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.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A literary haunted house novel

The Grip of It

Jac Jemc


Publisher:  FSG Originals

Pub. Date: August 1, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

When haunted house novels go literature with a capital "L" they tend to stop being about hauntings and become all about the haunted. I can think of two haunted house novels that do this with an exquisite flourish. I suspect both of them were influences for Jac Jemc's The Grip of It.. Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is the great classic of literary haunted house novels. It presents no visible ghosts but a very troubled protagonist. The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons again presents no ghost but a house which can only be called naturally evil and nourished by the misfortune of the owners. Its horrors are based on the misfortune we constantly are concerned about in the so-called real life. Siddons' haunted house seems attracted to that misfortune, perhaps feeds on it, and the recipients of that misfortune becomes the focus of the book. In both cases, despite the strange and sometimes terrifying events in the novels, it is human nature not the supernatural that goes under the microscope.

This is precisely what happens in The Grip of it. James and Julie are excited to move into their new house motivated by the thought of starting anew, away from the city and away from the triggers of James' gambling addiction. It goes smoothly at first and the couple are willing to ignore distractions like a humming that permeates the house, wall stains that seems to expand, and the hinting of hidden rooms. As they try to return to a "normalcy" in their relationship, the occurrences continue to add up, including a prying neighbor that appears to be connected with the house in some way and unexplained bruises that appear on Julie's body, When drawings are found on the walls that neither Julie or James admit to doing, the situation becomes surreal and disassociating for the couple who wonder if the other is who they once were or now appears to be.

So what is this all about? As I said, this is about people not houses. Whether the house is haunted, or a catalyst to misfortune (like The House Next Door), or the occurrences are totally due to the psychological friction between James and Julie can be endlessly argued. A great too many weird things happen that do not comfortably fits into the theory that it is all psychological but the author never really finishes explaining them to the satisfaction of this reader. If I was to theorize on the theme, or to put in other words, the issue being explored in the couple's psyche, it seems that it is all about the attempt to seek normalcy in a relationship that is teetering on issues of mistrust and betrayal. James' gambling issues is a big one to ignore, or just hope it goes away due to a move, and the house appears to be playing on that doubt. This is a examination of couples attempting stability in a relationship when the participants are not ready and the trust is not yet back. The house appears to feed on it and the couple responds. At least, that is my theory.

Jemc's haunted house also bears some resemblance to Mark Z. Danielewski's The House of Leaves in that it seems to be almost in another dimension. Rooms and passages appears that shouldn't and later disappear. There is a claustrophobic feel to the house despite what is described as big enough for a family. Another thing the two novels have in common is, while touted as a horror novel, it eventually becomes a love story.

But I wanted a horror story and to a certain extent I did get one. I just wish the author tied a few more threads together. In reference to the horror elements, there tends to be a lot of tease and little resolution. There is that strange neighbor and we do get some history and background of the family in the house previously but it doesn't really fit into the rest of the story in any way that satisfies a resolution. It is rather unfortunate, since Jac Jemc is a superb writer whose poetic sense often takes over in the description of house and relationship. I really enjoyed the pace and the style but eventually became exhausted in looking for the pay-off to ease my horror mentality. There is certainly a pay-off in the emotional sense and that is worth the reading. As I said, this is a novel about human nature not ghosts. We now come back to the two books I mentioned at the beginning. They are the seminal models of the literary haunted house novel. If The Grip of It doesn't quite fit on the mantle next to them, the author certainly can't be faulted for a noble attempt.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The prequel to The Girl with all the Gifts.

The Boy on the Bridge

M. R. Carey

Publisher: Orbit

Pub. Date: May 2, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I should mention I have not read M. R. Carey's previous novel The Girl with All the Gifts. I did see the movie and those who have read the novel tell me it was fairly faithful to the book. This is important since The Boy on the Bridge takes place in the same universe as the previous book and is a sort of prequel. The tale takes place twenty years before the events of the earlier book and ten years after the start of the apocalypse that envelopes the earth but I am getting a little ahead of my review. Most important for now is that The Boy on the Bridge can easily be read as a standalone. Yet those who have read The Girl with all the Gifts will have some knowledge that will add to the enjoyment as you connect the action of this second book with what transpired in the first book.

But it is essential to have a basic understanding of Carey’s post-apocalyptic world as one begins to unravel the details of this current work. Earth has experienced a devastating plague in the form of a fungus that attaches itself to the human host and very quickly takes control of the brain. I am told the author developed this idea from an actual parasite that exists in insects. The infected are called Hungries and operate in an almost vegetative stage until they sense their prey which is pretty much any living and moving thing then attacks and devours it. What is left of the human race on the British Isles are situated in a fortress called The Beacon and a few scavengers on the outside called Junkers. In a desperate attempt to retrieve any knowledge that made lead to a cure, and to search for a previous vehicle sent out and never returned a few years earlier, a crew of twelve evenly divided between soldiers and scientists board a large vehicle they call Rosie and head north toward Scotland.

What they find and how it will turn everything they know on its head is the crux of the book. Those who have read Carey's previous book or seen the film will have a good idea of what that might be. But for me it is not so much the goal and their discoveries that make this novel so fascinating but the interaction of the crew with each other and especially two passengers, Epidemiologist Samrina Khan and a young boy named Stephen Greaves whose purpose on the journey is not known by the crew except for Khan. Stephen is a savant with distinctive autistic traits. He is an odd genius whose discovery of “blockers” allow the crew to walk undetected by the Hungries . Khan thinks he may become the catalyst to discovering a cure while the others see him as indecipherable, childish, and weird.  Khan herself is pregnant, something that is viewed as subordinate and unfortunate by Dr. Alan Fournier and Colonel Isaac Carlisle, the civilian and military commanders of the expedition. Stephen’s poor communication skills and his fear of exposing his discoveries due to how they might be perceived becomes a significant issue of tension throughout the novel.

The author does an incredible job of presenting the claustrophobic environment of the vehicle and the emotional tension that it creates in the twelve passengers. The split between scientific  and military personnel creates its own conflict in mission but each member brings their own baggage.  In fact, the perceptive reader can see the tiny society in Rosie as a capsule of class conflict in a bigger society. This is what I see as the strength of the book, melding these conflicts into the more science fiction experience that is the bulk of the novel. What each person sees as their priority become their reason for their behavior and doubly so for Stephen who is unable to play the hypocritical games of adults and, as a form of protection, drifts into isolation. Dr. Fournier isn’t all that different from Stephen except he has enough of what we call “maturity” to disguise his ulterior motives.  Khan often finds herself the mediator between Stephen and the crew, sometimes needing to excuse his odd and sometimes dangerous actions. However she is caught up in her own dilemmas as her child nears the point of delivery.

Then there are the Hungries. Carey created a satisfactorily different form of zombie. They are not zombies as much as diseased and it is that disease and how it develops that moves much of the plot. The action between the crew of Rosie and the Hungries becomes more complex as other players in the apocalypse arrive. All of this lead to hope for a cure and, soon afterwards, fears on whether that cure is worth what must be done. Place into that the expected power plays of members of the expeditions and their superiors at The Beacon and you a novel of much action and complexity. The author excels at both narratives of action and the most psychological aspects of survival in the apocalypse and he rarely lets us down in the excitement of either.

The best way to describe The Boy on the Bridge is that it is a rush of both visceral and psychological proportion. It moves on both levels consistently to what I can only describe as a very satisfactory ending that brings together both books yet treats them as their own stories. As said before, while it is a standalone novel and should be enjoyed immensely by those who are not familiar with the previous book or film, it is probably best to read them in order. The one thing I can state for certain is The Boy on the Bridge will be an intense and rewarding experience.