Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The supernatural with a human touch

Tall Tales of Gods, Demons and Superstitions

By Ari Abraham

Publisher: Antipodes Press

Pub Date: January 15, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ari Abraham titled his recently published short fiction collection, Tall Tales of Gods, Demons, and Superstitions. Despite the lengthy title, he may have wanted to add "and the human condition." For even though his supernatural tales do contain a spirit or a devil or simply something hinging on the supernatural, they really are about humanity and our inner conflicts. His book contains 14 short stories in a relatively short collection of 100 plus pages. While one can call these tales supernatural or fantasy, they all seem to be focusing on human problems of an existential nature. The endings tend to have a slight twist at the end but it is usually a mild mannered turn, sort of O Henry meets The Twilight Zone. Some are downright philosophical as in "Death was an Ornery Bastard" where Death gives a constant seeker of truth a bit of advice. Others touch on various stage of life issues with a deft sensibility. "Christmas Eve", where a child finds unusual assistance in facing disillusionment for the first time is one of those gentle but imaginative stories. Surprisingly one of my favorites is "Missing Hank", a dog's perspective on death. I say "surprisingly" because my regular readers know I don't usually go for the heart-warmers but I am glad I had some Kleenex handy for this one.

That isn't to say the author doesn't have a wicked side. "A Promise Kept" is a rather sneaky little tale and "Halal", my second favorite tale, is a sly take on a more sinister theme in horror. Yet even these focus on the human side rather than the supernatural setting or dilemma. Another nice thing about these tales is their geographical setting ranging from New York to Kuala Lumpur, Abraham's seemingly multi-cultural background adds good variety and insight to the stories.

Tall Tales is a very good collection of short fiction. The fiction's down side, not really a down side for some readers, is that they tend to be deceptive. Some of them seem to cut off quickly without the punch or thrill one might expect in dark fantasy. But the quick and subtle style will leave one with a feeling that there is much more going on than meets the eyes. And they will be right. It is a Banana Yoshimoto "so simple it is deep" style of storytelling. This is a collection for those who enjoy short fiction that deals with the supernatural yet is centered on a too human existence. If you like your fantasy with a dash of darkness but lots of heart, this will be the book for you.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Sherlock Holmes' smarter brother

Mycroft Holmes

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar &  Anna Waterhouse


Publisher: Titan Books

Pub date: October 6, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I am a major Sherlock Holmes fan. I have read every one of the Arthur Conan Doyle tales and many of the tributes aka “Pastiches” writtenby others since then. Not surprisingly none of them ever rise to the equivalent of the original but there have been some noble attempts. In Mycroft Holmes written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Anna Waterhouse, the authors do a very wise move. They avoid the imposing Sherlock and concentrate on his smarter and older brother Mycroft. Sherlock does appear but only for a brief chapter. Mycroft only appears in four stories by Doyle. In this reworking, we are introduced to a younger Mycroft when he is still in good physical health and he hasn’t developed his phobia about field work. Sherlock is a university student who Mycroft is indulgent to, maybe slightly condescending, but sees real potential.

Mycroft is a promising young civil servant working for the British Secretary of State. He has his own “Doctor Watson”, a black man from Trinidad by the name of Cyrus Douglas who runs a tobacco shop. This friendship moves much of the friction in the tale as the writers are quite aware of and deftly use the racial friction of the times as a major theme in the story. In fact, one of the strengths in the book is that the authors are quite knowledgeable and skilled in portraying the social and psychological tones of the 19th century. But Douglas and Mycroft‘s girlfriend, Georgiana, have secrets about their Trinidadian homeland that comes into play when a string of children disappear, allegedly taken by an evil spirit called the Douen. The novel moves swiftly from London to Trinidad with much of it happening on the ship’s journey. Not surprisingly, Mycroft is very smart, very perceptive and surprisingly quick on his feet for an employee of the Crown. Yet Cyrus also has a number of skills and resources that become a surprise to Mycroft as he gets to know his friend better. The novel works on making both Mycroft and Douglas likable and it succeeds. My only complaint is that I wonder what happened to Mycroft that made him into the sedentary and somewhat haughty man that Doyle describes. I suspect there may be some sequels here and perhaps I will find out.

I applaud Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse for creating an exciting character, one that Doyle did not really seem all that interested in developing in the long run. Of course it is poetic license but that what makes these pastiches work when they do. Mycroft Holmes does work and if it tends to bog down at parts or show a few minor discrepancy in plot, they are instantly forgivable. Mycroft Holmes is exciting and fun and that is enough for now.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An ambitious not-a-zombie novel


By Tamara Jones

Publisher: Samhain Publications

Pub. Date: June 2, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tamara Jones’ ambitious novel Spore has a great not-a-zombie premise. Horror comic artist Sean Casey wakes up to find ten naked people wandering in his back yard. They are disoriented and are not aware they died years ago. They look and act just like when they were originally alive. Sean become sort of a reluctant hero to some of them as they and the world find out what is happening.

There are many layers to this novel. It is not a spoiler, since the title sort hints at it, to say that a fungal outbreak is responsible which inspires the naming of this people “spores”. Where it comes from and what else happens though will remain a mystery until you have read the novel. The author has packed a lot of ideas and sub-plots in her novel. Yet most of it centers on Sean Casey who is troubled himself due to a childhood kidnapping that not only never been solved but seem to be related to a new outbreak of child murders and to his dreams that features mutilated children. Sean is the moral center of the novel, often seeming to be the only one who cares about the spores while other consequences of whatever is infesting the waters is becoming evident.

It’s a really interesting plot nicely weaved together by the author. Jones has a skill with this type of quiet horror novel that also brings up social concerns. There is a nice touch where a reporter calls the newly revived people,”Fungaloids”. Sean bristles at this, saying they should be called spores, and chiding the reporter for using a thinly disguised insult related to other demeaning words. It is touches like that that brought the novel to Earth for me. At other times, Sean becomes so involved with the spores, it endangers the person he loved and also blinds him to more devastating aspects of the outbreak.

There is a lot to think about in Spore, perhaps too much. The downside of this novel is Jones, despite her skilled ability to bring many things together, is trying to do too much. It starts out as a science-fiction based horror tale. Then it morphs into a mystery involving child murders. There is also a sub-plot about a spore person who husband is terrorizing her. There is so much that when the global stakes become higher, that global crisis is almost an afterthought. The author does bring it together at the end yet the various sub-plots slows down the basic idea that, for me, in the appearance of the spores and how it affects a troubled man.

Yet when all is said and done, Spore is an effective horror thriller bordering on science fiction rather than the supernatural. It is one of those novels that will entertain most people although it should be cautioned that there are some mentions of child abuse and mutilation that may be hard for some people to handle. All in all, despite what I would call an overcrowding of plot, it is well worth reading.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A well constructed haunted house story.


By John Gregory Hancock


Publisher: DeadPixel Publications

Pub. Date: November 14, 2014 

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Haunted house novels can be a lot of fun but are full of logistical traps for the writer. A good haunted house novel is essentially a psychological horror novel. The haunting is important but it is the people who are being haunted who make up the story no matter how creative your house and resident spirits are. Both Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson were very aware of that. So is John Gregory Hancock. His novel, Crawlspace may not be the equivalence of such masterpieces as The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House. What is? But it is still a rousing good tale of a haunted house and haunted people.

A good haunting usually depends on either the psychology of the haunted (Hill House) or the nature of the haunting (Hell House) which can also be psychological. Hancock gives us both. In Crawlspace we have the character of Ethan Novotney, a distant cousin to Hill House’s Eleanor Vance in his fragile personality and his claustrophobic fears. We meet him early on as he is headed to an allegedly haunted Southern plantation to appear in a filming of a "Ghost Hunter" styled reality TV show. That is the first aspect. The novel leaves him for a good while as we are given the story that reveals the nature of the haunting. It entails a African shaman who is shipped to the US as a slave in the 19th century, an evil girl, and a troubled World War II soldier. The best part of Hancock’s tale is how he blends these three characters together in the development of the horrors of the plantation house. By the time we return to contemporary times and Ethan, we have all the elements in play. There are a lot of dread and scares in this novel which is an essential ingredient for this type of novel but most of all I like the way the characters interact together. I wish I felt the same for the reality TV crew which seems to be the weak link, having little character development and basically being just there to fill in the blanks. It remains for Ethan and the spirits of the house to move this tale along.

Crawlspace has some nice elements to it; a strong backstory, a fragile but thoughtful main protagonist, and sufficiently vivid spirits of which their intentions are varied. While it is a standalone novel in one way, it is also the first of a series that uses some of the characters to continue the story apparently away from the haunting. It also has a bit of a tease and cliffhanger at the end. I wish that was made clearer at the beginning or in the blurb on the book as it weakens some of the resolution. There is also a resolution regarding Ethan’s girlfriend that felt tacked on and unconnected to the bulk of the story. Yet Crawlspace remains an entertaining and scary haunted house tale that effectively brings together Ethan’s fears and the intentions of the spirit of the house. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good haunted house story.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A small masterpiece of prose and poetry

The Incoming Tide

By Cameron Pierce


Publisher: Broken River Books

Pub. Date: September 9, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Incoming Tide by Cameron Pierce is a small book of prose and poetry totaling only 73 pages. The prose is more like essays than fiction. To be precise they border somewhere in between. It is not really a story although the poem and essays culminate into a theme. At first it appears to be about fishing, a popular theme for Pierce lately. Yet it quickly morphs into a meditation on parenthood, maturity, coming of age; all those things that come up when one has children.

That may be part of the uniqueness of this book. With The Incoming Tide we are seeing a mellowing, almost Walden-esque Cameron Pierce. There is no Bizarro here. There is no horror or fantasy; none of the things that formed his earlier works except an insightful imagination. It is not just a mellowing author but one who is more thoughtful on relating to the "real world". The style is still there but...dare I say it?...more mature. This is not a maturity of going to childhood impulsiveness to adulthood thoughtfulness as much as a maturity of style that discovers it can meld to any shape, form or idea and still move people with precise and beautiful prose.

I like this Cameron Pierce. I liked the old one too but this one speaks to my own development and maturity as I grew up. It speaks of passions that never cease but also about the sharing of that passion and the good things that come with this sharing. The Incoming Tide is the type of book I could read over and over and find something new and important. Fortunately it is a short book so I can reread it often!

The Incoming Tide reads like a meditation. It is calm, exuberant, caring and intelligent. I think it is the kind of work people will see themselves in and will get what they need out of it. Most of all it is simply a beautiful and delightful work of prose and poems.

Friday, October 9, 2015

God, a bomb and a question


By Kit Power

Publisher: The Sinister Horror Company

Pub. Date: September 28, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Have you ever started reading a fictional suspense novel and the world slaps you in the face with reality?

That is what happened when I started reading GodBomb! by Kit Power. The novel, which I picked up due to a rave review by a friend despite what to me seemed to be a turn-off title, occurs in the year 1995 in a North Devon church during a evangelical revival meeting. A young man steps up to the pulpit to testify and reveals he is wearing a bomb. In the next few hours, he wants to talk to God and have God talk to him. The people in the audience need to pray to make this happen or he will detonate the bomb, killing not only himself but the more than 70 people in the church.

Power's novel got to me in the first few pages, It is the epitome of a page turner as we meet the people in the audience and watch them confront this mad suicidal seeker who hold their lives literally in his hands holding down the red button that, if released, will unleash the blast. But I was listening to the news in the background that day while reading. "Breaking News: Gunman kills nine in Oregon college shooting." It was later reported even though the details are still somewhat vague, that the shooter asked his victims if they were Christians and then shot them. It was also reported that he stated before shooting them, "I will see you soon". Whether the accounts were totally accurate is moot. What it does tells us is that the shooter, while obviously mentally ill, was also a confused and troubled man burdened by his own hatred and doubt. He was so caught up in his own suffering that he was cold and heartless to the suffering of others, just like the protagonist in GodBomb!. It is too easy to label one a sociopath in each rather sterile times yet I am not sure that explains much. Is the protagonist in GodBomb! a sociopath? That will be for the reader to decide.

The news troubled me so much that I had to delay reading any more of GodBomb!. When I picked it up a day or two later I started over, knowing this book was no longer just a thriller. I also quickly realized that Kit Power clearly didn't think of it as just a thriller either. The novel's unnamed protagonist is also a man with deep questions and a perverted and sinister way to get the answers. The characters in the captive audience all have their own questions and issues. We learn about them through their thoughts, interaction and responses that ranges from brave to cowardly and everywhere in-between. The unnamed bomber's question to some, "Did God speak to you?" becomes a terrifying mantra with varying replies and results. The main characters that interact with the bomber equal about seven or eight yet they are in essence the representatives of the entire audience and their fears.

Power walks a tightrope in these pages. The problem is that the story can be bogged down in biases and assumptions. It can easily turn into a propaganda piece for either the believer or the unbeliever. The author deftly avoids this. We are caught up not in finding the answers but in how the characters react and survive while being placed in a life and death situation involving an unanswerable question. It occurred to me that we are already in that dilemma. We struggle overtly or covertly with the question of Life's meaning. We wait calmly for some, but in anxiety, fear, and chaos for others, for the point where our own bomb explodes and we may decide on our answer at that time or perhaps after that time. All the author is really doing is placing that existential dilemma in a nutshell of a few hours.

One of the things that intrigued me was Power's setting of 1995. This was before the Dunbane school shooting that had the result of banning most guns in England. The U.K. does not have the dubious honor of regular mass shootings. I couldn't help thinking if this is why the author appears to have what I would call a healthy attachment to this story's events. I would think an American writer might be to tempted to lean into either political or religious meanderings. Powers resists these traps and his tale is better and more powerful without them. It is a suspense thriller and an damn excellent one. But it is also a story of seekers and their emotions and of the challenges of birth, life and death. It may be one of the most powerful novels you will read all year.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A haunting from the haunter's perspective

A God of Hungry Walls

By Garrett Cook

Publisher - Deadite Press

Pub. Date: September 23, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 The first thing you need to realize about Garrett Cook is that he is a seriously deranged individual. I say that with only half of my tongue firmly in cheek. His last two books, Time Pimp and You Might Just Make it Out of This Alive are weirdly brilliant Dadaist masterpieces of craziness existing somewhere between the landscapes of Manga and Freud. If only the rest of us were this deranged!

At first, it seems that Cook has returned to Earth in his new novel, literally and figuratively. A God of Hungry Walls is a haunted house story set firmly on earthly soil. Haunted houses are a traditional fixture in the the realm of fantasy and horror. But the author does not do "traditional". The main departure in this disturbingly violent and erotic ghost tale is that it is told totally in the perspective of the haunted house or more precisely, what is doing the haunting. To do this effectively, one cannot just relay the events. One must endow the narrative with the right amount of evilness and perverted logic that a malevolent creature with so much twisted obsession must have. This is what Cook does so well. He gives us a new alternative universe of terror. He drops us into a mind that is unfathomable by our own perceptions and he makes us believe.

We meet. through the haunter's eyes, the four residents of the house and the new arrival that disrupts the haunter's world. We are introduced to the ghostly entities that do its bidding. We find out a little about the primary entity's past but is then immediately told it is a lie. While there may be more earthly grounding in A God of Hungery Walls than Cook's other recent books, it is still a tapestry of poetic surrealism, fantastical environments and grotesque imagery. As in any Garrett Cook work, there is copious amounts of violence and sex. It can be call a novel of erotic horror but that does not communicate the extreme images in its pages. Yet sex and gore in Cook's writings ends up leaving the reader amazed at its lyrical beauty while still being shocked at the actual events and its implications.

It is a cliche to say a Garrett Cook novel is not for everyone but it must be said. Yet if one does not read his books they are missing out on one of the strangest literary experiences available to the adventurous reader. Because of its conventional setting, A God of Hungry Walls is a good place to start. But if you are looking for a harmless escape to ghostly hauntings of the usual variety, you can't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Thugs vs werewolves

Wolf Hunt 2

By Jeff Strand

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Pub. Date: December 17, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Let's cut to the wolf chase. I was really happy to begin reading Jeff Strand's Wolf Hunt 2, the sequel guessed it. The main reason is because I got to spend more time with George and Lou. George and Lou are the main characters in Wolf Hunt and Wolf Hunt 2. They are thugs for hire who admit to being not exactly good role models but they have scruples. They are perfectly happy breaking knuckles but draw the line at indiscriminate killing and especially harming children. Yeah I know. You've seen this cliche before. Yet it works here mainly because we accept that George and Lou are part of the fantasy as much as we know werewolves are a fantasy. Why it works is because, as thuggish as they are, they always remain goofy and endearing. They are also the perfect literary example of a bromance. I think of them as the Tucker and Dale of organized crime. Or maybe the Hap and Leonard of supernatural crime noir. Whatever you call them, they are a riot and what makes both Wolf Hunt novels so much fun.

So. When we last left our anti-heroes, they were hiding out from the mob in Costa Rica. They are soon discovered and brought back to the main crime boss who wants them to either die or do compensation for messing up the job in the first book. He still wants to get bit by a werewolf to have their powers. He has found another one, a 14 year old girl who doesn't even know she has lycanthropic tendencies. George and Lou are not happy with child abduction yet must go along with it if they want to live.

Of course things are never easy for George and Lou. Crime boss betrayals, werewolf avengers, and a cute but smart-ass teenager all make their lives more complicated. There is a lot of buddy dialogue, action scenes, and some pretty disturbing images for what is mainly a fun but dark comedy. Yet the author again deliver just what he wants to deliver, a rollicking good time. Strand is one of the funniest writers in the horror and thriller genres yet he knows how to both scare and up the tension. I liked Wolf Hunt 2 more than the first one. The stakes are higher and there is more complexity and character interaction in the plot. Yet it is George and Lou that pulls it together. There is also a nice twist in the werewolf legend that puts this high up in the ranks of werewolf sagas. It's has to do with how and when they change. Actually, there was only one thing I hated about the story but I cant tell you what that is.. I think the author knows. If you like dark horror comedies with likable but unlikely heroes, then you should read this.