Thursday, June 29, 2017

It came from the back of a comic book

Optical Delusion

Hunter Shea

Publisher: Lyrical Underground

Pub. Date: August , 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Optical Delusions  is the second of Shea Hunter's series called Mail Order Massacres. They are based on those comic books ads children of all ages are familiar with. I'm sure you remember them. The "Sea Monkeys" that were just brine shrimp and made the water smell bad. The "submarine" made out of cheap card board and fell apart when it actually touched water. The 3-D glasses that boasted you will be able to see through people's clothes and did no more than give you a headache. Shea's first book of the series, Just Add Water covers the Sea Monkeys and a third installment will center on the submarine. Optical Delusions, as you already guessed, covers the glasses.

In this short read, Martin Blackstone's son orders a pair of those 3-D glasses from an ad in the back of a comic book. Martin sees it as a waste of a buck but on a lark tries them on. At first he just gets a headache but after a while they seem to kick in and actually work. At first Martin finds this to be a lascivious pleasure but soon the effects of wearing the glasses turn terrifying and deadly.

The first thing I noticed on reading this short piece of fiction is there are no physical monsters in it. That may seem a small thing but Hunter Shea is sort of my monster guy. He writes some of the best monster books out there. This story's scares comes from the effects of a mysterious object and the dark psychological results. I enjoyed seeing an author I admire go off into a different type of horror that I am familiar with him writing and doing it with the same effortless skill as he shows in what I have read before. I'm not really surprised , I just find it delightful and reassuring that this horror writer can make pretty much make anything a reason to keep the lights on.

I also like the setting. Both the first and second installments of Mail Order Massacres take place in the 80s which was pretty much the apex of the comic book ad craze. But while Just Add Water has a nostalgic Speilbergian feel due to its two young main characters, Optical Delusion feels more serious and scary. For those movie buffs, it made me think of that great but obscure Corman film with Ray Milland, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. But while the Corman film had Greek tragedy overtones , Optical Delusion goes for the EC Comics styled quick kill. Just what these neat little books should do.

I do not know if Shea Hunter plans to keep this a trilogy but if he does and the next one keeps up the momentous, it may be the horror trilogy of the year. Until then, you cant go wrong with this pint sized scare fest.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hear no evil. See no evil....

The Fourth Monkey

J.D. Barker


Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

Pub Dater: June 27, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

2017 appears to be the year of the suspense thriller. There has already been a number of quality ones out there and a few more of them usually show up during the summer. The term "Summer Read" seems to be tailor made for the mystery and suspense audience. For the most part, they are diverting and fun reads for the beach but occasionally a few goes past the quick read and amazes us with their combination of mystery, psychological suspense and even a dose of horror. The first one to wow me this year was Final Girls by Riley Sager. And now dead on its heels is The Fourth Monkey by J. D. Barker

The Fourth Monkey is one of those books that dares you to read it in one sitting. The suspense rarely lets up and there are a pair of very interesting and troubled protagonists that keep our interest. It is a serial killer novel that comes at a time when the sub-genre seems to be getting thin and predictable. Barker's novel manages to take a number of well worn ideas, such as the detective and killer duel of minds and the race against time to save the victim. Yet the authors is able to keep it interesting and fresh.

Homicide detective Sam Porter is recovering from the death of his wife but is pulled back to work when a six year old serial killer case that he has been on from the beginning seems to be coming to a head. The Four Monkey Killer (4MK as the officers not-so-affectionately call him) has been hit and killed by a bus. How do they know it is him when no one knows his identity? He had in his procession when he died a box with his victim's ear in it, signifying the first monkey "Hear no evil", and a diary proclaiming him to be that killer. 4MK has killed a number of young girls in the past years. Since he mailed boxes with bodies parts in them before he finally kills them, Porter surmises there is one more victim who is still alive. Sam Porter and his partner Nash now needs to find her with only a few clues and the killer's diary to guide them.

And this is where it gets interesting. We follow the tracks of the detective as they uncover each clue. There are plenty of red herrings and twists to entertain even the most jaded mystery fan. However, in alternating chapters we read the diary in which 4MK essentially tells us about his childhood and his origins giving us another thriller and mystery as it goes along. We know these two stories will come together at some point and the way it happens is the intricate web that the author weaves. The killer and detective appear to be continuing their battle of wits even beyond the grave as the diary haunts Porter and brings up a few ghosts of his own.

This is a hardcore cop and killer tale and one of the best I have read in a long time. I caught a few of the surprises and missed a few more which is good because it kept me guessing. Yet Sam Porter is the character that keeps the novel from just being a who-dunnit puzzle. He is tough and determined but vulnerable to the point you wonder if he will keep it together. 4MK is also a vital protagonist and the gimmick of using his diary to egg on and tease Porter works so well I stopped thinking of it as a gimmick especially since 4MK's back story is as riveting as the central plot. We also never lose the tension of the race against time which is often so important in books like this. J.D. Barker wrote a monster of a serial killer story and it may be hard to top it. But my money is on Barker to do so in his very promising career. He has the skills and the imagination to continue with a string of great thrillers. For right now, The Fourth Monkey will more than suffice.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Horror and decadence.

The Fetishists

A. S. Coomer

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub. Date: February 19, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

If you're looking for a triple X rated horror thriller, you have come to the right place. In The Fetishists Jefferson Wellman, a well to do lawyer, is into the sadistic and decadent and will pay anything to get what he wants. He is told about a company that may be able to get him what he wants though a live evening fetish auction. It is no spoiler to say he ends up with more than he bargained for.

But if this was just a gratuitous kinky horror exploitation novel , I wouldn't be typing this. We start with a chapter titled "Now" (the morning after the auction) which then switches to the "previous evening" giving teasingly alternating looks at the results and the precipitating events. There was a bit of an expectancy for a Twilight Zone comeuppance tale at first, due to the main character's immensely dislikable personality, but that goes away as our protagonist is led deeper down the rabbit hole. The novel becomes pure horror and dread going instead for a very bleak journey into terror featuring body horror and issues of control, both mental and physical. This is one of those novels that is as uncomfortable as it is riveting and that is not an easy balance.

If I have an issue with the book, that is where it is, The humanist in me wants it to have some balancing moral ending . The evil in the tale is over-powering and I wanted a wrap-up that left me thinking evil doesn't always conquer. Despite my better judgement, I want it to be a moral tale. Yet the horror literature aficionado in me is mesmerized by that very evil and I have to constantly remind myself that this is just a book. Sometimes you have to read a novel the way the author intends it and, to be frank, I doubt A. S. Coomer was going for puppies and kittens here. He wrote a dark book drowning in nihilism and terror and that is what the reader gets.

At this point, I don't think i need to warn you that The Fetishists is not for everyone. I even hesitate to call it erotic horror. But if you are the type that enjoy their horror on the kinky and bleakly dark side, then you will probably love this. At the very least, you will enjoy the brilliant writing skills of a questionably sane writer who has the cojones to put something like this on paper.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A new start yet far away...

The Space Between the Stars

Anne Corlett

Publisher: Berkley

Pub. Date: June 13, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Anne Corlett's The Space Between the Stars is full of some beautiful writing. The challenge is figuring out what type of beautiful writing it is.

Jamie is one of the very few people left alive after a space-wide pandemic. She may be the only person alive in her space colony of ten thousand people and she has no idea if anyone else has survived. Earth in the past has been over-populated and the colonies were mainly populated by those who were compelled to resettle. Jamie was one of the few who volunteered, wanting to leave an unfulfilling relationship and looking for her own "space". Now her only thought is to return to Earth and hope against hope the man she left is still alive.

As it turns out, there are other survivors and they make a plan to return to earth. The small crew makes up a microcosm of reasons for returning. There are also others who do not want the survivors to return to Earth for their own reasons ranging from the political to social to personal. The trip to earth and what they find is pretty much the vehicle for the novel but the meat of the plot is found in the motives and expectation of Jamie and the others on the journey.

This all make for a rather introverted space journey. there are several discussions of a philosophical nature on whether expectations of a future are futile or not and basically about what the heck they are doing anyways.. Jamie gets a surprise that causes her to rethink her reasons for going back to earth then strengthens and re-frames them. Jamie is a big "if" in this novel. She embodies a will and purpose yet some may think that purpose as rather selfish and naive. She wavers between selfish and wise and I believe that is how the author wants her to be seen. There are no real heroes and villains here just a group of people struggling physically and psychologically in a Homeric journey through space.

And like most Homeric journeys, the author is portraying and exploring a few existential struggles in life along with it. But perhaps the venue is a bit wrong. Or maybe it's the marketing. The Space Between the Stars isn't really that much of either a science fiction novel or post-apocalyptic one although it is hyped as both in the promotional spin. Science fiction fans are bound to be disappointed in the simplicity of the idea and a distinct lack of world-building. Those who would like the literary drama of the story, which I feel is its strength, will be off put by the space adventure aspects. Essentially the epidemic and the colony aspects is a McGuffin and in that, some readers may feel a bit cheated. To add on to that, The other characters do not really flesh out all that well feeling like bit players in a B-science fiction movie when you want Ibsen.

It's unfortunate since Corlett has a story to tell here and the climatic ending brings much of it together emotionally . If The Space Between the Stars finds its audience they should be quite pleased with it. I'm just not sure who that is.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Trick and treat

The Halloween Children

Brian James Freeman & Norman Prentiss

Publisher: Hydra

Pub. Date: June 13, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Halloween in June? I guess so. This eerie Halloween tale which is a bit on the nasty side is being published in its first trade appearance this summer. It seems a little early but since Christmas is now getting celebrated beginning in October, I guess we can start Halloween a little early. In fact after reading this, it may be a wise idea.

Not that the timing matters. A good horror story is welcomed any time of year. Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss has written a neat little horror novel in The Halloween Children and any time is a good time to celebrate. The plot centers around the Naylor family and set just before Halloween. Harris is the maintenance man for the Stillbrook apartment complex where he and his family lives. His wife Lynn works at home while their two children, Matt and Amber are basically just typical children. Yet there is a dark side developing around the complex and the Naylor family has edges around them are just do not add up and may feed into that darkness. Matt and Lynn bicker about how to discipline the children and it is clear that mom and dad has favorites. Amber is telling weird stories that Lynn cannot believe are coming from her daughter and Harris has a disturbing way of teaching Matt how to take care of Amber's habit of putting her toys on his side of the room. On top of this there are odd and spooky things going on throughout the apartments: loud noises above their apartment from someone the children name Mr. Stompy, strange smells, and to add to the problem, the manager has cancelled the Halloween party. Let's just say this will not end well.

There are all the bells and whistles that make for a good and creepy Halloween tale but what makes this above average is the characterizations of the Naylor family. They seem average yet not quite together. The alternating chapters give first person narrations for both Harris and Lynn. We get a ongoing narrative with the advantage of seeing both persons' perception of what is going on and that gives us the tension. Which side is correct? Are either side giving us anything close to the truth? When odd and scary things happen, we wonder the same thing Harris is wondering, is he crazy or are people, or things, really out to get him? We do not get an answer until the end and that answer may not answer all our questions. But at the same time, it sets up a nice Halloween legend that fits into the story and the holiday.

So if you want to start Halloween a little early this is a good place to start. There is all the creepiness and haunting phenomena you can hope for. But whatever you do, don't cancel Halloween!

Friday, June 9, 2017

It came from the comic book ads

Just Add Water

Hunter Shea

Publisher: Lyrical Underground 

Pub. Date: June 13, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Hunter Shea is my go-to guy for monster stories. He writes them so well. If you are looking for urban legend creatures, monsters from the deep. animal lab experiments gone forth, or pretty much any type of creature you can name, he has you covered. But in Just Add Water he brings forth a rather violence and gruesome fiend from an unusual source. One that you baby boomers will certainly recognize with a bit of nostalgia.

Remember those ads in the comic book for sea monkeys? They were actually sneakily named brine shrimp. In real life, they never looked as good as the cartoon drawing meant to sell them. Yet many a kid was taken in only to get little ugly specks and muddy water. In Just Add Water, David and Patrick answers a similar comic book ad for Amazing Sea Serpents. Nothing happens, the water smells, and they end up dumping it down the toilet. Yet something does happen once the shit hits the sewer, so to speak. Eventually the sea serpents grow up and come back. That is when all the flesh ripping and eating begins.

There is a reason for these creatures and we do eventually get an explanation. but as it is in the best storytelling, the fun is getting there. While all Hunter Shea novels are fun this one seem slightly tongue-in-cheek, kind of Spielbergian 80s teen tongue-in-cheek. David and Patrick rules the day as they battle the creatures and leave the adults behind scratching their heads, as least the ones who survive. Just Add Water, despite some violence of the killer monster variety, is quick, comic book gruesome, and roller coastery. Maybe too quick. It is short at under 100 pages and in need of some fleshing out, no pun intended. But as just plain monster fun, it works. You might want to find a longer Hunter Shea novel to get the idea of what he really can do but if this one comes your way, grab it and enjoy it.

Note: It appears Just Add Water is the first of a series called Mail Order Massacres featuring horrors based on those funky comic books ads. The next one will be Optical Delusion and I already preordered it. That may give you an idea how much fun I found the first installment.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Murakami's best short fiction collection to date

Men Without Women: Stories

Haruki Murakami


Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

To begin this review, I would like to feature a quote from one of Haruki Murakami's earlier novels, South of the Border, West of the Sun...
"Rain falls and the flowers bloom. No rain, they wither up. Bugs are eaten by the lizards, lizards are eaten by the birds. But in the end, every one of them dies. They die and dry up. One generation dies and the next one takes over. That's how it goes. Lots of different ways to live. And lots of different ways to die But in the end that doesn't make a bit of difference. All that remains in a desert."

Life is basically a desert, Murakami muses. But Murakami sees oases occasionally springing up that gives us some meaning if to only ourselves. Sometimes they are mirages but even mirages leaves memories. I believe he sees that hint of meaning mainly in relationships, especially the relationship between man and woman.

In Men without Women: Stories, Murakami's superlative thematic short fiction collection, we are introduced to men who are alone for different reasons in their lives. Some unintentionally and some by design. Some are divorced and some are widowed, and some never really found that oasis. Even when they do, it may be fraught with mystery and pitfalls. Each tale features a man who is either telling his story, or relating one of another, and ruminating over the haunting encounter,. These are tales that may seem simplistic but derives meaning from their relation to our own lives and struggle. Each of the seven pieces of fiction are excellent examples of storytelling and psychological drama of the most subtle kind. With the exception of one, maybe two, there is none of the author's magical realism and their points may fly by the reader only to be caught after the reading is well contemplated.

"Drive My Car" is about an actor who hired a female driver to transport him around the city. His wife has passed away and it first appears like the plot will focus on the man's relationship with his driver. But that soon changes as he tells his driver about his wife, her affairs and his attempt to discover why she had affairs when he maneuvers a friendship with one of her ex-lovers. It is a good example how Murakami can make strong emotions and regrets almost conversationally reflective.

In "Yesterday", Kitaru suggests that his friend Tanimura go out with his girl friend. It is Kitaru's strange solution to his concern that Tanimura has not had a girlfriend in a long time. Again, what would go off in one way for the conventional writer ends up in a study of Kitaru rather than the bewildered and slightly hapless Tanimura. The end reflects a common ploy in much of Murakami's works in that the resolution of the story comes with a reunion of the characters many years in the future when distances reveals meaning.

"An independent Organ" is another tale where the main narrator is telling the story of a Dr. Tokai, one of those individuals whose relationship with women is constructed in affairs and brief encounters. Tokai is a bit of a suave scoundrel who finally falls in love with tragic consequences. It is the most beautiful tale of the collection in my opinion.

"Scheherazade" is about a man who cannot go outside for reasons that are not made clear. He is given a "helper" who becomes his lover and tells him stories after their lovemaking. In typical Murakami style, her stories become sort of a confession that give insight to both the teller and the listener.

Is "Kino" magical realism? I'm not really sure. This story about a man who opens a bar and gets a odd regular is rather mysterious. The woman/man connection is very vague here mostly referring to how Kino finds a purpose after the end of his marriage. It is also the only story in which a cat plays a role. This may be a strange thing to say if you haven't read much Murakami. The Murakami fans will know what I am talking about.

"Samsa in Love" is a play on Kafka as an insect wakes up and find himself transformed into Gregor Samsa. The transformation seems rather pointless to the new Samsa. Then he meets a woman...

the collection ends with the title story. It is fitting it is the last tale as it brings the rest together. A man receives a call from another man to tell him a former girl friend from years before died. Then he abruptly hangs up. Our narrator has not seen this woman, she was not married at the time of their friendship, and he never knew the man who called. It turns into a reminiscence about chance encounter and wraps up the tragedy of having little control over those who have the most meaning for us...

"It's quite easy to become Men Without Women. You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere.That's all it takes. Most of the time (as I'm sure you are well aware) it's crafty sailors who take them away. They sweet-talk them into going with them, then carry them away to Marseilles or the Ivory Coast. And there's hardly anything we can do about it. Or else the women have nothing to do with sailors, and take their own lives. And there's very little we can do about that too. Not even the sailors can do a thing"

Men Without Women may be Murakami's best short fiction collection to date. It reads quickly but is deceptive in how much is going on within these well crafted tales. Even though I find his novels to be the real meat of his writings, I do not hesitate to recommend this collection as one's first journey into Murakami's world. it's that good.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Podcast: Book review and discussion. Feral

Author David Agranoff and I took part in a dual discussion of Feral by James DeMonaco and B. K. Evenson recently. You can read my written review here. This was my first appearance on an audio podcast so I guess you can say it is my debut.  It's something I hope to be doing more of and David is a good guy to do it with.

Here is the podcast. All 40 minutes. Enjoy. And let me know if I should quit my day job. And seriously, let me know if you would like to see more of this sort of thing on my blog.

  Feral Audio Review Featuring David Agranoff and Marvin Vernon

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Short fiction from Joyce Carol Oates

Dis Mem Ber and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense

Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Pub. Date: June 6, 2017

Rating" 4 out of 5 stars

It looks like Joyce Carol Oates, clearly a voracious writer, is putting out another short fiction collection close on the heels of the superlative The Doll-Master. Dis Mem Ber and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense collects all her published short stories from 2016. That entails seven in total. The precious collection was fully titled "The Doll-Master and other tales of terror". This new collection is correctly titled as tales of mystery and suspense as the horror aspect is toned down significantly. But the aspect of psychological dread remains in these tales. Oates' fiction is steeped in psychological nuances and these stories in Dis Mem Ber are no different. In fact, if you are looking for fiction with a punchline and a clear ending, I doubt if you will be happy with Oates. Yet if you want human frailty and complexity then she is the writer for you. There is a reason she is always mentioned in the "short list" of potential and future Nobel Prize winners in literature.

This collection is of the high quality you would expect from Oates but, at least for me, doesn't reach the high standard she made for herself in The Doll-Master. About four stories are excellent and hits me in my guts even with her subtleties. But the other three are more misses than hits. Of the successes, "Great Blue Heron" is the most beautifully written as it deals with a grieving widow who fantasizes over the predator bird on her lake with harrowing results. "Heartbreak" explores a competitive relationship between two young sisters and is the most directly powerful story of the lot. The title story examines similar young girl yearnings and fantasies of a young protagonist who may not be making the best decisions about who she hangs out with. "The Drowned Girl" is about a college student's obsession on a girl who drowned in a water tank. It's a sneaky little story about those dark obsessions that take us over. All four of these takes grabs on to some inner darknessof the reader just like the best Oates fiction is liable to do.

The other three works are of high quality but didn't really hold me. That is true especially for "Welcome to Friendly Skies!" which seems awkward. It may be possible evidence that humor is not the author's forte.

Yet four superlative stories of seven is not bad at all especially when the judgement is in the reader's subjective mind. What is unarguable is that any collection of Joyce Carol Oates will reward you with superb writing, dark imagery, and a glimpse into the human condition.