Monday, October 31, 2016

The state of horror 200 years ago

The Monk

By Matthew Lewis

Published in 1796

A Classic Flashback 


Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Do you know where your basement is?

Eat the Night

By Tim Waggoner

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: September 26, 2016

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

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

We Did Everything Wrong

By C.V. Hunt

Publisher: Atlatl Press

Pub date: November 15, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2016

Location! Location! Location!

The Graveyard Apartment

By Mariko Koike

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Pub. Date: October 11, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Zombie Food Fest

Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse

By Jack Strange


Publisher: Kensington Gore Publishing

Pub. Date: May 4, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stas

Robert Turner is given the thankless and impossible task of making the reruns of an old outdated cooking show interesting again. Luckily he has an uncle that has invented a machine that brings the dead back to life. After trying it out on a cat that becomes mean and hungry enough to chase pit bulls, he convinces his uncle to revive the 15 year old corpse of the cooking show’s host Floyd Rampant with the idea of using the resurrected chef to hype the show. The experiment is highly successful but Floyd has bigger ambitions. He is set on making an army of celebrity zombie chefs thus creating his own “Cookiphate” based on the devotion of one main food ingredient. Human flesh.

That is how Jack Strange starts his debut novel Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse, to be called CCZA to maintain my sanity and preserve my typing fingers. We’ve had zombie everything else so celebrity chefs seem to be a logical extension. The author’s zombies are of the thinking type and Floyd Rampant is an especially smart one. Hence we have a bizarre plot being hatched by him that includes all the cannibalism and massacre one would expect in a novel with such a title. The book starts out like Bizarro black humor but soon morphs into an equally dark socio-political satire. Yet the objective of a farce like this is never lost no matter how many topical turns it takes. It makes you laugh even at the rather comical but grotesque and gruesome stuff.

CCZA manages to make fun of a lot of things: cooking shows, the media, politicians, the military and, of course, zombies, although I doubt real zombies have the ability to understand the humor. Strange has a lot of funny ideas going from his head to the pages. I do wish he spent a little more time on the characters though. With the exception of Floyd Rampant, the rest of the cast weaves in and out without real focus. It create little grounding in the novel which made me think I was reading a different novel by the end due to the switch from horror farce to social satire. At some point, the cleverness outweighed the structure. But that did not keep me from laughing. CCZA is a very witty take on the over-populated Zombie sub-genre of horror novels. There is always room for a zombie novel that makes you laugh.

I do have one minor complaint. It doesn’t include any recipes.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

An adventure thriller with a big fish


By Greig Beck

Publisher: Cohesion Press

Pub. Date: September 29, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Adventure novels are sturdy creatures that find themselves lounging on bookshelves, being read at the beach, and pretty much enjoying strong sales at the book stores. They are generously docile until the reader starts rifling their pages. At that point they have a tendency to hook their claws into you and you are pretty much stuck with them until the last exciting page.

Greig Beck is an Australian writer who knows the adventure thriller quite intimately. He seems to revel in them. This new creature of his, Fathomless, has all the markings of a thoroughbred. Borrowing from Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler and, in this particular book, the Jaws man himself Peter Benchley, Beck still manages to write a thoroughly entertaining book with his own style.

In Fathomless, we start in the 50s when explorer Jim Granger find a new route through a cave in the Arctic that leads to an undiscovered underground body of water known to the residents as “Bad Water”. He quickly meets his demise but decades later his granddaughter Kate Granger comes across the same clues and, with the help of a Russian billionaire, puts together an expedition to explore the underground sea. What fuels the expedition is that the creature that killed her grandfather may an animal that has been extinct for millions of years. They are also about to find how it was a good thing it was thought to be extinct.

The monster of the novel is a Carcharodon Megalodon, a very large form of shark and the most dangerous predator to ever grace our planet, at least according to the writer and excluding man. The thrills in the book are continuous but seem to divide into two parts. The first part is the discovery and exploration of the warm-water sea. This reads much like a Crichton novel as we are introduced to undersea exploration technology and eventually to several creatures that manages to survive millions of years in the isolated waters. The author has a good feeling for the techno-thriller and even a better touch for describing the strange world our explorers find them in. There is of course intrigue and sabotage which makes the adventure even tenser. In the second half it turns into a hunt for the predator. The Jaws-like twist in the plot is exciting and gives a whole new urgency to the old adage, “We need a bigger boat”.

It’s an exciting romp with aspects of thriller, science fiction, horror and of course adventure, all forming an entertaining style of beach read or, since summer is over, a fireside read. The protagonists of the novel all do their job yet none of them really stand out as flesh and blood characters outside the confine of the pages. There was only one sour note for me. It entails a Greenpeace style ship and crew that interrupts the hunt. It is pure stereotype and a little bit nasty considering the escapism of the story. But it doesn’t dim the excitement all that much.

Overall, Fathomless is an engaging novel and intelligent novel that promises thrills and adventure and delivers. While Greig Beck is a new writer to me, I can see that he is likely to have an enthusiastic group of readers that follow him on his adventures and will be delighted to shudder at the formidable creatures in this book

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Finding Forever Homes

Scales and Tales: Finding Forever Homes

Edited by John Palisano

Publisher: William Wu Books

Pub. Date: September 3, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I love rescued animals. One of the great joys in life is to give a forgotten animal a home. Now I am not extreme on this. I have friends who have purebred cats and dogs from reputable dealers and that is just fine. All animals need love. But if you are the average Joe, shelter animals and rescues are the way to go. But the real heroes are the people who spend their time and effort helping the many forgotten and abandoned animals in the world find such a loving home. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, devoting your life to rescuing animals must be the most direct way to bypass it and head straight to Nirvana

So here we have Scales and Tales, a collection of 21 stories about animals. It is a benefit anthology edited by John Palisano and published by William Wu. The proceeds will go to benefit three worthy rescues operations in the Los Angeles area: The Southwestern Herpetologists Society (Snakes need love too!), Star Paws Rescues, and Kitt Crusaders. The collection itself is a mixture od some old classics and new stories by writers who are mostly known for fantasy, horror and science fiction. The writers range from the legendary like Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker to rising stars like Amber Benson and Marv Wolfman. Others include David Gerrold, Dennis Etchison, Joe R Lansdale, Lisa Morton Larry Niven, William F. Nolan.. It's a big list of 21 authors!

Most of the fiction by more established writers seem to be retreads. Of the less known writers, it is hard to be compared to the Masters, there appears to be a little unevenness yet none of them miss their mark. Here are some of the tales that stood out for me, old and new. Joe R. Lansdale's "Fire Dog" is one of my all-time favorites and one of the oddest in the book since it about a man acting like a dog. Most of the others go right to the purring, barking or hissing source. I kept waiting for the animal connection in William F. Nolan's "One Clever Dude"...and then it hit me. The Ray Bradbury story is one that I never read before, not an easy feat to do, but it is the sweetest tale of the bunch. Sunni K. Brock is one of the few authors that gives cats and dogs a rest and goes for less considered but still worthy companions with "Iguana Iguana". David Gerrold wrote a most moving story about a girl, her dreams and a dog. It is so good that I will forgive him for using a punchline that misses because it evokes a well known movie. Marv Wolfman and Larry Niven gives us some nice science fiction to add to the mix.

Overall all it is a nice anthology. The use of older fiction offsets some of the surprises but it is still nice to revisit them and doesn't detract too much from the newer material. I would give this a 3 and a half star rating but i feel obligated to raise it a star purely for its noble intentions. If you see this book, pick it up for good reading and for the cause. But really, what is most important is to consider that bundle of fur or scales that depends on you. If you are thinking of getting a pet, remember the local shelter or humane society, There is a critter there waiting to be loved by you and yearning to be given the chance to love you back.

This review has been approved by Fred.