Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sex and violence and the end of the world

Vampire Strippers from Saturn

By Vincenzo Bilof

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing

Pub. Date: March 20, 2015

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

Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut in a three-way with Anne Rice drowning in a sea of splatterpunk and Russ Meyers movies.

That is a fair description of the craziness and raunch in Vincenzo Bilof’s surrealistic and Bizarro sex-gore tribute Vampire Strippers from Saturn. I am relatively sure my intelligent readers know who Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan are. I am positive you all know who Anne Rice is and adventurous enough to be familiar with splatterpunk, surrealism, and Bizarro lit. But if you know who Russ Meyer is, shame on you. The casualness of sex and violence in Bilof’s novel which is essentially a literary experiment of the surreal reminds me of those campy 60s skin films by the famed director. Bilof’s book does vaguely make me think of a Vonnegut version of Faster PussyCat, Kill, Kill. So much so that if I made Vampire Strippers from Saturn into a movie, I would need to get into my own time machine and bring back Kitten Navidad for the lead role. But now I think I have revealed more about myself than I would like…

Nonetheless, Vincenzo Bilof has a deft hand in juggling the visceral with the intellectual. Even in the strangest scenes, his very literary prose gives it fresh meaning and heightens your curiosity of what will follow. I often think Bilof’s plots are secondary to his prose even though Vampire Strippers from Saturn has a very unique and intriguing plot. Vampire strippers from Saturn, actually near Saturn, have come to earth where we Earthlings are the last sentient life in this version of the universe. Their leader Rene is inclined to save it despite the opposition from their enemy, the shapeshifting Plots. However she discovers from a time traveler that saving Earth will usher in an age where women become no more than hunted animals. Now this seems to be a strange concern coming from vampire strippers whose main occupation is drinking blood and ripping off heads. But what is a vampire stripper going to do?

I will be honest with you. I wasn’t always able to follow the plot. It is an issue with Bilof’s style that it tends to overpower the plot and here is no exception. But the wildness of this idea is better suited to his style than the other two books of his that I have read and still recommend. Here he can disobey the rules and the craziness of the plot enables him to go with the flow, so to speak. And it is a rocky and wild flow. Bilof’s ideas was many and they are all over the place. That is one of the strengths in a weird way. A more philosophical reviewer than I could find tons of themes in here. The role of women in a man’s world, the greed of society, the consequences of our basic needs, the contradictions in the idea of free will, only to name a few. They are there if you are looking for them. But if you are not, you will still enjoy the brashness of this book with its sex, violence and all that bad rock music.

I do not pretend to know more than the writers I review. That falsehood seem to be a conceit that we reviewers appear to flaunt but don’t necessarily believe. However as much as I love Bilof’s style I sometime wonder what would happen if it was toned down a bit. There clearly is a Brautigan or Vonnegut amidst the splatterpunk and skin exploitation leanings. But I may be totally wrong. Perhaps the best thing Vincenzo Bilof can do is to give us is Vincenzo Bilof. Sex, gore and all the rest. I mean…we already have Brautigan Vonnegut, and Russ Meyer but who can claim to be Vincenzo Bilof?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Southern Gothic Existentialism?

Wise Blood

By Flannery O'Connor


Classic Flashback #4

In my humble and arguably cynical opinion, The two best novels about the American religious experience are Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. Lewis' book is a satiric look at the merging of fundamental Christianity and Capitalism. It's meaning is pretty straight forward. Wise Blood is quite a bit more devious and is a deeper, more individualistic look at the complex working of its character's spiritual conflicts. Its main protagonist Hazel Motes looks like a preacher but he prides himself on his nihilistic attitude. He moves to the big city and preaches "The Church of Christ Without Christ" but he is confused and searching as much as anyone else and doesn't always know what he is searching for. As Lily Sabbath says of Hazel; “I like his eyes. They don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking” Hazel is a southern Søren Kierkegaard who never heard of a leap of faith. O'Connor's sly novel reads like a sumafabitch yet is about a lot more than any first reading tells you. Every character , minor or major serves a purpose. It is meant to be read again and again (This is my fourth reading) and every time will give you another outlook on the eccentric and oddly charismatic charm of Hazel and the other resident of this Southern Gothic classic. If there is a case for "Southern Gothic Existentialism", then Wise Blood makes it. I recommend Wise Blood right up with Elmer Gantry, The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy as candidates for the great American novel of the 20th century.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A bad night in Mexico


By William Hjorstberg


Publisher: Open Roads Media

Pub. Date: May 12th, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

It was the 80s and I was chilling with some Mexican friends in Valle De Santiago, not too far from where most of the action in William Hjortsberg’s Mañana takes place. A bunch of local farmers came over in the evening toting a few bottles of El Presidente brandy and some low grade weed. It was a fun night but at some point I lost track of what happened. I woke up the next morning with one hell of a headache. One of the farmers was shaking me. “Quick, we have to sell some hay!” After a few turns at my very poor Spanish and help from my bi-lingual friend, I discovered I promised the farmer to go with him to take his hay to market.

I asked my friend, “When did I tell him I would do that?”

“While you were milking his cows, around 2 in the morning."

“But I don’t know how to milk cows!”

“You’re telling me,” my friend said.

I am not one to renege on even a drunken and stoned promise. So I went with my new farmer friend and we sold his hay. We had a great time. Afterwards we went to a hole in the wall restaurant where we had the locally prescribed hangover cure of chicken soup and a Coke with a raw egg in it. Yes, the hangover cure worked almost immediately, in case you were wondering.

I guess I was lucky compared to Tod the protagonist in Mañana who, after his first time using heroin, wakes up next to a dead prostitute with her throat slit. All the others, a seedy group of dealers and gangster types, are gone along with Tod’s girlfriend Linda. It is up to Tod to find out who killed the girl. For all he knows, it could have been him. But his main goal is to find his girlfriend to see if she left willingly or was kidnapped. What follows is a journey to the dark side of the 70s counterculture and the underbelly of gang life in Mexico.

It’s too bad it isn’t interesting. Hjorstberg at his best is a talented writer whose gritty style glows with atmosphere and emotion. He was at his best in his novel, Falling Angel, whose plot most people are familiar with due to its retelling in the movie Angel Heart. Mañana is not the writer’s best. The gritty style is still there but there is no investment in the characters. Tod is meant to be sincere and inexperienced but just comes out stupid and self-centered. We do not meet Linda until the end but what we find is a jarring reversal with no real explanation. The rest of the characters are essentially colorful but stereotypical gangsters and drug leaders. Then there is the pace. Aside from the straight-to-the-plot first chapter, it moves really slowly to the point that we wonder about Tod’s motivation. The back story with Tod and Linda is visited but it offers no revelations and drags the story even more. While the atmosphere is dark, it just doesn’t ring true that these two naive tourists would find themselves in a situation like this. Without that bit of information, the rest of the tale becomes too big to swallow.

I will give the author credit for setting the stage though, he writes about a dark side to the Mexico in the 70, a region and area that most authors describe nostalgically. There is no nostalgia in Hjorstberg’s Mexico, just criminal deals and betrayals. Yet that theme doesn’t take hold enough for me to immerse myself in the dark. While there is no denying Hjorstberg is a skilled writer, Mañana is ultimately a major disappointment.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Haunted houses and mass murders

Within These Walls

By Ania Ahlborn

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: April 21, 2015

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn is an intriguing hybrid of psychological horror and haunted house tale. Both sub-genres are favorites of mine. What Within These Walls does so well is to bring them together in a novel that spans a thirty year period with complex characters and interactions. Most of the book takes place in a house where true crime author Lucas Graham and his 12 year old daughter Virginia temporarily resides. Yet it is not so much the allegedly haunted house that scares us but the mass murderer who has convinced Lucas to move into the scene of his crimes. In many ways, it is Lucas who is haunted. He is a true crime writer with a couple of best sellers and a long streak of nothing. His marriage is teetering on the edge of divorce and it is affecting his daughter who has taken a liking to the dark and the occult. Cult leader and killer Jeffrey Halcomb is giving him the opportunity to interview him for a book but the price of admission is to live in the house where the murders took place thirty years ago. What happens next is a nightmare that threatens to destroy Lucas and his family and may revitalize the terror that was spread by Halcomb.

Lucas is not necessarily the most likable person but he is troubled by the most common challenge of just living and succeeding. It lends an air of believability when he takes resident in a house that would send most tenants fleeing in terror. The author Ania Ahlborn knows that desperation and insecurity can be more terrifying than the most awful demon and the most eerie ghost. Ahlborn is a skilled writer who realizes horror is more terrifying when you are immersed in the characters and slowly drawn to the scares rather than hit in the head by the proverbial hammer. The author uses alternating time lines to tell her story; the current time where Lucas is trying to make his comeback and ends up accepting a deal with a killer, and 30 years earlier at the time of Halcomb’s cult and its murders. In this narration of a previous time, we are introduced to Audra/Avis who becomes our focal point as we discover how and why the killings took place. Halcomb and his followers are not based on any actual murder but seems to be a loose mix of Charles Mansion and Jim Jones. But the strength in this tale is that Halcomb often feels like a enigma. We get no direct look at Halcomb in the present age but he learn about what the young 80s Halcomb was like through the eyes of Audra. We follow the insecure Audra as she struggles with her role in this perverse family. That is what I really liked about this story. That in both timelines it is the potential victim that brings us anxiety and scares. Villains are fun and Jeffrey Halcomb is an imposing villain but in this engrossing novel we connect with the victims with their strange but recognizable hopes and fear.

Lots of strange thing happen in this haunted house and there are plenty of shocks for the horror fan. But overall the psychological horror genre wins out and that is fine with me. Ahlborn deals in the more quiet and haunting chills and while she doesn’t shy away from violence especially at the end, it is not what keeps the reader. It is the cold and deep chills that keep us reading. Within These Walls stays with you. The characters stay with you. Ahlborn’s meaty horror novel succeeds not just for the scares but as a psychological study of persons desperately and tragically seeking their role in life and ending in a nightmare. For that reason, it comes highly recommended.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Psychological suspense at its best

Jack of Spades

By Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Pub. Date: May 5, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Joyce Carol Oates is a unique voice in American literature. She is well respected in the literary circles yet writes in a style that is fine tuned to the mainstream public. She is also not afraid to enter dark regions that border on horror and suspense. In fact, I would say her best work sits comfortably in the shadows. Her newest novel, Jack of Spades doesn’t just border. It falls head first into the suspense thriller category with a dose of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the millennium set. Jack of Spades is psychological suspense at its finest.

Andrew J. Rush is a moderately successful writer of mysteries. His mystery novels are the proper and polite mainstream kind that reward good and punish evil. Others have dubbed him, a little embarrassingly to Andrew, as the “Gentleman’s Stephen King”. Yet unbeknownst to his publisher, agent and even his family, Andrew also writes under the name of Jack of Spades. Jack is the opposite of Andrew. His books are violent and filled with depravities. Jack’s persona is one of a sociopath with no real regard for morals and decency. Andrew keeps this literary double life going steadily until his daughter discovers a Jack of Spades novel and finds some disturbing scenes in it that are too close to her own childhood memories to be coincidental. Add onto this a lawsuit from a woman that claims Andrew J Rush’s regular novels are plagiarized from her own works. Rush is upset by this lawsuit but his alter ego may have other ways to deal with it. Rush at first understand the contrary thoughts going through his head and is able to tell right from wrong. But quickly things change and the reader wonders whether Andrew’s creation is part of the author’s mad genius or simply mad.

Oates’ novels are normally character driven and Jack of Spades is no exception. She is one of the living masters of psychological suspense. The strength in our protagonist Andrew is that he is normal. He may have a secret but his life is steady and regular. He has the love of his wife and children and the respect of his community. His violent novels under his pseudonym are the only strange part of his life. In a lesser writer’s hands, we might say his progression is unbelievable. But he is totally believable because we get a good view of the logical workings of his mind as he deals with his new found stresses. The first person narration is perfect for the development of the story and it works well as we find out more about Andrew that may explain the odd events. Each event and twist moves the narration along. The novel is relatively short, a little over 200 pages, but reads swiftly and feels shorter simply because it wastes no sentence and has no filler scenes.

It is hard to say much else about this novel for the thrill of the chase is learning what develops beyond the basic plot and setup. Writers of psychological horror and suspense would do well by studying each page of Jack of Spades for it is almost perfect in its structure and telling. Andrew J. Rush is a person of his times and maybe a warning, or even an arbiter of doom. for all those wanna-be writers out there. I can’t help thinking Joyce Carol Oates may be toying a little with her own mind in this sneaky little thriller and telling other authors that writing about the lines between reality and fantasy is a potentially fragile and dangerous thing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A post zombie-apocalypse apocalypse!

Dust of the Dead

By John Palisano

Publisher: Samhain

Pub. Date: June 2, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Mike Lane came to LA to be an actor but the zombie apocalypse got in the way. After a decade of walking dead, things are calming down. There are a few stragglers to take care of. However Los Angeles, as with the rest of the world, has returned to a slightly fragile form of normalcy. Mike, now working on the Los Angeles Reclamation Crew, is responsible for finding the straggling zombies and “reclaiming them”, putting them at rest. But the last few are pretty rotted and dried up. The dust from their bodies seem to be affecting those who breathe it in and it just happens to be the season for Los Angeles’ notorious Santa Ana winds. This new dust problem is especially affecting Mike’s crew except for Mike himself who is left to wonder what is happening and is desperate to find out if there is anything he can do about it.

This is the beginning of John Palisano’s refreshingly different zombie novel Dust of the Dead. With the glut of undead books and movies out there with mindless brain-eaters, Palisano gives us something a little different. The author‘s creatures aren’t interested in brains and are not exactly mindless. They appear more disoriented and angry at first but, as the dust unsettles, seem to be developing a speed and strength not inherent in the first zombies. The author goes over the first zombie apocalypse rather quickly giving us the background through Mike Lane’s eyes. Mike is the center of this story and his first person narrative is dead on, letting us experience the carnage, sense the inevitable societal breakdown, and know what we need to know in a nicely revealing and steady pace. The first zombie invasion as Mike describes it is treated rather casually. It is described as more of a major inconvenience. This is a good decision as it moves the tension and our expectations directly to what is to come. Without giving any spoilers. I will just say that zombie dust becomes a whole different matter and makes the protagonists a little nostalgic for the day of zap, bash and kill.

Even with all the surprises in store, the book mainly works because it is seen through the eyes of Mike Lane. Mike is pretty average. He is doing a job, has a girl friend who he likes more than he lets on, and develops a bond with his fellow colleagues. Mike has adapted to some hard times yet is seeing his world fall apart due to something that was previously unimaginable to him. It is that viewpoint that makes Dust of the Dead so interesting and worthwhile. It is brash, involving and full of thrills and scares. But we also feel for our narrator and share his emotions as the world and his friends changes.

Mostly set in the San Fernando Valley, Palisano has a great sense of locale, taking us on a little tour of The Valley in Zombieland. The novel has a good regional feel and is especially entertaining for someone who loves Los Angeles yet enjoy it reading it being destroyed, such as your fellow native Valley Dude reviewer. Novels with a good regional setting, even if you are not familiar with the locale, are always interesting when the area takes on its own character and meaning. Mike is a Valley Guy and feels like it. I appreciated that in the tale.
But even and you don’t “feel” the environment, there is no getting around that Dust of the Dead brings something new to the long suffering and more than slightly worn zombie legacy. It is good to see something new in this sub-genre. There is room for a sequel as the ending is intentionally open-ended. This is one of those rare times I would welcome a sequel.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A surreal ocean saga

Dark Rising

By Vincenzo Bilof


Publisher: Severed Press 

Pub. Date: September 22, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Vincenzo Bilof is one of the more adventurous writers out there. His poem/novel, The Horror Show, was exciting, challenging, and beautiful all at once. It was a grand experiment which, for the most part, successfully merged poetry, Bizarro Lit, and horror fiction all in one package.

When I picked up Dark Rising, I knew I would be reading something different than The Horror Show. The plot appears to be rather mainstream. It concerns a rich celebrity, Ana Vivaldi, who finances a journey to trace the last voyage of her mother who disappeared at sea. She hires the two survivors of the doomed expedition; Whitmore the alcoholic captain and Nightingale, a man who seems to have an obsessional grasp on the reason the first ship was destroyed. It involves a suitably awful sea creature and much more. At first it appears to be straight forward horror of the sea monster variety. Yet we soon catch a glimpse of something else that is quite original and very surreal.

Bilof’s style is anything but mainstream. He cannot disguise, nor should he, his very poetic style of angst and dread mixed with a sometimes florally descriptive prose. Yet in this novel, that style tends to fight with the overall plot. The somewhat quirky narrative structure in the first half of the novel adds to the challenge. I found the tale quite different and rewarding yet I wonder if the mainstream horror fan, whom this seems to be directed to, would appreciate the challenge. It is a book that demands attentive reading and strives on detail. But there is much to celebrate. Bilof’s excels at the shockers. When we discover some of the side effects of the first voyage and the nature of the monster we can appreciate the author’s originality and skill of description. His characters are interesting, eccentric and well developed as we slowly learn the connections between each of them.

I enjoy the odd but original style of Vincenzo Bilof. It seems that he doesn’t like to visit the same area twice and is always seeking to stretch his talent which also complementarily stretches the reader’s mind and expectation. In Dark Rising he is visiting the haunts of Moby Dick with a sly Lovecraftian twist. Like Moby Dick, the themes of obsession and its destructive qualities are all over the pages of this book. This theme is what makes the novel works so well. Yet I am not sure the straightforward horror of Dark Rising, the immortal themes, and the experimental prose of the author melded all the way. I liked Dark Rising… a lot. I think the reader that picks up this book will enjoy it as long as he has a yen for the surreal. Yet I found myself more immersed in the brashness and overall weirdness of The Horror Show more. What comes out in both books is that Vincenzo Bilof is one of those writers who you can bet on to be different and exciting.