Saturday, April 30, 2016

The original psychic doctor

The Complete John Silence Stories

By Algernon Blackwood 

Publisher: Dover Publications

Pub. Date: November 2, 2011

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Of the traditional British writers of the supernatural and ghost tales, I’ve always felt a kinship with Algernon Blackwood. He not only wrote some of the best supernatural fiction of the early 20th century but he wrote it like he “meant it’. It is a cliché to say his fiction did not evoke horror as much as “awe” but it is a remarkably accurate description of the power of his writings. Blackwood was quite knowledgeable about the many mystic organizations and practices that were popular from the Victorian Age on and used that knowledge prodigiously. He had a great love and respect for the outdoors and appeared to have regarded the earth and its mysteries in an almost pantheistic way at times. He could also, when he wanted to, make the wonders of earth and the cosmos most terrifying. It is that mix of wonder and terror that made Blackwood one of the most unique of the early 20th century horror writers.

Of his many short stories, the two most influential were “The Wendigo” and “The Willows” and for good reason. They evoke the very mix of awe and terror I mentioned above. However the author was also influential in presenting the idea of the psychic detective or in John Silence’s case, the “Psychic Doctor”, into the modern horror repertoire. There is no doubt, the character of Dr. John Silence owes some debt to an earlier and more famous non-psychic colleague, Sherlock Holmes. He bears some of the same attributes; a keen sense of observation, an obsession to detail, a somewhat haughty but caring attitude toward his clients and a few other traits. Yet Silence has distinctive differences. He is a medical doctor that, due to his amassing of a fortune, could devote his time to his interest in psychic mysteries and often help those in need who had lesser fortunes. He seems to have an unlimited knowledge of the most esoteric and dangerous phenomena. Of the six tales he is featured in, there is an unusual amount of variety in the types of threats. Even the most known terrors to the horror reader, such as the werewolf in “The Camp of Dogs”, takes on a more metaphysical element.

Each story has a slightly different narrative and theme. The first one is “A Psychical Invasion” in which Silence fights off a psychic haunting brought on by cannabis use. I think there may be a hidden and outdated warning about Marijuana use here. The intriguing thing in this story is the doctor’s helpful assistants, his dog and cat! Unfortunately this is the only tale in which these two clever animals are featured. “Ancient Sorceries” is the least interesting story primarily because John Silence takes a passive role simply being who the narrator tells the tale too. His “helpful” comments at the end seem a bit unnecessary for the narration. In “The Nemesis of Fire”, we meet the doctor’s assistant, Hubbard, who narrates two of the six tales. “The Nemesis of Fire” is an involved piece regarding a string of fires and unusual happenings around an old plantation. Not only is it my pick for the best John Silence story but ranks high in all of Blackwood’s fiction.

“Secret Worship” takes on a different tack as John Silence arrives late and almost as a passerby. A man is visiting his old childhood school and, fortunately for him, Silence is aware that things at the school have changed and the gentleman may be in serious trouble. The aforementioned “The Camp of the Dog” is my second favorite work in the collection and the other story narrated by the assistant Hubbard. It features a number of Blackwood’s typicalities; a love for the outdoor, a view of the terrors as a mystical if dangerous wonder, and optimistic hope for human nature. It is sort of a love story. Finally, “A Victim of High Space” rounds out the collection. It was the last John Silence story to be published and feels a little different. Briefly, as it is the briefest of the tales, it involves a man trapped between two dimensions which the doctor is able to help in the confines of his own consulting room. It feels a little more Hodgson than Blackwood to me.

The John Silence stories were Blackwood’s first real success. Written in the first decade of the 20th century, they were followed by more atmospheric and, to me, more terrifying tales. For that reason, I find them hard to rate knowing the best is yet to come. Yet for any writer of his time, these were well developed and very entertaining works. Even in these early works, Blackwood seems already matured and set in his choice of genre and themes. For any fan of British supernatural literature, this is an essential collection.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dungeons and Draggin'


By John Coyne

Publisher: Dover Publication

Pub. Date: November 15, 2015 (reprint)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

A little historical perspective is needed to review Hobgoblin properly. Hobgoblin, which was written by established horror and supernatural writer John Coyne, was first published in 1981 as was a similar novel titled Mazes and Monsters by Rona Jaffe. What both novels have in common is that they were about the rising interest in fantasy role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. The other thing they had in common was a concern that these games may be harmful for troubled or neurotic teens who became obsessed with them. Mazes and Monsters was the more commercially successful of the two books, being loosely based on a true incident and becoming a popular TV movie. Whether you agree or disagree with the premise that fantasy role playing games can be harmful, it did an adequate job in presenting its case.

Then we have Hobgoblin. Here is the same idea: A neurotic but intelligent teenager is appearing to blur the line between fantasy and reality. But John Coyne takes a different tactic. His premise is purely fictional. His main protagonist is Scott Gardiner, a teenager who is obsessed with a role playing game called Hobgoblin which is based on Irish legends. His character is Brian Boru, a high level fighter who never gets killed. Then one night Scott’s character finally meets his match…at the very same time Scott’s father dies of a heart attack. Scott and his mother moves to a medieval styled castle, on the banks of the Hudson River no less, where she works as an archivist. Scott continues to play the game alone when things begin to happen around the castle that makes him question how much is real and how much is imagined.

Does the woods around the castle hold legendary creatures or is Scott not so slowly losing his grip on reality? That is the question the author is teasing in this messy and badly structured novel. Eventually the real question becomes; do we care? For Scott is not very likeable. He is immature, selfish and basically a brat. We are supposed to feel sorry for him due to the loss of his father but there is no foundation set to feel that loss. There is also a problem of an endless amount of coincidences and unbelievable circumstances. The idea of Scott’s character and his father dying as the exact same time is far-fetched enough. Yet Coyne builds one unbelievable circumstance upon another with no real warning as if hoping the reader doesn’t notice he has gone into the silly zone. The reader can’t help but notice.

Finally, and for me the most unforgivable issue, the entire book is a cheat. It suggest and promises some kind of tie-in with role-playing and Scott’s real or imagined events. Instead of combining the two, we get a jumbled mess that never really brings them together intelligently. The made-up game itself doesn’t really fit any realistic structure of any role-playing game I’ve ever experienced. Even worst, Coyne milks the possible supernatural elements to the point that there is no real pay-off once we get to the Scooby-Doo ending. It is trite. It is predictable. It is disappointing, especially since we have a character that doesn’t really seem to grow up in any sense.

At least, Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters addressed a real issue. Are the new role-playing games harmful to some of our more vulnerable teens? Coyne acts like he wants to address this too yet chooses to stay on the fence by making it some kind of horror/suspense tale at the same time. In trying to play both sides, he fails. Hobgoblin will likely disappoint most readers because it tries to be both and ends up being nothing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The land between crime noir and horror.

Rage and Redemption in Alphabet City

By Amy Grech

Publisher: New Pulp Press 

Pub Date: November 3, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Amy Grech may be called a mystery or suspense writer if we go by the conventional use of the term but it is a label that doesn't quite make the grade. There is very little mystery in these five tales between the covers of Rage and Redemption in Alphabet City. It might be better to call her a writer of dark suspense bordering on Crime Noir. But here is the thing. Grech's fiction doesn't really fit into any buttonhole very well. Her tales are indeed dark. So dark that they inhabit a limbo between horror and suspense. They are stories that tend to be heavy in dialogue which acts like a lure to bring the reader into a very bleak world filled with protagonists with very disturbing minds. The characters in these tales are often like car crashes waiting to happen and we all know what they say about watching a car crash.

Take for instance the title work which is also the longest piece of fiction in the collection. It is essentially a novelette broken into seven parts. It starts like it is going to be a fairly typical murder and revenge tale. Then we meet the characters . We become akin to uncomfortable eavesdroppers or peeping toms. By the time it is through, we are not really sure who the real villains are or how deep we have dropped into the madness. It is both an uncomfortable and exhilarating feeling.

"38 Special" is a brief story about Russian Roulette. Actually, it is about two games of Russian Roulette, How they come about and what evolves is where the story is. In the action, we find out about who is playing and what precipitates the events. That is where the suspense, and the horror, resides.

"Cold Comfort" explores the seamy side of sex play when the safe words are off and the players may not know their roles. The first characters you meet are named Jack Masoch and Sadie O'Grady which may give a hint where this sordid tale is going. It is rough and gritty, it is also a bit of a parody reminiscence of a cross between 50 Shades of Gray and Fatal Attraction.

"Prevention" may be my favorite story. Compare to the others, it has a fairly simple plot and twist but is no less shocking. It concerns a familiar refrain in families that goes, "Mom always liked you best", and takes that resentfulness to the extreme. It is vicious, nasty, and maybe a little endearing in a perverse way.

What all these four tales have in common is a snapshot of an inner city that is rough, dirty, and unforgiving. It's inhabitants are not the type of people we want to meet and their problems are not the kind we would want to have. It is uncomfortable. scary, and disturbing but still contemporary to our times, hence believable. That is why the last story fails. "Hoi Polloi Cannoli" is more of a post-apocalyptic tale that appears to echo Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" then goes off on its own. Yet it feels out of sync with the first four works. Add on the feeling that the twist in it is a little too familiar to the other tales and it loses a lot of the edge. I might of liked it more on its own. Here, it feels anti-climatic.

Nonetheless the first four works of short fiction are quite a treat. They are somewhat nihilistic gems of suspense yet often adds more than a little black humor to the mix, especially in "Prevention". This collection will appeal to the reader who enjoys either dark crime stories or horror. They are a nice mixture of both yet manages to find it own niche, which is probably in a very dark alley in the worst part of town. It is better to visit niches like that in the pages of a book than in real life. Take my word on that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Location!, Location!, Location!

Omega Gray

By Seb Doubinsky

Publisher: Journalstone

Pub. Date: February 1, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I guess the old descriptions of the afterlife have become obsolete. We have ordained the heaven of hosannas described by Dante and Milton as stodgy and dull. And the tunnel of light is so 20th century. So what do we have now? For Seb Doubinsky, the afterlife sounds depressingly like our own present existence. We still have day jobs and still have to obey particular afterlife rules lest we damage the karmic balance. That means no prank phone calls to the previous world as a couple afterlife anarchists are learning the hard way. Immediate Reincarnation seems to be one dreaded punishment which at least tells us that the afterlife is a little bit better than where we are now. it is a parallel reality in the multiverse that is only open to the deceased...until now. That may sound a bit mundane but it is still entrenched with a karmic thread that keeps everything together...until now.

In Omega Gray Professor Todd Bailer has entered The Land of the Dead by the use of a shaman's mixture of hallucinogens. At first he is skeptical and believes his journey is no more than an hallucination. But when it is followed by an accident resulting in a near death experience, he becomes convinced that the Land of The Dead is a real place. When he publishes his finding, it is met by ridicule by the scientific community and he is ostracized regulating him to the internet fringes and the true believers. That is until a very wealthy man takes an interest in the idea that one can actually go to this afterlife while alive. The reason? Greed and location, location, location. Yet this venture may lead to the destruction of the entire universe and then some.

This is the first of Doubinsky's novels that I read that is not set in the author's own parallel universe of Viborg City yet it has many of the same themes going on. Omega Gray reads more traditionally, although I miss the intermittent poetry of White City, and is lighter in tone. Omega Gray is quite humorous in its own way and could be called a satire, making light of one's own greed and the very human stubbornness in keeping our old ways and values even when faced with a different reality. Bailer has sort of a spirit guide in the nature of Joe M., who is tasked with keeping law and order in the afterlife, a world he doesn't understand all that much himself. It is an amusing conceit . However if the author's speculation of the here and after is anywhere to being the truth, I can understand why Milton threw in the hosannas and angels.

Doubinsky continues to be one of the more interesting speculative fiction writer out there. There remains a strong Phillip K Dick influence yet I sense I am sensing some of the social satire of Robert Sheckley seeping through in a droll and dryer Doubinsky version. Omega Gray would be a good introduction to this writer and well worth the effort to find and read.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Out in the woods...

What They Find in the Woods

By Gary Fry

Publisher: Dark Minds Press 

Pub. date: March 7, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


 I am tempted to call Gary Fry a "throwback" to a more traditional, introspective style of horror writer. It is loosely in the style of Blackwood, Machen and especially Ramsey Campbell that pulls you in with its atmosphere and innuendo rather than bludgeoning you over the head with scares and gore. That doesn't mean it doesn't scare you. It just means the scares creep up on you, and maybe long after the last word is read.

In What They Find in the Woods. Professor of Psychology Matthew Cole is supervising the research project of a young female student, Chloe Linton. She has chosen to explore a local legend about Donald Deere, a warlock from the 16th century that could seduce and conquer any woman he wanted. The tale goes on to say that he still lives in the local woods.. Chloe's project is supposed to be on the psychological aspects of the legend as it still affects the residents of the area yet Professor Cole starts to suspect his pupil really believes the legend is true. Add to that, the problem that Professor Coles' usually solid academic demeanor is being overshadowed by his attraction to his beautiful student.

And there is where we get that connection to the other writers I mentioned. His story is full of sexual tension but it hints rather than yells. The real conflict is between Cole's professional and civilized demeanor and the wild and primitive sensuality laying wait in the "myth" of Donald Deere. The story is told in the first narrative of Professor Cole. That narration appears to be fairly straight forward clearly laying down the supernatural aspects of what may be happening. Yet i can't help thinking Cole is not as reliable as he appears and is obscuring how much of his change in yearning comes from the supernatural and how much is from his own dark id.

That is why I like this story. It is straightforward in one way yet lends itself to the reader's interpretation. It makes you think. It reminds me most of Ramsey Campbell, who dealt with similar themes in the same introspective style. I also think it has a less clear connection to Arthur Machen's own pantheistic sensuality and decadence in his tales.

Overall, What They Find in the Woods is a good novella with both a psychological twist and a deep feeling of supernatural unease. It will appeal to the horror fan who likes their scares subtle and on the intelligent side.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

A slow creeping terror

The Doll-Maker and Other Tales of Terror

By Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Pub. Date: May 3, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The six pieces of short fiction in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror may not be what some people would call tales of terror. With the exception of a shocker at the end of the title story, there is little shock and less violence. More often than not, the terror comes not in what happens at the end of the story but what the reader anticipates will happen. Joyce Carol Oates specializes in the psychological horror tale and the slow simmer. In each of these six works, there is a dark lingering feeling of dread that catches up with you in the end. And usually after you turned the lights out.

That is what the author is all about. These are more like character studies with characters that are not quite right or made not quite right by the event about to happen. Take the title piece for instance. It is about a young boy who is attracted to dolls. The "found" dolls are hidden by him and develops on a meaning for him beyond obsession. The result of his "hobby" will probably become clear before the end but it is still a beautifully written climax with a worthy chill. "The Doll-Master" is the closest thing to a tale of terror yet that does not mean the other works are less disturbing.

As an author, Oates is character driven. We are drawn to the neurosis and fears of the protagonists that the author has skillfully formed for us. In "Equatorial" we are engulfed in a woman's worries that she is not enough for her older husband. Is he having an affair? Did he convince her to go on this Galapagos Island Cruise with him simply to dispose of her? It is an exquisite paranoia as Oates writes it yet we are never sure if it is only paranoia.

"Soldier" has a timely theme in its tale about a man who has either shot someone in self-defense or committed a despicable act of hate. "Gun Accident" depicts an tragic shooting that leads a woman scarred emotionally. The girl, now a woman years from the incident, tells us the story in first person narration and we experience both the child's terror and the older woman's feeling of regret and confusion. These stories succeed because they hit upon universe anxieties and fears.

But, aside from the title tale, two other works really stood out for me. "Big Momma" is about a young girl who moves with her neglectful mother into a new school and neighborhood. In spite of her awkwardness and difficulty making friends, she finds a girl and her family who gives her the feeling of belonging she has been missing. But since this is a tale of terror, we know that there is a catch. Like "The Doll-Maker", we can connect to this yearning for something more meaningful and the horror comes in knowing the fulfillment will lead to tragedy. Finally, there is "Mystery Inc.", which is a delight because it is the closest thing to a traditional mystery in the collection. It would fit nicely in any mystery magazine and even feels a little old fashioned. Yet the turns it takes are quite interesting and if it is a tale of terror, it is one that leaves a wicked smile on our face.

When it comes to the slow build, no one does it better than Joyce Carol Oates. But she knows to grab us up quickly in writing a protagonist that intrigues us, whether he or she is innocent, damaged or just plain evil. In all cases, we recognize something of theirs in us. It is what makes the author one of the more outstanding writers of our time and a perennial short-lister for the Nobel Prize for Literature. This little collection of six short stories is a good way to experience her talents. While she does not grab you with the shock and awe of more current horror writers, you will find the type of terror that catches up with you long after you have incorporated her strange but irresistible cast of characters into your psyche.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Apartment living...and dying

The Complex

By Brian Keene

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Brian Keene has returned to what he does best; flooding the reader with gore and violence while forcing them to actually care about the poor souls whose lives is being confronted with the worst possible odds for survival. Keene has a penance for inventing creative ways to really fuck up the world. It goes to his overall "Labryrinth Mythology", a device that leads to infinite ways Keene can continue to destroy Earth and pretty much everything else. It is not really clear if The Complex is part of this ongoing theme but I would lay odds on it. We never find out the reason for the primary threat to the characters in The Complex. The imminent danger is an invasion of very live but naked and homicidal humans who destroy anything in their path. You could call it one of those "not a zombie" zombie tales. But this differs from many of Keene's violence apocalyptic invasion tales in that the entire story is centered around one single apartment complex, only stretching the focus when the remaining inhabitants venture an escape. While we never know the cause, we also never find out if it is universal like so many of the author's other horror tales.

What this arguably minor construct does is that it focuses us on the tenants of the be-seized Pine Center Apartment Complex. The building is basically lower to lower-middle class with people who are either struggling or gave up struggling. Despite their close quarters, few people know the others tenants well. The protagonists include a reclusive cat lady, a war veteran,a tran-sexual, a couple gangster wanna-bees and a suicidal writer among others. From the first chapter, the action is non-stop. We are introduced to the characters by their apartment locations. As the tenants come together, we discover that not only are they fighting the onslaught of killers but also the preconceptions of their neighbors who they barely know.

But first and foremost, The Complex is a straight-out horror novel with non-stop action. It can be read that way and be thoroughly satisfying. However, it is the skill of the writer that one can read between the line and see the social underpinnings. Either way, The Complex is geared to be one of the most exciting novels of the year.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


The Return of Boy Justice

By Peter Atkins


Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications

Pub. Date: February 10, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


The Return of Boy Justice is an odd offering. Only available as a Kindle download from the specialty press Cemetery Dance, it is quite different from the horror and dark fantasy they usually offer. The plot is rather simple and there isn't really anything unusual or unpredictable in it that would jump it ahead of much of the short fiction one can find . Yet it manages to entertain and bring a smile to my face. in this tale, Boy Justice was the young sidekick to a TV vigilante called The Blue Valentine. However the actor that played him is now 78 years old. The once popular series and his character is now forgotten. So he is surprised when he discovers a young boy actually remembers him. He is even more surprised when the boy comes to him for help.

Perhaps you can see now why I called it simple and predictable. Yet you would be wrong to call this a criticism. There is something rejuvenating about the theme of emotional rebirth. "Boy Justice" is now an embittered old man, forgotten and without purpose. Yet what he once was becomes important to someone again,. The question becomes, does Boy Justice return to fight for Truth, Justice...or whatever he and the Blue Valentine used to fight for? Or has he lost that spark?

I think you know how this is going to go. The Return of Boy Justice is short, sweet and satisfying. It is a few minutes of escape that may leave you yearning for the simple justice of the pulp TV heroes. And if you are old enough, like me, you might remember those heydays you had and realize they never really left. That spark is still there.