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


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.