Tuesday, September 27, 2016

To catch the devil

Devil's Maintenance

By Thaxson Patterson II


Publisher: Black Bed Sheet Books

Pub Date: 6-20-2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

What do you do if you catch the devil?

What do you do if the devil is just a man?

That is only two of the questions Thaxson Patterson II throws around in his taut novella Devil’s Maintenance. It appears the government is holding a man by the name of Daniel Edgar Vincent Ivan Liberty (DEVIL) in a top secret facility under the Greenland ice. Daniel has incredible and inexplicable intellectual powers that allow him to decipher and predict pretty much anything. This ability makes it easy to manipulate others and, being the evil sociopath he is, he enjoys the destruction it brings. He is deemed a massive threat to the country but his abilities are too powerful for the government not to utilize. Daniel has it in his grasp to destroy the world or he can save it…for a price.

Into this scenario enters Information Assurance Technical Director, Ray Peterson. He is at first a skeptic and is sure enough of himself to think he can avoid Daniel’s manipulations. The novella is part science fiction and part horror. It is also a clever take on the deal with the devil story. Yet I sense some of it is a throwback to the old British “cat-and-mouse-game” mystery where two protagonists are pitted against each other. Ray does not know what he has gotten himself into. Daniel is a mixture of stratospheric intelligence and pure evil that makes Moriarty seem like a boy scout. It is easy to see why the few involved in this “devilish”project thinks Daniel is indeed the devil and they may be more correct than they know.

For such a short novella, there are a lot of ideas floating through its page. There are enough questions around the plot to fill a longer novel and that is one of my complaints. It is the type of story that begs for more. To entertain any of the questions may give too much away but a meditation on the role of evil is foremost. In order to have evil, does good need to be complicit? Are we the devil’s enemy or sidekick? Patterson’s storytelling is concise but in danger of seeming pulpish on the surface when it really isn’t. The book has a delightfully twisted ending. Yet the real kick may happen after the reader puts the book down and think about the two main characters. I hope the authors decides to revisit Daniel Edgar Vincent Ivan Liberty in the future. I think there may be more we can learn from him even if we may regret it.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Beat poetry for the 21th century

Rhyme and Rebellion

By Harry Whitewolf

Publisher: Self-Published

Pub. Date: September 18, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I appreciate poetry but I prefer poetry with a beat and a message. By""Beat" I mean the Beat Generation with their disdain for an establishment that praised surface over substance and encouraged conformity over fighting for justice and inequality. And that it why I am so stoked by this collection of confrontational rhyme by Harry Whitewolf. There is no question hat Harry (Do you mind if I call you Harry. I feel a kindred spirit present) is greatly influenced by the Beats but his poetry is contemporary and infused with another type of beat and rhyme that would receive a enthusiastic nod from Tupac and Biggie. If I was to try to describe his poetry in one sentence I would say Lawrence Ferlinghetti by way of Che Guevara and Mos Def. Some might call his poetry political but I would call it socially sensible. There is a lot of anger in his words yet the overriding message is peace and equality.

There is humor too. That is what makes the anger palatable and that is one of the reason it becomes art rather than rant. Harry's poetry is fun to read but it really feels like it need to be heard, as suggested by the cover drawing. When all is read and done, this is performance poetry meant for a coffee house or a protest demonstration. But still, the message and exuberance comes thorough in the print. We need more people like Harry Whitewolf who can, excuse me for the cliche, "tell it like it is."

If you do want to hear Harry Whitewolf reading his poetry, here is a video of one of the best poems in the book....


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Gothic horror for young adults

The Women in the Walls

By Amy Lukavics


Publisher:  Harlequin Teen 

Pub Date: September 27, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


There is always room for a good Gothic horror novel. The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics fits the bill and has the plus of being a horror novel for teens that doesn't run from the rough stuff. It's main protagonist is Lucy Acosta, a girl whose mother died when she was three. She lives in a large Victorian mansion (is there any other kind of house in a Gothic horror novel?) with her cold and unemotionalt father, her cousin Margaret. and her Aunt Penelope. Her father, an Acosta by marriage not blood, seems to be more interested in maintaining the property in his name and pleasing the upper class country club members that have their own mysterious interest in the mansion and the Acosta name. Shortly after Lucy's aunt disappears in the woods, Margaret begins listening to voices in the walls and acting strange. It isn't long before tragedy strikes the Acosta household again and Lucy starts hearing voices.

Oh, the things that Gothic horror is made of! At first, the reader is not sure if we are dealing with the supernatural or a queer form of madness but it isn't long before the scales are tipped and we are in for the hunt. Lucy is not the most sympathetic person for a story like this. She seems as strange as her family and not always the most perceptive. At times, it seems like she strayed out of a Shirley Jackson book. Her teen attributes, which include a tendency to self-mutilate, makes her an odd but appropriately vulnerable choice for a heroine of a young adult horror novel. Yet it alk works and we find ourselves on her side as she attempts to unravel the mysteries in the house.

But there are a few things that did not quite move along the scares. I was not sure of the time frame. The era of the story sometimes felt as Victorian as the house. Even the dialogue was rather stilted toward that era. it wasn't until Lucy mentions search engines and computers that I realized it was meant to be contemporary. I would have liked a better grasp of the time period from the beginning. Also, sometimes the Acosta family felt too off and distant. Although there were ample attempts at a backstory, they never really gelled enough to bring the family's odd behavior together until the very end. It finally led to a somewhat shocking climax but I wished I had just a little more info earlier to bring the family's strange reactions into the reality of the plot.

Nonetheless, The Women in the Walls is an interesting and brave work of horror for the young adult set. it doesn't flinch at sensitive issues and doesn't back away from the horrors especially at the end. Gothic horror is here to stay.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A brilliant jumble

Automatic Daydreaming: The Five Lives of Bricker Cablejuice

By William Pauley III


Publisher: Doom Fiction

Pub. Date: August 15, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


I'm in a quandary here...A three and a half star vs four star quandary.

Have you ever read a brilliant piece of work but came away unsettled? That is how I felt after reading Automated Daydreaming: The Five Lives of Bricker Cablejuice. William Pauley III is clearly a brilliant writer, His words have both complexity and intimacy. They are intelligent and powerful. Yet somewhere along the beautiful sentences the sum doesn't quite equal the parts.

In Automated Daydreaming we are confronted with a grisly crime, the torture and killing a somewhat celebrated person called The Television Man. Shortly afterwards, the man accused of the crime sends the police a letter stating that the tortured man, Bricker Cablejuice, wanted these atrocities to be done to him, is not actually dead, and explains a way that one can not only verify that claim but also tap into his thoughts. The rest of the book involves the thoughts and experiences of Bricker, the five lives that he is living simultaneously, and eventually points to a very troubling possibility regarding reality.

What entails is an almost free association, psychedelic mixture of lives, thoughts, and time blended together. Other writers have done similar things, I am reminded while reading this of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and, slightly less so, Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Pauley's take involves a literal switching of channels that brings in focus various lives, hence the Television Man nickname. But in real life, if one switches channels too quickly it just becomes a jumble of sound and images. I think that is what happens too often here.

I am told that this book was originally five different short stories that were published previously but originally written to eventually come into existence as this novel. If that is true, it makes sense. I especially loved the segment about the mermaids and found it the most moving part of the book. Yet when the stories are placed together as one, it just doesn't equal the brilliance of the parts. I think it gets lost in the complexity of the idea.

William Pauley III is a writer to watch out for. But I think I would have preferred to read these stories separately than in this intricate but disorienting work. It is still excellent and I do recommend it, hence the wavering over 3 & 1/2 vs 4 stars. It is a challenging novel to read, which is a plus by the way, and takes a commitment despite the relatively short under 200 pages length. If one is willing to do that, it is worth the reading and, most importantly, will lead the reader to wonder what else this skillful writer can throw at us.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ferrying souls to the afterlife for fun and profit

The Ferryman Institute

By Colin Gigl

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: September 27, 2016

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Charlie Dawson is a ferryman. He meets humans at their appointed time of death and persuades them into opening the door to the hereafter. It's an important job. If one does not enter into whatever is after death they become lost spirits on earth destined to wither away into non-existence. Charlie has been doing it for 250 years and has gained a legendary status as the ferryman who never failed an assignation. The result though, is that he is burned out by all the deaths that happened without his ability to do anything but watch them die. Until one day when he receives an unique choice seconds before a woman is about to kill herself. "Be a ferryman or save the girl. Your choice."

Colin Gigl's The Ferryman Institute is a modern fantasy with satirical edges. It is easy to compare with Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job since it has a similar plot and a similar style with an equally sharp wit. Yet there is a major difference. While A Dirty Job is satirical farce all the way through, The Ferryman Institute takes a more serious action-packed turn half-way through. It still remains funny and clever yet the reader acquired a more grounded concern for the characters and may realize the theme of the novel may not be all that light and funny. It's a nice move that prevent the novel from be another satire on death and modern life.

Yet that satirical tone does remains and it is quite entertaining. The Ferryman Institute, founded by Charon of course, is a corporation that holds a monopoly on the guiding of recently deceased spirits to their lives after death, whose form is a mystery as much to the ferryman as it is to us. But they are aware other smaller organizations are ready to take up the slack if they falter. The similarities to our own compartmental life in the rat race is part of the satire which takes on a Terry Gilliam style absurdity at some points.

Yet Charlie remains the focus of the book. He is the well performing cog in the system who can get away with things others can due to his brilliant performance. Yet he is slowly burning out and regretting his immortality. There are reasons for this but we don't receive them right away. Gigl feeds them to us slowly and painlessly through the antics and farce of the coming confusion and chaos. The girl he meets is another well written protagonist. Moments before killing herself, she becomes embroiled in a world she did not know exist with a man who she sees more as a kidnapper than a hero.

As far as satiric fantasies goes, this is far and away one of the best. The comparisons to Christopher Moore are deserved yet this is a debut novel and shows some cracks that reveal it. The switch halfway through could be a little more smooth and sometimes the cleverness of Charlie gets a little annoying. But these are minor issues when compared to the vastly entertaining value of the novel at whole. And as I said, there is a more serious tone lurking in the book that , if nurtured in the author's future writings, can take this writer's work above the loads of satiric fantasies out there on the shelves. Comedic fantasies are not easy to do convincingly yet the Ferryman Institute, both book and venue, were real and sincere enough to convince me.

Four and a half stars.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lovecraftian horror from a woman's perspective

Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror

Edited by Lynne Jamneck

Publisher: Dark Regions Press

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Dark Regions Press should be congratulated for putting out so many great anthologies in the time of their existence and for focusing much of their output on the endurable but esoteric sub-genre, Lovecraftian horror. This year they have published a beautiful, heavily illustrated (one full page color plate for each story) anthology titled Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror.. The collection has 20 pieces of short fiction either based on H. P. Lovecraft's Chtulhu Mythos or influenced by them. All of the stories are by female writers and the range of authors goes from legendary to established to rising stars.

There is little bad I can say about this collection. I don't think there is one poorly written story among the 20. For the most part with a few exceptions, these are atmospheric tales relying on what is implied rather than what is spelled out on the print. This is in keeping with Lovecraft's emphasis on the horrors that creep in the mind. The Ancient Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos may be fine with tearing up a victim now and then but it is what is done to the mind that haunts the reader. The first story is representative of that and is by a legendary writer, Joyce Carol Oates. "Shadows of the Evening " does not evoke the Cthulhu Mythos directly but suggests the dreamlike qualities of many of Lovecraft's works. More importantly it is a typically beautiful Oates work, introspective and suggestive.

Two of my other favorite stories are more directly connected with the Chtulhu Mythos. "Our Lady of Aria Mons" by Caitlin R. Kiernan and "The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward" are also excursions into science fiction with a Lovecraftian tinge. Both excellent tales, they would be at home in either Weird Tales or Analog magazines.

There are a good many other stories here. Just selecting a couple, I am especially fond of Karen Heuler's All Gods Great and Small, a environmental revenge story with the usual shaman avenger that one often sees in this type of storytelling. Yet I loved the idea of gods existing in the tiniest of bodies. "Eye of the Beholder" is another crafty tale with some social implications. I am not sure of the Lovecraft connection on this one but it is certainly quite creepy and a bit indulgent in the "Ewww!" department.

But despite there being much good short fiction here. overall it feels a little uneven. I don't think that is because of the quality in writing but because there seems to be too many stories that have too loose of a connection, or none at all, to Lovecraft's primary themes. Overall this is an introspective collection of tales and I wanted more of H. P.'s evocation of "unspeakable horrors". Lovecraft may have implied a lot but he still "creeped" the hell out of you.

Nonetheless, it is a anthology worth reading and not least for showcasing some of the finest female writers working in the genre of horror. Editor Lynne Jamneck did a commendable job of editing and I cannot say enough wonderful things about the cover design and the color illustrations by Danielle Serra.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A deal with the devil...with a twist

Dead Souls

By J. Lincoln Fenn

Publisher: Gallery Books 

Pub. date: September 20, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When I was more into writing fiction in my 20s and 30s than the seriously more mundane non-fiction writing that would encompass my chosen career of Clinical Social Worker, I would peruse the writer's market books to see what type of stories were being sought. I mainly looked at the horror. science fiction and fantasy magazines. There was inevitably one sentence that was always added to their "want and don't want" lists. It was "No deals with the devil stories!". There was an unanimous agreement with these publishers that deals with the devil stories were done to exhaustion. When you look at them, one must tend to agree. There are really only two possible scenarios. Either there is the innocent soul who is tricked, attempts to outwit the devil and wins or there is the devious soul tries to outwit the devil and gets beat down. The variations within this theme tend to be limited.

That never stopped me from liking them. Now we have Dead Souls, J. Lincoln Fenn's take on that old war horse of a theme. I am happy to report she not only breathes some life into it but manages to take it into previously unexplored territories. Her first change is to make the protagonist, advertising executive Fiona Dunn, neither of the possibilities or, more precisely, both. Fiona is positive that her boyfriend is cheating on her and seems to find clear evidence he is. Retreating to a bar for liquid consolation, she meets a man named Scratch and she eventually agrees to a deal that seems ludicrously overbalanced on the surface and fueled by her temporary bitterness, not to mention she doesn't really believe it's real. But of course, the devil does not play fair. Fiona is both petty and innocent in the existential view of the world.. We cringe at her pettiness but empathize with her emotions.

And here is where the deal with the devil formula takes a twist. Part of the deal is that Scratch will in the future demand a favor. From names on the list of previous dead souls like Charles Mansion and Jim Jones, she know it is a favor of body and soul ripping proportions. She finds a group of "Dead Souls" like her; a Dead Soul Not-So-Anonymous, so to speak. Within this group, there is talk of a elusive "double deal" in which one can break a deal by offering something that may be even more devastating. Fiona is driven to find this double deal but so are the other dead souls.

There are many things that makes this novel so unique. We have the usual deal with the devil but no one in entirely innocent or evil. Fiona is intent on correcting her mistake and her reasons are not totally selfish. Yet the obsession is soon filled with all those emotions and motives that we define as selfish. The plot soon dispenses with the strict boundaries of good and evil, except for Scratch who is deliciously evil, but we see Fiona as being human and in the battle of finding and acknowledging both her altruistic (good?) and selfish (evil?) sides. It is a battle that most can relate to, if they are honest. Whether there is any hope of succeeding in the balance is the question the novel asked and perhap answers in the tense conclusion..

Then there is the group of dead souls. They represent different aspects of humanity. Some are just foolish. Some lean more toward selfish. And some are not what they appear to be. It is this battle of various natures and desires that gives the novel its unique tones. Perhaps their issue isn't really wit the Satanic One but a battle with all the aspects of desires and selfishness within the human condition.

Dead Souls is an exciting and thoughtful book. With all the twists and turns and a surprising ending, we never lose track of Fiona's dilemma and the often conflicting emotions and actions involved. This is one of the best deals with the devil novel I have written but its appeal is not simply with that group of readers. Anyone who enjoys good and complex storytelling should read it.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Existential dread with a supernatural kick

Faithfully and Lovingly

By J. R. Hamantaschen


Publisher: West Pigeon Press 

Pub. Date: July 8, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

J.R Hamantaschen, like his namesake pastry, has many layers and a sly mix of tart and sweet. It is said that hamantasch is pyramid shaped to represent the die to be cast to determine the destruction of the Jews. It is eerily apt since Hamantaschen's stories strike a balance between a complex look at humans in their most intimate ways and a cynical view that we as individuals are doomed to self-destruction by our own hands...and maybe a little shove by the supernatural.

In Faithfully and Lovingly, Brian is in love with his fiance Katy. It is an insecure love that leaves him doubting and trying to fix it any time she is unhappy or angry with him. What he isn't seeing is that their relationship is starting to unravel. One night when he is desperate to please her, he goes out to get some of her favorite flavor of ice cream. While he is out, a horrific event happens that changes life for both of them.

That is where the synopsis has to stop. It is no spoiler to say there is a supernatural element. But what that is and how it affects both of them is too creative and dramatic to reveal. In fact, it is the essence of the rest of the story. What is important here is that the author's focus on Brian's obsession and anxiety fuels the telling of this short novella. I have read a collection of his short fiction in the past and enjoyed it but this novella seems to give his storytelling a little more dimension. It is hard to describe his style. I would describe it as having the subtlety and insight of a Michael Chabon with the dread and doom of Lovecraft. But despite the supernatural element, it is a personal and existential doom. Hamantaschen's existential angst has the sound of creaky doors and nightmare screams behind it.

Despite being independently published, or perhaps because of it, Hamantaschen appears to have picked up a small cult following. I can see why. His stories are different and don't always go where you want them to. I am not always convinced with his endings, which like here, ends up abrupt and leaves the reader hanging. Yet getting there is where the joy or dread is. I think you will like this but don't be surprised if it finds you thinking about your own relationship and feeling a bit insecure.