Monday, April 17, 2017

Abduction and survival

Doll House

By John Hunt


Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Pub. Date: January 19, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

 Suspense novels that deal with abduction, torture, and rape have a fine line to tread. The good ones must shock and scare but not cross over the line into gratuitousness. At the beginning of the novel I worried Doll House would do just that. It is certainly shocking and gruesome but John Hunt manages something quite impressive. The gory descriptions of violence do manage to shock but they also serve to strengthen the character and her resolve to overcome her ordeal. Doll House eventually becomes a story of bravery and perseverance.

We meet Olivia and her father on the first page They are likeable and admirable people. Olivia is headed to college yet almost immediately she is abducted. That sets up the nightmare and the reader is thrown into a whirlwind of violence and terror. The author does a brilliant bit of paradox as Olivia is imprisoned in a room that is almost all pink. It's like a pretty doll house which is the farthest thing to that which she will be subjected to. That contradiction nicely serves to disorient the reader to the emotions and actions that will follow.

If this nightmare continued through the entire book it just may be too much for most people. Fortunately , through incidents that will remain unspoken to prevent spoilers, we do get a reprieve from the horrors. That does not mean the tension is over. The suspense is still carried on by Hunt's excellent storytelling skills and the book becomes more of a mystery and a portrayal of physical and emotional survival. But what keeps this tale so riveting is the relationship between the characters. Olivia and her father is the linchpin but even seemingly less important interactions like that of the victims (Yes, there's more than one victim. I'll let that little teaser out!) and even the interaction between the kidnapper are important.

A good horror-suspense tale to some extent must make the reader uncomfortable. It is about those things you do not want to experience in real life. Horror and suspense are indeed cathartic. Hunt packs a huge punch in this book, teetering over the boundary sometimes perhaps, but redeems himself by making the protagonist of the novel someone you cannot help but root for. Doll House is the first great suspense novel I've read this year.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A House is not a home

Liquid Status

By Bradley Sands


Publisher: Rooster Republic Press 

Pub. date: February 23, 2017

 Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

 Bradley Sands' previous books are bizarro with a strong touch of comic madness. They made sense and yet they didn't and that was fine because that was the joy of the ride. Yet the author's works to me seemed to want to be a bit more than that at times. He packs a good sense of surrealism and Dada right next to the humor. His new novella Liquid Status appears a lot more serious, breaking partially free of that comic feel that I both admired yet felt it perhaps limited his potential. In 76 pages, the potential becomes gloriously limitless.

Liquid Status starts with the death of a grandmother. The family is not given a name except for Mom, Dad, and the sons Paul and Matt. We are immediately told that the family has rules mostly originating from Mom. Yet when Grandma, as we know her, dies not only are the rules of the family dissolved but also the rules of nature and physics. We are introduced to the impossible. The family is thrown into isolation from the outlying world and trapped in the house. The front door disappears. Matt becomes a cardboard box. Bodies change consciousness. And on and on as the impossible becomes possible and randomness looks for a meaning.

What is this all about? At times it feels like stream of consciousness but I suspect it all has some form of structure and meaning to the author. A rigid family is thrown into chaos. Their horror is in the lack of control and alienation from their once meaningful world. House and family are becoming inseparable in both a physical and a emotional sense. For a short novella, there is a lot packed into these pages

As much as I loved the author's previous books there seems to be a maturing here. There is still humor but the humor is both dark and more intimate. Liquid Status may seem weird to the unsuspecting reader but it is a joy to read, massaging the intellect and baffling the imagination on every page. This comes with a high recommendation even if you may like your fiction a bit more grounded in mundane reality.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The evil within

Exorcist Falls

 By Jonathan Janz


Publisher: Sinister Grin Pres

Pub. Date: March 15, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


This publication of Exorcist Falls is actually two books. It starts with the previously published novella Exorcist Road and continues with the longer original novel Exorcist Falls. But they should be read as one book as Exorcist Falls starts two nights later and continues the suspense and horror already pouring out of the first work.

And when I say “Pouring” I mean a torrential downpour. The book gets right to the point on page one and doesn’t let up. We meet Father Jason Crowder as his friend and parishioner Danny Hartmann asks him to go to his brother’s house on a late raining night. Ron Hartman’s fourteen year old son Casey has attacked his family. Normally a priest wouldn’t be needed for such a problem but Casey is doing more than being violent. There is a serial killer loose and Casey is talking about things only the serial killer would know. Casey may be the Sweet Sixteen Serial Killer.

From here the novella and novel escalates into a dizzying combination of demonic possession horror and supernatural mystery. Is Casey possessed? Is he really the serial killer? The first question is answered quickly as Father Crowder calls in his mentor Father Sutherland and they prepare for the exorcism. The second question gets more interesting as red herrings and accusations fly constantly. Of course demons never make anything easy.


The first novella, Exorcist Road, takes place during the night of the exorcism and there is a clear ending in which we find out much about the possession and the murders. The title novel, as previously stated, starts two nights later. The problem is that any description of its plot will spoil portions of the novella so it is enough to say that the flow of the action blends seamlessly. Father Crowder is battling both demon and serial killer while fearing for both his body and soul. There are more clever turns all the way to the end.

I find exorcism thrillers to be a curious breed of horror novel. They focus on the most intimate of fears. The evil inside us. To some extent, they are comforting. Our dark secrets can be blamed on the supernatural, the demon inside us. If only it was that easy. Jonathan Janz gives us a turn by dealing with both horrors, that of the supernatural and that which is our own choosing, and suggests that maybe they are not all that separable. He does this in a tight well-structured plot and with a sharp eye for action and dialogue. If the action feels a bit too forced at times with its many twists and coincidences, it is easy to forgive when one’s words flow so easily on the pages. Exorcist Falls is a riveting horror thriller about supernatural horrors but and also the more mundane horrors of the human condition.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Killer Flowers

Crawlers

By Ray Garton


Publisher: RGB Publishing

Pub. Date: October 26, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Flowers that kill. I've read a few science fiction books with a plot centering on such a contrary idea. The most famous novel of this variety has to be Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham although it is a toss up whether the real nightmare in the book is man eating plants, stumbling blindly (literally) through the apocalypse, or listening to long winded lectures about how to deal with these dilemmas.

In Ray Garton's novella Crawlers, you don't have to worry about making such choices. It's killer flowers all the way down. In Mount Crag, it is the morning after a meteor shower and the townspeople wake up to burnt spots on the ground with unusual flowers growing out of them . They are all over town and at first they are simply a curiosity, looking more artificial than real. But it doesn't take long for the plants to show a more sinister side. Crawling attacking flowers with a terrible side effect becomes the order of the day.

Like I said. It's fun and seems more like the old science fiction horror films of the 60s and 70s. In fact, the author acknowledges this in his foreword. The consensus is that this is a quick read that excels in entertaining and has more than a few thrills. Like anything by Garton, it is well written and delivers. It appears Mount Crag is a setting for a few of Garton's tales so I wouldn't advise moving there in the near future. Just enjoy this horror adventure and smell the roses while you can.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Joys of short fiction!

The Man in the Palace Theater

 By Ray Garton

 

Publisher:  RGB Publishing 

Pub Date: June 29, 2012

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

One of the nice developments in Kindle reading is its suitability for singly distributed short fiction. Before eBooks, if one wanted to read a recommended short story, one had to hunt down or borrow the magazine it was published in or find a collection with that particular story. The only exception was publications of chapbooks, a small limited printing of that one short work which was usually sold to collectors for a pretty price and rarely becoming accessible to the casual readers. But with the advent of the Kindle ebooks, and Amazon's strange but effective distribution system it is simple to distribute a work of short fiction for a nominal charge, usually being one or two dollars. This theoretically enables many to read a brief essay or short fiction piece that would be hard to find otherwise and/or simply forgotten.

The Man in the Palace Theater by Ray Garton is a good example of this. It was published originally as a limited edition chapbook. However it can now be had as an Kindle eBook for pocket change, 99 cents at last glimpse, and worth every penny even at the equivalence of 20 plus pages. In the short tale, John Bellows has been missing for a while but shows up unexpectedly at his friend's work. He convince her to go with him to see something he says is amazing. She reluctantly follows him, knowing he has been through a number of problems and is concerned for his physical and mental health. He takes her to an old abandoned theater, the Palace Theater of the tale's title. What he expects her to see and what happens makes up for the rest of the story.

And therein lies the gist of this short tale. It is difficult to explain any more without giving it away. But like many horror stories, there is a great deal of psychological tension in it. John is indeed a man of many misfortunes. Has the effects of his misfortunes led to the events that take place? This is one of those stories where it is not always certain what is supernatural and that is psychological. In fact, can they always be separated? I would submit, after reading this story, that what is supernatural is not necessarily the biggest horror.

If you haven't discover the joy of obtaining single short fiction on your kindle, this would be a great piece to start with. Ray Garton is an established writer with an impressive literary resume. His Live Girls is my pick for one of the best, and possibly the most underrated, vampire novels in decades. This short work, even in its brevity, shows many of the skills which makes Garton an author worth reading. Give it a try. For 99 cents, It's a steal.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Werewolves in New Orleans

The Wild Harmonic

By Beth W. Patterson


Publisher: Hidden World Books

Pub Date: November1, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Birch “Buzz” MacKinley is a musician playing bass at the many music venues in New Orleans. Due to her troubled past and a closely guarded secret, she finds herself usually alone and trusting of few until she meets Rowan and his fellow musicians. She discovers she is not the only werewolf in town. In fact, there are many different forms of shapeshifters in existence living in a world and culture she never knew before. She also finds there is a growing danger around her and her new friends that exists side by side with her new companions.

In The Wild Harmonic, author Beth W. Patterson has created a rather different society of werewolves than we may be familiar with. In Patterson’s society of shapeshifters, werewolves tend to be especially good in particular careers like music and the helping professions. One of Buzz’s lycanthropic companions is a nun. But Buzz is particularly drawn to a pack that is into music and that is where this story gets its strengths. A musician herself, the author has a deep understanding of the power of music. Music is often involved in rituals seeking higher realms of existence and, in this novel, Patterson combines the two to create a rather unique combination of tune and growl so to speak. Without disparaging any of the author’s seemingly considerable skills, I think it is safe to say Patterson is a musician who writes rather than a writer who plays music. Her expertise and love for the music comes out that strong in both her writing style and her descriptions of the characters.

This is an interesting take on the werewolf tale with some rather intriguing complications. Rowan’s pack is only part of a bigger scenario. There is a danger lurking as shapeshifters disappear or are found dead. While Buzz is slowly becoming able to trust her pack mates, she discovers that not everyone who is a werewolf or another type of shapeshifter is on the same side. Hence, we have the conflict that moves the plot along.

Two things make The Wild Harmonic work, the hidden culture and society of the shapeshifters which I have already mentioned and the alternately fragile and strong character of Buzz. She is indeed shown as fragile at the beginning, isolated but grounded in her music. Then she meets Rowan. Glimpses of a paranormal romance show up and Buzz spends a lot of time pining over what may be unattainable. But Buzz becomes strong on her own and how that happens is an essential part of the story. It is not lost on me that Buzz is a bass player. Anyone who has worked as a musician and played in a substantial number of bands (raises hand) know that the bassist is the soul and anchor of a group and that was not lost on me as I discovered how the character of Buzz develops.

So we have a novel that is one part fantasy epic and one part paranormal romance with neither drowning out the other. But for me there is something missing. The horror is missing. While we have werewolves, other shapeshifters, and a looming threat, the tension seem to be missing. So much of the story is in setting up the culture and the musical and philosophical tones that we lose the horror. When we finally come in contact with the threat it is too late to regain it and, frankly, it is a little cartoonish and predictable for my taste. I wanted more old scares and less New Age. But what is there is quite substantial and entertaining. It is still a smart fantasy that will please most readers. Even though it is a standalone novel I think we may see Buzz again if the author has her way.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Gives a new meaning to "frozen with fear"

The Winter Over

By Matthew Iden

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer 

Pub. Date: February 1, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

  The first thing I recommend if you plan to read The Winter Over by Matthew Iden, is to turn your thermostat up. You are bound to feel more chilled than usual as you read this mystery/adventure novel set in the nine month long winter of Antarctica. The biggest strength of Iden's thriller is how he makes the dark and cold Antarctic environment and the seclusion of those inhabiting a research station come alive. The detail he puts in describing the compound and all the work needed to keep something like that operating is quite impressive. And they become very important details as we continue reading.

Cassie is a new worker at the Shackleton station. She is a hired as a vehicle mechanic but takes on a number of tasks in the station as many of the maintenance workers do. There is a bit of a class chasm between maintenance crew and scientists but the station keeps operating well despite of it. The long winter is about to start and the overall staff has been cut down to about 40 to keep the station going throughout the dark months and the well under freezing temperatures. The last plane is about to leave and there will be no way to leave the station after that. It's a yearly event which no one worries too much about except there is a seemingly accidental death just days before the last plane leaves. Cassie discovers some things to make her wonder about that death but it is not until well into the dark and cold isolation that she starts to put it all together.

I'm tempted to be corny and say, "But is it too late?" but won't because I think you get the idea. This is one of those stories that benefit from the reader knowing little about it before they dive into the pages. In basic plot ideas, The Winter Over is essentially one of those mysteries in which a finite number of people are trapped and you are wondering if any will make it out. But there are quite a few differences in this particular "And Then There Were None" scenario, of which many would make Agatha Christie envious. Iden spends a lot of time setting the scene well through half of the book. This leads a number of readers to call the book slow but I would rather call it " well planned". It isn't a case of "nothing happened" as much as a lot of little things are happening. Sooner or later though, all of frozen hell breaks out and it all makes sense. Lots of hints are scattered about and I suspect the savvy mystery buff will figure it out by the halfway point. Yet it is a very satisfying mystery that is weaved around a tight and well conceived setting. Like i said. Keep that thermostat up.

Many might consider this novel typical of a summer read and if you live in the desert like i do, it would probably a wise one when the temperature gauge hits 12oF.. But it's early in the year so let's call this a winter read perfect for around the fireplace. It is sort of a "Who Goes There?/The Thing" without the alien although there are monsters of a variety, the kind you meet every day. Mystery and adventure fans in particular will like this but anyone who loves good storytelling should give it a try.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Void and the Tingleverse

Dr. Chuck Tingle's Complete Guide to The Void

By Chuck Tingle


Publisher:  Amazon Digital Services LLC 

Pub Date: February 24, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

 Welcome to the Tingleverse

I must confess I have never read a Chuck Tingle novel. I have certainly heard of him and have chuckled over titles like Space Raptor Butt Invasion, Schrodinger's Butt, and Slammed In The Butt By Domald Tromp's Attempt To Avoid Accusations Of Plagiarism By Removing All Facts Or Concrete Plans From His Republican National Convention Speech. I must admit I am tempted to read one if his writing style is as silly as his titles. Yet I am not really into gay erotic sci-fi satire so I have avoided the temptation...so far

But there appears to be a darker side to Tingle. Threatening his loving and tingly Tingleverse is The Void. It is a dimension that is so totally terrifying just the mention of it can lead one to Void Madness, a condition that does not sound pleasant. Dr. Tingle wrote this brief 69 page work to help us recognize the dangers of The Void and to prevent being consumed by it, a place very few escape from. He tells us of the terrible creatures that come from The Void and gives some specific examples such as an especially vicious form of "Shrieking Mass"...

Throughout history, there has been several Shrieking Masses who greatly affected the course of humanity through their manipulation of humans. In recent history, the most notable Shrieking Mass is United States President Domald Tromp, who attained power despite the fact that the seams in his human suit remained clearly visible during his entire campaign cycle.


So what to make of this "guide"? Despite Tingle's endless admonition to be careful reading this book less you "succumb to the call of The Void", it is consistently humorous. I do not know if this is a companion book for fans of his novels or simply a sidestep into silliness. But it is entertaining and may cause me to take a look at one of his novels, butt pounding or no butt pounding.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Art and extremes

Unger House Radicals

By Chris Kelso

 

Publisher: Crowded Quarantine Publications 

Pub. Date: June 11, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

 Unger House Radicals starts with an Andy Warhol quote and a glimpse of the first narrator watching Andy Warhol's 8 hour film titled Sleep. Warhol was the poster boy for turning banality into art and The Factory was far from the idealist art community that many pretended it was. Mary Woronov popped that bubble in her memoir of negativity, nihilism, and drug use titled Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory. Chris Kelso's strange and fragmented novel has its own art movement. creators and creative art house and, while thankfully entirely fictional, feels like a bit of a dark satire of the power of movements and the corruption of art.

In Unger House Radicals film maker Vincent Bittaker meets Brandon Swarthy, a serial killer. It's love at first killing. The two plot their own film movement and moves into the murder house of the serial killer Otto Spengler. Unger House becomes a focal point for the movement dubbed Ultra-realism in which Bittaker and Swarthy film murders as a testament to the ultimate and most realistic art. "What is more real than murder?" Swarthy asks. For the first part of the novel we follow their quest and relationship that takes strange sexual and psychological turns and plunges into the surreal.

But it doesn't end there. Ultra-realism catches on. The author continues the narration in the eyes of other participants and even critics as the movement becomes a cult and an equally disturbing counter revolution called The Last True Hope (Please do not let that be a Star Wars reference!) emerges. The narration is non-linear and very bizarre to the point of wondering if we entered another dimension only known to the author. This is one of those books which challenges the reader even if the writing flows like a sumofabitch through your veins as you read it. I'm not always sure I followed it but the emotional prose and the several philosophical tones that is batted back and forth never got lost in the shuffle.

Murder as art is one of those things that has become a clique in the barrage of mainstream serial killer novels flooding the market but they never go beyond the sensational. Vincenzo Bilof's The Violators and now, Unger Street Radicals show the the clique can go beyond the sensational and may reveal philosophical overtones that makes one thinks even if that thinking may feel somewhat uncomfortable. The violence and brutality may still be there but so is the examination of what is reality and how far is far enough. In Kelso's challenging and sometimes maddening book, we get a tome on the meaning , and meaningless, of movements. We examine if art can go beyond the boundaries of civilization and whether it should. But mainly we get a exhilarating and confusing ride. I have another Kelso novel to read and this one really whetted my appetite for more. A warning though. The Kelso universe may be very forbidding to some and should bear a label, "read at your own risk." But if you wish to take the risk you may be amazed and intrigued at what you read.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dr. Phil meets Natural Born Killers

Something Violent

By Kristopher Rufty


Publisher: DarkFuse

Pub. date: March 28, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.


Dr. Phil meets Natural Born Killers.

Actually it is Dr. Ron. Ron McClure is the marriage counselor to the stars. He is bit of a celebrity himself through his books and TV appearances. When he is leaving a convenience store he is a bit torn about approaching a crying women through fear of getting involved but also tempted because she is quite beautiful. The woman finally approached him and the temptation of her beauty wins out...until she chloroforms and abducts him. When he awakes, he is tied to a chair. He discovers that his abductors are Seth and Jody, a serial killer team called The Sweetheart Killers. Lately Seth and Jody are having troubles. Seth doesn't want to kill with Jody anymore. Now they want Ron to fix them, to put the zing back into their killing spree, and save their relationship. Despite the obvious conflict of interest in helping two killers be successful in their chosen occupation, Ron agrees to try. After all, they are probably going to kill him either way.

What entails in Something Violent is a series of alternating flashbacks told by each other chronicling how they met and the events leading up to the crisis prompting the decision to kidnap the famous marriage counselor. In between, the hapless Ron gives his sage observations. This is a combination of horror tale and psychological crime thriller. But for me, it is also a satire of the bad couple romance thrillers we see occasionally popping up mainly in movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and, as already mentioned, eNatural Born Killers. Seth and Jody are seriously unhinged but not so much that they don't want a special life with each other. So when the relationship falter , they act in the only way they know. They need to keep that homicidal spark that brought them together alive any way they can. The entire idea of a counselor struggling to save the joy of a behavior that will kill people, and probably himself, is deliciously perverse. Probably more so for myself since I am a retired therapist. Yet that is where the dark comedy comes in; A pair of killers struggling to find the humanity that keeps them together through their sociopathic thrills .

The other nice touch is hinted in the title. There appears to be a serial killer web site called Something Violent. Everyone needs a little support, I guess. This idea merges into the theme of the story and drives much of the narrative. How it does that will be left for the reader to discover. The author, Kristopher Rufty, does a nice job in moving the ideas along. There is lots of action and as should be expected in this type of dark thriller, lots of violence. The chain of events does call for a good amount of suspension of belief and if there is one main weakness, it is that the events often seems a bit to convoluted to come together comfortably. Yet I was able to exercise that suspension of belief mainly due to the fact that I saw it as a satire of serial killer tales, a kind of very dark comedy. The feel was enough to make me chuckle over the dilemma of Dr. Ron and his clients even in the goriest of passages.

In the last assessment, Something Violent gets my recommendation. It a clever take on the serial killer genre and remains entertaining throughout. It also makes me glad this couple never showed up during my counseling career.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A paradoxical espionage tale.

Suan Ming

By Seb Doubinsky


Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 

Pub Date: December 31, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

In Seb Doubinsky's Suan Ming, remote viewing has become an essential tool for military espionage potentially leading to victories over Babylon's continuous war with The Chinese Federation. John DiMeglio is one of the best remote viewers and has been coaxed back to duty for a special assignment. The man he is working with, Greeley, seems to know his job and the mission starts regularly enough. But soon, DiMeglio realizes there is something odd about this mission. Counter-viewers are blocking and endangering him, the top brass isn't telling him everything, and wasn't his wife a blond?

Suan Ming is pure Philip K Dick styled science fiction with the possibility of alternative realities and parallel worlds on every page. It is also another of Doubinsky's novels that teases us with what is going on and makes us think outside the box. It seems straight forward at first but a few flashbacks, a mission that makes DiMeglio questions his perception of reality, and a blurring of dreaming and waking life blurs the initial mainstream feel. As is his habit in many of his works, Doubinsky adds some short poetic chapters between the action that prepares you for the journey. The ending of Suan Ming doesn't really wrap it up but is still a satifying climax that keeps you thinking after the first page. It is a fitting end to the literary puzzle and another fine effect by the author.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Not so elementary, my dear Watson

Cat Flap

By Ian Jarvis


Publisher: MX Publishing 

Pub Date: February 1, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Bernard Quist is a private investigator although he prefers the term "Consultant detective". He recently hired a young 19 year old black youth by the name of Watson to be his assistant. Lately the detective trade has been centered around tracking unfaithful spouses and working divorce cases. But when a somewhat seedy thug asks them to prove his fiancee did not die of a suicide, it takes them into serial killer territory with a string of murders involving employees of a pharmaceutical company.

Does Bernard Quist remind you of anyone in particular?

Cat Flap is a clever take-off on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. But while Quist has a lot in common with the great detective there is plenty of reasons Quist is his own man. Ian Jarvis is clearly making a tribute of sorts to Sherlock Holmes but he is also successfully creating a detective that can stand on its own. This is a modern mystery complete with all the fixings of contemporary England but Quist seems slightly out of place. There is a reason for this but that must be kept a secret for now. Enter 19 year old Watson, a thoroughly contemporary but sometimes naive British lad with a sense for all the modern things that Quist seems clumsy around. There is an vast array of secondary and minor characters that add to the plot, perhaps too many. But it all makes sense in the end and the reader realizes that this was one clever ride.

But what really makes this novel work is the humor. It is a clever dry wit that shows up in the dialogue whether Quist is giving his eager assistant back-handed compliments or commenting on that which no one else gets. When the mystery takes a supernatural turn, the author is right there gauging the reactions of the characters and making a few odd quirks in the plot instantly understandable.

Overall, Cat Flap is a fun novel. It's hard to take it too seriously but easy to get caught up in the fun. While the Holmes pastiche beginning helps one get hooked, the novel soon becomes its own story. In fact, now that the character are introduced and developed, it might be good to dump the Holmes connection altogether in the next inevitable books. Quist is too interesting to play second fiddle.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Back to the pulps

Dead on the Bones: Pulp on Fire

By Joe R. Lansdale

 

 Publisher: Subterranean Press

Pub Date: November 30, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Joe R. Lansdale is one of the American authors where the influence from the pulp magazines and novels remains so well pronounced. Even in his most famous novels like The Bottoms, there is a grittiness that thinly disguises the pulp world. It can be easily argued that his mystery novel duo, Hap and Leonard, would have been very happy in the pages of a hard-boiled detective fiction magazine. Dead on the Bones; Pulp on Fire starts with an introduction where the author discusses his love for the old pulp writers. But he makes clear another influence to emerge in his childhood of the 50s, television, is what really ignited his love for the pulps. I never thought of it before but programs like Flash Gordon and all those westerns were visual pulp. I do not think it is coincidence that the pulp influence for Lansdale is most pronounced in his mystery/crime noir works and his western novels.

Dead on the Bones; Pulp on Fire is all pulp though. It is best to think of this as a tribute. The twelve works of fiction included in the collection, with one exception which we will get to later, breathes more pulp than Lansdale. Three stories are heavily influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, an author that Lansdale singles out in the introduction. One of the works, "Tarzan and the Land That Time Forgot" is a pastiche blending together the Tarzan tales , Pellucidar, and another Burroughs creation mentioned in the title."Under the Warrior Star" and "The Wizard of Trees" are more original but are definitely in the style of Burroughs and other writers of early pulp fiction. The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lighting" blends Edgar Allen Poe's amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin with a hint of Lovecraft. "The Redheaded Dead" and "King of the Cheap Romance" are dedicated to Robert E. Howard and Ardath Mayhar respectively. "Naked Angel" would fit well in any horror or suspense pulp magazine. In the later years, I would like to believe Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine would have picked it up despite its supernatural tones..

Which leaves the title story, "Dead on the Bones". This story of conjured fighting matches feels the most like Lansdale. Its setting and imagine plot fits well with anything he writes thus it is all Lansdale. It is my pick for best fiction in the collection.

Not that the other stories aren't good . They are quite good. And I especially liked "Under the Warrior Star" which, again from the introduction, seems to be a very early story by the author recently revamped. If you are a fan of Burroughs or the Weird Tales roster of writers you will really enjoy this. While it may not be what some would call typical Lansdale, I still recommend it for the nostalgic feel and the imaginative storytelling.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A devil of a dilemma

The Devil's Prayer

By Luke Gracias


Publisher: Australian eBook Publisher 

Pub. Date: February 18, 2016

Rating: 2 & 1/2 stars out of 5



The Devil's Prayer by Australian author Luke Gracias starts out strong. We get a brief prologue that sets the stage with a shocking suicide death of a nun. The nun is a woman who abandoned her two daughters six years ago. Her daughters, now at age 17 and 23, had no idea why she left and where she went . A priest takes the oldest daughter Siobhan aside and gives her a message that sends her to Europe to seek out answers about what happened to her mother . This leads to some dark secrets that not only threaten the lives of Siobhan and her family but the fate of the world .

The novel's mystery centers on an actual artifact called the Codex Gigas (The Devil's Bible) which is the largest medieval manuscript in existence. Gracias makes good use of a number of legends concerning the book including that it was written by a monk who sold his soul to the devil and that twelve pages (The Devil's Prayer) are missing from it. The author certainly did some impressive research, blending his story with the historical facts regarding the manuscript. In a way, this type of novel bears more than some resemblance to the conspiratorial thrillers of Dan Brown via The DaVinci Code. However, there is also a different story that is the bulk of this particular novel and separates it from a comparison of anything by Dan Brown.

The bulk of the narrative is taken from a confession written by Siobhan's mother and this is the best part of the book. In the telling of how her mother, Denise Russo, ended up in a monastery we get a tense supernatural tale. To describe it even briefly would steal the heart out of the novel. This is what kept me turning the pages. It is an imaginative plot that gives the book its particular uniqueness and charm. As long as we are caught up in the confession, the novel grabs and holds us.

Then something inexplicable happens . In order to pull in the story of the Devil's Bible and those missing pages, we are taken into a textbook account of its origin. We lose the main narrative. This is further interrupted by an account from a Father Zachary. All of this is necessary information but it severely disrupts the flow. Considering its Dan Brown influences, it would have been nice if the writer took Mr. Brown's habit of not breaking the flow and spreading the historical background through the book, revealing it only as it becomes necessary. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like wildfire. The last third to quarter drags like a boulder in the mud. But eventually we get back to our heroine Siobhan who we are caring deeply for. And then...

Some might consider this a spoiler . I consider it a dire warning since the author failed to warn us about this at the beginning. We are left hanging. The ending is a cliff-hanger of the worst kind. Frankly, I find this unforgivable especially since there is no warning that this is a series or in need of a sequel. If it is a stand-alone novel then it is even more infuriating. When one writes such an exciting novel and then denies us the pay-off, something is very wrong. Please. If you are writing a series let us know beforehand. It's one of my pet peeves.

So here is the low-down on this novel. We have a dynamite beginning with a four star story written by someone who knows how to write. Then in the last third or quarter, we are bogged down by an info dump. Still, if we had a climatic ending we would be looking at a three and a half star book at least. But instead...cliff hanger. No payoff. This serious error forces me to give this book two and a half stars. This may sound harsh especially since i enjoyed his writing so much. Yet endings in a thriller are essential and this one didn't. It's too bad because it is a terrific two thirds of a book.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A young adult ghost story

Sarah

By Teri Polen

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Pub. Date: December 1, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

 In Teri Polen's Young Adult horror novel Sarah we have the type of horror that is steeped in the emotions of teens yet interestingly stretches into adult horror often. Sarah is a ghost story and of course ghost stories are popular with all ages. Yet this one deftly merges mature topics with a tight horror tale and more than a taste of violence.

Cain is what most would consider a good guy . He is the captain of the soccer team and his head is on fairly straight, partially thanks to his BFF Finn who has no problem telling him when he is screwing up. The latest problem is with Cain's girl friend who is clearly using him and Finn doesn't waste words in telling Cain that. That may be why Cain doesn't pay much attention to strange things like cold breezes and creaking doors in his family's new house. At least not at first. He discovers a girl named Sarah was killed in the house while it was being built. Sarah is angry over her death and Cain wants to help her resolve it and move on. But when that help include taking possession of his body and planning gruesome deaths of her killers , Cain tries to stop it which only puts his friends and family at risk too.

From there on, it gets pretty scary. I would think this book might be too intense for younger children. 12 and up would be OK...I think. But regardless of the quibbling on the age level, Teri Polen has written one of the better YA horror novels in the past few years. Cain is totally likeable and believable. His hesitation on the number of things feels quite right as does his friend Finn who is the best advice giver even if he doesn't take it that well himself. There is a new girl friend and a cute little sister that add more dimension to the story. Cain's mother seems a bit thin. She is just there because he needs a mother. But the main characters are perfect for tangling with the spirit of Sarah as her true intentions starts to show.

Actually, Sarah is the real highlight of the story. we feels for her because of the circumstances of her death,. Yet the author reveal her growing evilness so nicely that she truly become a figure of horror. As her powers grow, so does the terror. This is one book to keep the lights on while reading, especially if you are a teen.

Sarah is well worth reading for both teens and adults. In a way it is a fairly common ghost story with possession throw in. Yet the combination of teen issues with the constant twists and turns raises it above the usual. This is a good book for your teen who think Goosebumps is old-fashioned. And if you really want to have fun wait until night when he or she is about two-thirds done than flip the main power switch off. Mean maybe but ...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hotels and Owls

The Nightly Disease

By Max Booth III


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub Date: December 18, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

 It is said one should write about what they know. Max Booth definitely knows something about night auditing in a hotel. Much of what is in The Nightly Disease comes from his experiences working that very job; hopefully not the actual events but from the strange and cynical atmosphere that night duty brings. Having worked a series of night shifts in a series of strange jobs in my much younger years, I can vouch that the midnight hours brings out a different and not always complimentary side of human nature. But so far none of my nighttime jobs ever involved, at least directly, owls. Only my daytime ones.

The Nightly Disease centers around a hotel night auditor by the name of Isaac. In first person narrative, he gets right down to telling us about what a lousy job he has. His only real only friend is George the night auditor at the hotel next door. Asides from George, the only other thing he looks forward to each night is the bulimic homeless girl who comes into the hotel to purge. There is one other interesting girl he meets, a new night auditor who biggest dream is to pet an owl. So it is a bad sign when she ends up dead, killed by an owl that attacks her.

Owls figure heavily in Booth's noirish yet weird novel. What their role actually is may be argued even after you finished the last page. They give the book a fantastic feel but are more of a omen (appropriately if you know your Native American folklore) than the main event. Isaac's nightly encounters are both mundane and surreal at the same time. It is a bit like Bukowski's nihilism meets Tom Robbins' mirth. Booth could have made the questionable decision to write a wandering narrative steeped in the negativity of lost hotel characters but instead he wisely chooses to add a main event that gives the plot a focus and Isaac a challenge. Isaac doesn't see it that way but views it as an exclamation point to his drudge of a life and it's inescapable dead end. But in a typical noir move there is a girl that may be his ticket to a meaningful life. Yes, it is the bulimic one. Even hotel night auditors have dreams and sometimes you have to take them where they drop.

While Booth is usually associated with writings of the surreal and bizarre, this particular book reads fairly straight. That does not mean it isn't strange, just the type of strange that makes sense in an alienating world. In fact, of the things I've read by the author, this is probably the most mainstream . (Gasp!) It is, as expected, beautifully written with dialogue and descriptions that grabs your jugular. It is a darkly comedic story which smacks head first into existential angst and comes out the other side with a least a little hope for the human race, not to mention one hotel night auditor. Max Booth III is one of those authors to look out for and The Nightly Disease is the first substantial and thoughtful fiction of the new year.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mercenaries vs religious fanatics and monster

Little Heaven

By Nick Cutter


Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: January 10, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars



It's hard to believe after two stunning novels of horror from Nick Cutter in the last few years but Little Heaven is a major disappointment. Cutter has carved himself a splendid little niche of visceral thrills with The Troop and The DeepLittle Heaven pales next to them. It's a little hard to figure out why since it does have the require amount of scares and body horror that the author is known for. Let's see if we can.

The first thing that stands out in Cutter's first two books is that the plot is held together by brilliantly vicious ideas of horror. Although formed adequately to catch the reader's empathy, the characters are secondary to that horror. In Little Heaven we have another horror but it is secondary to the characters. Normally this would be good but the characters of the novel doesn't stand apart enough to make us care. The action of the novel goes back and forth over two decades; from the 60s to the 80s. The constant throughout this see-sawing are three mercenaries who gives us very little to like about them. And these are our "heroes". The novel describes how they meet through a contract hit and how their paths continues to cross. One of them, Minerva, plans to kill another, a British black man named Ebeneezer, to fulfill a wish for revenge. For reasons never sufficiently explained, Minerva , Ebeneezer and a third man named Michah maintain an uneasy bond through the years. This hard to believe bond takes them to a religious commune and eventually a confrontation with a misshapen creature in the wilderness.

The main human villain does not fare well either. The commune of Amos and his followers is a thinly disguised Jonestown but Amos shows none of the charisma required to bring something like that together. He looks and acts like a fool leaving the reader to wonder why anyone would follow him. Interestingly, the most believable thing in the novel is the strange creature in the forest and that is because we are given a creepy and scary glance at his development in the prologue. The image that Cutter sets forward never leaves us and give us the kind of promise that he delivered in his first books. Unfortunately that is not to be in this book.

It seems that the author is blending a few styles of writing here besides his own. There is some Cormac McCarthy in the type of protagonists he creates and a lot of Stephen King in Amos and the circumstances his commune finds it in. Yet it ever really gel together. We end up with a well written horror tale that should of worked but doesn't. I am only left with recommending either The Troop or The Deep to the reader or telling them to wait for Cutter's next book.