Wednesday, November 30, 2016

To kill a cyclops

Cyclops Road

By Jeff Strand

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC 

Pub. Date: September 19, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

In the prologue of Cyclops Road we see a side of Jeff Strand that isn't always obvious. We are introduced to Evan and his memories of his recently deceased wife. It is a head on assault into the experience of grieving and a profoundly emotional start to what will be mainly a humorous novel. Yet it sets the stage to understand Evan and his unusual decisions as the novel progresses.

It is this grief that is the reason he impulsively insults his boss which gets him fired. While in the park mulling his brash actions, he spots an attempt robbery . He tries to intervene but it is the potential victim that ends up saving him. He discovers that she is on a mission to go to Arizona and slay a cyclops. Most people would think at this point "OK. Bye crazy lady." and that is what Evan initially does. Yet in his vulnerable condition and his concern for Harriet the potential cyclops slayer, he offers to drive her partway to her destination...just for a little more distance to get her closer.

Of course, a little more distance isn't the way it works out and we are soon deep into a modern fairy tale. Harriet is operating by some kind of mental GPS and needs to find her three allies for the adventure. We are now in classic Jeff Strand territory with a cast of eccentrics and a accompanying dialogue that is witty and fun. The prologue rounds Evan out enough to explain his participation in a scenario that could easily have stretched the reader's disbelief too far. Harriet is an excellent foil to Evan's skepticism. She is an innocence in the ways of the world but wise and loyal to the needs of her quest. The other characters fill out the novel and present clever commentary and comic relief to the plot. I wish I could say the same about a group of villains who suddenly show up and are eventually dispersed of with only a vague explanation for their existence.

But even with a strong main protagonist, the plot falters. Even though it is a modern fairy tale, sometimes the action and motives seems a bit forced. I can blame his last couple of great novels for this. Kumquat and Blister had a similar main character who connects with a girl who has issues but brings out a strength in him. In other words, Cyclops Road tells the same story with a fantastical edge and that edge really doesn't add much. It's a great theme told by Strand that I have already read. I think I may be too harsh here since the ones who comes to this novel uninitiated to Strand's previous novels will probably go "WOW!" and several of the reviews of this book bears that out.

But it's Strand, which means you are going to read something by a skilled storyteller who has a true talent with clever dialog and wears his heart on his sleeve. That is why I liked it and give it a recommendation.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Horrors from San Diego.

San Diego Horror Professionals: Vol. 1 

By  David Agranoff, Robert Essig, Bryan Killian, Chad Stroup, Ryan C. Thomas, and Anthony Trevino

Publisher: Grand Mal Press 

Pub Date: October 11, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Writing is a local affair. Put aside the dubious achievement of the internet for a minute. Take a look at the development of many great writers and you will see the influences of regions and groups. Locales are is in the names of many legendary groups or the organizations are associated with a locale; The Bloomsbury Group, The Algonquin Round Table, The Inklings(Oxford) etc. Writers benefit by contact and the intimate exchange of ideas that can't be found over an email.

Now I am not saying that the San Diego Horror Professionals are ready to ascend into any of the heights of the previously mentioned groups. But that essential camaraderie is provided by their contact and meetings. Plus, they have taken one tiny step to hopeful immortality. They have published what is hoped to be the first of a series of short collections showcasing their talents. In Volume I , there is short fiction by six writers, all from the San Diego area and all having decidedly awesome writers chops. All six stories work and all six stories are a hoot to read. Lets go through them...

1. "The River Kings" by Ryan C. Thomas. This has a supernatural bent at some point but what made me squirm was the gut-wrenching action as the main protagonist is caught in a deadly struggle with a wild beast. The author has a way with action and the ending was a interesting twist but it was the more natural horror of survival that caught my attention. Either way, it is a great tale.

2. "The New Music" by Chad Stroup. From its first paragraph it is obvious the author has a way with words. This is a post apocalyptic zombie tale told through the perspectives of 5 record store employees. Each character is introduced with their "playlist" which sets the stage and the attitude. This piece of fiction perhaps impressed me the most. It is a well worn theme but from a different perspective than we usually see. One line from the first paragraph, "Not everyone is prepared for their final fandango" give you a hint of what's to come in Stroup's rather substantial phrase building department.

3. "Watch Your Step" by Bryan Killian. This work feels traditional in a good way. It is very Bloch. The protagonist is a security guard in a nursing home and the horror of the short fiction comes, as does many good horror tales, from a common but unexpected source. It is simple but scary just like a good Bloch or Matheson yarn.

4. "Mister Crow Reporting" by David Agranoff. Agranoff is the only one of the six I have read before . I have always liked his work and this one does not disappoint. It is a softer piece that doesn't really hit you with the punchline until the end . Then you might say, "Wait a minute. I better read this again". I like stories like that.

5." Starving Artist" by Robert Essig. I am wary of picking a favorite out of these six works but this is a doozy. It has a delicious Twilight Zone feel . The basic plot is of a woman who falls in love with a painting by a somewhat sleazy looking sidewalk artist and buys more than she realizes. It is a little clever and a lot wicked.

6. "Good Samaritans" by Anthony Trevino. While this is a horror story, it is also the most "bizarro" of the bunch. At first, it seems like it is going to be a take off on wannabee vigilantes but it turns into something else. It is another story meriting a second read and is a meaty tale on which to end the collection.

This is the kind of collection I would like to see writers from other localities put together. it is a nice way to explore the terrain, so to speak. What I can say after reading this is that San Diego spooky thrills are not just at the Whaley House. As for those who do live in San Diego, support your local horror author.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Punk Rock Fiction

Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits

Edited by Sam Richard and M. P. Johnson


Publisher: Weirdpunk Books

Pub Date: September 16, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Despite my older age, I have developed a fondness for punk rock and I have a pretty good knowledge of the bands from The Sex Pistols to Rancid. The Misfits is a band I have heard of but never really listened to. With a little research, I discovered they were one of the first and foremost bands to play horror punk, a music sub-genre that borrows deeply from horror books and movies for their inspiration. So it seems fitting that M. P. Johnson and Sam Richard would edit a collection titled Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to the Misfits.. Johnson wrote a nice but brief introduction that explains the band's appeal and their connection to the horror genre. It puts the reader into the mood for the 15 stories to follow. Before reading this, I did a crash course in Misfits tracks and, even from that brief binge, I can attest that these writers captured the mood of the music quite well.

What I don't know is if the collected fiction is actually based on the songs or themes but the rapidly paced and rude mood is certainly there. Matthew Vaughn's "Eliminate the Entire Human Race" starts out the madness with a zombie tale told from the zombie's view. "Slice-and-Grab" by Mark Zirbel is a no nonsense grunge piece where body organ stealing is a popular obsession. Almost all the stories in this collection are fast and dirty with large doses of gore and attitude. The one slightly more mellow surprise was David Agranoff's "She is on the Run" which seemed more suited for a baby boomer like me. But even then there is a evil twist to it.

All of the short fiction fits the bill. Yet they do so to the point that they have a sameness. I do not think that is necessarily a weakness considering this is a tribute to a band with a distinct hardcore style. While all the authors have clear gifts in writing and narrative, I think a better knowledge of the band and the music than I have might help to bring it all together for the reader. Nonetheless, there is some real talent here, enough to get me to check the author bios at the end to see what else they have written. By all means, if you are a horror punk aficionado , get this. If not, you still might like it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A fungus among us


By William Meikle


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub Date: january 17, 2016

Rating: 4  & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Horror and science fiction writers love to mess up our world. Whether it is a plague, an invasion, or some evil scientific experiment gone wrong, the weirder and more gruesome it is, the better. In Fungoid, the threat slated to destroy Earth as we know it is a little of all three. It seems to come down in the rain, then becomes a fungus that eat and invade any organism it can find. The idea of an invading organism coming down in raindrops gave me a few giggles as I thought of "Chubby Rain" in the movie Bowfinger. But once I removed that thought from my mind I was ready for the well written and seriously tense horror to be found in Fungoid. William Meikle outdoes himself in the world destroying plague department. Is the world eventually destroyed or do the humans manage to stumble through to a last minute save so they can live to fight another day. That is the dilemma in this non-stop action thriller that is part science fiction and part horror extravaganza. In novels like this, survival is never a given.

This is indeed action packed but the author does write some very good protagonists into the mix. There are four narrations going on that come together at the end. The most involving is the struggle of Dr. Rohit Patel as he attempts to find out what the fungus is and how to stop its dangerous spread. Meikle places little tidbits on fungus and plants through the book that add to our knowledge while we tense up for the battle between man and fungoid. There is also the two separate accounts of Shaun Lovatt who is trying to get back to his family, and his wife and children who are just trying to stay alive. Then there is Jim Noble, a member of a rapid response team who becomes part of the problem, All four stories fit together seamlessly. it's a graduate lesson on how to use multiple narratives to tell a larger story.

What the fungus is and how it gets here is part of the fun. The plot reminds me of a number of known science fiction disaster and invasion tales, Night of the Triffids, No Blade of Grass, and A Matter for Men being a few. Yet Fungoid is like none of them. Meikle's invading organism is both familiar and alien is its form and intention. These types of plague/invasion novels are usually fun but Meikle has made his story an especially neat treat of science fiction suspense and horror. I smell a movie in the future. Who knows? it would make a good one!

Friday, November 11, 2016

All in the family

Siren of Depravity

By Gary Fry

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: October 25, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I don't know If Lovecraft understood what a rich tableau he was creating with the Cthulhu Mythos when he first started putting his ideas to paper. Even in the 21th century, horror writers still find new things to add and embellish to the Lovecraftian universe.

Gary Fry is one of the newer writers in the ever-growing Lovecraftian Circle, so to speak. Almost all of the books he has written have clear Lovecraftian elements if not thoroughly entrenched. Siren of Depravity is full blown Mythos with the Old Ones threatening to emerge into reality. Harry Keyes, a college professor with a wife and daughter gets a phone call from his estranged brother Dexter. His brother always seemed a bit off in some very disturbing ways and some of it starts to make sense when he tell harry why he wanted to see him. it also helps Harry understand their abusive father and why his father focused that abuse more on Dexter than Harry, the older brother. Harry goes on a quest for the truth and the terrors that accompany that truth are not far behind.

Nothing supernatural or Lovecraftian shows up until about a third into the book. The author spends that time giving us a portrayal on Harry and his family that set up the tensions. This is what makes Siren of Depravity his best novel to date. It is as much as a family drama as a horror novel and Fry has melded both together quite well. Again we see quite a bit of influence from fellow Lovecraftian writer and Britisher Ramsey Campbell. This blending of suburban domesticity and academia is noted in Fry's other works but it really stands out here. When we do discover the "skeletons" in the Keyes family, they are revealed to us a little at a time to let the terror build up. The end is quite powerful but it is also open-ended enough to take the fear and the angst with us.

As stated, this is so far the best of quite a few novels I have read by the author. It has one of the nicest build-ups I've read in this genre and has elements of true terror. Some of it involves themes of physical and sexual abuse that may be uncomfortable to some readers but are far from gratuitous. For those looking for good horror, Lovecraftian or not, this gets a high recommendation.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A quiet and eerie look at first love

A House at the Bottom of a Lake

By Josh Malerman

Publisher: This is Horror

Pub Date: October 31, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Josh Malerman is quickly cementing his reputation as one of the best and most original horror writers on the scene. His first novel, Bird Box constructed almost literally a horror out of nothing and gave a new meaning to the term "see no evil" as its protagonists' fear of seeing created a haunting agoraphobia. In his new novella, A House at the Bottom of a Lake, we have a even quieter but still original horror tale that somehow serves as a setting for one of the most non-horror themes you can find. First love.

Shy and awkward teenagers Amelia and James are going on their first date. It's an inspired idea of James to take her canoeing on an secluded lake. While canoeing, they discover there is a path to another lake that is even more secluded. At the bottom of this lake is a intact two story house. What begins as a novelty to the two teens become an obsession but one that is welcomed as they swim down to the house to explore. Each visit bonds one to the other as well as to the eeriness of the house.

And that is what makes this tale so brilliant. This house at the bottom of a lake, at least the house as Malerman described it, is an impossible thing. We know that good rarely comes out of something so unusual and sudden. In other words, it is probably a lot like our first love. At the beginning our two protagonists, when they decide to return to explore the house via scuba gear, agree not to question the "why" and "how" of such a house lest it loses its wonder. Does that sound like a good rule for something else? The novella feels a bit like an analogy to me but what the analogy means is slightly elusive, the way I believe the author wants it to be. Perhaps the author also doesn't want us to question the hows and whys either and, when we inevitably do, he throws a twist at the end that makes us rethink it all.

So what is the house all about? What is the horror part of this novel? That is the part that needs to remain unsaid unless the readers loses the wonder of the reading before they even start. Malerman has a distinct poetic feel that works well in this story. The two teenagers are well rounded enough to feel familiar to us. The first love scenario is one of those baits that brings out the dreamer in us and maybe a bit of nostalgia. When the fear hits, we are already invested in the characters. Both Bird Box and this one works so well because they are character driven horrors. The real terror remains elusive but what it does to the imagination is where it is really at.

You are probably not surprised when I say I recommend this novella...highly. It is a fast and easy read but it deceptively complex and even hopeful perhaps. In fact, it would be a great horror book for those who claim they don't like horror. It is certainly destined for my list of top ten books of the year.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Son of the Black Plague

Plague Pit

 By Marc Alexander


Publisher: Venture Press 

Pub. Date: October 13, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 3 stars

Plague Pit was originally published in 1981 under the pseudonym Marc Ronson and has been re-released in the 21st century under what I assume to be the writer's real name, Marc Alexander. The late 70s and early 80s were horror's golden years. Thanks to writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker. Peter Straub, Robert McCammon and others, the horror genre burgeoned into a bestselling marvel. Every printing house in the world was clamoring for horror novels. That tends to bring out a fair amount of chaff. Quite a number of novels of that period disappeared into obscurity for good reason.
Plague Pit appears to be one of those. It has a good if far-fetched premise. British construction workers in London unearths a long forgotten burial pit of the victims of the Black Plague. The mutated and airborne virus infects the workers who quickly spread it through England and beyond. The book gets in trouble immediately with its premise even if it is a promising one. The idea of the Black Plague staying alive over 300 years is questionable in itself even if the author tries to explain it with a few scientific theories. But I would be able to forgive that if the story was the least bit interesting.

It is hard to imagine how one can make the idea of a deadly and virulent epidemic racing through modern England boring but the author manages it. The biggest reason is found in the characters. All of them are one dimensional with no reason given to root for any one of them. Then there is that stiff dialogue. Much of it does not add to the story and simply tries to be cute which leads me to believe the real purpose of the plague is to warn people to shut the hell up! The author makes everyone jumps through their hoops. There is the spreading of the disease, denial and coverup by the government, and a rapid race to find a cure and a vaccine. Yet the reader is left on the sidelines wondering where this is all going to go if one doesn't care in the first place.

The novel was and still appears to be billed as a horror novel. It doesn't really fits the claim and is what I would call speculative fiction; telling a story of what might happen using a realistic and believable scenario devoid, or with little, supernatural or pure science fiction intent. A epidemic themed tale should have some tense and scary moments though. This is little to none in this book. Some may find this "future plague" novel to be entertainment but I was left with only one thought of wonder. I wondered why anyone would bring it back.