Sunday, June 28, 2015

Five dark tales

His Own Mad Demons: Dark Tales from David A. Riley

By David A. Riley

Publisher: Parallel Universe Publications

Pub. Date: April 13, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The central theme of the five stories in David A Riley‘s original collection titled His Own Mad Demons is of the occult and demonology. Some of them take place around a British pub called The Potter’s Wheel and near an area named Grudge’s End. I have always liked that move when the author place their tales around a region whether it is real or fictitious. It gives it color and a continuity that helps create an aura of familiarity once you have the “feel” of the area in your head. And as is often with writers of fantasy and horror, they usually drop you in a place you would not necessarily want to visit and most certainly not spend the night.

I like Riley’s style. It is a little old fashioned and sort of “Twilight Zone” in character; putting ordinary people in supernatural situations that will tax their beliefs and challenge their will to live. The title story is typical. It involves a couple of low level crooks doing a job that turns bad and quickly takes an occult turn in what first seems like a standard crime tale. It has a nice twist at the end and a satisfying shudder inducing climax. The second story titled “Lock-In” has a nice otherworldly feel as regulars of The Potter’s Wheel become isolated for days in the pub, unable to leave into a pitch black darkness that dissolves them like acid if touched. This one has some nice shades of Hodgson and Machen to it but is still thoroughly modern. “The Fragile Mask on His Face” also takes place around The Potter’s Wheel but is the weakest of the five. It involves a missing girl and doesn’t really go beyond the creepy occult killer (or is it something else?) stage. The last two, “The True Spirit” and “The Worst of All Possible Places”, are the strongest pieces of fiction in the collection. They seem to speak to the writer’s strength which is creating a believable fictional region with a mysterious past that include an evil event and creating characters that will be tossed into the chaos. I enjoyed both of these stories but “The True Spirit” really left me in the mood to discover more about the strange town called Grudge’s End.

All of the stories kept my interest and all gave me a satisfying chill at the end. For this type of tale you really cannot ask for much else. They are the epitome of a “brief scare” and the occult horror story. Overall, it is a recommended “keep the lights on while reading” experience.

Friday, June 26, 2015

An epidemic on Long island

Q Island

By Russell James


Publication: Samhain Publishing, Ltd. 

Pub. Date: July 7, 2015

Rating: 4 out 0r 5 stars

Q Island is a novel about an epidemic. It is not a zombie novel. I wanted to make that clear at the beginning because the virus that is taking over Long island in Russell James’ intelligent and exciting novel does develop zombie-like traits in the unfortunate people that get it. One stage of the disease gives its victim an insane style of rage that take over and, like zombies, inflicted injury on others just make more victims. To this reader, that is slightly unfortunate because it is not the “zombie” that is the center of the story. It is the reactions of those bought together for good or bad by the plague that moves it along so effortlessly and memorably. The ability to get beyond the zombie formula and look at the people who struggle through or exploit the catastrophe is the strength of the book. Q Island is part horror, part thriller and part disaster novel. All parts are equal and high quality. In other words, Q Island is a treat to read and an on-the-edge-of-your-seat experience.

Once the epidemic is raging, the author focuses on mainly three main protagonists. Dr. Samuel Bradshaw is the one who first experiences the unfortunate people who get the disease. He is tempting to find a cure but discovers other dubious things going on. Melanie Bailey and her autistic son are trapped on Long Island, where the government has isolated the virus and quarantined the population. She has a reason to risk escaping from the island. And lastly, Jimmy Wade is a petty criminal who discovers the virus affects him differently and uses the unique effects to wage his own kind of evil. The author follows each character separately and merges them into the rest of the big picture of the inhabitants of Long Island suffering the deadly and seemingly unstoppable plague.

One of the joys in the novel early on is when James describes how the virus originates. I am not going to say what it is, even though you learn in the first two chapters, because it is so clever and imaginative I want you to experience it for yourself. But what it does reveal is that the author is not a run of the mill formula writer. Q Island is full of little twists that sets it apart from the pack of usual apocalypse/zombie/virus clones out there. If the authors throw out an unexplained far-fetched effect that seem a bit out of place, I can forgive it because it moves along a story that is tight to begin with. Couple that with some nicely written and continuously developing characterizations and you have a winner.

So what we have is a novel that involves and entertains with a high dose of horror and thrills but doesn’t talk down to the readers. It is a welcome change from the mainstream drivel yet reads easily and moves fast. In other words, it is a good summer read for the discerning reader. This book warrants an enthusiastic recommendation but also a warning. Protective body suits are not included. You will feel so much in the action, you might think you need one.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dark urban fantasy

Dreams of Darkness

By Barry James 


Publisher: CreateSpace

Pub. Date: June 9, 2012

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars 


Urban fantasy books are still fairly popular. So popular that they tend to be a genre super prone to formula. Fortunately the genre is wide enough to avoid the most obvious formulas if the author wants to avoid them. I admit I am not always "with it" when it comes to urban fantasy. Back in the "golden age of science fiction", which A. E. Van Vogt famously quipped was "14", fantasy meant sword and sorcery. The first fantasy/horror novel I ever read that seemed to be modern and urban in style was Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife. I consider that novel to be the grandfather of urban fantasy. Decades later urban fantasy have merged into a plethora of ideas including Leiber's modern horror tale of witches but also sorcery, usually sans swords, Lovecraftian elements, urban contemporary environments, a heavy emphasis on the supernatural and psychic powers, and an obsession with anti-heroes rather than heroes.

With all this in mind, Dreams of Darkness is typical urban fantasy yet it isn't. The first thing that is obvious is that Dreams of Darkness is much darker than what usually passes for urban fantasy with the mainstream audiences. James' novel centers around 20-something Jordan Hanson. He seems a typical young man with a girl friend and everyday problems until he is shot and killed in a bank robbery. He discovers abruptly that he was born to be the "anti-Christ" for an ancient and powerful group of evil thingies called the Mondragorans. He escapes from them and find himself alive, or rather undead, still with the powers that the Mondragorans gave him to destroy the world and usher in their rule. Without knowing the full extent of his power or the consequences, he vows to fight the Mondragorans and save the world.

Which of course, ain't going to be easy. The first thing I like is that Jordan is a reluctant hero, something not that unusual in the genre. He struggles with his powers and eventually discovers using them may be more dangerous than not using them. James writes about this struggle well, making it deeper and darker than a Bruce Banner vs. Hulk dilemma. Jordan has a lot to learn and we learn it with him. A huge combination of occultist and mythological knowledge is thrown in. I do not know how much is borrowed from others and how much is of the author's creation, which is a strength of the work. Jordan makes some powerful allies and equally powerful enemies, including Lord William Ackerman, Jordan's chief boogeyman who is in cahoots with the Mondragorans. What ensued is a tense and long struggle with Ackerman and his henchmen culminating in a lengthy climatic battle in a demon infested Seattle. As if Seattle wasn't gloomy and dark enough to begin with!

When all is taken into account, Dreams of Darkness is an entertaining and welcome entry in the Urban fantasy genre. It has a likable and sufficiently brooding anti-hero paired with a love-to-hate villain. The creatures are quite imaginative and owes a bit to Lovecraftian horror. While the book is clearly labeled "Book one of the Mondragoran Chronicles" it is stand alone and doesn't end in a cliffhanger even though there is a nice hint of troubles to come on the last page. Unlike a lot of urban fantasies today, it doesn't overlap into paranormal romance, although there is an obvious candidate and a surprise for Jordan at the end of the book that makes me wonder about what is in store in book two. This is not to say it doesn't have its issues. This is a first, independently published, novel and has flaws typical of both. I know it is a bit of a cliche in this situation to say the author needs a good editor but it fits here. Many of the scenes seem drawn out and overall I felt the book was too long at close to 500 pages. While the many action scenes are excellently written they are also burdened with too much explanation and dialog in the midst of it. One of my pet peeves is folks fighting to the death with demons and trying to hold an conversation with them at the same time. It never felt like a good idea.

But overall it works quite well,. As mentioned, James' action segments are creative and fun. The characters are all interesting and involving. While the tale has more than its share of darkness, the author always manages to keep a little light seeping in so we remain hopeful for our heroes. I am not sure this will appeal to the mainstream reader that is not already seeped in the intricacies and nuances of urban fantasy but the avid reader of the genre should enjoy this.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

From film to book to trash bin

Dawn of the Dead

By George A. Romero & Susanna Sparrow


Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: May 26, 2015 (reprint)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Novelizations are always a little tricky to review. The entire idea of novelizing a film seems a bit odd. You are taking a separate art form and placing outside its intended existence. You could say that about going from novel to film too. Yet while filmmakers strive, in theory, to form a different creation using all the nuances of sight and sound, the act of novelizing too often comes across as simply another way to exploit and create merchandise to sell. That isn’t to say that it can’t be literature although frankly, I cannot think of one novelization that makes it so. But they can be entertaining and, at best, can add some insight to the characters and action that the reader may have already seen on film. Off the top of my head I can think of a few novelizations that do that very thing well: The Howling by Gary Brandner and Dennis Etchison’s Halloween II and III and The Fog writing under the pseudonym of Jack Martin come to mind. These are examples of good novelizations of horror movies that stand alone as novels and add a little something extra to the films.

Dawn of the Dead by George A. Romero and Susanna Sparrow is a novelization of Romero’s classic film of the same name. The film and book originally came out in 1978. This edition from Gallery Books is a reprint published in May of 2015 and comes with an introduction by Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead). It’s an entertaining intro but it doesn’t really add anything of note to either the film or the novel. But I doubt anyone will buy the book for the introduction. So how about the book itself?

Unfortunately Dawn of the Dead, the book, does not fare well either. In fact, it is downright abysmal. It does not add anything to our understanding of the film nor is it very entertaining. It follows the film action quite closely but almost to the point of sounding like a exhausted writer reciting a bored treatment. When we do get details that are not in the movie and should help move it along, it is of all the wrong areas. For instance we get detail after detail of our anti-heroes walking through the mall but their inner thoughts and motivation remain cartoonish with no real insight beyond what we saw in the film. What troubled me is that the film itself was full of subtle touches. Much of what is happening as the characters survive and fight the zombies in the stereotypical world of the shopping mall comes across as a satirization of our own consumer driven society. None of this makes it into print. What we get is a not very well written account of “they did that and then they did this”. There is just bad writing throughout the book. The author will switch between two or even three characters doing something in entirely different parts of the mall all in one paragraph. It makes for a very badly structured and confusing narration.

The novelization of Dawn of the Dead has little horror, little suspense, and little emotion. Those few who read the book without knowing the movie will be confused and bored by the haphazard writing. Those who saw the film will be better off passing it up altogether. The film itself is a classic and a must see for anyone who loves horror movies. For that matter, it is a must see for anyone who loves movie making. But novelizations like this one not only add nothing to the aura of the film but does the movie and the filmmaker a grave injustice, no pun intended.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A paranormal thriller minus the thrills

Dark Equinox

By Ian Jarvis


Publisher: Damnation Books

Pub. Date: January 27, 2015

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Philip Tarot is a fake psychic who witnesses a murder in an Edinburgh graveyard while visiting the grave-site of his deceased wife. At first he wants to report the murder but realizes that claiming he saw it in a psychic vision would be a boost for his career. At first the detectives are skeptical but when the murderer is caught, Philip becomes a hero and a celebrity. But it also places him in the sights of The Sorority, an occult group going back to Aleister Crowley and now headed by his granddaughter. They are using a series of murders to start a chain of events that will change the world for the worst. He also gets the attention of Iona Kyle, a real occultist and psychic, who knows the extreme danger he is in.

Dark Equinox is best described as a paranormal mystery. There is very little that is horrific about the plot and it travels well frequented paths in the occult and supernatural thriller genres. The author Ian Jarvis moves the action well although I would preferred a little more action and less verbal explanations at times. His best quality is the ability to bring Edinburgh to life. He combines action with place quite well. Yet there was an old fashioned feel to some to the dialogue. I had to keep reminding myself that most of the novel is set in present day rather than the 40s, where the prologue is set. Dark Equinox is titled “Book one of the Iona Kyle series“ yet Iona is not the main character nor the most interesting. Most of the pleasure in this novel centers on Philip Tarot, a morally ambiguous man whose love for his teenage daughter surpasses his own questions about his chosen profession. There is a nice scene early on where he tries to explain to his daughter that telling a lie is not always bad while realizing it is he who has crossed that line. It helps set up Philip’s developing dilemma as he go in deeper to his own lies and places him and his daughter in danger. Two other interesting characters are the detectives Angie Blair and Bernard Fry. Frye is a die-hard skeptic while Blair is a little skeptical but is willing to believe if it helps her solve the murder. Their different styles adds a nice level of tension to the mystery.

It is the characterization and the intriguing premise of fake psychic helped by real psychic that hooked me initially. But there are too many issues to make the novel successful in my eyes. First, there is Iona Kyle, the supposed heroine of the story. Compared to the other three I mentioned she comes across flat. The attempt by the author to make her a bit of a mystery herself gets in the way of the reader developing any empathy for her. Yet even when we find out more about her, it feels more like a standard plot twist than the type of development that involves the reader.

Which brings up the plot twists themselves. The paranormal mystery has been around for a while and is laden with formula and gimmicks. Unfortunately the author tends not to avoid any of them. There is pretty much every occult trick in the books thrown in from Nazis to mind control to rescuing spirits. When so many are thrown in, we also expect the formula that goes with them. We are introduced to the characters fairly quickly, but it is no surprise to us when we find out who the last potential victim of the Sorority will be. It fits the formula.

This being the first book of a series, there is always room for improvement. I would like to see Iona become more real and vulnerable and see perhaps a mystery that examines those vulnerabilities. There are a number of nice things about this novel but it doesn’t rise over the more generic paranormal thrillers that are glutting the market. I might recommend this to the avid supernatural mystery fan but not too many other readers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Et tu, Mr. Grooms?

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare

Classic Flashback #6

Note: I dedicate this humorous review to Mr. Grooms, my 10th grade English teacher who not only taught me how to appreciate Shakespeare but introduced me to the writings of John LeCarre, John Hershey, and Shirley Jackson. But he gets minus points for making me read Silas Marner.

 I read William Shakespeare's  classic play Julius Caesar  in high school as required reading, so my review is delivered in the viewpoint of the ancient high school me...

Our high school English teacher made us read Julius Caesar. I thought I would hate it but it was pretty cool. Lots of fights, knives, and cool speeches. Even the dudes in the local gang thought it was pretty cool. So I decided to read more Shakespeare and chose Romeo and Juliet. Not so cool. Lots of cuddling and no sex. Shakespeare just copied West Side Story which had better fights and cooler dancing. So I told my teacher I wanted a Shakespeare play that had more sex and violence. All he said was go read King Lear.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Short fiction that creeps up on you

Baby's Breath

by Sydney Leigh

Publisher: Villipede Publications

Pub. Date: March, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Diane becomes pregnant and is fearful about how that will affect her husband. Her fear of losing him, coupled with her constant jealousy, transforms into a paranoia that is only confirmed by her husband increasing alienation from her. That is the starting point for Sydney Leigh's poignant and creepy short work of fiction, Baby Breath.

Baby's Breath is the kind of short fiction that excites me. It slowly sneaks up on you until the end when you are hit with the big surprise. The author has an eerie but literary style that is custom made for macabre story-telling and perfect for this particular story. This is psychological horror at its best, a brief study into a descent into madness. One of the things I like is that Diane, who narrates the tale, sounds somewhat understandable and sane as she continues her descent, a common person falling into the abyss. Yet the eerie feeling that she is not "all there" is present even at the beginning. It is easy to see why this was a finalist in the 2014 Bram Stoker Award nominations for best short story.

The edition I read was the signed limited edition chapbook of only 50 copies published by Villipede Publications. I feel safe to say that it is probably sold out by now. But fortunately for you, the story is also available in the anthology, Bugs: Tales That Slither, Creep, and Crawl from Old Ones Publishing. I have not read the collection but if Baby's Breath is typical, it must be one hell of a collection.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A 21st century Tom Ripley

The Truth and Other Lies

by Sascha Arango

Publisher: Atria Books

Pub. Date: June 23, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The liars among us will know that every lie must contain a certain amount of truth if it's to be convincing. A dash of truth is often enough, but it's indispensable, like the olive in the martini.”

Henry Hayden is a bestselling author but he did not write any of his novels. His wife Martha did and she is fine with her husband taking the credit. However when Henry finds out his affair with Betty has resulted in her pregnancy, he becomes concerned that everything he built with his wife will come apart.

That is the bare-bones description of The Truth and Other Lies, a devastatingly clever novel by the German author Sascha Arango. It would probably be classified as a suspense or mystery novel even though we know who's doing what from the outset. The mystery is in what is being done not who is doing it. The pleasure here is watching a charismatic and ultimately sociopathic individual dig himself in deeper and deeper as little plot twists make his dilemma even more outrageous.

Henry Hayden reminds me of Tom Ripley, a equally likeable and elusive protagonist. Like Ripley, Henry has a secret past and is adept at hiding the truth about himself. It doesn't hurt that Arango's themes and style seem similar to Ripley's creator, Patricia Highsmith. Arango has a similar talent for empathy with ones who feel no empathy and a healthy cynicism of human nature. But, again like Highsmith, Arango turns that cynicism into a playful if mostly wicked look at the dark side of man.

The biggest twist comes early and I will not say what that is. But the success of the novel hinges on that twist. "The best laid plans of mice and men" is working overtime in this story and the fun is to see how many precarious bends this Jenga-like plot can take without toppling over. It works because Henry is so complex in his twistedness. Characterization is what finally wins out in the end and all the rest works because we are not so secretly rooting for this immoral individual in spite of ourselves. There are also many minor characters that are well developed and give the story a lot of depth.

There is more than a little similarity with Gone Girl if not in plot but in the motives and personality of the players. Those who liked Gone Girl will catch it and if you didn't like Gone Girl you will probably dislike it for similar reasons. But not reading this novel will be a mistake. It is firmly set up to be the evil little thriller of the year and perhaps the one that raises the bar on the term "literary suspense". Praise should also be given to the outstanding translation which moves everything so effortlessly along. This is my pick for the must-read thriller for 2015.