Monday, November 27, 2017

A journey into urban weird

Secrets of the Weird

Chad Stroup

Publisher: Grey Matter Press

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Ratuing: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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

Kind Nepenthe

Matthew V. Brockmeyer

Publisher: Black Rose Publishing

Pub. Date: August 1, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Smack in the middle of The Pine Barrens

Savage Woods

Mary SanGiovanni

Publisher: Lyrical Ynderground

Pub date: September 25, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

An island I wouldn't want to visit

Return to Q Island

Russell James


Publisher: MLG Publishing

Pub Date:  September 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

A masterful Lovecraftian novella

Agents of Dreamland

 Caitlin R. Kiernan


Pub. Date: February 23, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Sins of the father

Mapping the Interior

Stephen Graham Jones

Publisher: MacMillan/Tor

Pub. date: June 20, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The perils of remodeling

The Garrison Project

David J. Thirteen

Publisher: Bad Luck Books

Pub. Date: June 23, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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