Thursday, May 28, 2015

A retirement home to die for

Mercy House

By Adam Cesare

Publisher: Hydra

Pub. Date: June 9, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

The setting for Adam Cesare's Mercy House may be as depressing as it gets. Harriet is reluctantly brought to the state-of-the-art retirement home called Mercy House by her son and his wife, Don and Nikki. As they tour the home, a change comes over the elderly residents. It is a change that brings violence and depravity to the facility and leaves some staff and visitors desperately trying to survive as the residents kill, rape and eat their way through the night.

Setting the action in a retirement home is a tricky endeavor and invites all type of analogizing. The fact that the author provides no clear motive for the transformation of the residents is an interesting tactic. Without an explanation, we are forced to look at the action and emotions of the characters, searching for rationalizations where that may be none. Some readers have focused on the zombie-like state of the transformed seniors but I don't see it. The elderly protagonists go from helpless victims to savage victimizers in a moment. They are violent but still alert, more so than before and stronger than before. The viciousness in which they go after the caretakers imply an almost obsessive revenge, a turning of the tables so to speak. This theme of docility turned savage is not new. There are some comparisons that can be made to other sources. The focusing on one building where the characters are trapped and reverting to a primitive state is similar to J. G. Ballard's Highrise while there is a very similar setup in Cronenberg's early horror film Shiver. But I kept thinking that I may actually be reading sort of a geriatric Lord of the Flies. Are not the very old sometimes thought of as being in a second age of innocence especially as physical and mental frailty sets in. And if that was removed suddenly along with the effects of returned strength and heightened libido and emotions, could not the result be a wave of hostility and revenge upon those who controlled them?

Yes, Mercy House brings forth a load of questions. But are they the reader's or the author's? it is a little hard to say since Cesare's incredibly violent and intense novel never really lets up enough to indulge in answers. The author writes like in a whirlwind going to one shocking scene after another. it is really quite impressive. He focuses on a few of the characters more than others in a way that gives pretty much a capsule study on modes of survival. Nikki is basically the main focus, lost in the meaning of it all but simply trying to survive. Sarah is a nurse quickly headed for burnout when the events becomes for her a sad karmic accusation. Of the elder residents, Arnold Piper, a veteran, turns the horrors into what sometimes seemed to me like a gruesome re-enactment of his war years. And finally, there is Harriett, whose violent transformation is dominated by the obsessive hatred she has for the daughter-in-law she always resented.

Yes, there is a lot to take in here. Yet Mercy House is a visceral, controversial and ultimately difficult read. Cesare's skills are so good that his descriptions bring you into the action maybe a little too intimately. Intense may be an understatement. If one can handle the extreme ride it is a very rewarding if exhausting tale. But at times I wished he slowed down and gave the reader time and clues to ponder all the madness. I don't need explanations in a novel all the time but in this one I wonder if it would have been a little more helpful to tie the themes and action together.

Yet it is still a sick but wonderful roller coaster ride. I would certainly recommend this to those who enjoy extreme horror but also to those who want to see where the young writers in the genre are heading. For me, it is nice to know that the younger writers can still find stories that make us old veteran horror readers a little queasy.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Terror and suspense on the road.

White Knuckle

By Eric Red

Publisher: Samhain Publisher

Pub. Date: June 2, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Eric Red’s White Knuckle is as high octane a horror thriller as they come. It is a cross between Silence of the Lambs and Richard Matheson’s Duel. It also bears a very slight resemblance to the 80s film, The Hitcher which was written by Eric Red as well as was one of my favorite vampire movies, Near Dark. Those two movies and this novel have something in common and that is they show that Red knows how to write dark and evil characters that jump out at you. If his psycho villains come out a little too super-human sometimes, it just revs up the suspense and gives us a little more worry and need to cheer on the hero or, in this case, the heroine.

Our heroine is FBI agent Sharon Ormsby who is assigned to the FBI’s Highway Serial Killing Initiative which tracks and hunts down murders on interstate highways. She comes across a pair of bodies that appear to be linked but, if so, it means that the killer has been active for over 30 years. In the meantime through alternating scenes, the reader discovers quickly that this is a trucker who uses the CB handle White Knuckle. He is abducting women and imprisoning them in his own torture chamber on wheels.

White Knuckle has the right amount of action, crime know-how, suspense, and terror to appeal to a number of genre readers. The FBI/CSI enthusiasts will get a lot of crime-fighter stuff. The author certainly know a lot about the trucking industry too. The suspense/thriller reader will not be disappointed with the tense writing and many taut action scenes. And the horror fans will find lots of scares, both psychological and physical. But it is the cat-and–mouse relationship between Sharon and White Knuckle that kept my interest. The character of White Knuckle is a larger than life serial killer; obsessed, thinks he is smarter than everyone else and just may be, and highly misogynistic. His killing of women is described by the author in a way that hides no facts about his villainy and frankly may be too much for some readers. Yet when Sharon, who is undercover and on the road with a veteran truck driver she had partnered up with, comes into contact with him we can feel the killer being both threatened and challenged by this woman. This is handled well by the author and only adds to the tension as Sharon builds her case and White Knuckle prepares for what he sees to be his final triumph. The final climatic scene is one of the best written action segments I have ever read on paper.

But it isn’t all perfect. That best action scene on paper sometimes comes across too well and feels like a send-up for a film. This is not necessarily a big problem but there are a number of times that some scenes felt too cinematic or too pat. Like the hitcher in the aforementioned film of the same name, the character of White Knuckle is often too “there” when he should be. Also, considering how detailed his descriptions of both FBI and truck driving is, there are some moments that stretch believability. For instance, it is hard to think that an agent that develops a sudden major disability would be kept in the field for such an important and dangerous manhunt. That almost lost me, to be blunt.

Yet overall, I have to admit that White Knuckle ends up as one of the most visceral and on-the-edge-of your-seat reading I have done in a long while. It never lets up. Red has an affinity not just for villains but for the victims which adds a lot of poignancy in the writing. Sharon Ormsby is a great protagonist with enough nerve and back story to make her easily likable. If this isn’t one of the best literary horror/action thrill rides of all time then it still easily goes to the top of the list for best action thrillers in 2015.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hot Dog! More humor from Strand!

Bad Bratwurst

By Jeff Strand

Publisher: White Noise Press

Pub Date: May, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

What a cute little chapbook! White Noise Press needs to be
commended for making such a fine product. Bad Bratwurst by Jeff Strand is a small 28 page chapbook with a very limited production of 160 copies. I think they may be sold out by the time you read this. I love chapbooks. When done well they are compact pieces of love by writer and publisher meant to be cherished. But when said and done, they are only as good as the fiction or essay inside.

Bad Bratwurst certainly deserves this type of love. It is a short tale that is part Monty Python, a tiny bit Calvino, and all Strand about a sausage maker bemoaning the fact that his butcher shop is not getting any customers. While he is trying to close for the night, his assistant comes up with a swift (get it?) solution that upsets the butcher and he turns it down almost immediately. He goes through an hilarious discussion of the moral dilemmas first. Yet the night is not over and, in Python fashion, he is besieged by other "helpful" characters.

I have always been amazed how well Strand can merge humor with the most repulsive subjects and this is no exception. Yet it reads more like a surrealist farce than any horror or suspense. No cringing (maybe a little cringing) but a lot of laughing. Our butcher friend does come to a solution that perfectly fits his staunch and odd set of values. It is also very funny.

This is one of the best short stories I have read from Strand and most of them have been pretty good. If you cant find a copy, hopefully it will show up in a collection sometimes in the future. But if you cant wait and want to read some other really good short fiction by Strand try Dead Clown Barbecue. Tell him the butcher sent you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A dance of death in Phoenix

Last Dance in Phoenix

By Kurt Reichenbaugh

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing 

Pub. Date: May 22, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I like the way Kurt Reichenbaugh's tricky little suspense mystery Last Dance in Phoenix starts out. Kent Starling is a successful accountant with a wife and a mistress. He tends to speak his mind too often which gets him in trouble with his boss. One day he gets an email from his childhood best friend Roy who he has not seen for years and doesn't always remember with the fondest thoughts. He avoids the emails until Roy sends him a picture of his mistress.

From there things go downhill for our hero as Kurt loses his job and bodies start showing up. I really like fiction in which the relatively innocent protagonist is thrown into a bad situation that he never expected. I especially like seeing how and if he gets out of it. I think it is the essence of noir. The nice touch here is the addition of that old friend who you want to forget about. Don't we all have that strange friend in high school that we wonder why we hung out with and how we would react if he or she came back into our lives? This nifty little novel takes it to the extreme and adds the obligatory twist at the end. Reichenbaugh writes in a straightforward manner and with a slight Spillane-type roughness that doesn't go over the top but still lets us see the everyman in his character. My main problem though is with structure. The novel starts out quickly as the author introduces us to the character and sets the stage. As we come to the first murder, we are hooked. Yet after that it starts to drag. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because the detectives are unrealistically slow to see the bumbler in Kent. Or because I didn't see enough connection with Kent and his wife to feel the tenseness. But there did seem to be a mid-point lag where the intensity was lost. Yet it still remained an entertaining novel and a promising look at a young mystery writer. I definitely recommend this book to those who want a good mystery yet I still want to see what else Mr. Reichenbaugh has up his sleeve before I start throwing flowers and yelling hosannas. For now, a "Yippee!" will do.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Small town horror, mainstream thrills


By Heather Herrmann

Publisher: Hydra

Pub. Date: May 26, 2015

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 3 stars

When I read a blurb on a book that compares it to Stephen King, I cringe a little. Sometimes it seems like every horror author wants to be Stephen King. I cant blame them. I want to be Stephen King. But those public relation drones in the advertising division of that mainstream publishing company wants you to be Stephen King because that is where the big bucks are. If I ever do write the great American horror novel, I plan to have a provision in my contract that says, "DO NOT COMPARE ME WITH STEPHEN KING!"

But the blurb on Heather Herrman's novel, Consumption does compare her to Stephen King...and Joe Hill...and the lesser known but in the same ball park Sarah Langan. That will probably be fortunate or unfortunate depending on the reader. But there is no doubt that Consumption is dependent on a formula for mainstream horror. We have a couple with issues going into a situation that will make or break them. There is a nondescript small town with a mysterious event about to take place, in this case the Black Squirrel Festival. We have a cast of dozens, all with their own level B issues. And finally, a dark and seemingly invulnerable terror. I've seen this all before. Yet Consumption starts out promising. There is a slow but nice build-up. We get some tragic happenings that foreshadow worst to come. For the first half of the novel, I was envisioning a scenario that raises the book out of the formula and into something different.

What went wrong? For starters our promised monsters called the Feeders didn't impress. Essentially they are a take-off on zombies; smart, hard to identify but still zombie-like nonetheless. With the nice build-up I expected more. Then there is the cast of dozens. No one really stood out. John and Erma seem to be the most obvious protagonists with their relationship issues and the faint glimmer of hope that we see at the beginning. But nothing really develops from there and we are thrown into a soup of extras all vying for the brass ring. When we finally find the catalyst that knows what is going on we have crossed the point of no return and are headed for "don't care."

Yes, Consumption is formula but that doesn't mean it can't work. Robert McCammon's first few books were all formula yet there was something about the writing that jumped out at you and made it live. I just don't see that here. While Herrman had a great idea and can write very well, the story overall becomes weighed down with too much filling, not enough uniqueness and not enough awe. It is mildly entertaining but eventually forgettable. There are some good, maybe even great things in it but just not enough for me to recommend it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A novel of suspense and identity.


By Shane McKenzie

Publisher: Rothco Press

Pub. Date: May 4, 2015

Rating; 5 out of 5 stars

In Shane McKenzie's tense and different novella Mutt, Patrick, a young white/Korean male who is often mistaken as Mexican, lives with his mother, works at a boxing gym cleaning up, and basically stays out of trouble. That is until he meets a Mexican girl who mistakes him as being the same as her. Pat is too smitten with desire to correct her and finds himself taken to a party by the local gang Los Reyes Locos. When he discovers he has been "drafted" into joining, it is too late and he is neck deep in a lifestyle he doesn't want with a girl he cannot resist. Soon, he must fight his way out to save himself and his family.

McKenzie's writing is very visceral. As in his previous work, Muerte Con Carne, there is plenty of action and violence. Yet while Muertes Con Carne is clearly a horror tale, Mutt is closer to a suspense and crime tale and throws in a lot of human drama into its characters' development and emotions. Patrick is mixed race but is frequently mistaken as Mexican. Patrick is based on the author's own situation and speaks of his own dilemma as being judged as someone he is not. While the author is taking his queues from his own life, I am fairly certain the actual plot is not auto-biographical or at least I hope not! The fictional Patrick's situation is extreme but it works as an illustration of one of our own inescapable issues in our American life; being judged on appearance and race rather than for who we really are. Mutt is just as much a coming-of-age tale about growing up in race and class torn America as it is an edge of your seat thriller about gangs and violence.

That is why this book and the main character of Patrick moved me so much. Patrick is a normal kid who wants to be accepted and wants the girl. He is tricked into a lifestyle he does not want for a girl who may have other plans for him. In the midst of this plot we have great writing that brings Patrick and the gang of Los Reyes Locos to life. There is no sugar coating. Shane is sleeping with cobras and he knows it. The scenes of violence are intense but fits squarely into the story and we see Patrick's own terror and bewilderment as he experiences it.

It is that part of McKenzie's writing that senses the horror of life choices when it collides with the human-created horrors of society that makes me come back to his stories. Whether it is cannibal families as in Muerte Con Carne or homicidal gangs as in Mutt, the author goes deeper than the suspense and visceral thrills inherent in the tale and digs into the existential dread that one will find themselves in. I hope the author continues this exploration of the human side of dark social and racial themes in future stories. Even if he decides to just thrill and terrorize us I will be pleased. He does it so well. But he has the gift of social observation that does not ignore the individual psyche and I hope he uses it again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Speculative fiction that's too close to home

The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi


Publisher:  Knopf 

Pub. Date: May 26, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the best writers of speculative fiction alive. He specializes in the dystopic novel often dealing with issues of bio-engineering and technological advances that changes the world and humans, usually not for the better. But what I like about his writing is the solid grounding he has in the human spirit which remains constant over the most harrowing alternate reality leaving both the good and bad aspects in plain view. The author’s humans are resilient and admirable in their courage and drive if not always noble in their values and morality.

The first thing that hits you about his new novel The Water Knife is that this time he is not envisioning a future that is in the distance but one that is just around the corner for many people. To use a line from the TV series Max Headroom, the plot of The Water Knife is “20 minutes into the future” and, to quote a more mundane saying from hundreds of P.R. agents “straight out of today's headlines”. The author’s not-so-future world is the Southwest United States when the drought we are experiencing has become permanent, drying up most of the water in the Southwest. Phoenix is collapsing. Refugees from Texas are coming north looking for a better life but finding despair and corruption. Arizona, California, and Nevada fight furiously to maintain water rights in a way that is barely legal and, under the surface, full of violence and betrayal. Important to this battle is the water knife, the label for men who do the dirty stuff; sabotaging water pipes, removing people from their territory who are using up water that don’t belong to them, and occasionally hurting and killing. One water knife, Angel Velasquez, works for Catherine Case, a prime player in the fight to secure water for Las Vegas and an enemy of the “Calies”, the chief water enforcers for still powerful California. Arizona, primarily Phoenix, is a distant third with its population all but abandoned and left to fend for themselves through crime and corruption. Angel is ruthless but extremely loyal and is sent to Phoenix to find out why Case’s operatives are missing.

In the meantime Lucy, a reporter in Phoenix, is onto a story involving the killing of a water lawyer who may have gotten greedy. There is also Maria, a teenager growing up fast in the world that uses, abuses and discards young girls. She is a refugee from Texas and is trying to make her way north. These three characters come together in the alternating narratives, sometimes working together but mostly working against. The way that Bacigalupi weaves these narratives together is as skillful as any writer you will find.

As is often true about dystopic novels with complex setups, the first few chapters moves a little ponderously to acclimate you to this world. Fortunately the author is very good at that and we are soon transported not just into his world but into the life and emotions of the characters. What I like about the protagonists of The Water Knife is that they are very real, which means in this case that they are liable to be bending their values, fighting and betraying in a second if survival is the goal. In Bacigalupi’s world, survival is very often the goal. I was ready to hate Angel but his perverse sense of loyalty becomes a virtue. Lucy is married to her job and despite the constant dangers, finds Phoenix a place that speaks to her. Maria is also a fighter but her fight is to just make it through each day. If you are looking for knights in white armor, a Bacigalupi novel is not the place to find them. But if you want real characters that make each twist and turn believable then you are in the right book.

The Water Knife can easily be read for its entertainment value alone but there are always serious themes lying in plain view in a story by Bacigalupi. There are as many themes here as plot twists and character turns. The author has a good grasp at future slang which pops up often giving the story an understandable but separate worldview. One of these terms that just might make it into our own mainstream is “Collapse Pornography”. It is the term coined to describe the kind of news story that delves on the deterioration and misery of peoples and society and is devoured by the mainstream audience just as some in our reality devour tabloid gossip. When Lucy hears that hundreds of corpses are being dug up in the city she is more interested in what the story will do for her career than in the tragedy of it. Yet it also changes her life when she finds that the body of the water lawyer is one of them and leads her to the many decisions she will need to make.

Pacigalupi does everything well; characterization, world structure, action sequences. They are all meticulous. The Water Knife may appeal to the imagination of a population that is still struggling with the undeniable idea of global warming. Yet it is the human struggles that make this book work. This is a novel that should appeal to more than the science fiction audience. I would not be surprised if it breaks into the mainstream and becomes the book of 2015 that everyone talks about.

A dark and poetic short tale

One Way Ticket

By William Cook


Publisher:  King Billy Publications

Pub. Date: December 20, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

William Cook is one of those authors in the horror/fantasy field I keep hearing about but I have yet to reach in and explore the depths of his talent. I have read a book of his poems and found them quite engaging in a darkly fantastique way. In One Way Ticket we have an example of his short fiction and a fine one it is. Even if I did not read his poetry, I would have guessed we had a poet among us because of the beautiful descriptions and the instant immersion into an eerie and tense environment. One Way Ticket involves Abel Laroux, a man who farmed a forsaken perhaps cursed plot of land in the Louisiana bayou as did the generations before him. On the night of the thirtieth year of his life, he experiences something that may change his life or be his death. It is a brief glimpse of terror that reads like many of the folk tales of that region. But what raises it above the typical is a certain description of a mode of transportation that makes the story a marvel. it is eerie, grotesque, and one of those written narratives that manages to translate into sight, sounds and smells as you read it. The skill of the writing holds you and convince you of the devilish doings in this story. There is not much else to say but to get this little gem and enjoy the chills. I now have another name on my list of authors to remember.

One Way Ticket is approximately 64 pages long and currently a free ebook on Amazon. It includes an excerpt from Cook's novel, Blood Related and the poem The Temper of the Tides.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A small town ghost story

Abram's Bridge

By Glenn Rolfe


Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd. 

Pub. Date: January 6, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Glenn Rolfe's novella Abram's Bridge isn't really horror. It is more of a supernatural thriller. Nothing jumps out at you, you probably won't have any sleepless nights, and your wimpy significant other can read it without acclaiming, "How can you read this scary stuff?" Instead, we have a somewhat old fashioned ghost story set in a small town with more than a dash of "coming-of-age". It is actually a nice break from zombies and vampires to read about a ghost, a young sweet one at that. Yet the author does manage to evoke a good amount of suspense in this short but entertaining tale.

Ronald "Lil' Ron" Sawyer is living with his father, Greg Sawyer, and grandmother after his parent's tumultuous divorce. They have moved to his father's hometown and Greg has taken to drinking heavily. Ron spends much of the time staying away from his home and exploring the town and its rural environment. Under a bridge by a creek, he finds a young girl who we quickly learn is a ghost. When Ron finds out the girl was murdered he becomes obsessed with discovering who killed her even though he is afraid where his search may lead him.

As far as ghost stories go, it is a rather predictable one. Yet Rolfe makes it interesting and manages to eke out a good amount of suspense. The best thing about it is the way the author is able to maintain a small town atmosphere where everyone knows each other and secrets do not remain well hidden. As i understand it, this is Glenn Rolfe's first published story and it is a very nice debut. The coming of age feel is light. Yet it is there as Ron comes to terms with a secret that most boys his age do not have to deal with. Yet I wanted a bit more twist in the story. It was too predictable and straight forward at times with the mystery's solution too easily and too early discovered. But there still is a lot to like in this combination ghost story and mystery. It will be interesting to see where Rolfe's imagination takes him next time.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The area between life and the hereafter

Crossfades: A Dystopian Novella

 By William Todd Rose

Publisher: Hydra

Pub Date: May 19th, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The subtitled description of William Todd Rose's Crossfades reads "A Dystopian Novella" It is a bit misleading since I identify dystopian novels with dysfunctional societies and social-political conflicts. Rose's sci-fi/horror hybrid involves a somewhat clandestine company but beyond that it is mainly about life after death and the struggle of making connections with others in our world and beyond. Chuck works at a mysterious place known only as the Institute where he enters into shadow areas, between our life and whatever exists beyond, that are called crossfades. His task is to help those souls caught in these crossfades continue their journey into the hereafter. It is a job that becomes his sole purpose, squeezing out anything else life has to offer him. In most cases, entering this limbo area is a routine task that consists simply of pointing the way out to the trapped soul. But sometimes a soul deliberately stays and manipulates the delusional surroundings of crossfades, trapping others for their own evil purposes. Chuck gets caught up in one of these crossfades, gets himself in over his pay scale so to speak, and breaks one of the primary rules of his profession, don't become attached to your target.

Crossfades is a short but nicely structured tale deftly combining a sci-fi feel with the more psychological, and psychopathic, thrill of supernatural horror. While there is a villain and we discover who he is, he is primarily an instrument of the terror to come. Scary but not all that well defined. But that is OK. This is a story about a man who does his job and is solely invested in his job to the detriment of everything else in life. It is about how one must examine the niche one finds themselves in and achieve something else even if that something else may cost you your job and even your life. As a novella it works well, maybe too well. This could have easily been stretched into a full novel since we have an interesting protagonist and a very intriguing dilemma. I wish it was. But for what it is, I enjoyed it. There is a nice twist at the end and even if further reflection brings out the pat convenience in the resolution, it still works nicely. This is one of those works by a new author that stays there in your mind while you wonder what else the writer is capable of; Good, not great but has hints of greatness to come. We will just have to wait and see