Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mysterious books and demonic evils

The Leper Window

By Frazer Lee

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pub. Date: Octover 16, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Daniel Gates is hired to deliver a demonic book called the Choronzon Grimoire. When it is found, a page has been torn out of it. He is sent to North Wales to find and retrieve it. Yet he is not the only one who wants to find it and take hold of the demonic secrets told in its writing. He discovers a dark secret about the town where he is sent and why the book may be more dangerous than anyone realizes.

That is the bare bones of The Leper Window by Frazer Lee. It is a good story of demonic horror limited by its brevity of 50 plus pages. The author appears to have an expert grasp on this type of tale and understands the traditional roots surrounding its telling all the way from Machen to Campbell. I was caught in the tale immediately and enjoyed the author’s distinct yet descriptive style. The author has a good sense of atmosphere and uses the old Welsh countryside and history to good advantage. In fact, I wished he used it more since I felt there was a much longer story aching to get out. But overall I really enjoyed it. I have never heard of a leper window before this. A quick search told me that they were actual fixtures in medieval churches used for a particular purpose. The town and church in Lee’s story seems to be fictional but the way he instills these fixtures in the story in quite intriguing as is how he merges the history of the demonic book with the end of his tale. It is this type of detail that kept me engrossed in what some readers might classify as an old fashioned tale of horror.

The Leper Window is an interesting and creepy work that entertained me for an evening. One might call it mainstream and subdued in style yet it packs an eerie punch in the end. I suspect The Leper Window may be an appetizer to steer you to his longer novels. If that is the case, it is successful as I plan to check out his other books soon.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Rock 'n Roll fiction never dies!

Amazing Punk Stories

By David Agranoff

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Pub. Date: July 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There should be more rock ‘n roll horror and fantasy fiction. They fit together in a manic and weird way. Both art forms are not afraid to cross boundaries. But contemporary horror needs to stay with the times. The problem is I am a classic rock kind of guy. All the rock/horror hybrid fiction I know is more in the realm of Jerry Garcia rather than Sid Vicious.

Enter David Agranoff. He is a younger writer and therefore a younger breed of rocker. His forte is in the music of the 80s and 90s; punk and hardcore. His Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich, which was on my top ten novels list for 2014, has already solidified the fact that this is what the author knows and knows well. It is his generation. His newest book is Amazing Punk Stories. It is a collection of short fiction, all dealing with punk rock in one way or another. But it is also a tribute to the old Weird Tales and Amazing Stories pulp magazines of the 30s on. It’s an inspired idea, taking the extremes of punk rock and sculpting it to the look and style of the old pulp horror and science fiction. The cover and the inside illustrations reinforce this idea. Yet the author blends his own original style into the stories and, regardless of the theme, they have a modern punkish noir of their own.

Agranoff is usually associated with the Bizarro genre but I find him to be one of the more conventional writers in the pack. Even though the ideas can get wild, the delivery is accessible to most readers even if they are not familiar with the more experimental Bizarro lit. Agranoff tries out his punk horror chops with a number of literary vehicles in this collection. The first story, “Burning Dots in Heaven” is set in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos It is quite good but the collection doesn’t hit its stride until the second work, “Reunion Show”. Here we are introduced to a recurring type of character in the author’s punk world: The musician who refuses to compromise even as the years and the grind of life catches up to him. We get a lot of variations of this in the book but it seems to be an ongoing theme. “Reunion Show” is more science fiction in style yet sort of Twilight Zone-ish in feel. For those who are looking for horror, it doesn’t get more horrifying than “Book Your Own Fucking Life” and “The Last Show at the Mortuary Collective”. Agranoff also tackles the punk roots of post-apocalypse stories in “Punkupine Moshers of the Apocalypse” (Best title of the year?) and zombies in “Best of, at the End of”.

My own favorite? I keep turning to “Punk beyond the Red Line”. It is a science fiction tale in which a group of punk rockers meet their match in the far reaches of the universe. It has great imagery and some sufficiently gruesome moments, but it fits best with the book’s theme as I can see it gracing the cover of a modern day Amazing Stories Magazine a la Hugo Gernsback. I also really got into “Blacker than the Darkest Nights of the E-Vile Souls” which tells us that Ozzy Osbourne has nothing on Agranoff’s dark metal warriors. Finally the aforementioned “Book Your Own Fucking Life” places some twists on an old splatterpunk classic and teaches the lesson, never book a punk show in a barn.

Overall, there are thirteen stories. They are enjoyable and mostly highly successful tales. The mix of horror, sci-fi and fantasy using a punk rock theme works exceedingly well and you do not have to be a punker, skinhead, or head banger to enjoy them. It might help if you do have a rock and roller spirit or perhaps, like me, looks back at those days with a little longing. But hey, Rock ‘n Roll never dies. And if one does not think there are zombies, horrifying creatures, and apocalyptic road warriors currently hanging out in the rock world, how do you explain Keith Richards?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Psychedelic horror science fiction

Skullcrack City

Jeremy Robert Johnson

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press

Pub. Date: February 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson is one of the wildest books I have read in a while and if it tends to run away from itself occasionally due to the wildly fantastic and manic ideas, it is still a lot of fun for your brain. The influences in this novel are many; I saw a little Hunter S. Thompson having lunch with William S. Burroughs due to the beginning with the obsession on drug-induced paranoia, lots of Phillip K. Dick, some clear body horror a la David Cronenberg...I think I even saw David Wong peeking to see who died at the end. But as any quality writing it is not so much who are the influences as what was done with all of it.

The strength in the novel is how everything comes together in a plot with many turns and perhaps too many characters. S. P Doyle (S. P Somtow and T. C. Boyle's illegitimate son? Just kidding.) is a banker who thinks he has a way to get wealthy and screw with the banking industry at the same time. Fueled by a rather vicious drug called Hex, he unwittingly uncovers something so big that he and others may be killed over it. His drug fueled hallucinations are suddenly unveiled as being very real and propels him into a battle between extra-dimensional creatures, very mad scientists, and a technology that only exists in your worst nightmares.

The fun is in not knowing where all this leads. But before it is over Doyle is questioning reality, his purpose in life, and falling madly in love. Doyle is sort of a stupid selfish person and it is to the author's credit that we stick with him through all his greedy idiocy. We end up wanting to see what he is really made out of in more ways than one. But the fun in Skullcrack City lies in the writing. Experimental at times, pulpish in a Phillip K. Dick sort of way at other times and always going at the speed of light. it is always fun to read. As mentioned at the beginning, it becomes a little too wild at points and runs into the risk of losing the reader. Yet most will enjoy the craziness provided you are not too squeamish. Body horror is a major factor here.

Skullcrack City spans a few genres. It is science fiction, transgressive psychedelica. horror, and always Bizarro. It will appeal to the more adventurous fans of all those genres. It will definitely be one of your strangest reads in 2015. An unique experience, It deserves to be read, enjoyed, and admired.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A mystery novel about Alzheimer's

Trust No One

By Paul Cleave

Publisher: Atria Books

Pub. Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In Paul Cleave's Trust No One Jerry Grey is a crime writer that publishes under the pseudonym Henry Cutter. With 13 popular novels out, he is doing quite well, He has a loving wife and daughter and little to complain about until he is diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the relatively young age of 49. When we meet Jerry, he is in a nursing home and finds himself confessing to numerous murders. At first no one believes him. The murders are from his novels. Yet evidence soon appears that implicates him in a number of deaths of women that have happened while Jerry was in the nursing home and when he wandered away into the area they were murdered.

This year there seems to be a surge of books about crime writers with split or sociopathic personalities. First there was Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates and then there was The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango. Both are excellent works. Now we have a third but with a different tact. Jerry Gray's new personality is not a psychological entity or a personality disorder. It is something more tragic; the destruction of the individual caused by Alzheimer's. What starts as a mystery about unsolved murders becomes an intriguing look at a devastating and fatal illness. We follow Jerry's decompensation through present third person narrative plus "madness journal" entries, as Jerry calls them, that are in both second person and first person narratives. Jerry toys with and then becomes obsessed with the idea that the disease is bringing on two different persona, "Captain A" which is the Alzheimer's controlling him and his alternate persona Henry Cutter who may or not be the murderer. What Cleave does very well is to portray Jerry Grey in his varying personalities and escalating decompensation. You instantly identify with the psychological agony he is experiencing yet Jerry also stays a consistent presence throughout the book. Who is killed is part of the mystery and we learn this slowly as the action takes place. It creates a nice build-up and some nice turn of events. But what takes hold, at least in the first half to two thirds of the novel, is a tense development of a likeable character succumbing to a cruel disease.

Only if it stayed there. But this is a mystery and there has to be a resolution. It is that resolution that is troubling. So much builds up that we are presented with a dilemma, how much unbelievable circumstances can we handle until our willingness to suspend disbelief crumbles. I don't think it got there but it was close. We are left with a solution, actually two solutions, that just doesn't sit all that well. When the end comes, it feels like the author is trying to lure us back to the tragedy of the disease yet that train has left the station. So we end up with two-thirds of a great psychological suspense novel coupled with a who-dunnit whose formula is underscored by the a strange need to place the gimmick before the honesty and frankness of the first half.

So I end up with the strange dilemma of recommending half a novel. But once you read half of it you will be yearning to find out what is really going on and will happily enter who-dunnit land. There is nothing wrong with that but i just wished the ending was as original as the setup. Overall, it ends up a good mystery so I will give it a cautious recommendation realizing that sometimes the reader's expectations do not fit the writer's.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The art of telling a good story

The Art of Horrible People

By John Skipp

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press

Pub Date: August 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I have always been fond of writers who seem to write in hyperdrive. Whether it is Hunter S. Thompson, Harlan Ellison, or Garrett Cook, I like the writers that let it all out, appearing not to care whether you can keep up with them. If their imagination or emotion gets a little ahead of the prose, that is just part of the attraction. The writers I like realize that they can’t write for the audience. The audience needs to come to them and the payoff is when the reader gets into the writer’s strange and manic mind and say, “Wow! Now I get it!” At least, that is the way my own strange and manic mind perceives it.

In The Art of Horrible People, John Skipp becomes one of those authors. Of course he had a bit of a head start as one of the early architects of Splatterpunk. His standing as a father figure of the Bizarro movement doesn’t hurt either. But in this new collection of eight short stories, Skipp seems to be airing a mixture of amazement and repulsion over the acts of the human race which frankly can be pretty horrible. Call it cynicism or realism, Skipp may have held it in too long to be anything but a torrent of words and emotions. There is a mishmash of styles here from straight horror to dark comedies and pieces that border between free association and straight-out rant. Yet they all are entertaining in Skipp’s own manic and sometimes just far-out crazy style.

For instance, take the first story.  “Art is the Devil” is a dead on depiction of the too often overhyped and phony world of the visual arts. If anyone is going to be an art connoisseur, wouldn’t it be the devil? It is a funny over-the-top satire of the contemporary art scene. The second story, “Depresso the Clown” is very different but just as extreme. It is a straight horror story on the capture of a rather pathetic clown. Whether you call it tragedy or comedy will depend on how you feel about clowns.

“Rose Goes Shopping” is a dark comedic takeoff on the zombie story. It reminds you that even in the zombie apocalypse, old habits die hard. In my  opinion, this little story makes the zombies seem relatively decent. “Worm Central Tonite!” is quite short and more of a concept piece. It packs a nice philosophical wallop in just a few pages.

“Skipp’s Hollywood Alphabet Soup of Horror” is essentially 26 flash fiction pieces all about Hollywood and the movie industry. This is Skipp’s cynicism working overtime. You can argue that Hollywood is an easy target but the quick vignettes are essentially spot on and it is clear the author has waded more than once in the craziness of the movie game.

“Zygote Notes on the Imminent Birth of a Feature Film as Yet Unformed” is ironically the best work here. “Ironic” because in some ways it is the most typical of the Bizarro genre yet atypical for this collection because it seems reflective and intimate with multiple layers.  I think it is one of the best piece of short fiction I have read from this author.

“In a Waiting Room, Trading Death Stories” is an amusing hiccup of a tale but simply whets our appetite for the last and other best short fiction in the book, “Food Fight”. This is Splatterpunk at its best. It is a tale about chaos in a behavioral health center told through different perspectives in Skipp’s equally chaotic style.

Skipp is one of those writers that need to be read to be believed.  Although he is mostly a stalwart of the splatterpunks it is easy to see why the younger Bizarro writers see him as so influential to their own movement. But what it comes down to is that Skipp is basically his own sub-genre and resists pigeon holing. The Art of Horrible People is no less than the art of telling a good story.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A dark science fiction novel for young adults

Alive (The Generations Trilogy #1)

By Scott Sigler

Publisher: Del Rey

Pub. Date: July 14, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Alive, the first book in what author Scott Sigler calls The Generations Trilogy, seems at first to be well traveled territory. A young girl, who thinks she is 12 but discovers quickly she looks much older, wakes up from a "coffin". She is joined by others her age and all are also waking up and questioning the bleak abandoned facility they appear to be in. Having few memories and knowing nothing about their environment, they wander through seemingly endless corridors looking for answers and struggling to survive. It is somewhat easy to compare their dilemma to other popular young adults books like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games,and even Lord of the Flies. It is impossible to not think of Lord of the Flies if the writer throws in a segment involving teenagers and wild pigs. So Alive seems to be revisiting old haunts in the YA market and it does just that for a while. But eventually it breaks through and becomes its own creative tale.

How it breaks through plot-wise will not be revealed. This is a novel with lots of turns and surprises. It would be wrong to spoil it for the prospective reader. Yet much of how it differentiates itself from the YA pack has to do with the author's style. Scott Sigler has a dark streak. While the violence level is equal to that of The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games, it seems to me darker and more intense. So intense that I would question the book's suitability for preteens. Yet the young adult/teen audience it is geared for is the perfect audience and well suited for the themes and dilemmas that are developed. The author takes his time revealing what is going on even though most readers will probably figure out where the young protagonists are located before they do. What I like is that with every reveal and clue of the plot, we discover something about the characters. "Em" is the main character, a young girl whose container she wakes up in is labeled "M. Savage". At the beginning, this is her only clue to her identity. She becomes the leader rather reluctantly and each obstacle becomes another hint to her purpose and existence. That also rings true in a minor version for the other teens. In fact their thoughts, behavior and particular markings on them hints of reveals to come in later installments. One of the nice themes going on when I read it is that even though the teens wake up with few rules and in a societal chaos, class and status still seems to haunt them as a irreversible part of the human condition. As for the plot in Alive, it is standalone in the sense we get an adequate explanation to what is going on but, like the good writer he is, Sigler leaves a few mysteries unexplained and an ending that prepares you for more to come.

So what Alive gives us is an entertaining dystopic science fiction novel with maybe a little more horror elements than some young readers are used to. Yet the way Sigler merges these elements should please these very readers. He creates an attractive dystopic world and manages to throw in a lot of thrills along with some involving coming-of-age themes. What I look for in a new series is a first book that stands on its own and gives me the satisfaction that I have read a novel rather than a introduction. But I also want it to leave just enough to make me want to see what happens in the next installment. Sigler's Alive does both.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Cure or curse?

The Cure

By J. G. Faherty


Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pub. Date:  May 5, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

While reading The Cure by J. G. Faherty, I found myself questioning the idea of miracles. You don't have to be a theologian to realize everything worthwhile in our life comes with a price. When the impossible happens, we acclaim it as a miracle yet in our karmic universe do we really think that which is not earned by us will not exact a payment somewhere in the future?

That gets us to the plot of Faherty's very exciting and pleasantly exhausting novel. Leah DeGarmo is a veterinarian who at a young age discovers she has the gift to cure. But her gift has a dark side. What she cures goes into her and she must pass it on to another before it kills her. She uses her talent by curing the animals in her clinic and passing it to older terminal ones, never using it to heal humans less someone discovers her gift. yet once she is put into a public situation that forces her to save a young policeman's life, others find out and scheme to use her for their own needs. As she and the officer are placed in danger, she learns more about her skills and much of it is darker and more terrible than she realize.

Faherty doesn't miss a beat here. He knows how to move the story while building the characters of his protagonists into more than one dimensional fodder. The heroes are likable yet vulnerable and the villains are..well...they are fairly nasty. There is a romantic tinge to the story as Leah and her new officer friend John learn more about each other and become enmeshed in seemingly unending peril. Yet for the most part, The Cure is pure supernatural suspense thriller with a good portion of horror thrown in to scare you. It is a great summer read but, as mentioned at the beginning, it does seem to evoke some interesting themes as we find out more about her powers and discover others' reactions to what could either be a tool for good or a weapon. Here are some other points to ponder. Does our talents make us what we are? Does the way we use our talents forever mold us into what we become or can we reverse it if we choose? Is Free Will a gift or is Free Will a bitch?

So what I find in The Cure is an enthralling supernatural thriller that is a entertaining roller coaster ride but with a little philosophical leprechaun that keeps poking me in the ribs while I enjoy my roller coaster ride of a read. I like that feeling and I think you will too.