Sunday, February 28, 2016

Serial Killer Heaven


By Ryan Harding & Jason Taverner

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub Date: December 1, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Reincarnage is one of those novels in which it is so indebted to movies that it is easier to discuss with comparisons from the silver screen than from the written page. It reads like a super tribute to the 80s slasher films, the ones with an unkillable serial killer terrorizing an unsuspecting populace. There is another nod of the head to those films, I am not even sure they have a name for it, in which a dystopic power throws a group of people into a seemingly inescapable situation where they are picked off one by one. CUBE, IDENTITY, even THE HUNGER GAME series are just varying examples of those films and they feature one of my favorite themes in movies; the innocent against an unbeatable evil. Interestingly these two horror sub-genres which seem to be combined in Reincarnage include my least favorite (the slasher film) with my favorite (for lack of a better term, Murder by Dystopia).

In Reincarnage (God! I love that title!) 11 people wake up in a hotel having no idea how they got there. It doesn't take long to realize they are in a walled off region where the government has placed the world's worst serial killer and mass murderer, an ex-Vietnam Vet nicknamed Agent Orange. He isn't just the worst serial killer ever but also indestructable, coming back to life no matter how he is killed or what is done to him. The government keeps him happy in his walled off prison by supplying him victims from time to time. The novel focuses on these 11 people and how they try to survive and fight off Agent Orange. It is not a spoiler to say most of them do not survive and we get to read about their demise in great detail.

It's a dynamite plot if lacking in believability but that is simply something it shares with most of the 80's slasher films it derives inspiration from. Both Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner are impressive writers. They go into creative detail in the action segments and this is the strength of the novel. If one is looking for the best slasher horror novel in print, you will be in the running with Reincarnage.

Yet that is why it doesn't take home the proverbial bacon for me. When I do read a slasher novel or even a splatterpunk novel, of which this is solidly in the same ballpark, it becomes alive when I identify with the victims. I didn't find any of them all that likable or three dimensional, even the two that we eventually should care for. For that reason, the relentless violence became a bit tiring for me. I also had trouble with why they were chosen. There is a lot of positioning and theorizing on part of the victims but I was hoping for more solid explanations in even a fantastical setup like this. It seems secondary to the bloodbath.

But if you are looking for a literary bloodbath, you won't be disappointed. Overall, I enjoyed this novel for what it is; a very imaginative excursion into the serial killer department of the splatter novel. If it is ever made into a movie, and it should be, I will definitely be in line to see it. As for the novel, if you are into the science fiction/supernatural serial killer scenario, this will be the book for you. If you are looking for a little bit more, maybe not.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Scary but whimiscal

Scary People

By Kyle Muntz

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Pub. Date: October 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

So here is something I thought I would never say about a Bizarro novel that features a serial killer, a samurai, a demon possessed psychopath, monster guinea pigs and zombies.

Scary People is cute.

Kyle Muntz has managed to make a fantasy novel of the Bizarro type that is alternately scary, funny and even a little warm-hearted. It entails equal parts of Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins, Anime, Warner Brother Cartoons (Watch out for that anvil), and something else that must be all Kyle Muntz since I can't quite put my finger on it. The novel doesn't really have much of a plot even though all is brought together at the end. It reads more like a series of vignettes centering around four friends: Matthew, Michelle, Karen and the unnamed narrator. There are a couple other characters that weave in and out of the story: A cannibalistic serial killer named Siquard and a quick on the sword Samurai. Yet the four very close but often conflicted friends are the focus. The vignettes center around their adventures which are episodic and somewhat random in their telling. Some of them die a lot but they always manage to return for the next vignette. As the narrator states, "I wish life were a series of vignettes, instead of a sequence of memories. It would make things so much easier sometimes." They live in a place simply called The City. The narrator is well aware that he and his friends are characters in a novel and constantly remind us of that, which gives it a Calvino-styled edge. There seem to be different rules about life and death in the place that the characters reside but the narrator and his friends share problems and emotions that are a fixed ground for any universe.

And that is what makes this novel so charming. The surrealism of the story catches up to you gradually. The first thing noticeable is the narrator 's somewhat stoic reaction to what is going on around him. Yet he is not indifferent and certainly not indifferent about his friends even when he is terrified or confused about them. That is his grounding and, consequently, ours. The thing that the narrator keeps mentioning is that the people around him are turning into "Scary People". If I had to figure out what this novel is all about, I would say it is about friendship, the kind that gets you through all the scary people. There's an old saying that starts, "You can pick your friends..." and I have always wondered if that is true. Our "choice" in friends seems to be just as determined (or unintentionally random even) as anything else in reality. The narrator is stuck for better or worse with his friends and that will be either his burden or his salvation.

But that's just me reading into what is a wistful combination of weird, horror and comedy. The main thing to get out of this meandering is that Scary People is a delight to read. The violence tends to be cartoonish and the pace is gentle and thoughtful. This is one of those novels which you are likely to think of as a light read yet it keeps pulling you back to the things between the lines. It is a nice change from a lot of the more explicit gore and horror out there and even from its taboo stretching cousins in the Bizarro genre. Not that it doesn't mention a few taboos of its own. It is just you will be smiling when you get to them. If you are looking for a change of pace in the usual fantasy and plain old weirdness, Scary People may just be what you are looking for.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Extreme Lit 101

The Violators

By Vincenzo Bilof

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing 

Pub Date: February 23, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

How do you review something like this? Perhaps it would best to start out by saying Vincenzo Bilof is not a new author to me. I have read a number of his books and they are all unique. He isn't the type of writer who plays by the rules. His style can be difficult for some especially if they are looking for the more linear variety that stays on a plot and doesn't try to push your button every other paragraph. I have enjoyed his work but I have also been critical, suggesting that he doesn't always seem in control of this writing, barreling forward sometimes faster than his words can follow his mind. But whatever he writes, he is never boring, never safe, always challenging and damn! Does he make me pay attention and think!

The Violators is his best novel to date. It is also his most offensive and shocking, and that is saying a lot. The novel centers on a young student named Alan who is accepted into a class titled The Art of Contemporary Literature. He soon finds himself in the company of a professor and his students who believe the pathway to understanding literature is through murder, debasement and torture. Doctor Julian Krang has a strong hold on them as they murder innocents and their classmates. Yet Alan's responsibility in this new class seems to be to destroy the students and the professor. He is an unwilling participant yet is reluctantly attracted to the idea and to one particular girl who encourages him in his role as destroyer.

Despite its strange and somewhat repulsive idea, it is a simple plot. The telling of it is anything from simple. Bilof uses pretty much every trick in his literary arsenal to write what is mainly a dark satire of the contemporary literary world. There are a lot of references and in-jokes for anyone who is aware of the independent publishing field, especially those doing Bizarro. Unless one is intimate with the Bizarro genre, most of them will go over their head. However, The author disperses plenty of clever allusions to more mainstream influences raging from Lovecraft to an especially funny dig at Harlan Ellison. Bilof is in many ways writing as much for the writer as for the reader. Yet Bilof's main influences in this experiment seems to comes from more esteemed crazies. The nihilism of Chuck Palahniuk and the slacker desperation of Bret Easton Ellis is all over this book. We know this because the author broadcasts it, mentioning the authors often and thus even parodying the idea of influences. It is a clever and perverse ploy that confronts the person that enjoys finding the inner influences, like me, with the idea that you are going right where the author wants you to go. An influence that isn't broadcasted seems to be Italo Calvino who, in If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, does a similar trick by telling a story while letting you know the author's intention and how it affects the reader's perception. And if you want another possible influence, I believe the Marquis de Sade is doing more than lurking in a corner.

Manipulation does seem to be a key theme here. Krang is a manipulator par excellence. He enjoys the power as much as he enjoy making others think they have the power and taking it away. It can be said all writers are manipulators and Krang and his proteges, and by projection the author, know both reality and literature are defined by perception and manipulation. This is a book about extremes. It blasts too many taboos and boundaries to mention. Yet it is Bilof's exceptional prose that keeps the reader enthralled through the madness. As Alan enters the classroom for the first time we are instantly teleported into a stark mentality by paragraphs like this...

A classroom without decoration, without windows. A classroom plucked from a maximum security prison. Chairs and desks bolted to the floor. A dusty desk in the front of the class with nothing on it not even a textbook or a calendar or a computer. A blackboard with chalk smudges and penis graffiti, a mushroomhead spraying semen-drops into chalk oblivion.

There's a lot of backstory and monologue through the novel. They not only provide more insight to these unlikable protagonists but also gives a philosophical base, albeit a nihilistic one, to wrap the story in. Yet it all become a blaze of fog and confusion at some point. If the point of the author is to make you uncomfortable and unstable, to throw you into a soup of intellectual despair, he succeeds well. Personally I like the feeling of instability. It tells me that i can be challenged and that reading isn't always just a spectator sport. In many ways, despite the grotesque themes and manic writing,this may be his most accessible work. It is grounded in the real world unlike many of his other novels whose bizarre science fiction/alternate universes battle with the unconventionality of the writing and structure. The Violators is one of those books I recommend very carefully. It is not for everyone and I am sure you realized that by now. But it is important especially if you want to see the extremes that art can take you for better or worse. If nothing else you can be thankful that this extreme is between the pages of a book and not within a classroom with bolted down desk and penis graffiti on the walls.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

An exquisite sadness

Ecstatic Inferno

By Autumn Christian

Publisher: Fungasm Press

Pub Date: February, 2016

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Autumn Christian is first and foremost a science-fiction writer. This may not be obvious at first because many would not associate the dense wordplay, the deep intimacy and emotion in the writing .and the almost nihilist philosophical tones with what the mainstream sees as science fiction. Even when the theme does not seem to be science fiction, we are immersed in a feeling of other dimensions and alternate realities. It may help to understand this if you can catch the heavy Philip K Dick influences. Even though Dick developed his skills in the pulp press he was soon taking science fiction to philosophical and meta-physical levels that were not seen before. Christian is still a young writer and, even in the pages of this excellent collection, it is clear she is still developing her unique voice. But, and some will consider these words heresy, she is in the truly literary sense already writing better than Phillip K Dick.

Ecstatic Inferno is a collection of ten short stories. Some are clearly science fiction. Others may be less obvious. All are fantastical in a surreal and somewhat nihilistic way. In some stories it is a little hard to know what she is really writing about. Death and identity is a safe bet but they are not stories that lends themselves to simple interpretation. For instance, "The Dog That Bit her" seems to be another variant of the werewolf tale yet we are let in at the beginning that the protagonist is not what we might expect and this is not the usual dog bites girl tale. These stories do not lend themselves to non-attentive reading. partially before they go where you least expect them to go and partially because the author's poetic style is too complex and beautiful to give less than your full attention..

"They Promised Dreamless Death" is another odd nightmare/dreamscape where a corporation promises years of dreamless sleep while your body continue to work and strive. This one really affected me. As a retired therapist, i knew there are people out in the world that would love to live a fantasy like that. They would prefer a life of death rather than a life of dreams. Yet the author, through a character who does not want this dreamless sleep, explores the illusion of reality and identity and perhaps the futility of even caring which one is illusion or reality. I am not even sure what "Crystalmouth"is about except that it is about conjoined twins that are haunted by an incubus. It still scared me in a way that was deeper than the usual scare. Which brings up another point. These are stories that need two, even several, readings. The real horror is between the lines.

Other stories worth pondering include "Pink Crane Girls" which is about a strange experiment where women fold paper cranes and eventually explode. "Honeycombed Heads" is about a group of settlers on a strange and disagreeable planet where their children are taken and then transformed into something else. I couldn't help thinking if, removing the science fiction, this isn't something every parent experiences and dreads. The aforementioned not-a-werewolf story "The Dog That Bit her" has some exceptionally beautifully dialogue that captures the character quickly in lines like "You're smart and kind,...and you have eyes like an owl that once broke his wings in my backyard and died in my arms."

That is half of the fiction but each of the ten works has a special attraction that both eludes and pulls at you. Autumn Christian is one of those authors that can only get better. Considering how good she is now, that is a scary thought just by itself.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Life and death in the kill screen

Zero Lives Remaining

By Adam Cesare


Publisher: Shock Totem Publications

Pub Date: January 1, 2016 

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of five stars.

While Adam Cesare is usually associated with the Bizarro crowd, I see him a bit differently. He is known to go into the excessive range of surrealist violence and gore which is one hallmark of Bizarro. Yet to me he feels like a bit of a throwback to straight horror and, at the most, Splatterpunk. His writings seem to be more influenced by the hardcore horror writers like Jack Ketchum, Brian Keene, and the early John Skipp of The Light at the End and The Bridge. For these authors, it is the terror that is the thing as well as the main characters' reaction to the terror.

That is how I view the novels I have read by Adam Cesare and it is certainly how I picture Zero Lives Remaining . Set in a video game arcade, it is essentially a ghost story that accelerates into a nightmarish carnival of terror and destruction. The Funcave is a modern video arcade that has a second floor devoted to arcane games like Centipede and Ms. Pacman. Robby Asaro died there due to a terrible accident in 1989 and has since been haunting the arcade games as a spectral electrical force. Still haunting in 2014, He is mainly happy with watching the kids play the games but he seems to have a special attraction to video game geek-girl Tiffany. When she is assaulted by Chris, a awkward and cruel boy, he steps in to protect her and his actions transforms his previously benign spirit into an angry and vengeful one. With the customers now trapped in the arcade center, it becomes a matter of who if any will survive.

There is a certain B-Movie aspect to this which is part of the fun. The particular setting of a video game arcade is also rather unique. Much of the beginning of the novel is drenched in the language of the video game nerd. I had a certain disadvantage, not being a gamer. Even though I grew up with games like Donkey Kong and Pacman, I was never really in the scene. I didn't even know what a Kill Screen was until I read this. Yet Cesare's writing skills flows through all this and we are quickly into the action. And that is what the book is all about: the action. It is descriptive, scary and very spooky in the "ewww!" category of horror. Robby is the catalyst to most of the story and he is quite an interesting spook as we watch him go from gentle spectre to a terrifying force. Tiffany is the strong willed nerd girl and it becomes clear why Robby is attracted to her persona. The other main character is Dan, the regular maintenance man at the Funcave. At first he seems to be the one with strength and leadership but unfortunately it never quite pans out. I liked Dan so maybe I am a little miffed at that. Yet all the characters, if mainly in the B-movie range of development, still works well in this straight-out but tightly structured tale of terror.

Overall, Zero Lives Remaining does what it sets out to do; Entertain and leave us with the satisfying aftertaste of being consensually scared. I really liked the ending which of course I won't reveal. The novel may not pave any new ground in the ghost tale/poltergeist genre but it is sure to make you a little nervous when you see your next Ms. Pacman machine.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Testing the limits

Mother F'ing Black Skull of Death

By Kenneth Vaughn

Publisher: MorbidbookS

Pub. Date: November 27, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.

I am going to start out by saying something a little weird here. It may be taken as a criticism but it really isn't. Please stick around as I explain. Matthew Vaughn's Mother F'ing Black Skull of Death (MFBSoD) reads like a Young Adult novel; a young adult novel with lots of sex, perverted actions that would make Jean Genet and John Waters blush, lots of very explicit violence and gore that would make Hershel Gordon Lewis proud, and silliness that would cause Lloyd Kaufman to be envious. It reads like a Young Adult novel that I would never ever give to anyone under 18 and would card even senior citizens, and request a maturity test, if they attempted to buy it. Ever heard the saying, "If it walk like a duck and quacks like a duck?" MFBSoD walks and quacks like a duck but it f'king hell isn't a duck!

If we look at the plot (the PG-13 version) it may get clearer. Shelbyville, Kentucky is getting a tainted batch of a really messed up power drink called Mother F'ing Black Skull of Death (I guess Sumofabitch Red Bull was taken). It is the favorite drink of a nasty bully Vince and his cohorts who seem to push around anyone they want. The drink is doing some weird things to their bodies and is making them more perverted and cruel than they were before. Stevie, who has a hard time standing up for himself, is one of the guys they pick on a lot. He is forced by Vince to drink the stuff but it is affecting him differently. Stevie must get the courage to stand up to Vince and save the town. His only support is Janet (Dammit!), a girl he has a serious crush on. But she has her own issues with her only method of emotional support is talking to her doll and stuffed bear. And they talk back.

I streamlined the beginning of the plot and left out a lot of weird stuff but I hope you get the picture. When you remove the X rated stuff you get a typical plot and theme of much YA. So where does that leave us? In my opinion, and strictly my opinion, what we end of with is a crazy and hilarious satire of Young Adult fiction. It is this that makes this crude and wild book work for me. Matthew Vaughn is a hell of a writer and takes us on a messy but exhilarating ride through oversexed baddies, talking dolls and teddy bears, Hulk-modified good guys and basically every sexual crime and dismemberment known to man. It reminds me of some of the Heavy Metal punk sci-fi installments, if they had the nerve to take it over the limit. The prologue also reminds me a little of the beginning of the film Return of the Living Dead which may mildly clue you into the type of mayhem the novel dwells on.

But there really isn't much social import here. MFBSoD is a roller coaster ride for those who can handle the extremes . And here is my quibble. The intense extremes sometimes take away from the story. I find myself wondering how far the author will go rather than getting into the dilemma and caring about the characters. A little more control would have been nice. But I realized while reading it that the author was fully aware of his boundary pushing and was taking it to where he wanted it to to go. Vaughn has all the makings of a successful if taboo punching author. It certainly makes me want to go out and grab his other novel, The ADHD Vampire. The bottom line is, if you have a iron man stomach for extreme sex and violence and you appreciate good but over-the-top writing , you will like this. I liked it even if it tested my limits. But this is one of those books I would only recommend to the right people and I don't know all that many right people. I'm 65, Dammit!. Get this, read this, enjoy it, but if you are offended, don't complain to me. I'm only the f'ing messenger!

Friday, February 5, 2016

How not to make a zombie movie

The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever

By Jeff Strand

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire 

Pub. Date: March 1, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


I would have liked to have made a movie when I was a teenager. The closest thing I ever came to making a movie was being the junior high projectionist. Today's kids have it easy. They have digital video cameras the weight of a Tea-Cup Chihuahua rather than those monstrous elephants of the 60s. You can distribute on the internet rather than bribe a small theater owner to show it in the morning to a handful of friends and family. And you don't have to lug the reels 10 miles in the snow to the not-so-local development lab.

Jeff Strand's very funny The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever is about some teenagers who want to make the get the idea. Justin has made a couple 10 minutes horror videos and got a few likes on YouTube but he and this friends are ready to made their Citizen Kane of zombie films. Unfortunately for them, they have not yet ran into Edison's famous admonishment that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. What starts out as an epic idea turns into a disaster fueled by teenage reality and inertia. Justin and his friends run into all types of distraction and mistakes, like casting Justin's dream girl in the leading role and borrowing money from a grandma who must be related to Donald Trump. But through all the tribulations, they learn a valuable...who am I kidding? This is a Jeff Strand Novel!

Seriously though, this is quite different from most of the author's novels. Being Young Adult, it is closer to Strand's excellent YA novel, I Have a Bad Feeling about This than his many dark comedy thrillers and horror novels. There are no supernatural elements, no killings except for the imaginary ones on film, and no real zombies in it. The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever reads a bit more Y than A and it is actually about adversity . It is also about friendships, the kind that gets one through all the obstacle that teens encounter as they struggle with their identity and their aspirations. Strand may be a decade or two or ? removed from the adolescent years but he still has a fine ear for the subtleties. Justin and his friends are obsessed and ambitious but still kids. It is the challenges and the chaos that make this such a clever and funny novel. Strand is renowned for his sharp and witty dialog and the trade-off between Justin and his partners in crime Bobby and Gabe is some of the best dialog I have read by him. Finally there is the resolution but it is not the type that anyone may expect. I sort of got an idea where it was going when Spork arrived to the scene (A nickname derived not from the Spock character but from the plastic spoon-fork) but it was a twist that was delightful and fitting to the nature of the tale.

The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever is a great choice for young teens and maybe even a little younger. It is especially good for those who like zombie movies or have daydreams about making their own movies. I have seen a few criticisms about how Strand's movie obsessed teens are not realistic with "real" movie making teens, but I think that is bit of zombie bull. Besides, the author was not writing a how-to. Maybe a how-not-to. He was writing about ordinary kids who have dreams, have those dreams tested and still manage to come out of it not just as dreamers but doers. Comparing it to Strand's other works, I personally lean more for the gore and very dark humor of his horror novels. But keeping the audience in mind, this is a solidly funny effort perfectly suited for teens and pre-teens. So I give it an equally solid 4 stars.