Thursday, December 28, 2017

Audiocast: Best Novels of the Year

Author/Critic David Agranoff and myself put together this look at our top ten books of the year. It is about an hour long as we interview each other about our favorites reads of 2017. Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The perils of high school

We Came Back

Patrick Lacey

Sinister Grin Press 

April 15, 2017

4 stars


 Some people see high school as the best years of their lives. Other see it as the horror they do not want to go back to. I'm in the latter group. Maybe it's why I liked We Came Back so much because the demons of my high school would have felt at home in the old haunts of Patrick Lacey's Lynwood High School.

Melvin Brown is one of those kids for which high school was hell. At the bottom of the food chain and ignored by even the teachers, he takes a gun to himself in the cafeteria and kills himself. The creatures he drew endlessly in his notebook may or may not have had anything to do with it. Ten years later, The now abandoned old Lynwood High seems to be calling the best and the brightest and now they are dressing Goth and calling their "club" the Lynwood Vampires.

To be sure, the monsters of We Came Back seem more demonic than vampiric to me. Yet they are at the heart of this novel which makes some interesting twists on the theme of teen cliches and angst. Also at the center of this book is Frank, a high school teacher who was present at Melvin's death and is now attempting to protect his daughter Alyssia from the evils of the world. Needless to say, Alyssia is led straight to the allures of the Lynwood Vamps.

Patrick Lacy's tale has some very scary moments and is quite entertaining as a straight horror story. The perspectives of the teens and one teen's parent is at the heart of this book and, despite a good amount of gore, I think the young adult crowd would enjoy it. Melvin, or more precisely what he becomes, is a first class terror which feels like a cross between a Lovecraft monster and a vampire. There are a few problems that crop up. For instance, the late introduction of a weapon to fight the monsters that comes out of left field and challenges one's ability to accept the farfetched. However there isn't anything that takes away from the fun. Others might want to know why it is The popular students and the jocks that are initially drawn to the strange cult but for those who remember high school in a darker light, we know that many of those students are one step from the demonic to begin with.

OK, so I read my own baggage into this a bit. I think others will too. We Came Back is a good horror tale but its setting and its character are likely to take you back to your own school experiences and that is part of the fun. This is straight horror and a very entertaining read at that.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Best novels of 2017 and more

As usually at the end of the year, I present my  list of the ten best novels of 2017. It was a very rich year for novels. There are also a few honorable mentions and "best of" categories.

1. Final Girls - Riley Sager
2. In the Valley of the Sun - Andy Davidson
3. Nails - M. P. Johnson
4. Liquid Status - Bradley Sands
5. Bone White - Ronald Malfi
6, Agents of Dreamland - Caitlin R. Kiernan
7. Flesh Trade - David Arganoff & Edward Morris
8. The Fourth Monkey -  JD Barker
9. Secrets of the Weird - Chad Stroup
10. The Boy on the Bridge - M. R. Carey

Honorable Mentions (all other novels this year receiving five stars from me in no particular order)
Kind Nepenthe - Matthew V. Brockmeyer
Home is Where the Horror is - CV Hunt
Cavern of the Damned - Russell R. James
Rusty Puppy - Joe R. Lansdale
Doll House - John Hunt
Mad Black Wheel - Josh Malerman

And the rest...

Best single author collection: Men Without Women - Haruki Murakami
Best multiple authors collection: Nights of the Living Dead - Jonathan Maberry & George Romero
Best non-fiction: Paperbacks from Hell - Grady Hendrix

Best YA novel: Turtles all the Way Down - John Green
Best WTF Novel: The Fetishists - AS Coomer
Best 2016 novel I read in 2017 - The Nightly Disease - Max Booth III
 Happy holidays to all my readers!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lunar shenanigans


Andy Weir


November 14, 2017

3 stars


Andy Weir's follow-up to his bestseller The Martian again takes place in the hopefully near future. But instead of barely surviving on Mars, we have an established city colony on the moon. It comes complete with all the class struggles and daily problems we earthlings have except it's a lot more compact. Artemis is both the name of the book and the city. Weir's structuring of the city and city life is in fact the best part of his novel. We see it through the eyes of Jazz Bashara, a Saudi woman who spent her entire life on the lunar city. Her father is a welder and she has the ability to either take her father's occupation or do even better. But instead, partially due to her conflicts with her father and some bad life choices, she is a struggling porter with a smuggling operation on the size. But a rich friend offers her a challenge, illegal of course, that will make her rich or get her deported or possibly killed.

Those who enjoyed The Martian will see the same things about this book that thrilled them in the first. Both main characters are basically smart and resilient but underdogs in the environments. It is the thrill of watching Jazz fight through the odds that is mostly entertaining. It is not just the odds when she is on the unforgiving surface of the moon but also the unforgiving economic and class struggles of the city. It is what works best in the book. Weir structures well and writes some tight passages especially in the action scenes.

That is why, like his first book, it will be a bestseller. however, as a lover of science fiction, color me a little cynical. Weir writes well but, and forgive me for the slaughtering of the English language, he doesn't write good. Weir has all the Moon stuff, the science, the technology, and the physics down pat. But it just didn't have the spark for me that crisply realized science fiction has. Jazz Bashara is a marginally likeable character but she is also selfish and greedy whose bad judgement never quite gels with her perceived smarts.. The next step to empathy never quite made it. Yes, we root for her but we never root with her.

Artemis is a science fiction story with emphasis on the mainstream. Good science fiction challenge. Artemis placates. There are a number of bestselling authors who write in their selected genre but never really transcends into what the genre at its best can be. Dan Brown, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, James Patterson. Good writers all and writers that know how to sell their wares. But they are not the names that the true lover of their genre will recite as the best. I hope I'm wrong but Andy Weir with two books already seems to be writing himself into that kind of niche with science fiction.

But maybe I'm being too cynical. Artemis is a good novel, maybe a better thriller that a science fiction book. Either way, it plays a bit too much by the numbers. Yet, if you like an easy to handle and entertaining book then it will meet your needs...until the next bestseller comes along.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Young Adult novel that speaks to adults

Turtles All the Way Down

John Green


 Dutton Books for Young Reader

October 10, 2017

Five Stars

John Green"s first novel that is explicitly labeled "Young Adult" starts with an interesting but ultimately deceptive premise. At least it does, if you read and believe promo and dust jacket descriptions. Teenager Asa and her best friend Daisy decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the shady billionaire Russell Pickett. The catalyst for this investigation is the reward of one hundred thousand dollars for any information that leads to finding the man. That starting premise is not deceptive in itself for it is indeed the motivation for what eventually transpires in this fascinating introvert of a novel. But it really isn't what the book is about. To use an old Hitchcockian term, the billionaire's disappearance is a McGuffin. it could well have been missing goldfish, or a tuatara which actually is something that is related to the story. But it doesn't really matter that much because the author has bigger fish to fry and...Boy! Does he elevate the entree!

Turtles All the Way Down is primarily about Asa. It is Asa who is our first person narrator and it is her complex thought processes and insecurities that the story is really about. Asa has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She sees a psychiatristt and is prescribed medication that she doesn't take. She has only one real friend, Daisy, who has her own issues and writes fan fiction that in some ways seems to mirror how she feels about Asa. When they decide to go for the reward Daisy convinces Asa to contact Pickett's son Davis who she had a past acquaintance with. The relationship that develop challenges Daisy in ways that adds on to what she describe as her "spirals."

And this is where Turtles All the Way Down becomes so uniquely satisfying. Asa is real and she is flawed. But despite the gimmick of the investigation as a motive for her involvement, she is as typical as any teenager dealing with the runaway thought and emotions that comes with the territories of a mental illness. What we discover is that this territory is not much different from the problems of most teens. All of the teens in John Greene's novel, has crises and they all must deal with them for better or worse. Davis finds himself having to take on the role of big brother/father to his sibling and not being prepared for it. Daisy has her own lack of brakes and uses her fan fiction to deal with what she should be addressing in real life. This is a YA novel that eschews the usual trappings of fantasy, Sci-Fi, and suspense It gets right down to the reality and emotional conflict of modern adolescent life. In fact, I would say the only thing really YA about this book is the fact that the main characters are teenagers. The book will speak to adults just as eloquently.

The plot in Turtles All the Way Downis a thin one but it makes everything else work. It gives us a bait when the actual hook is the emotions we have in our own life. Maybe the reader cannot identify personally with OCD or Asa's imaginary but real illness . Yet the conflict, the fears, and the insecurities still speaks to us. John Green's little book may be for teenagers but it will resonate far beyond that.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The wild west and wilder werewolves

The Wolves of El Diablo

Eric Red


Short, Scary Tales Publications

August 1, 2017

4 stars

Tucker, Fix and Bodie are three 19th century American outlaws in the desert and mountains of Mexico. They have already fought a gang of werewolves to save a small village for little profit. So they are about to rob a train to make up for that loss of profit margin. It looks like an easy job but they are unaware that there is a troop of Mexican Federales abroad guarding a shitload of silver. On top of that, the sister of the leader of the werewolves they killed is hunting them down for revenge. Outlaws, soldiers, werewolves and silver is not the kind of mix that will ends in any way but terror and violence.

Eric Red's The Wolves of El Diablo is a sequel to The Guns of Santa Sangre where the outlaws meet The Men Who Walk Like Wolves for the first time. I have not read the first book and there may be some back story in it that might help in this one. However not reading it didn't lessen my enjoyment of the second book. The author gives enough background so you can understand what took place previously and whiz through this enjoying every minute. If your idea of a novel is action packed and full throttle adventure then that is exactly what you will do. There is a very cinematic feel throughout the book which makes sense considering the author's day job as screenwriter. The action scenes are as descriptive and tight as one would want. But what I like is how, mixed in with the endless action, we get some actual character development. The three outlaws are about as three-way bromance buddies as you can get. There is a tough but honorable captain who is out of his element when confronted with the supernatural. There is even a bit of a romance with Tucker and a girl from the village, However that girl is definitely not the weeping willow type and holds her own through all the shooting and attacking. But the real star of the novel is Azul, the she-wolf. We get an lot of back story for her that explains her obsession and viciousness. This is all top notch pulp adventure. The author keeps you interested in what will happen and makes you care about what will happen later to the main characters. For while the novel does have a satisfactory ending, there will definitely be a third one. I'm looking forward to it.

Eric Red writes tight horror and tight suspense. The Wolves of El Diablo has both. It is basically a western in wolves' clothing. Red writes visually. He envisions each scene and communicates it so well that you can see it too. For this type of novel it is what makes it works. But when a writer writes like this you don't need to ask if they can write and ask for their credentials. You just enjoy it. . He don't need any stinkin' badges.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Weirder than weird

This Town Needs a Monster

Andersen Prunty

Grindhouse Press

May 16, 2017

4 out of 5 stars

When super weird author Lance Carbuncle says a writer are weirder than he is. You gotta pay attention!

In Andersen Prunty"s very weird and borderline pornographic / erotic horror work, we find unambitious in-a-rut 40ish Brad Renfield (interesting last name reference by the way) talking to his often suicidal and only friend Travis, both residents of Gethsemane, Ohio. Remind me never to go there. In a early flashback, they are discussing a rash of suicides that happened in Gethsemane decades ago. It woke the town up but afterwards the residents went back to their dull sometime hateful routine to which Travis responds, "This town needs a monster".

In This Town Needs a Monster, Brad finds one is a beautiful young sociopathic girl named Dawn. Brad is quickly trapped in a world of violence and sexual deviancy that is above anything he ever imagine. He even tries to leave but Dawn's hold goes beyond blackmail. There is a dark hold she has on him and that is what ignites the story.

I'm not sure how to put this. The novel has levels of extreme violence and sex that even shocks me and that is saying a lot. It is also quite strange since Prunty's last novel, Squirm With Me was a more subtle work that was surprising in its quiet mundane style. This new novel is a step back into Andersen's more horrific works. But a regular theme youfind in many of his books is the older person who is snatched out of his aimless life into something that is both horrifying and exhilarating. It leads one to wonder if the real monster is the horror of the unfathomable or the aimless meaningless regular life.

In some ways, the violence and brutal sex is too much. I think he did it better in Sociopaths in Love and I sort of miss the quiet mundane horror of Squirm with Me which brought it closer to what we see as reality. But there is no one who writes like Andersen Prunty and it is impossible to maintain a neutral stance when bombarded by this new novel. I wouldn't necessarily make this my first Prunty read but those who know what to expect from him should definitely dive into the muck.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A journey into urban weird

Secrets of the Weird

Chad Stroup

Publisher: Grey Matter Press

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Ratuing: 5 out of 5 stars

Sweetville sounds like a place I'd want to visit but wouldn't want to live there. At least that is true for the part of Sweetville that Chad Stroup explores in Secrets of the Weird. At first it doesn't seem all that different than the shady parts of any city that include the downtrodden, hopeless and outcasted. It has its share of people who choose a marginal and conventionally frowned upon lifestyle. We got neo-nazis, drug addicts, name it. They make what is the skids of Sweetville. But then we get to find out about those residents who don't necessarily fit our own world. We have an odd cult called The Withering Wyldes whose emaciated bodies seem anything but natural. A transforming Angelghoul who sells a drug called Sweet Candy and feeds upon human flesh. A dwarf plastic surgeon who seems to love his job too much. If the city of Oz was created by Williams S. Burroughs it might be something like this. The author's depiction of this normal yet not normal city is a strong aspect of the book. It seems like an environment meant to be visited again. I thinks we are only getting the tip of the iceberg and what a tip it is.

Then something happens. With the interesting city building taking place, Stroup throws us a curb ball . Amidst the insanity a personal story develops. Trixie is a boy who is really a girl. The first sentence of the book set her dilemma up. "Trixie loathed her penis". Trixie is quite a character. She struggles through some of the roughest of situations slowly making her life tolerable yet knowing she won't be really accepted in society as she is. Kast, the plastic surgeon who is allied with The Withering Wyldes, has offered her a dubious solution and she is reluctant to go the full mile. Then a boy shows up, Christopher who is a member of a punk band called The Civilized Cannibals. He is one of the good guys and it would be nice to say he accepts her how she is but then we wouldn't have a story.

Now we come to the intriguing issue of the novel. There really isn't too much of a plot here. The real story is Sweetville and the interaction of its denizens. Yet Trixie plays a key role and brings us the real human condition of the story. Stroup does a very good job creating a character who may elude some readers unless they actually are personally intimate in the trials and emotions of being transsexual. The author makes this all work. Though the heart of the narration is third person and seen though the perceptions of several characters, there is plenty of back story received through the pages of Trixie's diary. Stroup also adds interludes through magazine ads and articles that give us a stronger glimpse of the topsy turvy consumerism in Sweetville. They tend to be more amusing than revealing. I wish I could say both city building and personal story comes together but I'm not sure they do. They seem disjointed when brought together but they are both very strong and I kept reading for both.

Secrets of the Weird is often more like a painting than a novel. It is a both landscape and portrait. One cannot help becoming immersed in this urban world with its body horror and psychedelic terrors but you also feel for the character of Trixie. If there isn't a slam bang thank you ending, you still are dumbfounded by the time you get there. I previously described Sweetville as the city of Oz as seen by Burroughs but perhaps it's more like Cannery Row as written by Phillip K. Dick. I think Stroup's influences for this novel are a bit of all four but for a debut work it has a lot of individual brilliance. While I had minor issues with the book, in the last analysis I cannot give such a strong first novel anything but 5 stars. Perhaps the true secret of the weird is that it is nothing without a strong dose of humanity

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe..."

Kind Nepenthe

Matthew V. Brockmeyer

Publisher: Black Rose Publishing

Pub. Date: August 1, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Kind Nepenthe may have one of the most interesting settings of any recent novel of the supernatural. It is placed in the Humboldt County marijuana fields where matrijuana farming is sill a questionable occupation that is uncomfortably shared by the outcasts and the marginal hippie entrepreneurs. Pot farming is still illegal in California but the Washington and Oregon legal market promises a profit. This is a story about struggling for that second chance, elusive dreams and ghosts. While the ghosts hover over everything and eventually deliver the terror, it is the living that brings most of the pain and heartbreak.

Rebecca, her boyfriend Calendra and her 4 year old daughter Megan have left behind everything to take a job growing marijuana for a shady pot grower called Coyote who tends to promise more than he can deliver. His land was bought from the estate of a deceased biker named Spider. Down the road lives another aging biker, Diesel Dan, who has spent time in prison for Meth crimes and lost most of his family land to Coyote but feels he can pull it together for his 21 year old son and his son's pregnant girlfriend. His son though is making the same bad decisions his father did and is harboring anger over the loss of the family land not to mention the money Coyote still owes him and his father for farm construction work. There is a darkness around them all and little Megan is closest to it as she sees and talks to the ghosts that inhabitant the area.

As horror novels goes, this is a slow burner steeping in character building and the weaving of the threads that connect them. But Matthew V. Brockmeyer builds up the social and psychological tension so well that you might even miss a few of the more subtle supernatural chills. By the time the terror and the violence starts, you are caught up emotionally with these beautiful losers. Rebecca is basically the main protagonist. She is disillusioned with "getting off the grid" and is beginning to see that her boyfriend's plan of making enough to buy land of his own is just a pipe dream. More disturbing is her daughter's habit of talking to no one visible and playing with the dead bodies of the crows that litter the fields. Calendra tells Rebecca they will soon have enough to leave but doesn't tell her that he and Coyote are aware of a presence that keeps them rooted to the pot farm.

All the characters are flawed in major ways. It would be easy to say none are likeable but that would not be necessarily true. Of the adults, Rebecca is the most likeable and easy to identify with. But no one except perhaps Coyote is really evil. They all have their dreams even if they don't know how to fulfill it and keep it. What is intriguing about this story is that it is arguable whether there needs to be a supernatural aspect to it at all. It is dark and haunting in a very natural sense culminating in a multiple scenes of violence feeds off the dilemma they made for themselves. Yet the supernatural aspect does fit and it allows us to be concerned for the only really likeable character, Megan, who is the only one in the book involved in this dead end scenario for no reason of her own and has the most to lose.

Brockmeyer has created an fascinating world in his Humboldt County setting. It is a land of dreamers and outcasts, wannabe hippies and washed-out hippies, weary bikers with dreams and a younger and aimless generation enmeshed in drugs and guns. Among this the author adds a supernatural terror which starts slow and eerily but comes in full play by the end. Yet it is the characters in this dark tale of just-out-of-reach redemption that makes it work. You don't often come across a debut novel that is so unique in the horror field, one that speaks of scarred humanity so elegantly. For that reason alone, Kind Nepenthe deserves five stars.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Podcast: Book review and discussion for Joe Hill's Strange Weather with David Agranoff

This is the third dual audio review and discussion with author/reviewer David Agranoff and myself. . This time, we are discussing the four novella collection by Joe Hill titled Strange Weather. .Enjoy!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Smack in the middle of The Pine Barrens

Savage Woods

Mary SanGiovanni

Publisher: Lyrical Ynderground

Pub date: September 25, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

New Jersey's Pine Barrens sounds like the kind of place I would want to visit. Being a West Coaster I find it hard to think of New Jersey having forests but I guess they do. The Pines Barrens is a place of legends known mostly as a perennial burial ground for mafia type clean-ups and the stomping ground for The Jersey Devil. In Savage Woods, Mary SanGiovanni by the stroke of a pen visits the Pine Barrens, particularly a fictional (I presume) seven hundred acres part of it called the Nilhollow. Instead of the usual devil, the author brings forth a more interesting terror that speaks of ancient forces in nature and it works to some extent.

Julia Russo is running from her abusive ex-boyfriend and her path takes her into the Nilhollow. State trooper Peter Grainger is an officer that had contact with Julia and her boyfriend and has helped her out often. It appears he has taken a liking to her and when her car and the car of her boyfriend are found in the Pines Barren, he expects the worst and goes looking for her. But her homicidal boyfriend is the least of the dangers she and the trooper are about to meet.

We are given a prologue regarding two brothers that introduce us to the horrors of the Nilhollow which leads into Julia's misfortune and the subsequent search. From there on it is pretty much action. Lots of body parts are strewn around and there is a sufficient sense of awe and terror in the creatures of the Nilhollow. Yet the story never really takes off as far as the characters go . It is mainly because Julia isn't really that interesting a protagonist. She comes across as the perennial victim and when she is thrown into the supernatural, I guess we are to believe the heroine appears from within her. it just doesn't gel. Peter is still Prince Lancelot and the transforming I expect of Julia to an independent character never quite takes place.

But the novel is saved by the spirits. Her pantheistic forest spirits are quite interesting and among them is a suitably evil devil. There's a little Machen hiding in these malevolent sprites. Overall, it is a good idea with some very nice plotting but the main characters are just not interesting enough to carry it. As a quick horror read, I do recommend it. I'm just not sure how long you will remember it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

An island I wouldn't want to visit

Return to Q Island

Russell James


Publisher: MLG Publishing

Pub Date:  September 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Return to Q Island is the sequel to Russell James' excellent horror/disaster novel Q Island. I was surprised to find a sequel was written because the first book was fairly tight and conclusive in the story it told. Yet here we are and it's quite a good sequel, in many ways better than the first. But more importantly, you do not need to read the first to enjoy the second. Once the setting is rehashed we begin with anew protagonist and a new setting. Return to Q Island can be easily read as a stand-alone book.

So what is the setting? A ancient and vicious virus has ravaged Long Island, New York turning people into violent creatures . Their bite, and the spores that explode from their corpses once they are killed, can infect others. The government has quarantined the entire island, hence the nickname Q Island, leaving even the uninfected to survive on their own. Barely recovering addict Kim Mitchell, along with her alcoholic mother Nicole and her selfish uncle are one such family huddling in a shell of a town trying to survive. Kim is pregnant and about to give birth to her child not knowing if it will be normal or, as they call the infected, Paleo. Kim's brother Patrick is in Connecticut and has not had contact with his sister and mother for months. He decides he will return to Long Island and attempt to find his family even if it means he too will be stranded with no way to get back to the mainland

Return to Q Island is horror of the post-apocalyptic science fiction type. But mostly I see it as an adventure novel. The excitement of the read is in Patrick's attempt to rescue his family which leads to plenty of harrowing incidents and terrifying discoveries. There is also the clear hint that the Paleos may be changing and Kim's new child may have something to do with it.

As seen with Q Island and the recent Cavern of the Damned. Russell James' forte is the horror adventure novel. This book is a pretty damn good example of it. There is the tense feel of an epidemic/apocalyptic novel and it never really lets up on the horror of the situation. Patrick starts out naive but weathers through some nightmare occurrences and comes out as the unexpected heroic type. Kim does not start out promising but motherhood seems to agree with her and she become an essential character as the plot develops. There are also the expected villains, some of them maybe being a bit too stereotypical. The book's main strength is its creativity once we get past our strong heroes and cookie-cutter villains. What may sound like a zombie novel by any other name takes a few turns here and there and stays original and interesting

Overall, Return to Q Island is a nice addition to the apocalyptic and...dare I say it?... zombie sub-genre. Highly recommended to those who like daring deeds and post-apocalyptic style adventure.

Monday, November 6, 2017

A masterful Lovecraftian novella

Agents of Dreamland

 Caitlin R. Kiernan


Pub. Date: February 23, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

"You are who you are, until you aren’t anymore. This is the First Law."

Let's just start with a definite but hyperbolic statement. Agents of Dreamland may be the best Lovecraftian tale written since Lovecraft. And that is a big statement.

Agents of Dreamland begin with a bang and ends with a bigger bang. A man called The Signalman meets a woman in Winslow, Arizona ("standin' on a corner in...", That Winslow.) There is a dangerous tension in the air and I expected one or the other would end up dead in the beginning pages. But it isn't that simple a story. There was an incident a few days earlier happening at the edge of the Salton Sea in California that has seriously unnerved The Signalman. In separate vignettes, we get the parts of the puzzle from a cult in California, to a woman that transcends time, to an odd phenomena in space near Neptune astronomers are following . It doesn't come together as much as floods us with imagery. It doesn't resolve as much as leave us with a sense of foreboding. While the themes and events are clearly of Cthulhu Mythos quality, I also kept going back to the feelings I had while watching Twin Peaks: The Return . There are bits of similarity here at least in atmosphere. Come to think of it, Twin Peaks may be more Lovecraftian than people realize. But I digress...

To repeat my first hyperbolic declaration, Agents of Dreamland may be the best Lovecraftian tale after Lovecraft. I have always been impressed with Caitlin R. Kiernan but in this novella she has outdone herself. It is sad that it is so brief since there is enough in the book for a series of books. But that density of plot is what makes it a masterpiece for its genre. Must reading for all horror readers.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Sins of the father

Mapping the Interior

Stephen Graham Jones

Publisher: MacMillan/Tor

Pub. date: June 20, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Stephen Graham Jones may be writing the most thoughtful fiction available in any genre. While he has a reputation mainly as a horror writer, this novella and the superb Mongrels, are socio-psychological mirrors into parts of our American culture we tend to ignore. Mapping the Interior may specifically be touching these themes on a more personal level as it is set in the Native American culture with a family that can be called marginally on the edges of the mainstream socially and economically. But if you want to accept that outlook or not, Mapping the Interior remains a powerful if somewhat introverted horror tale.

A twelve year old boy sees his father walk through the kitchen doorway of their house to the utility room early in the morning. His father has been dead for years, but the boy is sure he is back from the dead and becoming more alive and strong with each visit. He discovers that the way his father is becoming strong may destroy his younger brother. He is placed in the position of protecting his mother and younger brother from a supernatural threat and it is his burden alone to bear.

For a novella, there is so much going on here it is hard to give a thorough review especially when it is best to experience the reveals and turns on their own. So I will try to not reveal the plot and its twists and discuss the themes and the delivery of those themes which i believe are the true meat of the story. This is firstly a rather introspective novel. While there are certainly the action segments and impressive scares of a horror tale, it is really about the mind and conflicts of a young boy who has grown up without really knowing his father. The stories he has heard may not be reliable, a parallel theme we have seen in the above-mentioned Mongrels. His first emotions seeing his father, even being that of a spirit, is jubilation but it soon becomes one of dread when he discovers what the price might be. We are talking loss, regrets, and the price of that loss. We are also talking about the reliability and importance of memory. And we are examining all of those in the framework of an unique culture and one whose members are often economically and socially on the boundaries of the mainstream. Our young protagonist may be a boy but the situation he finds himself in forces him to take a man's role. This could be called a coming-of-age story, which it is, but it is a sad and uncomfortable one.

It is always dangerous to attempt to claim how much of a tale is auto-biographical but there is surely a sense that the emotions of the story come from the real and intimate world of the author. I suspect those who like their horrors direct and fast may become frustrated with the pace and the inward reflection of this book. That would be unfortunate because that is where the power is. There are several thrills and moments of horror within the pages but there is so much more. This novella did not grab me so thoroughly like Mongrels which has the advantage of more pages to expand its message and its hold on the reader but Mapping the Interior is still a worthy addition to Stephen Graham Jones' repertoire of horror with an humanist touch..

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The perils of remodeling

The Garrison Project

David J. Thirteen

Publisher: Bad Luck Books

Pub. Date: June 23, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Garrison Project is an interesting literary slant on a cinematic gimmick called the Found Footage Film. The most famous example of that is, of course, The Blair Witch Project. Actually the closest thing to found footage in novels would be the epistolary novel where the narrative is given by documents, usually letters. David J. Thirteen's take is to follow a researcher of urban legends who comes upon a series of videos that chronicles the remodeling of a house and points to something more sinister.

Molly is looking for the point where a true-life incident makes the leap to horror folk tale. She believes she may have found it in a online video where the family is tearing down a wall for remodeling and discovers a strange shrine. The research comes to a dead end until an unknown person sends her more tapes chronicling the continuing remodeling of the house. We not only follow the video's narration of what took place but also Molly's as she senses something in the videos may be taking a hold on her.

That is where the analogy to found footage ends. We see the viewer's own perceptions and reaction as well as the narration on the videos. The chapters go back and fought, sometimes a little awkwardly, but it does rev up the tension of the story. You not only have a unreliable narrator but perhaps an unreliable video. It's a nice gimmick and one that works most of the way through. The idea communicates the changes in Molly's perceptions rather well which is really the meat of the story.

Overall a brief but entertaining read from a new writer who took some chances and made it work.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Four short novels by Joe Hill

Strange Weather

Joe Hill

Publisher: William Morrow

Pub Date: October 24, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

I believe I have read all the novels that Joe Hill has written and published. So I feel fairly secure in saying that he has a certain weakness that he shares with a particular relative. he is subject to long novels that tend to have too much filler.It is no coincidence that his best novel, Heart Shaped Box is also his first and shortest. In my opinion, last novel The Fireman was impressive but way too long for the plot. On the other hand, NOS4A2, was just as long and fantastic so what the hell do I know?

Here in Strange Weather we have four short novels. Novellas. I do not believe any goes over 200 pages. From the strength of this book, I would say novellas are something he might want to focus on more. Each one has the right length, stays on track and, for the most part, rocks and rolls. All of them has elements of horror although at least two are not technically a horror story and one has no supernatural elements. This would be a good book for the Joe Hill novice to wade in to see what he can do.

Let's go over all four.

Snapshots is a very clever supernatural thriller that involves a boy who meets a strange man with a strange camera. Without giving it away, it's a clever gimmick and Hill makes it works partially because the teenage boy is so believable in his vulnerabilities. It is the closest to a straight horror tale in this collection and is the closest to the type of story that the other relative made so famous. For those who remember the old Polaroid cameras, it will make you wonder a bit. Five stars.

Loaded is by far the best novella here. It is not so much a horror story as much as a topical suspense thriller. There is definitely a sociopolitical message here. It starts with the murder of an innocent boy by a policeman then moves some years into 2013 to pick up another situation is unnerving and unfortunately way too possible today. There is some really good development of characters for such a short novel and the ending is explosive. It makes me hope that the author writes some more non-supernatural suspense in the future. He certainly has the skills. Five Stars

Aloft is fantasy where a skydiver lands on a strange cloud and is held prisoner. It felt a little Lovecraftian to me although it really isn't. It has a nice imagery while describing this strange trans-formative cloud. Four stars.

Rain is the only one that lost me. It has a great starting idea for a world wide catastrophe but it simply didn't hold me. The usual well-define characters didn't make it here to this party. There appears to be a social allegory in this one too but I don't think it took hold as nearly well as the allegory took place in Loaded. But Hill can't write a bad story so three stars.

So seventeen stars altogether averages to 4.1 stars. But the first two stories are so good I'm going to say 4.5 stars easily. What is really important is that Joe Hill has delivered 4 quite different short novels and hit it out of the ball park twice, gave a solid effort on the third and...well most people loved that one so let just say I am in the minority. As I stated, this is a good beginning read to learn what the author can do. But if you, like me , just happen to love novellas then it is pretty much essential reading.

Friday, October 20, 2017

It's all about THAT neighbor

Kill Your Neighbor

Andersen Prunty


Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Pub Date: October 20, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


This Kindle exclusive piece of short fiction may be considered a bit of a fantasy. it's about dealing with THAT neighbor. You all know who THAT neighbor is. You've been there. Emma and Kip Dupree are on the track to the American dream. It may not be in the best neighborhood or exactly the house they wanted but it is a significant step up. But there is THAT neighbor with her two little yapping dogs (that is why I'm a cat person) who may be crazy and dangerous. Their dream quickly turns into a nightmare and their options are limited to none...legally.

Andersen Prunty's Kill Your Neighbor may be short but it packs a punch. We follow the Dupree's solution and learn about what led to that solution. There should be a "don't do this at home" sticker on this tale since it is both horrific and, for some who have been there, possibly cathartic. Either way, it is a tight and riveting example of the short story. There isn't much else I can say about this without giving it away so just spend that 99 cents and enjoy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Neighbor issues

Home is Where the Horror is

C. V. Hunt

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub. Date: MAY 12 , 2017

Rating: 5 out of  5 stars

C.V. Hunt's newest novelis both a step more into traditional horror and  a continuation of her existential examination of the frequently perverse human naturethat I expect from this dark but always substantial writer. In <i>Home is Where the Horror is</i>, struggling photographer Evan Lansing has just separated from his cheating girlfriend. He makes an agreement with his brother to move into their deceased mother's isolated cottage and do some renovation work on it in exchange for rent. As soon as he arrived strange events start to happen including his new habit of sleep-walking and a sudden cutting of his skin.  Then there are his neighbors, a man and his daughter who he suspects are having perverted and illegal interactions.

The first thing I realized about this novel by Hunt is that the main protectionist was actually close to likeable. it is not unusual for the main character in  a Hunt novel to be not so nice and downright repulsive sometimes. This is not to say Evan doesn't have his faults and shortcomings. Those shortcomings and past experiences  has much to sdo with where this story goes. But he is someone you actually root for. But the author makes up in the supporting cast with the two neighbor... and possibly a third?  There is a clear darkness of mood developing over what is a fairly ordinary person and this is what makes this novel by C. V a little more conventional. You can see a distinct separation and eventual conflict of good and evil.  There are still similarities to her past novels though. There are a lot of scenes of kink and perversion. It is shocking and meant to be shocking. Hunt writes some of the best sexual and body horror in the field although I hesitate to call it erotic. It's horror and it is definitely terrifying.

I always like a CV Hunt novel but this one really thrilled me because the of stronger horror elements standing on their own. I believe the horror fan who want his horror straight-up and scary will enjoy this providing he or she has a strong stomach for both gore and sexual kink.  It also has a slower but steady built-up which culminate in pure terror for the last third of the novel. But that  unrelenting darkness is still there and it is one of the thing that makes her worth reading, at least for this reader. It's a nice and ultimately essential horror read for the year.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An exploration of gender and acceptance


M. P. Johnson


Publisher: Lazy Fascist press

Pub. Date: September 17, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Some books you read because they give you an view to the human spirit that you may just not have had access to in any other way. Nails is that type of book. It is one of those books that, despite its sadness, actually celebrate our individuality in a world where some forms of celebrations are frowned upon. persecuted or even expressly forbidden. In Nails, our protagonist takes a weekend vacation to Los Angeles , far from anyone she knows, so she can be herself. Danielle, the pseudonym she takes for her weekend escape, is a man who only feels comfortable as a woman and dressed in women's clothes. But even then, she is aware and self-conscious how she is viewed and of the hazards that might befall her when out in public.

Danielle is obsessed with her nails. The acrylic, long, glorious, impractical kind. They become a symbol of her life and needs, a small allowance of the coming out she is not able to thoroughly do at this time. Many of her fears are real and as she chronicles her weekend she expresses and illustrate those fears. But there is always a want for acceptance and where she goes for that acceptance in the final pages may both shock and enlighten some of the readers. It becomes a moment of tearful sadness but also a small bit of hope.

Nails is presented as fiction but if it is, it is very likely autobiographical fiction, at the very least in the emotions and longings presented by the author if not the actual events. Beautiful and revealing writing like this can not stream from just the imagination. It takes a skillful acknowledged writer to present it and that is exactly what M. P. Johnson is and does. There is a scene in the middle of this too short work where she is at The House of Blues attending a show by The Damned when a young man comes up to her. It is a moment of mixed emotions for Danielle who is not sure whether the boy is simply fooled or accepting her for what she is. His advances are subtly and ultimately refused. Whatever possibilities existed disappears due to the power of that fear and doubt this book is so much about. For me, it was the most powerful moment in the book.

Books like this do not come around often. M. P. Johnson is known mostly for her bizarro fantasy novels but this is straight down to earth reality. It speaks not only of the want for other's acceptance but one's own acceptance of what they are and the reality that gender is not as necessarily defined as we think it is. Nails is way too short. M. P. Johnson clearly has much more to say and I believe she has a autobiographical novel or even a non-fiction work in her that will amaze us even more. Until then we have this brief revelation of a novella and it is one that I would deem essential reading for 2017.

Monday, October 9, 2017

An unsuccessful merge of cyber tech and demons

The Dark Net

Benjamin Percy

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Pubdate : August 1, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars 


 Let's talk about truth in advertising.

When I first looked at the title, It seemed pretty self-explanatory. The Dark Net. I am quite aware of what the Dark Net means in relation to the internet. The blurb at the back of the book didn't sway me any other way. My expectation was one of a William Gibson influenced tech thriller mixing the perils of cyber culture with the terrors of the supernatural. Now THAT would be a novel!

It was not meant to be. Whenever a disappointment like this happens, I am well aware that the expectation of the reader and the goal of the writer can misalign through no fault of the other. But this is where truth in advertising comes in. My expectation is indeed what appears to be the promise of the promotion . The Dark Net just isn't the cyber thriller it is touted to be, supernatural or otherwise.

So once we get that out of the way, what is The Dark Net? Basically it is a supernatural tale of demons, possessions and the gates of hell. Percy sets his story in Portland . How well he incorporates Portland I will leave to others more knowledgeable about the city to sort out. As for this reader, It doesn't really feel different than any other city asides from a few mentions of landmarks like Powell Books. The plot centers on the emergence of persons or devils with dark designs planning for evil around a place called The Rue that appears to be a conduit for such evil. A not-so-keen-on-computers reporter is honing in on the situation and becomes a target for the evil entourage. Add in an ex-evangelist homeless shelter manager, a mysterious woman who may have had one too many lives, and a blind girl who has gained some ability to see due to a surgical apparartus and is now seeing strange shadows and you have the basis for the action to follow.

The problem is I've seen this all before. There really isn't much that is new here for any book featuring demons, psychics, and gates of hell. The dark net gets a mention at the beginning of the book then becomes a minor player. Finally in the last 50 or so pages it goes into play but for this reader it is too late. This may have worked if there were more involving characters but except for Hannah the blind girl we just don't get enough to care much about the rest. Hannah is the most interesting character but she seems to have been borrowed from a few other known horror epics and we do not get enough originality in her character to separate her from the slew of psychically gifted adolescents which have already graced the pages of many supernatural stories. I found Hannah's aunt Lela rather annoying as an aggressive reporter who is hopelessly incompetent with anything to do with the internet or computers. Luddite journalists may have worked in the 90s but not in the 21st century.

There are some nice moments and some good ideas here but they do not come together and eventually blend into the formulaic. it appears we will still have to wait for the successful marriage of Gibson-esque tech thriller and supernatural horror epic .

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I see a full moon rising

Full Wolf Moon

Lincoln Child


Publisher: Doubleday

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Lincoln Child, along with his partner in crime Douglas Preston, has a pretty good gig going for them. They specialize in the not-so-supernatural thriller. In most cases , and especially with the Pendergrast series, this involves a mystery of seemingly supernatural origins but ends up being something from the natural, albeit the very imaginative and slightly farfetched natural. These Scooby-doo books, as I irrelevantly like to call them, are fun to read but I tend to go more for the supernatural scare rather than the manufactured natural one. However they are great summer reads or, on the other side of the seasons, fireside reads.

When Lincoln Child is writing solo, he likes to keep a good thing going. His protagonist is Jeremy Logan who calls himself a enigmalogist which is "an investigator who specializes in analyzing unnatural phenomena with no obvious scientific or rational explanation." As one may surmise from the title of this fifth installment of the Logan series, Full Wolf Moon is centered on the theme of lycanthropy. In the Adirondack Mountains, two hikers has been found dead with their corpses ripped apart, both having happened on different full moons. Logan is attending an artist and scholar retreat when his college friend who is now a ranger in the area asks him to investigate the deaths. The official explanation is a rogue bear or wolf, but the timing of the killings suggest another explanation and the strange seclusive family that lives in the woods seem to be the town residents' favorite suspect.

While Full Wolf Moon has a good sense of suspense and scares , it is more mystery and science fiction then horror and certainly not supernatural. As with Child's other books, there will be an explanation. Getting there is where the fun is . Child brings together some interesting science into the story that I suspect carries a good mix of fact and fiction. I think I prefer Child solo as compared to the Pendergrast series Preston & Child are known for. Mostly because Jeremy Logan is more accessible . He seem to be the professor next door type while Pendergrast is fairly foreboding. The pace and formula though is pretty much the same. These are light reads. This particular book is fairly predictable and feeds you a good amount of red herrings before the final reveal. I would recommend this more for the mystery fan than the horror aficionado. It may not take you into any new territory but if you read it you probably know what to expect and won't be disappointed.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

It came from the paperback rack

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction

Grady Hendrix

Publisher: Quirk Books

Pub. Date: September 19, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If there was a golden age for horror fiction, it was in the 70s and 80s. There were certainly great and memorable horror fiction being written and published before that but it was the 70s when the publishing companies took notice and started to hype it as its own particular, and eventually profitable, niche. Before the 70s, most horror was delegated into the gothic romance section and, surprisingly to some I will surmise, labelled as women’s fiction. As Grady Hendrix points out in his excellent and constantly entertaining Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction the onslaught of horror can thank the stunning success of three novels from the late sixties and early seventies; Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, The Other by Thomas Tryon, and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Of course, Stephen King would have a thing or two to say about all this but he was just the pinnacle in a coming horror cavalcade.

Before I start reviewing Paperbacks from Hell, I want to add my own personal recollection. I was introduced to horror via the movie Frankenstein at 6 years old thanks to a rather negligent babysitter who, unknown to my parents, allowed me to stay up way after my bed time and watch it with her. That was the beginning of my horror obsession. As a young teen the EC comics, also banned in my household, was really the only pure horror in print I could sneak out and find. My main source of scares and thrills was the paperback Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology series (35 cents a pop) which would publish and reissue some pretty good and classic horror among its usual array of mystery and suspense fiction. This was my introduction to a number of classic horror writers including Bradbury, Bloch, Beaumont and others, not to mention the short story that Hitchcock later adopted for a film titled “The Birds” by Daphne DuMaurier. It was about the time of the horror trifecta of novels mentioned above that I began to discover paperbacks with wonderfully lurid covers that promise me more terrifying thrills than I was previously led to believe existed. So I grew up during this wonderful splurge in horror novels. I am both proud and embarrassed that I read an alarmingly large amount of the novels mentioned and illustrated in Hendrix’s book when they came out. I am sorry to say I missed the Nazi leprechaun one though. Whether I am the better or worse for reading so many of these books will depend on who you ask but it certainly kick-started my imagination and I for one will say I am the better for it.

Paperbacks from Hell chronicles the rise and fall of this publishing phenomena with much wit and glee. The book itself is gorgeous with its very generous photos of covers and illustrations from many of these books. Personally, it is my idea of the perfect coffee table book simply based on appearance. However, it is what is communicated between the pages that is important and Hendrix covers both the history and excitement of the era. He writes about the good and the silly.. He knows about the literary importance of some of the novels as well as the excesses. It is all written with a childish enthusiasm and more than a little humor. For instance, when he writes about the onslaught of demon spawn stories he offers some sage advice…

“But how do I know if the man I’m dating is the devil?” I hear you ask. Here are some warning signs learned from Seeds of Evil. Does he refuse to use contractions when he speak? Does he deliver pickup lines like, “You live on the edge of darkness.”? When nude, is his body the most beautiful male form you have ever seen, but possessed of a penis that’s either monstrously enormous, double headed, has glowing yellow eyes, or all three? After intercourse does he laugh malevolently, urinate on your mattress, and then disappear? If you spot any of these behaviors, chances are you went on a date with Satan. Or an alien.

Once Hendrix gives you the background for the rise of the horror genre in the 70s and 80s, Hendrix separates his chapter into the main themes presented in the novels: Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, and four other intriguing subjects. This is where the fun really begins. He singles out the most representative of the writers and the books of that theme as well as his reaction. I was pleased with many of the authors I read during that time getting recognition, both famous and infamous, but there were plenty of writers I was not familiar with and whose books have been mainly lost in the shuffle . (Where has Brian McNaughton been all my life?) Whether being lost in the shuffle is rightly or wrongly so, Hendrix usually has an opinion on it but it does makes me want to get out there and hunt a few of these lost treasures down. One thing I really like is Hendrix doesn’t try to pretend these are all classic. Many he speaks of with befuddled amusement. He is particularly scathing when dealing with the Amityville Horror book series. Yet he does not ignore some of the real gems of this era. I am glad he mentioned three of my favorite and often recommended books by me; The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons, The Auctioneer by Joan Sampson, and Maynard’s Cabin by Herman Rauch. All three of these were one-time horror novels written by writers of other genres, But they are seminal works in the horror field and attest to the power of this golden age that these established authors were persuaded to tackle the disciplines of the horror novel and do so quite effectively.

And oh those photos! It represents the horror paperback in all its glory. Even if one does not read this book, which would be a damn shame, there are enough glorious covers complete with lurid subject matter and creepy stuff to fulfill anyone’s desire of the need for the same. The covers get as much attention as the novels themselves. Hendrix pays attention to the repeating themes and their attempt to attract certain readers. Skeletons, devils, Nazi leprechauns, scared females scantily dressed and running down a corridor. They are all there.

I can only think of one book that is even close to doing this topic justice and that is Danse Macabre by Stephen King. But King wrote it in 1981 and was too close to the material to do it justice. Hendrix uses the eyes of both a fan and a historian, pointing out the good with the bad and setting it firmly in the perspectives of other events going on during the time. The reign of the horror paperback begun to wane in the 90s and although horror boundaries are still being challenged, there has been no time since then when that the horror market was inundated with so much quantity and, arguably, quality. Many of the important horror writers that are active today first started their career during these golden years. There was Ramsey Campbell, David Schow and so many others. One can say it was essentially their apprenticeship.

This is a seminal work for a part of literature that has been unjustly ignored. The lows and highs are addressed here but it is hard to understate how much these lurid paperbacks contributed to the ongoing interest in horror today that we see in mainstream movies, TV and of course literature. You are not going to get this information in any more delightfully entertaining way so please lurk to your bookstore and order this. There are lots of demon children, killer rabbits, and splatterpunk villains in the pages ready to tempted you into a thrift store book hunting spree once you finish it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Small revelations

Mud Season

Justin Grimbol


Publisher: Atlatl Press

Pub Date: June 15, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


I remember reading another novel by Justin Grimbol a few years ago. i remember being impressed by his mastery of words and his deceptively casual style of writing. I also remember not being bowled over by the plot or lack of plot. The book came across as aimless and more than a little a little mundane. Perhaps I couldn't get into a character with no goals and equally goalless friends. So now i sit here having read his new book Mud Season and wondering whether in the past three years did the author mature or did I? I'm going to bet on the fact that perhaps the author, or at least his character, did since I am 66 and probably am not going to mature much more in the years I have left even if I haven't matured all that much anyways. In fact I am placing a moratorium on maturing. No more maturing!

Actually, to be a little more serious, It might be the theme . Mud Season is a novel about a year of marriage. Justin Grimbol's perennial character is named Grimboli. which pretty much says all you need to know about whether there might be a autobiographical tendency. Our perennial character Grimboli has certainly matured. He is now married. Reality has changed for him. Life is an endless cornucopia of experiences and surprises. Mud Season is a series of short chapters, rarely over a page or two and many just one paragraph, that chronicles the narrator and his wife's transition through the seasons of the year. If you are looking for a solid plot, look elsewhere. That is not the author's style. But if you are looking for an examination of life and emotions that exist in our own mundane world then you are in a gold mine. It is those in-the-moment observations that work here. Grimboli's random thoughts become connected in this work in a way that was missing in his previous book and it leads to small revelations for the reader. Grimboli's smind is all over the place but always right there with you leading to paragraphs like this...
Thank heaven for jokes. I love jokes so much. They are better than prayers, really. Better than church, often. Jokes and laughter. Jesus should have turned water into jokes. Not wine.
The characters laugh a lot in this book, especially Grimboli's wife. It is not that the laughter that is communicated so well but rather the narrator's appreciation of it. This is a book about interactions whether it is with his wife or the neighborhood children who annoy him. Our reward is to eavesdrop on his life and enjoy this different perspective.

Mud Season is a fast and easy read. I can see some readers wondering what the point is. However sensation by sensation it comes together. It is mystifying, spontaneous, but overall entertaining. Which leads me to the question, "IS there a point?". This time I think there is and our narrator may have hit upon it...

Grimboli, we are still stuck," He said

"Good point," I said. "But I'm sure we will get out eventually."

"I hope so," He said.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Horrors in the modern American west

In The Valley of the Sun

Andy Davidson

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Pub. Date: June 6, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is inevitable, when one writes a dark novel about the contemporary west , he is going to be compared to Cormac McCarthy especially when the novel is steeped in literary prose. It makes sense since McCarthy is both very literary and usually quite dark. But in reviewing this particular work, I'm going to mention another name. Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show is the other modern master of the western novel. In my eyes, his novels, especially those of the contemporary west, are more sensitive to the changes in the west to the family, the decline in optimism and lifestyle, and a shrewder if cynical exploration of relationships and dreams, especially those dreams which may have missed their chance and long passed.

On reading In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson I see more McMurtry than McCarthy. Davidson's very literary horror novel may be much darker than anything McMurtry wrote but there is still the sense of the struggle and hope of people in the forgotten parts of the West. That struggle and hope rings through with the characters of this excellent novel (all but one to be precise) even if the final result is not what they or you would like it to be.

Travis Stillwell is a man haunted by his past and acting on his past in an horrific manner. In the Fall of 1980, he leaves a chain of murders which catches the attention of a Texas law officer who begins hunting for him. In a West Texas bar he meets a woman named Rue who has her own designs on him, attracted to him by sensing he has an evil past and can be as evil and corrupt as she is. When Travis wakes up the next morning he is changed, He has a hunger that regular food does not fulfill and an allergy to sunlight. He finds his camper truck in back of a restaurant and shut down motel that he does not remember pulling into. Annnabelle, the widowed proprietor of the barely surviving restaurant has pity on him and offers odd jobs to pay for his stay. Travis , Annabelle and her son Sandy start a odd and tenuous relationship that is in direct conflict with what he is becoming and the hold Rue has on him.

I might has well say it and get it over with. This is a vampire novel. But it is far from any vampire novel that you may have read before. The form of the vampire and the nature the transformation makes this fairly different but the psychological horror aspect takes center stage and we become immersed in Travis' dilemma. He is transformed at the same time he is offered something that may be his way out of his murderous addiction and senseless searching. Annabelle has similar concerns, caring for a child by herself, still grieving the death of her husband and fearful to move on. Annebelle is tied down to many social and psychological restrictions too. "Men have dreams. Women have secrets" she says. Both see a possibility through each other to break the chain but hovering over this hope is Rue who needs Travis to fulfill her own demonic goals in a symbiotic relationship with Travis that is dependent on his feeding and her enslavement of him.

So what we have is a horror novel but one that touches upon more than just vampires and visceral horror even though much of what we get of that is truly frightening. If one is looking for Salem's Lot or Interview with a Vampire, they will probably be disappointed. Setting it in the West Texas of 1980 is an inspiration, before the advent of the internet and when these small Texas towns still had a sense of isolation and the sense that their best days were behind them. I can see those readers into the modern western dramas of McMurtry and McCarthy really getting into this but those who are into horror and vampires will also like the unique take of a well-traveled horror genre. I cannot see anyone not being moved by the ending of this novel and I can only give it my highest recommendation.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A gnostic sci-fi novella

Beyond the Great, Bloody, Bruised, and Silent Veil of this World

Jordan Krall

Publisher: Journalstone (Bizarro Pulp Press)

Pub Date: April 22, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Once again, I end up with a novel that astounds me with its almost poetic style, the intricacy of characters and plot and the fine tapestry it weaves only to end up saying, "WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ?"

It isn't that I didn't understand it. Well, actually it is that I didn't understand it. However I doubt the author meant to pull it all together just to make me think I was clever enough to get it. I think Jordan Krall delights in mystifying his audience as long as he makes them think, which is exactly what happens in Beyond the Great, Bloody, Bruised and Silent Veil of this World. It starts with a man named Barry on a "train" to Mars. Here is where I start to lose it. As i read, I often wonder if Barry is one person, multiple persons, or a fiction within a fiction.. Mars itself become a intriguing mess. It seems to be a hive of outcasts, corporate stooges, drug advocates, and perhaps a messiah. There are terrorists with bombs but so do corporate entities have bombs which they may be using in their own seditious ways. I think. You think a book with Patterson-like short chapters would be easy to decipher but we get it in so many perspectives and those perspectives become so entwined with another, it just revs up the imagination even more. It makes me yearn for the relatively simple worlds of Phillip K. Dick and Valis.

The author calls it as "A gnostic SF novella epic" which is as accurate a description I can give. It also tunes into many of the thing this novella does have in common with Phillip K. Dick. That includes a rather mystical outlook and a possibly unreliable description of the world we are visiting. Part of the book involves Yesu and Galileans that will certainly provoke theological inclinations. Yet it all becomes part of the jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces that is this book.

Does it wrap up at the end? Actually it does but in a way that will send you back to read it a second or third time. I read it again. I recommend one reads it twice to get the nuances and twists that happen. But if you are looking for a book that does wrap everything in a bow, you are turning the wrong pages.

So why do I recommend it? For the same reason one may attempt to read Ulysses for the mind boggling trip it sends you on. Now mind you, I'm not comparing Beyond to Ulysses.. That would be silly. For one thing, you will actually finish Beyond. Another, you will want to read it again. I mean, how many people want to even be near the first page of Ulysses after struggling through it? Beyond is a fast and glorious read trapping the reader in its puzzles. Will you understand it? Probably not. Will you read it again to try to understand it? Absolutely. Will you love the act of a master word juggler? I'll bet positive on that one too. For all that, regardless how you decipher the plot, this book with the ridiculously long title gets four stars.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Tobe Hooper's forgotten novel

Midnight Movie

Tobe Hooper

Publisher: Three Rivers Press

Pub Date: July 12, 2011

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

(Horror movie director Tobe Hooper passed away on August 26th of 2017. He will always remembered for his horror films especially The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But few realize that he did write one novel, Midnight Movie. This is the review I wrote back in 2011 for the novel which has been unjustly forgotten. Consider it my humble tribute to the movie director.)

Midnight Movie is a glorious mess. It is the most fun I've had reading a horror novel since the equally gloriously messy DRACULAS. It has also renewed my faith in the idea that a movie director can write a novel that is the equal to his talent in film writing and directing.

Of course, some of you snobs may not think that is not so impressive considering the director. Tobe Hooper may not receive the accolades of a Hitchcock or a Cronenberg but he is always imaginative and exuberant even in the least of his films. That comes through in his debut novel where he casts himself in the lead role and presents an intriguing premise. Hooper's first movie, which he made when he was fifteen years old, is debuted at Austin's SXSW festival. The movie is amazingly bad yet Hooper remembers nothing about it. Those who attend the showing are infected with something that causes rampant violence, zombies, and a strange venereal disease that gives a whole new meaning to the term "blueblood".

The first part of the novel deals with the screening. The author is having a lot of fun depicting himself with self-deprecating humor and manages to take a lot of good-natured potshots at Hollywood and his fans. Yet when the after-affects of the screening develops, this is where it gets wonderfully messy. It is almost a kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink form of mayhem with plenty of Ewww! moments. The book is presented in a documentary style; half oral history and half epistemological novel, if e-mail and blog posts can be considered epistemological. The violence may be over the top for some, but I doubt if anyone would expect less from the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The last part of the novel deals with how Hooper and his band of Texas and Hollywood misfits discover the cause of the zombie outbreak and how to deal with it. I found the ending a bit disappointing but getting there was so much fun I didn't mind too much. Overall it was a fun exercise in comedic horror but the most memorable thing was discovering that a talented artist like Tobe Hooper isn't afraid to poke a little fun at himself and his craft.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Of Freud and Grimm

Cartoons in the Suicide Forest

Leza Cantoral

Publisher: Journalstone (Bizarro Pulp Press) 

Pub. Date: December 12, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


 Let's take a little test.

"I feel dazed and hollowed to my core like someone took a melon baller to my soul. I am awake and I want to see the tangerine dream bleeding on the trees outside. I rub my eyes and look around to my melting lashes at all the drunken looking babies glittering in yesterday's glamour, drool caked on their painted tips, eyeliner smudged over raccoon eyes. Party animals snoring off yesterday's cocaine apocalypse."

How does that make you feel?

Are the words still swarming in your brain overpowering the senses. Is your head in the sand trying to forget it? Do you feel suddenly depressed and don't know why. Or are you swooning with delight over the emotional beauty of the paragraph?

The correct answer is any of them or more.

Leza Cantoral swings a powerhouse of a pen, so to speak. The above paragraph is typical of her gift of description but it is also one of the milder ones I could present. Cartoons in the Suicide Forest is a collection of twelve short stories of intense emotions, vivid imagery interplay, and disturbing imagination switch between fairy tale innocence and physical/psychological horror.. Some read like nightmares and others like psychedelic trips. In fact, I suspect one possibly autobiographically based piece of fiction was a psychedelic trip. To say the author's stories are full of sexual tension is like saying a rattlesnake bite tickles a little.

The twelve stories vary in type but all are loaded with emotional intensity. They all have a certain bleakness disguised in sensational imagery yet hints at experiences we all may have had at one point or another. The title story is typical, a coming of age tale wrapped in a Freudian Grimm fantasy of gruesome proportions. "Siberian Honeymoon" is one of the more straightforward horror tales with a dystopic political theme and a feline bent. "Beast" is a version of Beauty and the Beast that you will not see remade by Disney. I'm not sure even Cocteau would have touched it. I must say I get a twisted kick out of "Green Lotus " as it satirizes the new age holistic fads that keep popping up.

And that is just the first four works. Every tale has its surprises. There is much of the fairy tale in her writing but used in a way you may of not imagined. "Star Power" combined sexual exploitation with a weird archtype fantasy of the inanimate becoming animated. The last work, "Planet Mermaid" Is a deconstruction of a Hans Christian Anderson story complete with intense violence and a science fiction lean. Then there is "Suicide Pigs." I do not recommend you read it but you will and you won't forget it.

Suicide seems to be a returning theme here. So is the first sexual experience and the physical changes in growing up. Some of this qualifies as body horror. All of it is surreal or borders on it. Like many of the Bizarro Pulp Press writers , Leza seems to be a poet trapped in prose, at least for the duration of this book. Something tells me her poetry rocks too. But for now, this short collection will probably have enough emotion and intensity to hold you for a little while.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Science fiction darkness

The Darklights

Michaelbrent Collings

Publisher: Michaelbent Collings

Pub. Date: June 6, 2017

Ratings: 4 out of 5 stars

The life of a professional mass murderer can get complicated.

Gerrold is a Fixit. He is the utmost in problem solvers for The Company. The Company is the most powerful organization in the universe with only one real goal: to be profitable. If anyone gets in their way, they send a fixit to resolve the issue in the most extreme way imaginable. Thousands of lives and entire planets have been destroyed by fixits. For Gerrold  ,it is his job and he does it better than any fixit in history. The only real emotional attachments he has are his wife, his children, and his work partner, Alan. Those attachments are about to fall apart.

TF-653 is a planet that is in the process of being terraformed. The planet has something about it that is impossible by any known physical means. The crew of the terraforming station has disappeared and all communication has been lost.  It is up to Gerrold to go to the planet, find out what happened, repair the problem and destroy whatever is getting in the way of The Company’s goals. For Gerrold, the path of getting there and being there ends up to be the ultimate nightmare.

The Darklights is a science fiction horror novel. The world that Michelbrent Collings has set up is fairly horrific to begin with. It is an extreme dystopia where profit to The Company is the only goal and the people are expendable if they get in the way of that goal. Fixits are the ultimate hitmen, so powerful and invulnerable that they can take whatever they want and kill whoever they want yet are totally subservient to the Company. We are repulsed by Gerrold yet it is to the author strength that we begin to feel for him if not understand him, even as he takes actions that seem extreme  for the offense in both professional and personal matters. The author does an interesting sleight of hand in presenting two alternating first person narratives both in Gerrold’s perspective , one titled “Then” and the Other ”Now” . “Now” gives us the narration of what is happening on Gerrold’s mission to the terraform station.  “Then” tells us about his past and the events leading to the mission. They move seamlessly helped by a clever ploy where the last sentence of one narrative chapter flows into the first sentence of the next narrative chapter. It’s a neat little trick that not only moves the action effortlessly but feels like the ebb and flow of the narrator’s mind as he battles with past and present.

Collings effortlessly blends his science fiction and horror elements but there is also a Lovecraftian feel that becomes evident as we learn more about the phenomena on the planet. This is one of those books that it is best to not give away too much but one of the ways it works is that the author has already creates a horror of a universe due to the human element  only to heighten that horror with a little Lovecraftian supernatural. What really makes this works though is the character of Gerrold. Whether we can become involved in the plot turns on whether we can get into the emotions of a murderous monster and the author manages to pull that off. We may not like him but we understand the twisted emotions and actions that lead to the climax of this roller coaster novel.
The Darklights does both the science fiction and horror elements well. The ending is a bit wild but makes sense in Collings’ strange universe. If one is looking for a tense read of science fiction darkness, this should be first on your to-read list.