Sunday, March 27, 2016

Strange things afoot at Mt. Shasta.


By Ray Garton

Publisher: RGB Publishing

Pub. Date: March 13, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ray Garton has been scaring the pants off of readers for a while. The books I have read by him, noticeably Live Girls and New Neighbor, are adult dark fiction with a good bit of horror reminiscent of the splatterpunk days and even some fairly kinky dark erotica. However he has written over 60 books. So it is fair to say that there is probably a lot of themes and variations in the author's clearly talented repertoire.

Vortex is certainly different from anything else I've read by him. Vortex features a pair of detectives, Karren Moffett and Gavin Keoph, who specializes in the investigation of the paranormal. Their main employer, Martin Burgess, is a very rich writer of horror tales who uses the two to check out odd happenings around the globe. In this particular tale, the odd happening centers on Mt. Shasta in Northern California. If you are familiar with the area, you probably know that its attraction to the New Age target population of the human race rivals that of Sedona, Arizona. Damn vortexes!

Moffett and Keoph are an interesting pair complete with some emotional baggage between them which I presume come from other stories Garton has written. However, Vortex works well as a stand-alone novella. The author has a way of getting you involved with the characters quickly and he is able to do that here with even the secondary ones. The plot itself is fairly simple but features a very intriguing creature and a talented and empathetic girl, a clever lamb among the wolves so to speak. I really do not want to give too much away. The story is too brief to go into detail. It will spoil the surprises. So it is sufficient to say that Vortex is fast moving, enjoyable and actually a bit charming. The horror element is there but certainly not at the levels I expect from the author. That is exactly why I was surprised and thrilled by this entry. It certainly makes me wonder about the other books he has written about Moffett and Keoph.

If one is looking for an intriguing cross between mystery and the paranormal, this will be a good bet. It is a solid and fast read that still leave the reader satisfied despite its brevity. And if you are still hungry after devouring the adventures of these two investigators, then you can always hunt down the other tales. How can you lose?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Submarine thriller with a twist


By Thomas F. Monteleone

Publisher: Samhain Publications

Pub. Date: March 1, 2016

Rating: 3 &1/2 out of 4 stars

I’m a sucker for novels that feature submarines and Thomas F. Monteleone starts off with a fine one. Submerged is an epic thriller about a secret Nazi submarine and its mission. It begins in 1945 as Erich Bruckner, a battle weary commander of the U-boat U-5001, is on what may be his last journey in a war that is winding down. The submarine and its payload could change the fortunes of Germany. Fast forward to an alternating narration based in the present day. Ex-Navy diver Dexter McCauley and his diving team discovers a previously unknown wreck in Chesapeake Bay. It appears to be a German submarine of a shape and size never seen before. Both narrations alternate through the book then intertwine as the protagonists discover an even bigger secret. It is a secret that others are willing to kill for.

Monteleone’s novel is a tasty combination of Ken Follett and Clive Cussler. If one is into submarines, like yours truly, then you should be quite happy. There will be plenty of entertainment for you. Scenes of naval strategy abound in the 1945 narration. As for present day, we get a lot of underwater excitement as the divers discover and explore the remains of the submarine. And through all this we get a mystery. What happened to the submarine and its crew? What is found in the wreck and what potential does it have to change the world? There is plenty of suspense and fun available in these pages.

But there is a wrinkle in the story. Bruckner’s mission journeys into H. P. Lovecraft territory. It is both a promising twist and a dampener to my enthusiasm. I love Lovecraftian fiction almost as much as I love submarines. But in that realm of the plot, there is more promise than delivery. The story isn’t sure whether it wants to be a weird tale or a thriller. It tries to be both and by doing so it weakens both elements. The author is quite good at describing the strange landscape that the submariners find themselves in but it never really takes off. At best it is secondary to the central plot and at worst, it is a teaser for a possible sequel.

So the best thing going for this novel is that it is an intelligent and exciting techno/military thriller of the Follett or Clancy variety. The characters are a strong point, especially the ex-diver Dexter and the U-Boat commander Bruckner. Yet despite the author’s prodigious skills at telling a story, it goes off the track a bit. The Lovecraftian elements are slight to say the least. It may be a matter of expectations. Although promoted as horror, it barely fills the bill. Perhaps if it was promoted as a thriller, that would have been more accurate. It probably would have gotten this book to the audience it deserves. But even if it takes a few missteps, it is still a very enjoyable novel and is recommended to those who dig maritime centered suspense.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A vampire novel with heart

Ghost Heart

By John Palisano

Publisher: Samhain Publishing Ltd.

Pub. Date: February 2, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Rick is a young mechanic in the small New England “bedroom community” of Whistleville. Things are pretty laid back for Rick despite having a girlfriend he is not quite that sure of in the fidelity department. But lately some new people are in town who are causing serious problems for him and his friends. They are infested with a disease called The Ghost Heart. The condition make them strong and invincible as long as they drink human blood. But eventually they fall victim to the disease as they turn pale and fade away, Rick in unfortunate enough to fall in love with one of them.

When reading the summary of John Palisano’s Ghost Heart., it is impossible not to think “Vampire” and it would be fair to call this a variant of the vampire mystique. The author has created a sly variation of a long lasting stalwart of horror novels. Palisano’s vampires are not eternal. They are sick. The condition brings lots of perks to it provided you have a fresh supply of blood. Yet there is a price to be paid. Rick is at first an innocent spectator in this new affliction. He is targeted by the Ghost Heart inflicted gang led by a rather vicious man named Damien. But he has also met Minarrette, a devastatingly beautiful girl who seems lost in her own way. The heart of the tale lies in Rick’s inability to avoid misfortune, the penalty his friends pay, and the inevitability of a doomed love. Think Romeo and Juliet with vampire thingies.

But that is the crux of what makes this novel so interesting. It isn’t really a horror story as much as a love story. Now that I’ve chase the horror fans away, it should be mentioned that this is indeed a scary book. There is a lot of eerie atmosphere building thoughout the pages. Even though Whistleville is a small town just outside the cities, there is a nice feeling of isolation in which the town appears powerless against the Ghost Heart carriers and the police is less than competent. As we find out more about the Ghost Heart and its victims, there is some incredibly tense scenes that should satisfy most horror aficionados. Yet it is the relationship between Rick and Minarette that fuel the tale. Rick is young and insecure. Minarette is irresistible and at first seems sure of herself. She is also doomed and her vulnerability starts to come through as the story develops. The author ties this relationship in neatly with the horror plot and it works quite well.  This dark resemblance of a romance is a nice deviation from the “scare them and scare them some more” habit of many recent books where human emotions are secondary.

So I would recommend this to someone who likes a good horror novel yet wants something that also features important human interaction and issues. Or someone looking for a novel that is vampire yet not really vampire. It is always nice to see a new bent on the old warhorse and doubly nice to read a book that is able to add some real human dilemmas.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

My Dinner with Rush

Killing Limbaugh

By Sean R. Shealy


Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 

Pub Date: August 27, 2012

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Marcus Gray is a history professor at Oregon State. He has a wife and child and is pretty much living the American dream until he writes an article criticizing military action in South America. The anger of Right Wing America descends on him led mostly by the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh. A lunatic, fueled by the hateful rhetoric from radio talk show hosts burns down Marcus' house which eventually leads to the death of both his wife and infant son. Gray is consumed with anger and depression. He eventually comes to one conclusion. He must go to Limbaugh's West Palm Beach Compound in Florida and kill him.

If one is familiar with Sean Shealy, it is probably due to his clever Facebook/YouTube rants and his prank called BundyFest where he half convinced many that there would be a huge rock concert on the property of notorious rancher Cliven Bundy. His humor is absurdist yet it has a serious undertone that reveals his deep concern in what is happening to this country. Killing Limbaugh continues that trait in a story that is part moral allegory and part socio-political dialogue. Shealy's novel happens in a hypothetical America circa 2012 when a conservative president has been elected and the right wing talk show pundits are declaring victory. The background to how Republican President Rust is elected shows Shealy at his most absurd but frankly it becomes a distraction since the author will soon be referencing from real history. It makes the chronology a little messy for the reader. Marcus takes a detour in his travel to complete his fatal mission and ends up in a alternative city called Kabul situated next to a very conservative and religious town called Krohn. This is where we start the moral allegory. I couldn't help thinking of the movie Billy Jack where all the good guys are noble and all the bad guys are repulsive. There is little subtlety here . But it also sets up the tension for the coming stand-off between the ideologies.

And this is where it gets interesting. Marcus eventually gets to West Palm Beach. He breaks into Limbaugh's studio and holds him at gunpoint. While still broadcasting, they begin a dialogue about what has gone wrong in America. Soon millions are listening and reacting to the responses. Marcus begins to put forth what he sees as the deceptions and lies spread through conservative talk radio. He goes through where he think America went wrong and the perceived evils that talk show pundits like Limbaugh and Glenn Beck can do. He explains the problem with their political jargon that demonizes ideas like socialism and he explains how our history is actually many ideologies that work together for the individual rather than corporations. And he tells how, in our contemporary society, that has been turned around.

This is not a neutral or even fair and balanced dialogue. Actually it is often a monologue. Shealy, like his fictional counterpart Marcus, is angry and it shows. But it is an intelligent anger that references much of our history and politics to illustrate what is happening in our own time. Near the end, it reverts back to Shealy's hypothetical universe with climatic action that, in my opinion, is just too strange to bring it together. Yet it is that dialogue with a reluctant Limbaugh that makes this book interesting. Even if I feel the setup and the end tends to be weak it does reinforce the dialogue with an entertaining gimmick that propels us through the meat of the matter.

An interesting thing here is that the author is doing to Limbaugh what Limbaugh has done to our country. When Limbaugh came to media popularity and power, it was after the demise of the Fairness Doctrine which forced the media to provide both sides of an argument. That simple and logical request disappeared and it enabled some, like Limbaugh and later Beck, to monopolize their shows with one opinion and cater to only those who shared that opinion. They created a media and a listener who thrived on only one side of the coin and became unable to flip that coin over. In Killing Limbaugh , Shealy through Marcus turns that very method against the talk show pundit. With Limbaugh as a hostage, Marcus become his own one sided advocate. When show's listeners hear the other side it becomes a revelation. Does Marcus eventually kill Limbaugh? You have to read the book to find that out but we know how the author wants to kill Limbaugh and his cohorts. He wants to kill him with words and this book is his weapon.

Killing Limbaugh has some serious issues. Being an independently published book, it has its share of typos and is in dire need of a professional editor. I found much of the action far too artificial to be believable and felt it would have worked better if he left out what could be called a dystopic plot and kept it in our real world. Yet overall, I found the meat of the book in the dialog and the ideas, which are both intelligently and emotionally laid out, to be entertaining and insightful. It should be obvious that most conservative readers will have issues with the book. I found myself agreeing with most of Shealy's accounts of history and politics yet not all of them. But there is a lot in this book that needs to be said and the author should be commended for doing it in such an unusual way. Finally, if one is disturbed by the title which suggest killing a person that actually exists, please remember that celebrities are often more idea than man and the way to kill the idea is by presenting the truth.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A familiar dread

Squirm With Me

By Andersen Prunty

Publisher: Atlatl Press

Pub Date: March 19, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

With Squirm With Me Andersen Prunty has taken a big step away from the Bizarro label he endures and maybe even from the horror classification that dark books like The Sorrow King and Fuckness has given him. His new novel has nothing bizarrely impossible about it nor is there anything that makes you go "eww" or "eek!". Yet the author is still obsessed in a nihilistic universe with characters designed to make the reader do what the title promises. Squirm With Me may be his most mature and personal novel yet. It also may be his best.

Mason Becker is a writer who self-published his first and only book and is doing well enough to quit his job and live on the royalties with help from his cashed in 401(K). Yet both are finally wearing out He recently experienced the death of his girlfriend and is questioning his worsening relationship with his daughter from his first wife. Now three people are coming into, and in one case back into, his life; A woman he meets in a bar, his brother Doug and a "hate reader" named Dargonslayer who is trolling him with stalker type messages and perhaps more devious tricks. Doug convinces Mason to go to a fantasy convention to seek revenge and "punch him in the dick". But before they leave for the convention, Mason is wondering why his brother has shown up at this time, a person he seems to hold contempt for yet follows his lead as though he is seeking his approval. This leads to a series of events that only heightens the sense that everything is going wrong in his life.

Squirm With Me is bleak. It tends to wander excessively in some places. There seems to be a pointlessness in Doug's action like he has forsaken his will to thrive even before his brother re-enters his life. Even sex with the new girl he meets is awkward and meaningless. Yet , in walking in a park, he comes across a trail that never seems to end. it becomes a mystery and a wonder. It is something different than the meaninglessness and disappointment he is finding in his life. It feels magical. The scenes of him exploring this trail is a respite for him. It appears to give him a queer source of hope.

Why would this bleak novel feel so real to the reader? Maybe it is because for me, in the character of Doug, the author seems to have created a reasonable if scary version of my own brother. A person who has a strange source of charisma with others but is toxic in our own interactions. Is this coincidence? I think not, since we all have our unhealthy issues in our family and do not have to dig that deep to find them. Is there an obsession to fail in our main character Mason? Have we not all been afraid of success and occasionally sabotaged ourselves? Feelgood novels may be essential and motivating for some but it takes a serious and talented writer to evoke our darker nature and make it feel real enough to be both uncomfortable, revealing and insightful. I think Prunty does that. He does it with a haunting style that is easy to read yet doesn't spell it all out for you. Prunty has shown several literary influences in his past works but this and his last novel, Sociopaths in Love, seems to owe much to the dark nihilism so loved by Chuck Palahniuk. Yet the style is all different and Prunty seems to hit more of a familiar and emotional tone for this reader. Whatever literary influence leaps out at you, Prunty is unique.

But can this novel be considered autobiographical in any way? That isn't really for the reader to decide even if the titling of the fictional author's work bears a teasing resemblance to one of Prunty's own novel and is just as full of dread and existential angst as this one.. Yet Squirm with Me works because, if the scenario is unfamiliar, the emotions and fears are not. Squirm With Me. may indeed be a horror novel but it is a horror novel we have all experienced in one way or another.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hap and Leonard returns

Honky Tonk Samurai

By Joe R. Lansdale


Publisher:  Mulholland Books 

Pub Date: February 2, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is the kind of mystery series that I hope never stops. Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series is about two loyal if unlikely friends. Hap is a somewhat liberal straight white guy who did some time in prison for fighting the draft during the Vietnam War. Leonard is a conservative gay black man. Leonard is the cynical type that would rather pound you down to the ground than reason with you while Hap tries to remain optimistic while reluctantly agreeing that a good kick and punch might be necessary more often than not. It is one of those unlikely relationships that quickly become deeper than the bond in most families. Hap and Leonard have been through 9 full novels with at least two novellas and a few short stories on the side. Their relationship continues to be the strength of the series yet they have managed to latch on to a few friends along the way that help round them out, noticeably Hap's girl friend Rhett and private investigator, now police chief, Marvin Hansen.

When you have so many books in your series, sometimes the plot can get rather similar. Yet with Joe R. Lansdale manning the pen, it is the characters and the smart-ass dialog that shine through. The real delight in Honky Tonk Samurai is that the friendship between Hap and Leonard is taking on the nature of a family with Rhett being the common sense grounding for the reckless duo. There is also another surprise in the family motif but I won't give that away. Honky Tonk Samurai is typically clever and funny with wonderful examples of the author's folksy humor like "you could have pushed me down with a hummingbird fart." But I fully appreciate the deeper relational aspects that continue to evolve with this pair of East Texas anti-heroes.

The plot? While on a stakeout for their work for PI Marvin Hansen, Leonard sees a man kicking his dog. That is enough for Leonard to intervene in his unique style. A older woman records the beat-down and uses the video to "convince" Hap and Leonard to try and find her niece who has been missing for five years. This leads to an investigation involving high price prostitution, blackmail, a murderous motorcycle gang, and a particularly vicious hit-man who collects the ball sacs of his victims.

Like I said, fairly typical Hap and Leonard. We also get quite a few cameos from some other characters of the Hap and Leonard novels Yet Honky Tonk Samurai, if a little same in plot, is different in theme and emotional intensity. We get a deeper side of Hap and even maybe a little more sincerity from the unpredictable Leonard. That is not to say the plot is dull or predictable. It is a hoot all the way through. But this book will be most appreciated by the real fans of the series who have followed the duo through thick and thin. Overall, it is a solid endeavor in the series and worthwhile readingfor all mystery fans.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sex, Lies and Handcuffs

Long-Form Religious Porn

By Laura Lee Bahr

Publisher: Fungasm Press

Pub, Date: February 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What a delightfully subversive novel! Long-Form Religious Porn by Laura Lee Bahr is deceptively conventional at first. We meet one of the main characters right away, Madeline Hunter, who is a struggling writer and director in the tight knit Hollywood film industry. She is trying to make a movie on a shoestring budget and really wants to get George Clooney to star in it. At the same time she is dealing with her gay friend who is caught up in a vampire cult with its teeth proverbially embedded into several film celebrities. The novel reads like straight satire at first. Hollywood is rather easy to make fun of but the author's sense of humor is up to the task of giving it a new shine. Yet we soon find there is much more to this tale than that. There is a parallel story, starting ten years before, regarding a Dominique Colt "who in two years would be famous for two of the most brutal murders of white boys in Los Angeles County." Dominque is a psychology student on a doctorate track. She becomes involved in her own sexually complex and kinky menage a trois that will eventually lead to these tragic murders. It is at this point that this darkly humorous tale becomes more than just a Hollywood satire. Bahr takes this story down some deep and narrow passages while adding some thoughtful insights to that ever present wit. We learn eventually how the two stories come together. Yet all that initially humorous send-up of the film industry and cults takes a back stage to the tale of Dominique Colt which is a masterpiece of relational angst and eroticism. Bahr's almost casual writing style is actually dense with complex emotions and drama. Her characters are so well developed that they have enough motive for an huge epic of a novel rather than this 200 plus page book. It is a sly combination of a contemporary manners comedy and a psychological exploration of the mind. Even the somewhat ridiculous Vampire cult sub-plot, (most will pick up the "Hollywood cult" analogy quickly) takes a surprising and tragic turn that tells the reader there is so much more under the surface.

Long-Form Religious Porn is from the new Fungasm Press which is an offshoot of the Bizarro oriented Eraserhead Press. The other novels from Fungasm are deep into the more surreal Bizarro genre. This one was a surprise in its stylistic accessibility and grounding in the world we know. Yet that does not mean it is any less shocking or controversial. The more conventional setting is still fraught with surprises and deals with situations what some may call taboos. While it starts with a great deal of wry humor, it becomes very serious but it is the kind of seriousness made palpable with those turns of humor. The author 's great strength is the ability to carefully emerge us into the most serious of themes even before we realize just how serious it is becoming. It is a gift that will lead me and many other eager readers to her next novel and the next one after that and so on. I recommend you try Long-Form Religious Porn not just because it is on track to becoming one of the best novels of 2016 but also so you can say, "I read her first".