought it was just right, leaving a nice chill in the last paragraph.

So regardless of my dilemma about the intended audience, I found The Bear Who Wouldn't Leave an above average horror fiction and recommend it to those who love a good scary story. But you may not want to read it to your teddy bear. You might give it ideas.

Three and a half stars.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A road trip of suspense and mystery

Dead End

By Carol W. Hazelwood

Publisher: Aventine Press

Pub. Date: December 3, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thrillers and mysteries are quite abundant in the indie publishing world. Finding a good one is not all that easy. On reading Dead End by mystery writer Carol W. Hazelwood, I believe I have found one of the good ones. Dead End is an interesting novel that succeeds mainly due to characters. The main protagonist is Patty Harkin, a down on her luck mechanic whose only possession is her deceased father's truck. She takes a job driving a blindman, Josh, from Minnesota to Arizona. She quickly discovers there is more in the blindman's eagerness to leave besides the bad weather. Another man, Camden, is trying to find out about his friend Mike who died in a car accident. What ensues is a game of questionable identities, high crimes in the casino business, danger from Mexican drug cartels, and a string of corpses from Minnesota to Tucson.

It mainly works due to the character of Patty. The author was wise to put the bulk of the story onto Patty, an average woman with an independent streak yet not necessarily a whiz at crime solving. It is a nice take on the average person in the wrong place at the wrong time. The job of sleuth is mostly left to Camden, a secondary but very important player. Josh is a mystery through most of the novel and provides much of the tension. There are also minor characters like a malevolent thug and a casino owner that adds color to the tale. Yet the likeability of Patty and her common sense approach to danger is what carried my interest.

The basic plot and subsequent resolution works quite well. Hazelwood is quite good at realistic dialogue but there is maybe a little too much of it. There were times that I wish I was shown rather than told. Yet when I was shown, the author's skill at action scenes and descriptions was quite effective. I could also complain that the big reveal about Josh was telegraphed too early in the novel yet it was still a good twist when it came. At the end, it gets messy and involved, delightfully so, as our protagonists get to the end of the road and the reader can finally sort out all the players.

Dead End is the model of a good summer read; Intriguing and thoughtful yet not overwhelming. The author appears to have more Robert B. Parker in her than P. D. James. If you are looking for a good mystery from a new author independent of the mainstream big press, you will do well with this novel by Carol W. Hazelwood.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Lovecraftian horror meets Newfoundland Winter

The Dunfield Horror

By William Meikle

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: April 7, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5stars

In what could be one of the best Lovecraftian novels in a long while, William Meikle grabs us on the first page and drags us breathlessly into his world of ice, isolation and terror. And this is before we even get to the weird stuff.

Let me explain. William Meikle has a wry sense of weirdness that comes from a firm understanding of Lovecraftian strangeness. He excels in descriptions that pulls you in and makes you feel the horror. I expected this. But from the first few pages of The Dunfield Terror, I found myself not feeling tentacles and insanity but the mundane coldness, loneliness, and isolation of a Newfoundland winter. If that scares me then you can be assured the rest will be terrifying.

But it does not take long for the author to get to the really scary stuff. A road workman encounters a strange and dangerous phenomena on a severely snowbound night, wrecking his road plow and causing him to seek the rest of his road crew to warn them of the pending disaster. It is something the Newfoundland residents know through old tales but only a few have actually seen and believe. Quickly, it becomes very real as it threatens to destroy the entire village and rip the fabric of reality with it. The question of where did it come from as well as whether anyone will survive the night is the dilemma that drives the story.

It is those descriptions of what Lovecraft would call "unspeakable horrors" that really get to the reader. They are terrible and beautiful at the same time. When you pair that up with Meikle's literary landscape of a desolate winter night, it is the thing that nightmares come from. Yet this is simply the beginning of the tale. The author combines a present day narrative with journal narrations of past events to build his odd chain of events into an coherent terrifying whole. it is hard to say which works better. The present day narrations that meld Stephen King with Lovecraft or the early narrative segments that have even stronger Lovecraftian elements (Think "The Lurker at the Threshold") with hints of every other weird tales writers of the 30s and 40s. I sense more than a little Blackwood and Derleth lurking at the author's own threshold. Yet The Dunfield Terror successfully melds these separate narrations into a most satisfying novel that scares and mystifies.

When it comes to creating a fantastic scenario that seems both real and fantastic, Meikle is at the top of his game. The Dunfield Terror manages to be old fashion horror and modern existential terror at the the same time which is no small feat. For the Lovecraft fan and the Chuthlu Mythos enthusiasts, this is a must read but it is also essential for those who want to read the best in contemporary horror. At this early date, this is the best horror novel of 2015. and will be hard to beat.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Return of the mutant monsters

Stomping Grounds (Short Sharp Shocks #2)

Edited by Neil Baker


Publisher: April Moon Books

Pub. Date: December 24, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I am a horror movie loving child of the 50s. In the days of nuclear doom and the cold war, the movie scare of the decade was mutant monsters. From the 50s to the early 60s, I couldn’t get enough of them. Speaking of them, THEM!, the giant ant spectacular, was the Citizen Kane of big monster films. Yet even the bad ones were fun. Ranging from giant tarantulas to 50 foot colossal men, they were a jolting escape from the real scares of nuclear war. Dying from a nuclear blast …no fun. But fighting giant rabbits in Night of the Lepus or Killer Shrews in Attack of the Killer Shrew? Cool! Who cared if most of the films were terrible? The camp was half the fun.

Stomping Grounds (Short Sharp Shocks #2) goes back to that time of mutant scaries. Its seventeen stories are all about monsters attacking the poor humans in one way or another. Even those that are not all about giant mutants, there are a couple Lovecraftian influenced tales wedged in, still harbor a fondness for the big and campy. Most have a tongue in cheek quality and could be classified as “Monster Slapstick”. The best ones are enjoyable and fun.

I just wish there were more that were enjoyable and fun. Overall the quality is uneven fringing on Four Wheel Drive only territory. Some read like a good idea underdeveloped and others just never take off. The good ones stick to the humorous idea of mutants. One of the exceptions is “Juggernaut” by JC Henderson which comes off as a rowdy parody of Lovecraftian terrors. Christine Morgan in “The Humming” deserves credit for tackling a hummingbird as a giant monster. It didn’t scare me but I did giggle. From there on, it is a bit of a drought until you come to Amy Braun’s “Bring Back the Hound”, a creative tale in which Hermes and Charon venture to capture an escaped Cerberus and deliver him back to Hades. It may be the best of the lot.

But my favorites were still the ones that seem to feed off the 50s monster movies and celebrate the silliness. “Avanc” by DJ Tyrer catches the idea of radiated 50s style terror well and adds a nice moral: Don’t frack near a nuclear plant. Peter Mesling’s “On the Strangest Sea” has a Captain Ahab leviathan ring to it. But the weirdest, almost “Bizarro” story is “Blood Run” where our nearly suicidal heroes tackles a herd (“tower”?) of 30 foot giraffes. It is a bit of a blood fest that will leave you laughing and gagging at the same time.

I really wish there were more tales that caught my fancy. Over all it was not really that entertaining due to so many misses. It is a cute idea but not one that was fulfilled in the final project. Unfortunately, despite a few cute stories, I would have to give this collection a miss rather than a hit.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A bizarre tribute to urban sleaze

The Last Porno Theater

By Nick Cato

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub Date: July 2, 2013

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I don't get it. Whenever the politicians get cozy with the urban gentrification committees, they always talk about "cleaning up the city". In my mind that means voting out a few crooks but to them, it means busting the porn shop, peep shows and strip joints. At first glance, most people would stick their noses up, decry the immoral "garbage" and say "Good riddance!". But for some of us, it is still part of the colorful history of a city. Whether it is the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, the bad part of Sunset in Los Angeles, or New York's Times Square of Midnight Cowboy or Taxi Driver fame, there are still stories to be told. When Tom Waits sings about the night being "as cold as a ticket taker's smile at the Ivar Theater", The last burlesque theater in LA, you know he didn't dream up that line while watching a Disney film.

Nick Cato's funny-bizarre The Last Porno Theater is sort of a tribute to those areas. In this case, it is Times Square in 1989. Herschel Schwartzbaum is the owner of the last adult theater in Times Square and barely knows if he will still be there a year from now. Developers have bought out the other theaters and the advent of the VCR is spelling doom for the business. Yet Herschel Schwartzman keeps plugging away even when one of his employees disappear. What happens next will not be mentioned. Lets just say they don't call Nick Cato a Bizarro writer for nothing.

It is a good book all the way through but it is the first half of the novel that really shines. The author weaves a tight almost crime noir feel and covers it with a cynical yet almost nostalgic humor. He has a feel for the seedy side of the city and the residents of the down and dirty. It comes through nicely especially when Herschell meets a neighborly clothing store owner. There is both grit and affection in this book. it made me wish Cato continued it for more than the 90 pages of this too short novella.

The second half of the novel brings in the Bizarro part. it is weird and funny and manages to stay connected to the urban nostalgia of the late 80s. Maybe a little too weird at times but it still works. But overall this is a sharp little romp of the a book that evokes a time that was both sleazier and more innocent than now. I would like to read more of Nick Cato. In this work, he shows himself an excellent storyteller and a very strange man ...in a good way.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Of twins and dystopias

The Fire Sermon

By Francesca Haig


Publisher:  Gallery Books

Pub. Date: March 10, 2015

Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

It is hundreds of years after a final apocalypse on Earth. The remnants of civilization is now basically agricultural with most technology banned. The cities of the past are ruins where no one is allowed to go partially due to fear of radiation even though there is no sign that it is still active but also due to the fear of the past and the distant memories of what occurred. But there is one physical effect from the holocaust that remains. When a child is born there are always twins, one boy and one girl. One is physically intact (the Alpha) and the other has some congenial effect usually outwardly noticeable (the Omega). When the Omega is identified, she or he is exiled form the community and sentenced to their own communities and a second class existence. The Alphas rule everything, usually with an iron hand. But there is one major hitch. None of the twins can live without the existence of the other. If one twin dies, so does the other.

This is the basic premise of The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig, a arguably YA novel with a glance at social, racial and class issues and a frontward stare into the lucrative YA dystopic science-fiction genre. The PR campaign for the book likens it to "The Hunger Games meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road". The similarities to The Hunger Games is unmistakable. We have a female heroine who reluctantly takes on the role of leader, or might in the first book of a series, and an oppressive government who conspires to enslave the Omegas or worse. It is all exciting but the author misses The Road comparison by adhering to the rules of a commercial and mainstream YA universe. There is none of the existenial desperation and the urgency of survival that The Road burned into our brain.

But there are some really good things about The Fire Sermon mixed in with the inexplicable. Cass is an Omega born with no outward deformities. It is not until the age of 13 does her parents and community find she is an Omega. Her gift, or burden, is that she is a seer, having visions and premonitions. She and her brother, Zach, have bonded yet he betrays her and eventually become a leading figure known as "The Reformer" who may bring down all Omegas. One of the things I liked was the uncertainty Cass has toward her brother. She despises what he is doing but cannot break the emotional bond. Haig is quite a good writer and can really bring together important scenes, melding the actions and the emotions together flawlessly. She has a poet's heart in an action writers' body.

Yet overall, there are too many head shakers to make this believable. I can accept the far fetched oddities of the birth of the twins and the fact that if one dies, the other dies. I go by Arthur C.Clarke's rule that every novel can have one impossible thing. Yet Cass' seer ability is too pat. It comes when needed and fades when it isn't. The talent dictates the story, not the other way around. Also a character named Kip doesn't quite end up believable in character which is important for the conclusion. The fact is that with the important exception of Cass, Zach and another seer called "the Confessor", most characters do not take on that three dimensional push required to move the story. But the most troubling aspect is the gnawing YA feel. Cass is followed from her birth to the mid twenties. Yet she and the other characters never seem to advance in emotions and character past their teens. They seem written for the audience. It is an important distinction in that a story like this needs believable development, our protagonists do not seem to come of age in a story that is part coming-of-age. A dystopic novel needs that development and it is a common error of the YA variety. It is too bad it exists here since The Fire Sermon teases us with the expectation of being more than another YA dystopic soap opera.

But there is still a desire to find out what happens. I cant really recommend it based on this initial novel. I must say though, the young reader, probably female, that loves this stuff will be entranced. The discerning reader...not so much.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Terror in a town that doesn't exist

Doll Face

By Tim Curran

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.

For my money, Tim Curran is the best writer of horror actively typing up a storm. He has a devious mind that delights at scaring the pants off you yet a gift for language and characterization that tells you he is just not a shockmeister. Curran is what the early Stephen King was before he got detoured by little girls lost in the forest, hearts in Atlanta, and rabid Saint Bernards. For pure excitement and bad dreams, it does not get any better than Tim Curran.

Doll Face is his newest offering of terror. While I still prefer Nightcrawlers for its Lovecraftian elements and Blackout for its superb alien invasion plot, Doll Face is still an unique shocker and a roller coaster ride that rarely lets up. The plot hinges around a van full of young people who take a shortcut to get home. That is never a good idea if you are in a horror novel or movie. The protagonists are a cross section of personalities some unlikeable other not so. The van hits someone in road so they get out to investigate while the driver, a real jerk by the way, tries to convince everyone to leave the scene. Yet "leaving the scene" becomes a moot point very quickly. That is where everything goes haywire as they call 911 and discover the town they are in does not exist. It doesn't help that the "person" they hit seems manufactured rather than flesh and blood.

I will leave the rest for you to discover. There is very little down time in this tale. Everyone is running or fighting to survive and attempting to discover what is real and what is not. So it is a gift of the author that he is still able to instill a good amount of characterization in order to make you care, or not care at least in one instance. (Note to author: I hated Chazz.) Much of the characters' dilemma is in determining hallucinations from reality. I usually find that a hard thing to communicate in the written word but Curran has no problem. This is a viscerally descriptive work where smells, sights and sound are important to communicate well and Curran does that. Without giving away anything, I also loved the open ending which sent a few extra chills through my spine. Despite the high level of violence and gore, I would consider this a fairly mainstream novel that casual visitors to the horror genre should seek out too.

This horror gem is a nice introduction to 2015's new crop of scares and keeps up the author's record for high quality terror. If it wasn't quite as good as Nightcrawlers or Blackout, it is still way above average nightmare material, Highly recommended as is anything by Tim Curran.