Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A complex and moving tale of psychological suspense

Disappearance at Devil's Rock

By Paul Tremblay

Publisher: William Morrow 

Pub Date: June 21, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Paul Tremblay is fast becoming the name to recognize when it comes to psychological suspense and horror. We received a generous taste of his talent in last year's A Head Full of Ghosts. Yet his latest novel reveals that last year's book was only the tip of the iceberg.

The plot of Disappearance at Devil's Rock centers around a fairly typical suburban family consisting of Elizabeth Sanderson and her two children, 13 year old Tommy and 12 year old Kate. Tommy is spending the night with his two friends but doesn't return home. What results is a town-wide search for the boy, a series of events that hint of the supernatural, and numerous lies and diversions that at first hide the truth but eventually reveal a turn of events that Elizabeth or any of the people searching for Tommy will not be prepared for.

This is not a fast-paced novel yet the author's quiet and determined phrasing pack more of a wallop as you think about them later. There is little violence . This is a character driven novel with protagonists that are well thought out and complex. We do not know what has actually happened to Tommy until the very end and the author gets us there through a series of events that relies on several character's perspective and even some mysterious diary pages whose appearance is a big part of the puzzle. The changes in perspective could cause a lesser writer to crumble but Tremblay writes through it like the expert storyteller he is.

Overall I must say Disappearance at Devil's Rock is as impressive a novel as they come. It is a literary feat that manages to combine mystery, psychological suspense, and horror yet feels unique and different. With the year only half over, I think we have a major contender for best novel of 2016.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A little house, a lot of charnel

Charnel House

By Graham Masterton

Publisher: Open Road Media

Pub. Date: June 7, 2016 (reprint)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Graham Masterton has been writing horror since the 1970s yet I haven't really seen too many of his books around. I believe he is still keeping up his Manitou series which remains the books what he is most known for. Masterton has a good grip on the horror genre. His novels usually feature a sufficiently horrible monster and it is not uncommon to have an sexual twist in the story.

Charnel House was his third horror novel to be published. it came out in 1978 and is now being reprinted by Open Road Media with a few other novels of his from the 70s and 80s. Charnel House starts out like a haunted house story. The man who owns the house comes to San Francisco Department of Sanitation worker John Hyatt with a strange complaint. His house is breathing. As John investigates, he discovers that the problem is more than just a haunted house. It may be infested with a malevolent spirit of Native American mythology that is trying to get out and, to make matters worse, is using the bodies of John's friends to materialize.

It is a pretty exciting story. John is allied with a native shaman to battle the evil. John's female friend who he wishes was his lover also becomes involved and that gives us a little love interest on the side. I really enjoyed this but it seems a little dated. The Native American Folklore comes with a little lecturing by shaman George Thousand Names about the faults of the white man. I'm not saying there isn't a little truth in it. I'm saying it is so 70s! Beside the dated 70s slant, there is no real development in the characters. They exist solely to move the plot and even John's love interest isn't all that interesting.

Fortunately the evil that preside in the house, and eventually escapes and thretens the world as we know it while having his way with the ladies, is sufficiently scary. There is a satisfying battle at the end whose only fault is that the twist in the battle has been telegraphed to the reader long before by our helpful shaman. But it remains satisfying as is many scenes including a eerie two person morph in the hospital and the appearance of an extra bonus; Bear Woman.

All in all, Charnel House is a good scary read and well worth the time. While it is typical of the post-King horror being turned out in the late seventies, it does manage to be one of the better horror books of the time and still packs a bit of a punch.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Growing up werewolf


By Stephen Graham Jones

Publisher: William Morrow

Pub. date: May 10, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is always a treat to discover a novel that places new twists on old ideas. The werewolf novel has been around a long time and there really didn't seem to be much more one can say about the man-turns-wolf scenario. Yet Stephen Graham Jones doesn't just add a new twist but turns the entire concept on its head. In Mongrels we have a family of werewolves living as nomads in the south. The life of the modern day werewolf is grim, dreary and dangerous. Aunt Libby, Uncle Darren and their young nephew live like nomads in the American South, moving from place to place, working dreary low paying jobs and always vigilant of the many dangers werewolves face . The nephew, who is our young narrator throughout the book, has yet to turn. He gets his education on the perils of being lycanthrope from his grandfather, his aunt and his uncle and he is not always sure how much of it is real or exaggerated. Mongrels is primarily a coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in the most displaced and precarious life-style imaginable.

The author just doesn't change a few bits of werewolf lore. He rips them up and creates his own legends and culture. He has an original take on the sub-genre . He gives us an unique and fully realized culture of creatures with perils and rituals of their own. He manages to keep the horror of the monster yet endows them with more than a little pathos and empathy. While Mongrels may be classified as a horror tale, it is primarily a poignant story about the struggle to survive and growing up outside the norm.

Telling the story through the eyes of the young boy who have yet to turn wolf, and may not, is brilliant. Much of the behaviors and perils of lycanthropy is told to us by the aunt and uncle rather than experienced. We feel the awe and fear from the still innocent boy. I don't think we ever actually learn his name but that adds to the realization that he is part of an unique group yet feels not totally accepted either. The author seems to have a real ability to write about outsiders.

Stephen Graham Jones has an amazing skill with words. He can take a scene that is fraught with tension and, with a swift turn of phrase, find the dark humor in it. He may be writing about werewolves but there is a strong sense of Southern Realism that often speaks of humans whose lives are just as nomadic and bordering on disaster as the trio in this book. The horror in Jones' brilliant book is not just supernatural but tinted with a shrewd sense of social and cultural observation. These may be monsters but they are not far off from real life for some.

Mongrels is in turn horrific, brutal, funny and endearing all at once. It is a bluntly realistic portrayal of a supernatural family. And that is why it is so moving. We do not think of werewolves as three dimensional. In most books they are people who turn into monsters. It a Jekyll and Hyde quality that separate human from monster. We do not get that luxury here. In Mongrels, our protagonists cannot separate from the reality of what they are. We feel both privileged and horrified to see through the eyes of a child how they live and who they are. This may be a horror novel but it has a literary power that should be experienced by any reader of quality fiction.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Tragedy. Mystery and Media

Before the Fall

By Noah Hawley

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Pub Date: May 31, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Before the Fall, we get a novel that works on many layers. It is a mystery, a suspense novel, a portrayal of a man being changed by tragedy, and a social commentary on the nature of our news media. The amazing thing is not that it all works but it does work so effortlessly pulling us into each page right to the tense and surprising ending.

A private plane is about to take off. Its passengers include a media mogul and his family, a financial manager who is suspected of money laundering and his wife, a struggling painter, and the three person flight crew. Fifteen minutes after take-off, the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are the painter and the four year old son of the media mogul.

This is the premise that drives the novel. While the focus is on Scott, the painter who is trying to get his life back together even before the crash, each character gives us a glimpse of some important facet of the story. Those glimpses into the characters help us find out what happened to the plane as well as throwing us a few red herrings. The novel effortlessly moves back and forth through time as the puzzle is solved. There are a number of incidents and possible culprits that may tell something about why the plane plunged into the ocean. We see a classic ploy here; the idea of a number of unconnected characters merging into a significant and dramatic event. It is a scenario that is common to the literary scene. Yet the meat of the novel involves Scott and the aftermath of the crash. He is trying to define himself as people call him a hero. He does not see himself as a hero and shuns the spotlight. Yet the media alternately labels him hero, villain, and suspect through events beyond his control. He is our main connection with the present as the investigators try to find out what went wrong with only a four year old boy and a down-and-out recovering alcoholic artist as the witnesses.

Then there is Bill Cunningham, a news anchorman who is a cross between Glenn Beck and Bill O’ Reilly. Frankly there is nothing likable about Cunningham. He represents our modern media where the news is replaced by outrage and innuendos. He is the one who understand that the insatiable appetite of viewers centers on massaging their egos and telling them what they want to hear. Cunningham knows how to do his job and the introverted Scott appears to be a good target. Cunningham first appears to be a minor character but soon become a catalyst to the satisfying climax. The contrast between the intricate government investigators who want the truth and the new media who just want a story is beautifully set up. It is what moves this to being an intelligent mystery to the type of story that becomes a moving commentary on our “Breaking News” society.

The author Noah Hawley knows how to structure a story with a wide range of characters, both major and minor. Hawley manages to keep Scott as the center while never losing sight of the mystery and how the rest of the protagonists are involved. This is the type of novel that should appeal to everyone and not just the mystery fans. In fact, I would say the mystery takes a back seat to character development especially in regards to our troubled artist. Nonetheless, when the mystery is solved, it and Scot with his present and escalating problems collide into a shunning ending. So far, this is the book to read this year.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A tale of ghosts and madness

Ghost Chant

By Gina Ranalli

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub. Date: December 2, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ghost Chant is a glance into a nightmare. I am not quite sure whether it is a ghost story or a study of madness. It is probably a little of both. And that is the way I like my novellas, laced with a generous dose of dread and uncertainty. What we do know is that the protagonist Cherie Drew is troubled. That hint of a troubled mind comes in the shape of annoyance with her neighbor's daughter. Maggie is often where she shouldn't be; in Cherie's flower bed, her driveway, and even in her house. She is a quiet child, described as having a vacant stare and possibly autistic. The bulk of the novella takes place in one night when Cherie acts on her anger toward Maggie and it soon escalates in a form of terror that feeds on her past and her fears.

Being as short as it is, under 100 pages, it is necessary to leap quickly into the nightmare. There is little back story at the beginning,. But we do find out some very important things about Cherie as the tale continues and this is whatworked so well for me. The reveals come naturally in the weaving of the story. They make sense yet they surprise right to the tense ending. There are nice bits of The Yellow Wallpaper wrapped up in a layer of Polanski's Repulsion...with ghosts. The question comes up; Is Cherie being haunted or is she haunting herself? Such an intriguing question.

Ghost Chant is as tight as a straitjacket and as disturbing as blood on the carpet. It is a quick read yet ready made for chills and shudders. If you are looking for a ghost story that is more than that, then this book will fit the bill.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Where's the fire?

The Fireman

By Joe Hill

Publisher: William Morrow 

Pub. date: May 17, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Where’s the fire?

Joe Hill has certainly made a name for himself and it is not just because of his genetic credentials. He is unarguably one hell of a writer and arguably one of the best fantasy/horror writers actively working. In Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and especially NOS4A2, Hill has hit a peak of popularity in the horror genre previously known only to…”You know who”. In fact, the range of The Fireman suggests that, like his father, Hill is setting sights far beyond the horror ghetto. Or to put it more colloquially, he is eyeing a place at the adult table. It is not surprising that The Fireman would be so hyped and eagerly awaited. The book’s post-apocalyptic atmosphere and its epic size (over 700 pages!) set up the reader to expect a lot. Is this really going be the answer to The Stand as one book promotion so foolishly worded it?

Of course not. There is a lot of good in The Fireman but also a lot of not-so-good. Any novel needs to be judged on what is in the pages and how it all comes together, not the hype or the author’s past achievements. In The Fireman we are introduced to a very near future where there is a disease that creates gold and black marks on the body and eventually causes the victim to spontaneously combust. Harper Grayson, a nurse who works with the victims, becomes a victim herself when she breathes in the ashes of a burning hospital. Her husband convinces her to make a pact to kill themselves before the disease turns them into flames. But when she discovers she is pregnant she cannot go through with it since she have seen people with the disease bear healthy babies. This leads her to a community of people with the affliction hiding from the Cremation Squads who are killing the bearers of the Dragonscale, as it is called. They have their own way of surviving the Dragonscale. It is a very imaginative way and one of the great strengths of this tale. The community is looked over by a man who has done more than survive, having learned how to use the Dragonscale for defense and revenge. He is called The Fireman.

It is an intriguing plot and for the first two hundred pages or so it works. But then it falters for a variety of reasons. By 200 pages, the reader is realizing there is a lot of filler here. We learn about the residents of this new community mainly through backstories told by the residents themselves. It is a rambling, action-stopping form of storytelling that is needlessly long. This is especially troublesome since many of the characters do have interesting back stories which lead to their development. But it still halts the flow. The main character Harper is quite interesting and she is certainly a strong character that kept me wanting to know how she would fare through. I was also intrigued by the fireman and his connection with the group and with Harper. I sensed a sort of a Wuthering Heights relationship building up and I wasn’t wrong. Yet I was not convinced by her decision to stay in what turns out to be the equivalent of a dysfunctional family. What we end up with is a story that is trying to be an epic tale when it really want to be a very good 200-300 page novel.

I was not always sure what the author wanted to do with his plot. It starts out at the beginning as a post-apocalyptic novel and I like the emphasis on Harper as being the eyes we see it through. It lent a personal touch of an individual struggling through a plague that threatens to destroy the world. I also liked how we slowly learn what the Dragonscale is and discovers what it really means for the survivors and their world. Yet when we get into the residents of the community, it starts to be less post-apocalyptic and more Lord of the Flies. It’s a U-turn that didn’t work well with me. Then we have some unrealistic characters like Allie, a teenage girl who I assume is supposed to be precocious and likable but I just wanted to kick her in the behind.

Having said all that, much of The Fireman is excellent. There is no getting around the fact that Joe Hill can write some amazing scenes and there are quite a few in this novel. It’s the tie-in to each that slows it down. This is one of those books that has a dynamite novel in it hidden by filler that could have been fixed by a more word-budget oriented writer and a tight-ass editor. However, Joe Hill fans, and I count myself as one of them, will not be entirely disappointed. Despite my misgivings, the author is still writing above anyone else on the bestseller lists in this genre. It also is a nice step to bigger stories with more universal themes, a place I see him going with gusto, just like” you know who” at the same stage in his career. But NOS4A2 is still his masterpiece and shows more structure, imagination and experimentation than The Fireman. If you have not read anything by Joe Hill, that is where you want to go.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Shock jocks and zombies


By Andre Duza 

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: December 8, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have had this book for a year and finally got around to reviewing it. My problem tends to be this. If I buy a book with my own money I have a habit of putting it off because I have requests and deadlines on most of the books I receive for review. it is actually one of the things I don't like about having a review blog not to mention writing the occasional review for the magazines and other web sites. I am definitely not saying reading has become a chore. That is impossible. But it does cut into the adventure of the spontaneous "awesome" discovery. But WZMB came highly recommended by a lot of people I respect not the least being Jeff Burk, the editor at Deadite Pres. Now if you are saying, "Wait a minute. WZMB is from Deadite press. Of course he is going to praise it.", then you don't know Jeff Burk. He may be the editor but he is one of my go-to guys for the spontaneous "awesome" discovery...even if the book is from his publishers and even if the fruition of discovery comes a year later.

If you parsed the title you have figured that WZMB is a zombie novel. But it is a very different zombie novel in structure and story. It is written in the style of a radio show transcript. The novel centers around a Howard Stern-like shock jock and his equally Howard Stern-like sidekicks. The zombie apocalypse starts while they are on the air and we get a nice feeling of the confusion that would emanate from the airwaves if an event like this would occur. Flash forward to 6 months later. The Martin Stone Show has been moved to a complex called the Brand Compound formerly know as Waterfront Luxury Apartments in Philadelphia, PA. It is one of the few secure areas left, maybe the last. Martin's radio show is a bastion of hope delivering the news and messages of the survivors while cynically wondering if hope really exists. But it is slowly revealed that the zombies are not the real threat and that mankind often becomes its own biggest enemy.

The idea that humans are more dangerous than the zombie threat is certainly not original to the genre. Yet WZMB delivers that theme better than most. First, there is that structure of using transcripts. It is a tight and focused method. In this book, it comes across almost as a literary response to the found-footage style of film-making. In fact it is easy to envision this being made into either a movie or play without many changes. One might think the action would suffer in a structure like this but it has the opposite effect. It heightens the tension by focusing on the reactions of those most affected. Second, we have an array of characters that elicit our empathy and interest. Martin Stone, like his thinly disguised real life model, is crass but likable as is his colleagues. There is a variety of minor roles that are essential to the telling such as Dave, the both-feet-on-the-ground security guard who represents stability , Maggie the religious fanatic, and Dr. Hammond, the dim light for hope in the future. Duza brings all these characters together in sort of a culmination of humanity that makes sense but doesn't come out all obvious. The author knows the story is the thing and he has a very creative and impelling story.

WZMB reads fast. It took me an short evening to read through this slightly less than 300 pages. Yet it has more going for it than most over-weight epic tomes. If one is into the zombie genre of horror books than this is a must-read. Do not take a year to begin reading it like I did. Get it now!

Friday, June 3, 2016

The final book of The Passage Trilogy

The City of Mirrors

By Justin Cronin

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Pub. Date: May 24, 2016

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Now that we have the third book of The Passage Trilogy, it think I can confirm what I originally said in my review of the first book, The Passage. That it was the start of what will be an epic trilogy for the 21st century. In The City of Mirrors, we have its culmination and , while it doesn't quite reach the horror of The Passage or the almost religiously mythical tone that The Twelve achieve, it is still a satisfactory and fitting conclusion.

The Twelve have been eliminated in what appeared to have been an almost Christ-like sacrifice by Amy. Yet Amy is still alive as is Zero, the original creator of the Twelve. In fact, most of Abbey's friends, and some enemies, still exist in one form or another. The survivors in North America are slowly getting used to dealing with a post post-apocalypse and some are braving living beyond the city walls now that the Virals, vampire like creatures controlled by The Twelve, are gone. But they may not be gone at all and Zero has a plan and an obsession that will affect Amy and her friends.

The book starts where the last book leaves off. We are given a rundown of the survivors, each with their own plan on how to deal with the coming return of the virals. Amy, Michael and Peter are the main focus yet one of the things I love about the series howeeach character playes an essential part and we can never rely on the roles of the characters. They can change as the plot does. Villains are not always villains and heroes are not only heroes. Even Zero has the tendency to gain sympathy and may be more or less than he appears. This leads me to one of the weaknesses in the book. We spend a long time hearing Zero's back story. If you have read the other books I am not sure it is necessary to do so in so many pages. Yet it does lend some patheos to the telling. That is one of the few weaknesses though. Cronin has a deft talent in telling a wide ranging tale yet can given you enough insight on the many characters to empathize for them individually.

So all in all. The Passage as a trilogy is indeed one of the best of the 21st century and is easily a five star trilogy. The only reason I lowered the rating on this last book to four and a half instead of five stars is because I felt it was slow going at first and spent to much time restating the backstory and personality of the protagonists. Yet when it starts, especially when the virals rise up..literally...It is full steam ahead with nothing to slow it down. It also has a very nice wrap-up which of course you need to discover on your own. So I can relax and give this, the entire three books, a very hearty recommendation.