Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The precarious role of coincidences

Isolation

By Neil Randall


Publisher: Crooked Cat

Pub. Date: January 24, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


In the world of suspense and mystery, plausibility is an big issue. The task for most mystery writers is to make the implausible plausible. A good mystery novel is often loaded with coincidences and those coincidences must be such that the reader is willing to suspend belief at least for a little while as the author patches them up to create a believable whole and a believable conclusion.

The issues with Isolation is all about plausibility. The plot starts with an unlikely premise and is then loaded with one thing on top of another. To a certain extent it works. The author, Neil Randall, has a lightning style that keeps throwing weird things at you and leave you wanting for more...and a resolution. The set-up is certainly irresistible. Nigel Randolph is an unassuming man who works in a government office taking safety complaints. He receives a photograph of what appears to be a murder scene. At first he thinks it is a prank but changes his mind when the exact same scene shows up on the news. He reports it to the police and becomes more involved when it is discovered the two murdered women were,along with Nigel, part of a therapy group ten years earlier when he was having mental health problems. Pretty soon there are other deaths of people Nigel knew and they all seem to be related to that therapy group.

There are other strange clues. A drawing of an great horned owl keeps showing up coupled with a Native American myth. A new girl friend comes into his life while an old girl friend is writing things about Nigel that is the opposite of what he remembered. And of course, he is quickly becoming the police's prime suspect. It all mounts up quite well until a situation involving Nigel going to a house to investigate a complaint really stretches my ability to suspend disbelief. It never quite recovers from that point. But the storytelling skills of Randall is good enough to keep my interest until...

The ending. Oh, that ending. I certainly do not want to ruin it but it is a cliche. It explains the piling of coincidence but in the least original way possible. What the author meant to be a shock become merely a groan and deadens any enthusiastic for wanting the author to wrap up all the loose ends. It's too bad since I really did like the build-up regarding of the heightening of the implausibility. Yet that style of build-up always risks falling off the edge and this edge is off the Empire State Building, so to speak.

It isn't that an ending like this can't work. It simply doesn't. In order for it to work we need an inkling of a clue so when we get there we can say, "Why didn't I see that coming." We do not get it. What should feel like a surprise feels more like a cheat. It is too bad because the plot really grabbed me at least for a while. Neil Randall writes well and to some extent there was good structuring of his plot. Yet if an author piles on the implausible there must be a climax that pulls it off. That is what's missing and why I can not recommend Isolation


Monday, December 26, 2016

Monsters and Sorcery in Seattle

Realms of Shadow

By Barry James


Publisher: After Hours Publishing 

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



When we last encountered Jordan Hanson, he has just finished defeating the evil Ackerman and the Mandragorans who were close to annihilating the human race. It is five years later and the battle has left many portals to other dimensions open. Jordan and his crew are patrolling and fighting the dangerous creatures who pass through the portals.. But recently, an alchemist and a rogue angel have presented a far greater danger that once again threaten to enslave humans and they may be far more powerful that Team Jordan.

This is the premise of Realms of Shadows the second book of Barry James' Mondragoran Chronicles. I have previously reviewed the first book, Dreams of Darkness and, while I enjoyed and recommended it, I found it had a number of common problems that appear in independently published first books. It was still strong enough for me to look forward to the second book. I am pleased to say any quibbles I had with the first book has dissipated with the second. Realms of Shadow is a tighter effort in all ways. The book is shorter at 336 pages than the first but it seems more detailed and complex in the depiction of both the action and the fantasy world. James has created a fully formed alternate reality Earth with lots of creatures, many taken from other mythologies, that serve as Jordan's enemies and allies. The dialog is also tighter and doesn't break up the action like it did before which is perhaps the best improvement for one who likes their urban fantasy to be action-packed. And as I predicted, Jordan has found himself a girl friend yet it is casually immersed enough within the story not to be paranormal romance. (Thank God!)

Jordan continues to be the focus and an interesting protagonist. He is perfecting control of the monster within him and seems to be less in conflict with it. There is still some brooding but it is smarter and more task-directed. The other members of his group are all essential to the plot. I am tempted to say there is a bit of "Buffy and the Scooby Gang" in this second novel due to their focus on mission and their camaraderie and that is a good thing which is essential to drive forward a series like this. My favorite addition is Lori, a child seer with a lot of spunk for someone whose fate is not promising. She has just the right amount of smart-assery for a gifted kid. "Which part of 'I can see the future' did you not get?" Another nice touch is that the more casual parts feel steeped in the culture of Seattle where the action takes palace. I mean where else can a group of demon fighters feel natural discussing sorcery, demons, and plans of attack while sipping Awake tea and a white chocolate mocha at a Starbucks. And knowing Seattle, I could envision that not one customer thought this was unusual until the blood wraith showed up!

Realms of Shadow ends up a very strong contender in the urban fantasy genre. It is a improvement on the already promising start of the first volume. James' story remains very dark but very readable. Its villains and monsters are well described and formidable but it is Jordan and his team that really make the book such a delight. It should be noted that this novel can be read without the first book since the author has combined a detailed synopsis of the first book in the second chapter to get the reader up to speed. But I do recommend reading them in order. I am looking forward to the next installment.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Time after time

Time Travel

By James Gleick

Publisher: Pantheon

Pub. Date: September 27, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

James Gleick starts off with a bombshell. One we should all already know but we don't want to admit. Time travel is impossible. At least the two-way type that we would all like to do. He does mention "time travel" as implied in speed of light travel but that isn't really time travel is it? That's more like a suspended animation that you stay awake for. . It is a Rip Van Winkle effect proven by experiments with atomic clocks. But the touristy version of time travel to the past and forward and back again? Fascinating. Tempting, However the sad fact is science and physics fights against the idea of that being a reality.

So why write a book of time travel, especially a history of time travel? Because the concept is so embedded in our brain that it pretty much affects everything in our modern world. It is in our literature, our media, and even in physics as it grapple with the paradoxes set forward in the many thought exercises that time travel gives us. After all, If quantum physics isn't an exercise in the paradoxes of our reality, what is?

Gleick starts his history with H. G. Wells and his novel The Time Machine. Pretty much everything we accept about the idea, including the idea of time as a fourth dimension, comes from Wells. From there he explores several ideas that continue to rise from the literature to come and how Physics chugs along right with them. Time Travel is basically a series of meanderings. It feels more like a continuing mind game, despite its chronological pattern, rather than a history of anything. That may offset a few people that want something really about time travel but for others, like myself, it is an almost poetic if challenging way to look at our perceptions. This is the kind of book more understood at a chapter at a time so you can absorb its idea. Definitely not a light read, it is still one that entertains while informing. If you like the topic, this is a must.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Movies that never were

Neon Trash: Forgotten B-Movies of the '80s

By MP Johnson


Publisher: WeirdPunk Books

Pub. Date: October 5, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


I'm not exactly sure what M. P. Johnson is doing here but it is lots of fun watching him do it. The subtitle "Forgotten B-Movies of the 80" says it all. Neon Trash is a love story to those films that no one has seen and most people won't even try to. Fortunately there are a few people out there, like the author and myself, that lives for this stuff. Johnson in the first article, makes a case for loving B-movies (let's be frank. Most of 80s DIY movies are really D-movies) but makes a better case for reading the capsule reviews of the films that he will proceed to mention. He follows up with synopses of 52 films, none that I have ever heard of. That is actually quite a feat. These capsule reviews are quite fun. This is followed with interviews by actors and makers of these films. Again, none I have ever heard of. Hmmm. He pays particular attention to a movie titled Neon Meltoids of which I could find no mention of on the internet. It must be very obscu...wait a minute. None of these movies can be found on the internet! Am I being screwed with?

OK. Mr. Johnson. You had your fun. I almost fell for it! Even as the humor it is, it is still a nice salute to the 80's B-Movie era. I must say the best chapter in this book is "Trash Tape Quest: My Hunt for Neon Meltoids". It is hilarious!

So how does one rate something like this? It is very weird. It is very funny. It is very short. It is a merry prank in print. Let's just call it a delicious fart and leave it at that!

Friday, December 16, 2016

The best novels of 2016



Here is my list of  top ten novels of 2016.in order of preference. I also added various other bests under the list.

1. THE HEAVENLY TABLE - Donald Ray Pollock
2. DARK MATTER - Blake Crouch
3. MONGRELS - Stephen Graham Jones
4. BEFORE THE FALL - Noah Hawley
5. THE VIOLATORS - Vincenzo Bilof
6. A HOUSE AT THE BOTTOM OF A LAKE - Josh Malerman
7. DEAD SOULS - J. Lincoln Fenn
8. PUNK ROCK GHOST STORY - David Agranoff
9. DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL'S ROCK - Paul Tremblay
10. SQUIRM WITH ME - Andersen Prunty

Now the best of the rest.

Best single author anthology (tie)
THE DOLL MAKER AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR - Joyce Carol Oates
ECSTATIC INFERNO - Autumn Christian

Best multiple author collection
TALES AND SCALES - edited by John Palisano

Best YA Novel
THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER - Jeff Strand

Best novel of 2015 read in 2016
ZERO SAINTS - Gabino Iglesias

Best WTF! Novel (besides the already mentioned THE VIOLATORS)
VAMPIRE GUTS IN NUKE TOWN - Kevin Strange

Best non-fiction
TIME TRAVEL - James Gleick

Best Poetry book
RHYME & REBELLION - Harry Whitewolf

Best journal/magazine
DARK DISCOVERIES

And finally some honorable mentions which means I am distraught because I couldn't put more than 10 books on a top ten list. No particular order (this just happens to complete all the 2016 novels I gave five stars to.)

THE ONE MAN - Andrew Gross
BLISTER - Jeff Strand
LONG FORM RELIGIOUS PORN - Laura Lee Bahr
I WILL ROT WITHOUT YOU - Danger Slater
THE POISON ARTIST - Jonathan Moore

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Punk never dies

Punk Rock Ghost Story

By David Agranoff


Publisher: Deadite Press 

Pub Date: September 23, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I like books that evoke an era. I like horror novels. David Agranoff does both quite well at the same time. He likes to write about the punk rock era of the 80s and beyond. He does it very well. Other authors may incorporate punk rock in their fiction but Agranoff does it with a wistfulness coupled with a realism that our memories of an era can be more harmful than helpful if we don't recognize the realities of today. It is not that different than the struggles I had in the sixties and onward with the "hippie" movement. Both evokes memories and conflicts that are ripe for exploration in literature, even horror.

Punk Rock Ghost Story (PRGS)seems to be about that struggle. As we begin the novel, Frank and his punk rock group The Fuckers are touring across the country in 1982 dreaming of a possible concert with Black Flag once they reach Los Angeles. The tour is a disaster and just out of Houston, the band members decide they want to return home to Indiana. Frank forces them to continue and seems to be on the verge of an unreasonable and violent obsession.

Fast forward to 2006. Nate and his band People's Uprising is about to go on tour. They are a struggling punk band in Indiana that dreams of breaking out of the locals and into more renown with their tour. Nate loves the punk scene but wonders if it has lost something from its start in the 80s. While looking for a tour van, he stumbles across a beat up van that was used for the Fuckers' last legendary tour where Frank disappeared and was never seen again. People's Uprising goes on tour but the van has a hold on Nate as he listens to eerie voices and visions while the rest of the band becomes concerned with his memory losses and personality changes.

So now we have a ghost story coupled with a mystery. Is the van haunted,? What happened to Frank on his last tour? What is happening to Nate? Everything is eventually revealed but not without a number of scares and some violence. As a ghost story, PRGS is very successful and kept me enthralled with the mystery and strangeness of the tale. But what really makes it memorable is Agranoff's blending of time and culture. Punk in the 80s was indeed a golden time. But it was not the nirvana that memories may make it. Reality never is. Outside the cities, punk were subjected to suspicion and often violence. They were misunderstood as anything unusual or new is often misunderstood. Frank's anger became part of that and, with Nate, the van recognizes a similar anger and longing and exploits that. The author's evoking of the punk culture seems real in both its contemporary and 80s incarnations. I am not sure it is a coming of age story or a returning to another age story and I like that. Nate's relationship to band member and girl friend Erika is also a central part of the plot and become essential to how it plays out.

It is said that writers should write about what they know and Agranoff certainly knows his punk rock culture. But there is more than that. He is able to communicate beyond the punk rockers and make that scene a reality for those who do not identify with it. He may write in the horror genre but the theme goes well beyond just the scares and that is why we should read his works. He is still in his prime so we can expect more like this. That is definitely a good thing.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nessie attacks!

Loch Ness Revenge

 By Hunter Shea

 

Publisher:  Severed Press

Pub Date: November 1, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Natalie, her twin brother Austin and her parents were vacationing at Loch Ness, Scotland 20 years ago. One night while camping and roasting marshmallows, Natalie and Austin heard a splash of water followed by screams. When they arrived at the shore, they see a creature in the water killing her parents. Forward wind to the present. Natalie is now camped out on that very shore trying to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

And kill it.

OK. Now that kind of bugged me right there. I grew up on stories of Nessie. The Loch Ness Monster for all intent and purpose is Scotland's mascot. The only death ever blamed on Nessie was in 1952 when a water ripple from the big oaf was said to called a speedboat crash. Nessie didn't stick around to swap insurances. Nessie must be the most beloved figure of monster lore on the planet. So the idea of the water seprent as a vicious man-eater took a little work to sink in.

Fortunately, Hunter Shea is a bit of an expert on monsters. They seem to be his specialty with at least his last two books taking on other known legends of crypto-zoology. The challenge in Loch Ness Revenge is to set up his future monster killer with a past that lets us in on her suffering and obsession. If you are going to kill a beloved icon, you better have a good reason. But this is a short novella that means we need to get to the chase quickly. So once the protagonist is set, we are introduced to her twin brother and a couple of colorful sidekicks and we're off!

Then there is the monster. Shea has its own version of the Loch Ness Monster. We are given glimpses of it as Natalie seeks it out and the author reveals more as the hunt escalates. As the novel proceeds, we get a few surprises and lots of action right to the final showdown.

So how does the whole thing work? It is not nearly as complex as Shea's previous novels which makes sense because it is much shorter at less than 150 pages. There may be a few too many incidents that seem to be borrowed from Jaws. However it works because it is fun. If it doesn't stretch your mind, that's OK. It is an amusing read with enough thrills to keep the reader satisfied. And I wouldn't lose too much sleep over the scary creature that Mr. Shea has conjured up from his mind. I am sure that Nessie is simply a sweet, if huge, eel-like critter that loves to float on the lake and wake at the tourists. We all must have our fantasies.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mental unease

Madhouse

Edited by Brad C. Hodson & Benjamin Kane Ethridge


Publisher: Dark Regions Press

Pub Date: May 22, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars



I kept thinking of a cinematic comparison while reading Madhouse. There was a movie in the 70s called Asylum. It had a screenplay by Robert Bloch and featured a number of stories set in the confines of a mental institution. There was also a framing story that very loosely tied all the others together. It is one of the better horror anthology movies that you will find.

Madhouse is a little like that. It also has a connecting framing story about the patients and staff who are isolated in an Arizona mental facility during a sandstorm. These "chapters" as they are called, are written by the editors Brad C Hodson and Benjamin Kane Ethridge. Between these chapters are 20 pieces of short fiction contributed by a number of horror and fantasy writers including John Skipp, Scott Nicholson, Lisa Morton, Rena Mason, Jeff Strand and others. As I understand it, all the authors were given a layout of the fictional Golden Canyon Behavioral Health Center to keep the stories consistent with the shared world environment. Whether they knew of the on-going narration before they wrote their stories is unknown to me. However the characters in the chapters do show up in the stories and there seem to be some consistency with characters as well as the confines of the center.

That part about how much the author worked within the confines of the connecting narration is what troubles me. I think they knew little beyond the bare basics because, for the most part, it feels like a jumble. That makes it confusing to follow. Because of this, no one story stands out and makes the collection work. There are some very good tales here. I especially like those by John Palisano, John Skipp., and Jeff Strand. Not so much the chapters by Hodgson and Ethridge which is unfortunate because that is the thread that supposedly binds them together. The full sum of the parts just didn't work for me.

What does work is the overall design of the book and the illustrations that accompany the collection. Dark Regions Press has a stellar reputation for the design and appearance of their publications and Madhouse does not disappoint in this area. There are lots of gorgeous and creepy illustrations from Aeron Alfrey that are worth the price of the admission alone and they do add a great bit of atmosphere to the accompanying stories.

But it doesn't really gel together in the literary department despite the quality of writing. It's a noble experiment but, as a screenwriter and sometimes critic friend of mine would say, "It's a interesting failure."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Another novella diversion with Hap and Leonard

Coco Butternut

By Joe R. Lansdale


Publisher: Subterranean Press

Pub date: January 31, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

 


The saga of Hap and Leonard continues with this barely-a-novella, Coco Butternut. In case you are wondering, Coco Butternut is a dead dachshund. Its body has been dug up and held for ransom to be paid by the previous owner of the dog. To be more precise, the son of the previous owner who was his deceased mother. It seems like a simple task for the lads; pay the ransom and collect the coffin and the canine "pickled"corpse ("Embalmed and wrapped like a mummy..Not pickled" says the dog owner's son Farmer to Leonard). But something doesn't seem right and when they complete the deal, it becomes obvious to them why it doesn't seen right...

As far as Hap and Leonard stories go, this is a barely inconsequential one. I am tempted to call it my least favorite book but my least favorite Lansdale work is still better than 90% of other writer's best works. It is short, sweet and simple...and doesn't really give us any new insight to the duo and their extended family. We now have Chance, Hap's daughter, in the gang but nothing is really added here except maybe that Chance is spending too much time around Leonard and picking up a little attitude. There is nothing amiss with the story either, except we really do not learn much of what happened after Hap's flirtation with death in the last substantial novel, Honky Tonk Samurai. I think we may need to wait for the next substantial novel, Rusty Puppy for the details.

Basically, the Hap and Leonard novellas that has recently bridged the gap between novels are diversions. They are entertaining and well written as is anything Lansdale puts to paper. But they are not essential. This one may be the least essential of them all. It still merits three stars. I love this series and can't even think of rewarding it less but I really hope no Hap and Leonard novice starts with this book. That would be dismaying.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

To kill a cyclops


Cyclops Road

By Jeff Strand


Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC 

Pub. Date: September 19, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars



In the prologue of Cyclops Road we see a side of Jeff Strand that isn't always obvious. We are introduced to Evan and his memories of his recently deceased wife. It is a head on assault into the experience of grieving and a profoundly emotional start to what will be mainly a humorous novel. Yet it sets the stage to understand Evan and his unusual decisions as the novel progresses.

It is this grief that is the reason he impulsively insults his boss which gets him fired. While in the park mulling his brash actions, he spots an attempt robbery . He tries to intervene but it is the potential victim that ends up saving him. He discovers that she is on a mission to go to Arizona and slay a cyclops. Most people would think at this point "OK. Bye crazy lady." and that is what Evan initially does. Yet in his vulnerable condition and his concern for Harriet the potential cyclops slayer, he offers to drive her partway to her destination...just for a little more distance to get her closer.

Of course, a little more distance isn't the way it works out and we are soon deep into a modern fairy tale. Harriet is operating by some kind of mental GPS and needs to find her three allies for the adventure. We are now in classic Jeff Strand territory with a cast of eccentrics and a accompanying dialogue that is witty and fun. The prologue rounds Evan out enough to explain his participation in a scenario that could easily have stretched the reader's disbelief too far. Harriet is an excellent foil to Evan's skepticism. She is an innocence in the ways of the world but wise and loyal to the needs of her quest. The other characters fill out the novel and present clever commentary and comic relief to the plot. I wish I could say the same about a group of villains who suddenly show up and are eventually dispersed of with only a vague explanation for their existence.

But even with a strong main protagonist, the plot falters. Even though it is a modern fairy tale, sometimes the action and motives seems a bit forced. I can blame his last couple of great novels for this. Kumquat and Blister had a similar main character who connects with a girl who has issues but brings out a strength in him. In other words, Cyclops Road tells the same story with a fantastical edge and that edge really doesn't add much. It's a great theme told by Strand that I have already read. I think I may be too harsh here since the ones who comes to this novel uninitiated to Strand's previous novels will probably go "WOW!" and several of the reviews of this book bears that out.

But it's Strand, which means you are going to read something by a skilled storyteller who has a true talent with clever dialog and wears his heart on his sleeve. That is why I liked it and give it a recommendation.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Horrors from San Diego.

San Diego Horror Professionals: Vol. 1 

By  David Agranoff, Robert Essig, Bryan Killian, Chad Stroup, Ryan C. Thomas, and Anthony Trevino

Publisher: Grand Mal Press 

Pub Date: October 11, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Writing is a local affair. Put aside the dubious achievement of the internet for a minute. Take a look at the development of many great writers and you will see the influences of regions and groups. Locales are is in the names of many legendary groups or the organizations are associated with a locale; The Bloomsbury Group, The Algonquin Round Table, The Inklings(Oxford) etc. Writers benefit by contact and the intimate exchange of ideas that can't be found over an email.

Now I am not saying that the San Diego Horror Professionals are ready to ascend into any of the heights of the previously mentioned groups. But that essential camaraderie is provided by their contact and meetings. Plus, they have taken one tiny step to hopeful immortality. They have published what is hoped to be the first of a series of short collections showcasing their talents. In Volume I , there is short fiction by six writers, all from the San Diego area and all having decidedly awesome writers chops. All six stories work and all six stories are a hoot to read. Lets go through them...

1. "The River Kings" by Ryan C. Thomas. This has a supernatural bent at some point but what made me squirm was the gut-wrenching action as the main protagonist is caught in a deadly struggle with a wild beast. The author has a way with action and the ending was a interesting twist but it was the more natural horror of survival that caught my attention. Either way, it is a great tale.

2. "The New Music" by Chad Stroup. From its first paragraph it is obvious the author has a way with words. This is a post apocalyptic zombie tale told through the perspectives of 5 record store employees. Each character is introduced with their "playlist" which sets the stage and the attitude. This piece of fiction perhaps impressed me the most. It is a well worn theme but from a different perspective than we usually see. One line from the first paragraph, "Not everyone is prepared for their final fandango" give you a hint of what's to come in Stroup's rather substantial phrase building department.

3. "Watch Your Step" by Bryan Killian. This work feels traditional in a good way. It is very Bloch. The protagonist is a security guard in a nursing home and the horror of the short fiction comes, as does many good horror tales, from a common but unexpected source. It is simple but scary just like a good Bloch or Matheson yarn.

4. "Mister Crow Reporting" by David Agranoff. Agranoff is the only one of the six I have read before . I have always liked his work and this one does not disappoint. It is a softer piece that doesn't really hit you with the punchline until the end . Then you might say, "Wait a minute. I better read this again". I like stories like that.

5." Starving Artist" by Robert Essig. I am wary of picking a favorite out of these six works but this is a doozy. It has a delicious Twilight Zone feel . The basic plot is of a woman who falls in love with a painting by a somewhat sleazy looking sidewalk artist and buys more than she realizes. It is a little clever and a lot wicked.

6. "Good Samaritans" by Anthony Trevino. While this is a horror story, it is also the most "bizarro" of the bunch. At first, it seems like it is going to be a take off on wannabee vigilantes but it turns into something else. It is another story meriting a second read and is a meaty tale on which to end the collection.

This is the kind of collection I would like to see writers from other localities put together. it is a nice way to explore the terrain, so to speak. What I can say after reading this is that San Diego spooky thrills are not just at the Whaley House. As for those who do live in San Diego, support your local horror author.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Punk Rock Fiction

Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits

Edited by Sam Richard and M. P. Johnson

 

Publisher: Weirdpunk Books

Pub Date: September 16, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars



Despite my older age, I have developed a fondness for punk rock and I have a pretty good knowledge of the bands from The Sex Pistols to Rancid. The Misfits is a band I have heard of but never really listened to. With a little research, I discovered they were one of the first and foremost bands to play horror punk, a music sub-genre that borrows deeply from horror books and movies for their inspiration. So it seems fitting that M. P. Johnson and Sam Richard would edit a collection titled Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to the Misfits.. Johnson wrote a nice but brief introduction that explains the band's appeal and their connection to the horror genre. It puts the reader into the mood for the 15 stories to follow. Before reading this, I did a crash course in Misfits tracks and, even from that brief binge, I can attest that these writers captured the mood of the music quite well.

What I don't know is if the collected fiction is actually based on the songs or themes but the rapidly paced and rude mood is certainly there. Matthew Vaughn's "Eliminate the Entire Human Race" starts out the madness with a zombie tale told from the zombie's view. "Slice-and-Grab" by Mark Zirbel is a no nonsense grunge piece where body organ stealing is a popular obsession. Almost all the stories in this collection are fast and dirty with large doses of gore and attitude. The one slightly more mellow surprise was David Agranoff's "She is on the Run" which seemed more suited for a baby boomer like me. But even then there is a evil twist to it.

All of the short fiction fits the bill. Yet they do so to the point that they have a sameness. I do not think that is necessarily a weakness considering this is a tribute to a band with a distinct hardcore style. While all the authors have clear gifts in writing and narrative, I think a better knowledge of the band and the music than I have might help to bring it all together for the reader. Nonetheless, there is some real talent here, enough to get me to check the author bios at the end to see what else they have written. By all means, if you are a horror punk aficionado , get this. If not, you still might like it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A fungus among us

Fungoid

By William Meikle

 

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub Date: january 17, 2016

Rating: 4  & 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

Horror and science fiction writers love to mess up our world. Whether it is a plague, an invasion, or some evil scientific experiment gone wrong, the weirder and more gruesome it is, the better. In Fungoid, the threat slated to destroy Earth as we know it is a little of all three. It seems to come down in the rain, then becomes a fungus that eat and invade any organism it can find. The idea of an invading organism coming down in raindrops gave me a few giggles as I thought of "Chubby Rain" in the movie Bowfinger. But once I removed that thought from my mind I was ready for the well written and seriously tense horror to be found in Fungoid. William Meikle outdoes himself in the world destroying plague department. Is the world eventually destroyed or do the humans manage to stumble through to a last minute save so they can live to fight another day. That is the dilemma in this non-stop action thriller that is part science fiction and part horror extravaganza. In novels like this, survival is never a given.

This is indeed action packed but the author does write some very good protagonists into the mix. There are four narrations going on that come together at the end. The most involving is the struggle of Dr. Rohit Patel as he attempts to find out what the fungus is and how to stop its dangerous spread. Meikle places little tidbits on fungus and plants through the book that add to our knowledge while we tense up for the battle between man and fungoid. There is also the two separate accounts of Shaun Lovatt who is trying to get back to his family, and his wife and children who are just trying to stay alive. Then there is Jim Noble, a member of a rapid response team who becomes part of the problem, All four stories fit together seamlessly. it's a graduate lesson on how to use multiple narratives to tell a larger story.

What the fungus is and how it gets here is part of the fun. The plot reminds me of a number of known science fiction disaster and invasion tales, Night of the Triffids, No Blade of Grass, and A Matter for Men being a few. Yet Fungoid is like none of them. Meikle's invading organism is both familiar and alien is its form and intention. These types of plague/invasion novels are usually fun but Meikle has made his story an especially neat treat of science fiction suspense and horror. I smell a movie in the future. Who knows? it would make a good one!

Friday, November 11, 2016

All in the family

Siren of Depravity

By Gary Fry


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: October 25, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



I don't know If Lovecraft understood what a rich tableau he was creating with the Cthulhu Mythos when he first started putting his ideas to paper. Even in the 21th century, horror writers still find new things to add and embellish to the Lovecraftian universe.

Gary Fry is one of the newer writers in the ever-growing Lovecraftian Circle, so to speak. Almost all of the books he has written have clear Lovecraftian elements if not thoroughly entrenched. Siren of Depravity is full blown Mythos with the Old Ones threatening to emerge into reality. Harry Keyes, a college professor with a wife and daughter gets a phone call from his estranged brother Dexter. His brother always seemed a bit off in some very disturbing ways and some of it starts to make sense when he tell harry why he wanted to see him. it also helps Harry understand their abusive father and why his father focused that abuse more on Dexter than Harry, the older brother. Harry goes on a quest for the truth and the terrors that accompany that truth are not far behind.

Nothing supernatural or Lovecraftian shows up until about a third into the book. The author spends that time giving us a portrayal on Harry and his family that set up the tensions. This is what makes Siren of Depravity his best novel to date. It is as much as a family drama as a horror novel and Fry has melded both together quite well. Again we see quite a bit of influence from fellow Lovecraftian writer and Britisher Ramsey Campbell. This blending of suburban domesticity and academia is noted in Fry's other works but it really stands out here. When we do discover the "skeletons" in the Keyes family, they are revealed to us a little at a time to let the terror build up. The end is quite powerful but it is also open-ended enough to take the fear and the angst with us.

As stated, this is so far the best of quite a few novels I have read by the author. It has one of the nicest build-ups I've read in this genre and has elements of true terror. Some of it involves themes of physical and sexual abuse that may be uncomfortable to some readers but are far from gratuitous. For those looking for good horror, Lovecraftian or not, this gets a high recommendation.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A quiet and eerie look at first love

A House at the Bottom of a Lake

By Josh Malerman


Publisher: This is Horror

Pub Date: October 31, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Josh Malerman is quickly cementing his reputation as one of the best and most original horror writers on the scene. His first novel, Bird Box constructed almost literally a horror out of nothing and gave a new meaning to the term "see no evil" as its protagonists' fear of seeing created a haunting agoraphobia. In his new novella, A House at the Bottom of a Lake, we have a even quieter but still original horror tale that somehow serves as a setting for one of the most non-horror themes you can find. First love.

Shy and awkward teenagers Amelia and James are going on their first date. It's an inspired idea of James to take her canoeing on an secluded lake. While canoeing, they discover there is a path to another lake that is even more secluded. At the bottom of this lake is a intact two story house. What begins as a novelty to the two teens become an obsession but one that is welcomed as they swim down to the house to explore. Each visit bonds one to the other as well as to the eeriness of the house.

And that is what makes this tale so brilliant. This house at the bottom of a lake, at least the house as Malerman described it, is an impossible thing. We know that good rarely comes out of something so unusual and sudden. In other words, it is probably a lot like our first love. At the beginning our two protagonists, when they decide to return to explore the house via scuba gear, agree not to question the "why" and "how" of such a house lest it loses its wonder. Does that sound like a good rule for something else? The novella feels a bit like an analogy to me but what the analogy means is slightly elusive, the way I believe the author wants it to be. Perhaps the author also doesn't want us to question the hows and whys either and, when we inevitably do, he throws a twist at the end that makes us rethink it all.

So what is the house all about? What is the horror part of this novel? That is the part that needs to remain unsaid unless the readers loses the wonder of the reading before they even start. Malerman has a distinct poetic feel that works well in this story. The two teenagers are well rounded enough to feel familiar to us. The first love scenario is one of those baits that brings out the dreamer in us and maybe a bit of nostalgia. When the fear hits, we are already invested in the characters. Both Bird Box and this one works so well because they are character driven horrors. The real terror remains elusive but what it does to the imagination is where it is really at.

You are probably not surprised when I say I recommend this novella...highly. It is a fast and easy read but it deceptively complex and even hopeful perhaps. In fact, it would be a great horror book for those who claim they don't like horror. It is certainly destined for my list of top ten books of the year.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Son of the Black Plague

Plague Pit

 By Marc Alexander

 

Publisher: Venture Press 

Pub. Date: October 13, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 3 stars



Plague Pit was originally published in 1981 under the pseudonym Marc Ronson and has been re-released in the 21st century under what I assume to be the writer's real name, Marc Alexander. The late 70s and early 80s were horror's golden years. Thanks to writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker. Peter Straub, Robert McCammon and others, the horror genre burgeoned into a bestselling marvel. Every printing house in the world was clamoring for horror novels. That tends to bring out a fair amount of chaff. Quite a number of novels of that period disappeared into obscurity for good reason.
Plague Pit appears to be one of those. It has a good if far-fetched premise. British construction workers in London unearths a long forgotten burial pit of the victims of the Black Plague. The mutated and airborne virus infects the workers who quickly spread it through England and beyond. The book gets in trouble immediately with its premise even if it is a promising one. The idea of the Black Plague staying alive over 300 years is questionable in itself even if the author tries to explain it with a few scientific theories. But I would be able to forgive that if the story was the least bit interesting.

It is hard to imagine how one can make the idea of a deadly and virulent epidemic racing through modern England boring but the author manages it. The biggest reason is found in the characters. All of them are one dimensional with no reason given to root for any one of them. Then there is that stiff dialogue. Much of it does not add to the story and simply tries to be cute which leads me to believe the real purpose of the plague is to warn people to shut the hell up! The author makes everyone jumps through their hoops. There is the spreading of the disease, denial and coverup by the government, and a rapid race to find a cure and a vaccine. Yet the reader is left on the sidelines wondering where this is all going to go if one doesn't care in the first place.

The novel was and still appears to be billed as a horror novel. It doesn't really fits the claim and is what I would call speculative fiction; telling a story of what might happen using a realistic and believable scenario devoid, or with little, supernatural or pure science fiction intent. A epidemic themed tale should have some tense and scary moments though. This is little to none in this book. Some may find this "future plague" novel to be entertainment but I was left with only one thought of wonder. I wondered why anyone would bring it back.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The state of horror 200 years ago

The Monk

By Matthew Lewis

Published in 1796

A Classic Flashback 

 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



In the middle of The Monk: A Romance is hidden this interesting comment...
"An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom everybody is privileged to attack; For though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them."

Ouch!

Matthew Lewis, even at the age of 19 when he wrote this classic Gothic romance in 1796, was able to accurately predict the reaction to his first novel. It was both praised and reviled by the critics. It was certainly controversial for its viewpoint of the church and only a little less so for passages that were considered erotic at the time. In most cases, they would only elicit a bit of amusement in today's' jaundiced eyes.

Yet The Monk does have its moments. The primary plot involves a monk who is seduced by a woman who entered his monastery disguised as a boy. He sinks into debauchery that include rape, torture and murder. These passages evoke the same kind of dread and horror that the reader would feel today. Lewis is best when writing about the more evil characters. The monk Ambrosia and his she-devil in crime Mathilda are fully developed villains.

But he is less interested in more mentally healthy protagonists. There is a romantic sub-plot involving the sweet and innocent Agnes, but his heroes and heroines tend to be...well...dull. I couldn't help thinking his heroes needed a few lap dances to get the sanctimonious ice out of their veins and his heroines could learn a little by watching a couple episodes of Desperate Housewives.

But overall, this was a fun read even if the dialogue tends to be overwrought to the point of silliness...which just goes to show that Gothic romances haven't changed much in the last 200 years.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Do you know where your basement is?

Eat the Night

By Tim Waggoner


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: September 26, 2016

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars



I have read two novels by Tim Waggoner and the thing that stuck with me on both is the sense that they are excellent introductions to fascinating alternative realities that would be fun to explore.

In Eat the Night, we are introduced to two separate persons. Joan Lantz is a woman who buys a house and finds an basement hidden behind the wallpaper. She is having dreams of a past ritual and hearing death metal songs that seem to be related to her presence in the house. Kevin Benecke is an employee of a mysterious organization simply called Maintenance. It seems to be the obstacle that blocks evil entities from invading our world from other dimensions. The stories of Joan and Kevin are told separately for a brief period then merge together as Maintenance follows a source of evil to Joan's house. Add on the malevolent spirit of a Jim Jones influenced rock singer and you have all the basics.

The novel is slightly over 100 pages and that is part of the problem. The other book I read (The Last Mile to which I awarded 5 stars) was brief too but it involved one story line that carefully fed us background until it all came together). Eat the Night feels a bit fragmented and I never got the idea that I knew what this world was really about. In telling the story in a shortened length, neither Kevin or Joan really came alive for me. Yet despite that it does manage to work and I got enough of the world and its alternate universe to bring it all together. It's an exciting story nonetheless. I just kept wanting more. When you think about it that is about as positive a criticism as they come.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A coming-of-age novel for the middle age?

We Did Everything Wrong

By C.V. Hunt


Publisher: Atlatl Press

Pub date: November 15, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


I ended up identifying with the protagonist of We Did Everything Wrong more than was comfortable. He is 65. I am 65. He is a widower and I am a widower,. He is a widower by only 9 months compared to my 3 years but I certainly understood his ennui as he grieves. He has a weird friend that nobody likes and so do I. He hates Walmart and...

But that is where the similarities stop. Abraham Koyfman is bitter and depressed and, while the death of his wife has much to do with it, that is not really the reason. He is unhappy where his life has taken him, disappointed with the results, and sees no hope. He is still in mourning but it is unlikely anything will pull him out of it for a long time if ever. All he has is a fruitless job selling subliminal self-help tapes which barely augments his income. He is on the verge of suicide when his rude and drunk friend Horace and his annoying girl friend drops in for a surprise visit. Horace convinces him to go to a meeting of the self-help tape company salesmen and tell his employer face-to-face he is through. What follows is the world most existentially depressing road trip.

C.V. Hunt never goes for the sunlight and this is no different. But she still manages to find meaning in the dark. While Hunt is mostly known for Bizarro, horror and psychological horror,
there is none of that here. The closest it comes to horror is a existential horror reminiscent of Sartre and Becket without the absurdism. The author describes the novel as "A coming-of-age story for the middle age". That may have scared me the most to consider 65 as middle age in this era of elongated lifetimes. Abraham is discovering that his "mid-life crisis" still has 30 years to go when he originally thought he would be on the downside and experiencing it with his lifetime partner. Can it get more devastatingly real than that? Perhaps it will be too real for most people. No escapism, no violence but plenty of pondering the meaning of life. For some people, that can be the most nihilistic thing they can do and that is what Abraham may be learning from his plight and from his friend.

We Did Everything Wrong is a bit of step forward for the author. Like another author she is very familiar with, Hunt is wandering away from horror and Bizarro and tackling big life problems in a way that confronts and maybe terrifies. This is an easily read book due to the author's substantial skills in storytelling but it may not be an easy book to digest. And that is what makes it worthwhile, maybe even important, to read.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Location! Location! Location!

The Graveyard Apartment

By Mariko Koike


Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Pub. Date: October 11, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars




The first thing that should be noted about The Graveyard Apartment is that it was first published in Japan in 1988. Almost 30 years later we have the first English translation of this quietly powerful horror novel by Mariko Koike. It is hard to figure out why it took so long. This was evidently a big success in Japan and the issues in it relate well to the western environment. It is also interesting to note that the plot and behaviors, with the exception of no cell phones which would have altered the story significantly, does not seem dated at all and reads like it could happen today.

The basic plot involves a family (Teppei, Misao, their daughter Tamoa and Cookie the dog) who moves to a suspiciously inexpensive apartment complex in Tokyo. Western fans of both horror movies and books know instinctively that you get what you pay for and I suspect that is an universal concept. The fact that the apartment complex is situated a little out of the mainstream and next to a cemetery and crematorium should be a big hint for them to reconsider but the family moves in happily. This is Teppei’s second marriage with the first ending in a way that sets an aura of guilt around the couple. At first the move seems to be a blessing with the only odd thing being the daughter’s announcement that her deceased pet finch is visiting her and warning about bad things to come. Eventually other odd occurrences happen which escalates in severity. Pretty soon, the other tenants are leaving in fear but whatever is causing the events doesn’t want them to leave.

This is a slow moving novel which places the social and psychological dilemma of the family in good perspective. When the karma hits the fan, so to speak, we understand the motives of all involved, including Teppei’s brother and wife who seem like minor characters at first but ends up with important roles at the end. Tamao is a precocious child who, despite her childhood belief in fantasy, seems to have a more grounded idea of what is going on than the adults. The book works due to its build-up. It isn’t until about two thirds through when thing start to really escalate and we have all the pieces of the puzzle set firmly enough to share the dread and angst.

As I mentioned earlier, it is quite amazing that the American publishers didn’t catch on to this novel until thirty years later. Fortunately good horror remains timeless. I am sure some might fault the lack of resolution at the ending and that may indeed be why the publishers failed to grab it at the time. It was our loss but now it has been rectified. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes a good suspense story of the supernatural variety.