Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A novel of illusion vs reality

The Song of Synth

By Seb Doubinsky

Publisher: Talos

Pub. Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is impossible to write a review of a Seb Doubinsky novel that doesn't mention the influences of Phillip K. Dick. That is because there are so many similar themes: The confusion between reality and illusion, the delicate role of identity, the connection between hallucinogenics and perception, and the soured fruits of repression in an authoritarian society to name just three. But there are distinct differences too. While Dick was essentially a pulp writer who tackled philosophical issues, Doubinsky is a poet who not only understands the subtlety of the themes, which Dick certainly did, but endows them with a poetic beauty.

Now with The Song of Synth, an earlier novel (2013) by Doubinsky that has been reprinted this year, We can add William S. Burroughs to the list of influences. This is most evident in the first half of the novel where the protagonist is constantly under the influence of a drug called Synth whose hallucinations are so strong and of such long duration that they can be easily mistaken for reality. In both the works of Dick and Burroughs, hallucinations and multiple realities have a symbiotic relationship. Doubinsky's merging of hallucinogens with virtual reality games also bring to mind Gibson in content if not in style. I'm going to toss out one more name in the mix and mention the "non-fiction" writer Carlos Casteneda. In Casteneda, as in Song of Synth, Hallucinogens offer not just a voyage to an alternate reality but often a tool to understand the one we are already in. Doubinsky's protagonists may be confused and lost in the varying interpretations of their realities but eventually they became grounded and address the sociopolitical dilemma they live in.

Since I leaped straight into an analysis, perhaps I should offer some grounding of my own and describe the bare bones of The Song of Synth. Markus Olsen is a former hacker who is now working for the corrupt government of Viborg City hunting hackers. It was part of a plea deal that kept him out of jail even while those his partners ended up with thirty years imprisonment. He escapes from the misery of his life through a new and possibly dangerous drug called Synth. It blends fantasy and reality together to the point that they become inseparable for the user. The safety of this devil's deal is challenged when Markus is assigned to examine a recently arrested hacker and discover a novel with himself as a character. This leads him to past allies in his life and perhaps a way out of the trap he has made for himself.

Doubinsky's novel can be said to have two halves. The first half takes place in the corrupt and oppressive Viborg City. This is an alt universe Doubinsky has used before. Viborg City is a city of economic castes and massive corruption. Virtual reality seems to be an "opium of the people" designed to help them escape and ignore their harsh reality. The second half takes place in Samarqand, a country with its own problems and corruption but with hints of revolution and tastes of freedom. It is a country where a poet can be a hero. The first half reeks of Burroughs as Markus struggles through his existential crisis like a junkie without a cause. The second half is more mainstream, so to speak, offering a quasi-mystery and throwing a few new teases along the way like a search for Alexander the Great's tomb. But these are only important to the extent they add to the main story of Marcus's own journey and resolution.

There are many layers in The Song of Synth but ultimately it is a novel about identity. Markus values his identity in what he does but there are many aspects to identity he does not understand. Identity is also in the way we value relationships and art. It in the way other perceive us and we perceive them. And it is the role forced on us, but ultimately rejected and accepted by us, by a society that either embraces or suffocate individuality. These are again similar themes we see in Dick, Burroughs and Casteneda . Doubinsky puts his own poetic stamp on it and welcomes us to interpret it with our own visions. Is it a perfect novel? Of course not. Does it rise to the equal of a Dick or Burroughs. No. It does lose the flow occasionally and some of the "hints" get lost in the shuffle. Yet it is an exceptional work out of the mainstream but still accessible for those who don't mind a little work while they read.

Doubinsky is still a young writer relatively speaking. There are bound to be more works from him and I suspect we will visit Viborg City once again as it seems to be the perfect setting for the author's sometime hallucinogenic, sometime socio-political meanderings. If they are even close to this work, they will be very welcomed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Surrealist anthology

Surreal Worlds

Edited by Sean Leonard

Publisher: Bizarro Pulp Press

Pub. Date: June 23, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Surrealism in its traditional definition is a form of writing and art that expresses thought through strange and often irrational imagery and a contradiction of free association and linear thinking that often crosses the boundary between dreams and reality. Andre Breton called it a philosophical movement rather than an artistic one and Salvador Dali described it as "destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision." Literary Surrealism can be frustrating and difficult to read but the effort leads to not only Dali's descriptive sense of annihilation but a liberation of how we think and how we perceive.

Surreal Worlds is an anthology edited by Sean Leonard and published by Bizarro Pulp Press. It mainly but not exclusively includes contemporary writers who write in the more modern Bizarro movement. Bizarro is a close cousin to Surrealism. Bizarro is more closely aligned with Sci-Fi, horror and even the pulp comic/graphics madness of the last few decades. But as weird as Bizarro can get, it is usually still grounded in a world that we can identify. Surrealism plays with our mind with free association, a non-lineal process of descriptions and a weirdness that is set more in our quirky dream state rather than any reality we know. A good example of this is the very first story of the collection. Steve Rasnic Tem's "Paul Breaks" is only three pages long and is very much in the feel of a dream state not really making sense but latching on to a strong sense of human emotion. It moves us but we may not be able to verbalize why.

The 25 writers in the anthology range from the established (Tem and John Palisano), to talents quickly rising in notoriety (Seb Doubinsky, Max Booth III, Gabino Iglesia) to quite a few I am not familiar with. Whether they are regular writers of Bizarro and/or Surrealism or not, they all take on the challenge with a passion. Some of the stories have more grounding in reality than others and I must admit I am drawn to a little grounding. My favorite story in the book is one of those. John Palisano's "The BiPolar Express" is a retelling of the classic children novel The Polar Express except the train picks up a boy in a psychiatric facility and transports him to the Middle Pole. It is clever, funny and eventually very sad. Wol-vriey's "End of the World Pie" is also a story that, despite its utter strangeness, uses a metaphor that links us to a grim reality. "aaaaaaaaa" by Gabino Iglesia is somewhere in the middle. It is very surrealistic but in a other-world adventure sense, like a cross between Dali and William Hope Hodgson. I loved "House Party" by Dustin Reade because it almost reads like a parody of Surrealism. Much of the fiction here is best described as "Don't try to figure it out, just go with the flow" Finally of the ones I will mention, Carter Rydyr's "Pain Pig's Pilgrimage" is one of the longest and strangest tales. I cant say I liked it. It tended to be out of control much of the time. But it is certainly memorable especially since it is accompanied by equally surreal and troubling illustrations.

Surreal Worlds is ultimately an experimental collection and as such it doesn't always work. But the sheer audacity of the anthology makes it essential. It is a delight to read so it becomes a successful collection of strange ideas and creative madness. Equally impressive is the book itself with its odd cover and inside illustrations. Even if you consider yourself a mainstream reader, this is a great book for challenging your boundaries.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Family Terrors


By Ania Ahlborn

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: September 29, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Brother by Ania Ahlborn is easily the most disturbing book I have read this year. It fits into a personal reading category I call “Loved and Hated” sitting comfortably, or perhaps uncomfortably, with books like We Need to Talk about Kevin and American Psycho. These perpetrators of extreme angst immerses us into the story yet makes us very uncomfortable in the idea that we can even identify with the topic and the emotions, or lack of, in the characters. The result is a surreal experience that teaches us something about human nature. It is often something we may not have wanted to know.

At the age of 19, Michael is the youngest boy in the Morrow family. His brother Reb is 26. The Morrows live in rural West Virginia isolated from others and from the small nearby town of Dahlia. But Michael does not feel like he is part of his family. He tries to connect with them even when suffering abuse from all of the family members particularly his brother Reb. He especially cannot help feeling disconnected and guilty about his family’s primary activity; abducting young women, torturing them and slaughtering them.

Ahlborn places us into this horrific scenario immediately. She hits us over the head in the first chapter with the horror of the family’s actions. I do not know what disturbed me the most, the description of the atrocities or the fact that I was starting to like and empathize with Michael. For even as he plays his role we instantly know through the author’s skilled prose that Michael is different. Why he is different is the cornerstone to the success of this novel and Ahlborn slowly but steadily reveals this.

Yes, this novel is disturbing yet it is surprising just how few segments of gore and violence are actually in the book. Much of it is suggested or “off screen” so to speak, yet the reader still feels like they have been put through a wringer. The explicit horrors are spread out and work in the idea that when they happen, they hit you fast. However, most of the shock value is in how natural the members of the Morrow family seem in their house of horrors. Michael is the most emphatic of them. Reb is the most bitter and dangerous. He is the result of an abusive family whose anger often is played out toward the next most vulnerable member and then passed down. How Reb’s pent-up anger is finally displayed reveals a deceptively brilliant form of evil. There is also the mother, the father, and two sisters who play lesser but essential roles, each showing different attributes of severe dysfunction in this immensely dysfunctional family.

When Michael meets a young girl who works in a music store in Dahlia, he begins to think there is more in life for him. He begins to wonder if there is a possibility of leaving his family and going out into the world. But in the time honored literary depiction of dysfunctional families this can never be good. In Brother, we get the granddaddy of “can never be good” as the author weaves an exceptional but revolting series of twists and turns.

Not too long ago. I read and reviewed Ahlborn’s last novel, Within These Walls, a quietly scary haunted house story with well developed characters and a strong psychological sense of suspense. There is nothing supernatural about Brother, yet the author still maintains that skillful development of her protagonists while she places the reader in a world that is likely impossible for them to imagine as being real life. Above all else, Brother is a fictional psychological study of a sociopathic family and extreme psychopathology. With each book, Ahlborn is becoming the lead dispenser of psychological horror. Her style can be very subtle yet there is nothing subtle about the terrors of the Morrow family. In Brother, Ahlborn finds her own terrifying niche in horror literature. You may cringe from the telling of this story but you will be hooked right down to the shocking end.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Werewolves on the Rampage!

Blood and Rain

By Glenn Rolfe

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pub Date: October 6, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for a straight forward no frills werewolf novel, Blood and Rain is a good bet. Glenn Rolfe gets right down to the story and, in the space of a couple of full moons, will scare your socks off just as quickly as his werewolf chomps off legs. His story takes place in the rural town of Gilson Creek, Maine. On a full moon summer night people are dying in what appears to be animal attacks. It is almost a reenactment of what took place years ago and Sheriff Joe Fischer is one of the very few who knows what really happened...

Yep. Fairly typical werewolf story. Yet the author tells the story in a way that is sure to entertain. We all know where traditional werewolf tales end up and this is a very traditional telling. One of the things that keep it going is the author's setting. Rolfe knows his small towns and Gilson Creek has its characters and its secrets. Atmosphere building is a strong point in Rolfe's art. Yet when we get to the rampages, there is a a sufficient amount of action and gore to keep the horror fan happy. Yet I sometimes felt there were too many town characters,. I felt some of the tension would have worked better if we only had fewer people to watch. Eventually though, it does come down to a handful of characters and the plot is back on track. Rule one of a good werewolf novel; If you have too many characters, let the wolf kill them off.

It has been a while since I have read a good werewolf novel. Blood and Rains has the goods. If I prefer a novel to take chances and to leave the formula a bit more often, it doesn't mean it isn't a bloody good tale. Emphasis on bloody. If you are into lycanthropes, Blood and Rain will fill your lycanthropic needs.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A hitman who only kills hitmen

The Killing Kind

By Chris Holm

Publisher: Mulholland Books 

Pub Date: September 15, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When one writes a novel featuring a hitman, there seems to be a problem followed by a cliche. How do you make a career killer sympathetic? In the movies and novels the usual way is to write your hitman as a person with some values like, "I don't kill women and children" or "I only kill the bad guys". I have always found this, if necessary to provide empathy, a troubling solution. Do people really think the type of person who becomes a career killers is going to make these type of moral limits. "Only in the movies", as they say. Recently, the ante has been upped as we find books like The Serial Killer Club and the Dexter series where all of a sudden Serial killers are now developing moral consciences killing only other serial killers. As much as I enjoy Dexter both as a TV series and a series of novels, how long can this cliche continue without becoming a joke?

In The Killing Kind, Chris Holms brings up this dilemma again. In this very visceral thriller, Michael Hendricks is a hit man who only kills other hitmen. He, with the help of his technically savvy friend, finds people who have a hit out on them. He offers to kill the ones who will do the dirty deed for ten times the fee that was offered to the hitman. The trick is making Hendricks believable and Holms is up to the task. He builds an unlikely but intriguing premise where Hendricks is a black ops soldier who has been thought to have been killed in action. He then builds his character up with the appropriate guilt and emotional baggage, Our damaged but emphatic assassin tends to stay away from the victims who are killers themselves and chooses those who inform on or one ups the criminal organizations. So we end up with a significantly flawed but perversely likable individual who we can sufficiently root for. In other words, the author gives up something in the cliche that we have not seen before and earns our attention.

Yet now we need a villain who is ten times worse than our troubled hitman and the author gives him to us too. Holms can write some truly vicious bad guys. When the criminal organization realizes someone is killing their killers they send out the worst and the brightest. What comes out of it is a sharply written cat and mouse game that is high on adrenaline and crowded with hot and bloody action.

I believe it is this fast and furious action writing that really puts this thriller over the top, While Holm does his best to give us an emphatic hitman with human weakness and longings, he is able to hide the inevitable implausibility of it in terse and riveting action prose. He has written a page turner that is tough and intelligent despite it occasionally turning brain-dead.. Even when we start to say "Hey, wait a minute" we are already trapped in the ride. It is the best kind of bestselling suspense thriller, one that allows us to escape but doesn't talk down to the reader and says, "hey, just go with flow. It will be worth it."

So even if I felt suspicious with the idea of a hitman who only kills hitmen, it ended up working quite well. Certainly that can attributed to the author's own abundant writing skills but it was also because he took a different twist on an idea and ended up with something fairly original despite the danger of being a cliche. The Killing Kind ends up as one of the more entertaining and exciting suspense novels of the year.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A short but emotional masterpiece

The Sunken Cathedral

By John F. D. Taff

Publisher: Grey Matter Press

Pub. Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Jacob Reilly is 12 years old and the youngest of five boys. His short life has been one of hand-me-downs and that of having no real standout talent or feature. He feels disconnected to his family, his school and community and has no real friends. His only solace is in the church. He feels accepted, and in some ways special, in his position as an altar boy at the St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. He is particularly fond of one priest, Father Matt, who seems to prefer Jacob as his altar boy and has developed an interest in him.

In The Sunken Cathedral, John F. D. Taff has taken a disturbing and all too common situation and turned it into a heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale. Perhaps it is more of a "disruption of age" story since it is about broken trust and the destruction of identity. The entire story is in the first person narrative of Jacob and that is a major reason it becomes riveting yet sometimes difficult to read as we share Jacob's own confusion and loss. Taff has a brilliant ability to get into the emotions of the main character and to dig deep into his psyche. For a fairly short novella of 90 pages, it is incredible how much emotional exploration the author fits into it. It is a dark piece of fiction yet not without a glimmer of light as we come to the end of the tunnel. Taff's style is alternately realistic and poetic. He touches on uncomfortable themes and scenes with just the right amount of tension, giving us Jacob's insight slowly and realistically. His focus on Jacob and his direct experiences and emotions gives the story the right amount of pathos without ever crossing into the sensational or histrionic.

The Sunken Cathedral may be hard for some to read despite the author's flowing and accessible style. However, it is the type of story that needs to be read. It can be useful for those who have experienced this kind of tragedy or for those to get some insight on the confusion and hurt that accompanies the victims. But it is also great storytelling. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A case of "depraved indifference"

Sex Death Rock N Roll

By Staci Layne Wilson & Darren Gordon Smith

Publisher: Excessive Nuance

Pub Date: July 16, 2015

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This is the second short story collection that features horror short fiction with a rock music theme I received in the past few months. I have always enjoyed the combination. There is a lively "take no prisoner" attitude in both art forms. When it works it is fresh and magical.

But that doesn't mean it always works.

Sex Death Rock N Roll is a collection of five short stories by Staci Layne Wilson and Darren Gordon Smith.. All of them with a rock and roll theme. The first one, "Fandom/Phantom" is a collaboration. Of the other four, "Little Rosie vs The Devil" and "Depraved Indifference" are by Wilson while "In(ter)vention" and "Fishing with Grandpa" are by Smith. Most of the stories are well written and enjoyable. Yet I kept looking for the sparks I expect in this type of rock horror hybrid. Unfortunately someone forgot to light the fire. "Fandom/Phantom" has the best rock music feel to it. It is definitely not a horror tale but for what it is, a sci-fi look at the relationships between the rock idol and his admirers, it is quite touching. "Little Rosie vs the Devil" is a cute deal with the devil story that doesn't go very far in its brevity. "In(ter)vention" falls totally flat as a not very well thought out parody of addiction intervention. Then there is "Fishing with Grandpa" a sleazy story that is frankly repulsive especially considering the recent news regarding older celebrities and their manipulative sins.

That leaves "Depraved Indifference" which is the best of the lot. It is a disturbing but riveting ode to rocker suicide as it follows a man who himself is obsessed with the idea of suicide in a decidedly dangerous way. It was the one story that stayed with me after I closed the book.

Overall, I wasn't that enthused with Death Sex Rock N Roll. You get death, sex, and rock N roll, yet the three very intimate subjects never really take off with the notable exception of "Depraved Indifference". It is ironic that I would see this story as the best of the lot since its title can also be a fairly accurate description of my own feelings toward this collection.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

An Interview with Godzilla

Debbie Does Monsterland & Alien vs. Debbie (F*ck All Monsters #1 & 2)

By Emma Steele

Publisher: Tiny Giraffe Press 

Pub. Dates: April 4, 2014 & April 6, 2015

Rating: See below 

I met up with Godzilla shortly at his vacation villa near Fukushima after his surprise appearance in the monster erotica series, F*ck All Monsters. It has been rumored that the superstar has been exploring other avenues of creativity. This exploration resulted in two books with the mysterious writer Emma Steele. However most of his fans were shocked by his recent excursion into not just porn but monster erotica and the literary scene, Here is the interview.

I want to thank you for taking time out of you busy schedule for this interview.

No problem.

The first question is obvious. Why porn?

Well, I’ve been getting tired of the whole stomp and burn scene and there aren’t a lot of monsters that i haven't worked with. I did go into negotiations with Spielberg to appear in Jurassic World but the man has no vision. There was some talk about a Freddy Krueger vs Godzilla movie but it didn’t work out. I mean, what could be done? STOMP! End of movie. I have been looking for opportunities to broaden my fan base and stretch my talent, so to speak. So when Emma Steele called me…

Wait a minute. You actually met Emma Steele?

Not really. I talked to her on the phone. It’s weird though. Every time we talked her voice kept changing and at first it was pretty low for a woman. I just assumed she was hoarse, a result of in-field research for her book. Anyway, as I was saying. We talked about me appearing in a book and, being Japanese, I was familiar with manga tentacle sex comics. It’s a big thing in Japan. It has even been rumored that Hedorah appeared in a few under another name. When Emma suggested a non-Japanese excursion into monster porn I was intrigued. Plus I would be working with an actual human female that was 50 foot tall. How could I resist?

Godzilla, this might be a good time to explain the first book, Debbie Does Monsterland. Can you give us an idea what it is about.

OK. It’s about Nancy Archer aka Debbie who is 50 foot tall and has a libido the same size. In order to satisfy her sexual urges she escapes from HOME (Hollywood Organization for Medical Experimentation) to Monster Island where she means to take on yours truly. But as she arrives she is met by a horny welcoming party consisting of Minilla, Baragon, Gamera, Rodan, and Kumonga,. She dispatches each one with her skills. On the last page I show up.


And? And nothing! The books ends! No one gets to see the parts of me they don’t see in the movies! I tell you, it was a big waste of time and money. But Emma told me she wanted to wait until the sequel.

In telling us about Debbie Does Monsterland, you know you pretty much gave away the entire plot.

So? It’s a porn book. Who cares about plot? But if you do care, then you are going to like the sequel.

So tell us about the second book, Alien vs. Debbie.

That one they got right. I show up at the beginning and what a scene! Debbie’s a real pro and has finesse. Mothra can keep The Twins. Debbie knows what she is dong.

So the book, despite its title, is about you and Debbie.

Well, no. That’s the thing. Debbie does me and bang! A bomb goes off sending Debbie out into space and leaving me forever out of the action. Now I know how Janet Leigh felt in Psycho. Debbie returns to normal size but still has the libido of a 50 foot woman. She ends up on a ship carrying a zoo of fictional alien characters. Predator, Alien, Jabba the Hut, ET, you name it they are there. I think you can figure out where this goes. Frankly I think it’s a big stretch except for ALF. As he says in the book, and it’s no secret in the trade, he loves to eat pussy.

So now that you conquered the porn market, what’s next?

I think I’m done with monster erotica. There is not much else I can do in it. But I have been touring in Summer Theater and expanding my horizons. One local critic said I was the best Willy Loman he’d ever seen.

No more appearances with Debbie?

No, there will be one more book but I won’t be in it. I hear they booked Cthulhu. Working with Cthulhu is crazy. If you aren’t insane before you will be afterwards. But I wish Debbie the best of luck.

Before we go, how do you rate the two F*ck All Monsters books.

Debbie Does Monsterland is three stars because it’s too short and I’m not really in it. Alien vs. Debbie gets four star because it has me and an actual plot.

Thank you for your time, Godzilla.

No problem. When you get back to California, tell Spielberg I said Jurassic World sucks the big one.