Archive for Book Reviews
In the distant past (it now seems so long ago that dinosaurs might have still ruled the Earth), there was a popular television series called Have Gun—Will Travel. The black-and-white Western ran from 1957 (okay, so I was ten when it debuted) until 1963, with writers that included Bruce Geller, Irving Wallace, and Gene Roddenberry, subsequently famous for creating the first incarnation of the Star Trek empire.
Each half-hour episode starred an excellent but atypical, gruff-voiced, craggy-faced, decidedly un-handsome actor, Richard Boone, as Paladin, a gunslinger-for-hire in the post-Civil War era. From there, stories might take viewers anywhere in the still-exotic landscape of television’s early conceptions of the Old West. There would be villains and dastardly deeds, to be sure, and Paladin—true to the etymology of his name, which refers to one of the twelve warrior-knights of Charlemagne—could use violence when necessary but preferred the more gentlemanly attributes of intellect, observation, and understanding.
The series became standard family viewing in our home. I remember it as interesting and fun, mostly because of the oddities surrounding the “man in black” with the “fast gun for hire”—a “soldier of fortune” willing to donate his services to those in need. For half an hour, we could count on seeing familiar faces in unfamiliar places, watching ingenious plans for evil unraveled by equally ingenious plans for good, and finally leaving that landscape, secure in the knowledge that we would revisit the following week.
What has this to do with Donald Tyson’s Tales of Alhazred?
Put simply, Tyson has transformed one of the most formidable, mysterious, and fearsome human characters in the Lovecraft mythos—the “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”—into the star of a short-story series that provides much of the same species of entertainment as did Have Gun—Will Travel.
There is the unlikely hero, Abdul Alhazred, human with the heart and soul of a ghoul and an internal djinn who surfaces when needed. Once a handsome luminary at the court of an eighth-century Yemeni ruler, he is now hideously scarred as punishment for misplaced amorous advances. A necromancer of enormous reputation (although he admits that much of that reputation is due not to his own knowledge but that of one of his companion, Marlata) he will sell his services…or give them, depending upon the situation. He travels through generalized landscapes—vast deserts, ancient and partially ruined cities, shadowy necropolises, rough mountain redoubts—usually accompanied by the same cast of characters. He fights evil in all of its physical manifestations, most prominently djinni and ghouls but often amorphous or insectile or tentacled creatures from other spheres (literally in one story), magicians and other necromancers, and simply evil, venal humans.
Oh, and along the way he encounters Lovecraftian Old Ones.
That is where Tales of Alhazred falters for me as reader.
The stories—even those that conjure Yog-Sothoth and carefully avoid revealing the name Nyarlathotep—lack the sense of the cosmic, of the other, of the outré in its original sense of ‘beyond all barriers.’ The actions are human-based, earth-based, even when they incorporate a gigantic maggot-like monster worshipped as a god or an enigmatic black sphere that opens onto another world, which remains largely unexplored and unexplained. There is a safeness to the stories, a feeling akin to watching the closing credits of an enjoyable television episode, relaxing slightly that the hero has escaped again (although that was really not in doubt), and looking forward to much of the same next week. For stories about the early life of the author of the most notorious book in creation, the Necronomicon, these seem remarkably tame, with little to hint of horrors and madness.
This is not to say that the stories are uninteresting. They are solid, well told, with sufficient twists and turns to keep the momentum going to the final page. And they are accompanied by color and black-and-white illustrations by Frank Wells, each aptly capturing a key moment and making it visual. But in the end, they fall uncomfortably into a niche somewhere between the Tales of the Arabian Nights and revelations of Lovecraftian Horrors, partaking of both but perhaps not enough of either.
Award-winning artists collaborated on Pixu, the story of haunted apartment dwellers. The images throughout the story depict a dark mark in the building: a mark of evil that spreads, causing violence and insanity.
The artwork is meant to carry Pixu, and largely, it does. The four artists are fantastic and their black and white drawings blend well and give Pixu a solitary feel. The book is largely a showcase for the art, which is very frightening and contains staples of the horror genre. Pixu begins with a visual feeling of dread, which blossoms into nightmarish and terrifying images.
While the artwork is impressive, the story is vague. I know that one picture is worth a thousand words, but the individual panels leave gaps in the narrative. There were characters that I really could not get a handle on, even after additional readings. That might be because the main character is the “mark of evil,” but even that dark mark is largely undefined. Pixu contains a wealth of creepy stuff, I simply wanted it to be more cohesive.
I also wanted more of a backstory. For example, is the landlord aware of the mark and is he using it in some nefarious way? Each individual apartment’s story begins in media res; perhaps the clues were too vague for me to craft a plot from the images and very sparse text.
Pixu is an adult only graphic novel. There are disturbing visuals, as well as a story line that suggests child molestation and pedophilia. If you enjoy a minimalistic plot that is open to many interpretations, then Pixu is a good match for you. Likewise, if you are a fan of any of the four artists, you will not be disappointed.
Rachel Jeffries is a woman stuck in a rut. She has no family or friends. She has no job and no life. She’s a prisoner in her own home; a servant to her abusive husband, Mark. But Rachel isn’t the type of person to simply lay down and die. She wants to leave, to start new. She just needs to find that lucky break to get started.
Rachel stumbles upon a job with the local newspaper and immediately takes it without telling her husband. She’s on her first assignment when bad weather and a crappy rental car see her derailed straight into a watery ditch. It’s this accident that causes a chance meeting with True Gannett, a backwoods “witch man” well-versed in the ways of natural healing and magic. After getting to know each other a little better, True offers to teach Rachel about healing magic, though Rachel isn’t entirely convinced it exists.
While Rachel’s getting her life together and the relationship blossoms between her and True, an evil wizard named Joshua has got a dastardly plan. After a few nasty spells and a little bit of necromancy, he’s ready to inflict a world of pain upon anyone that does him wrong, which comes to include Rachel and True.
Author Julia French’s grasp of her characters makes Hill Magick compelling, particularly her understanding of Rachel. She’s such a complex character wrought with guilt and overburdened by her abusive husband. She’s indecisive and often blames herself for getting beaten. She’s a woman divided – she wants to leave her husband, she knows she has to, but at the same time she finds excuses for his abuse. Rachel goes from this frail, weak woman to a woman more in control of her own life. She’s not the typical hero who goes from fragile to a force to be reckoned with though. She’s still a work in progress, and that makes her character much more believable.
One thing that was clear while reading Hill Magick is that French did her homework. The book is full of magicky goodness, from using Hawthorn trees as a form of protection to practical uses of vanilla bottles to everything in between. Those little details added a whole lot of realism (well, as real as can be with magic) to the situations that Rachel and True find themselves in.
At only 187 pages, Hill Magick is a short-but-sweet story about life, love and the two sides of magic. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then Hill Magick may be right up your alley.
Aliens: Salvation follows the relentless soul searching of marooned fundamentalist spaceman, Selkirk, after he is stranded on an unfamiliar and unforgiving planet with the deranged captain of Nova Maru. Later, he finds himself in the company of an enticing commando fembot, all the while dealing with Nova Maru’s bad-ass cargo (the “hidden passengers” make Snakes on a Plane look tame).
Writer Dave Gibbons’s script is sparse. The exposition is given in spurts—at times literally, as two characters explain key plot points when under great duress or dying. The majority of the dialogue is Selkirk’s internal prayers and confessions. While the original issue of Aliens: Salvation was hot on the tail of the film series, there are few allusions to any cross-overs beyond the alien species. This broadens the audience for the graphic novel, as anyone can follow and enjoy the plot.
Illustrator Mike Mignola’s aliens are truly frightening. The faces seem eyeless due to the dark hue and shadowing; the teeth are the creature’s most prominent feature. The aliens appear to be swift and sleek and are rendered as demons or demi-gods—the most destructive and insurmountable type of monster. The background colors are diluted in order to place the action, and the aliens, in the forefront. The artwork is definitely the strength of Salvation.
While the aliens are doing what they do best: populating the planet with additional monsters and feasting on humans, they are not the true source of evil of Salvation. The real villain is big business or “the Company” that views human life as expendable. The struggle of worker/pawn/puppet may resonate even more today than it did in the original publication of this graphic novel.
Selkirk sees signs of divine intervention amongst the ruins of the planet and even amongst the violence that he is forced to commit. While his character and religious quest are very engaging, it is the work of Mignola and colorist Kevin Nowlan that will remain with readers and leave a haunting impression.
The conventional wisdom is that the werewolf trope is played out — that Twilight was the final silver nail in the wolfsbane coffin. The moon beast has become mundane since H. Warner Munn reinvented the genre in Weird Tales back in 1928; the ravenous killing machine is today more prone to teen angst than bloody carnage. Well, hang on to your Lon Chaney underoos, there’s good news gleaming in the moonlight!
From April Moon Books comes Flesh Like Smoke, a new anthology of shapeshifters for the lycanthophiliacs in your life. Brian Sammons is rapidly developing reputation for his almost supernatural ability to find and juxtapose stories that make even old tropes new and exciting.
Sixteen new stories of varying degrees of spilled sanguinity, and not one angst-filled, pretty boy, werewolf sex symbol in the book. All feature mutable monsters, all radically different from each other. As well it should with a solid roster of authors with diverse reputations of their own – Tim Waggoner, William Meikle, Pete Rawlik, Cody Goodfellow, and Don Webb just to name a few.
It is not a one-sitting read. This is one you’ll want to stop between stories and savor the experience before plunging into another tale. Indeed, it’s almost advised – the stories leap from place to place and time periods. Stories jump from modern day South Boston to the Reign of Vikings to a Cyberpunk future with Indian legends, folk legends, and pure sci-fi along the way.
I hope Sammons considers reinvigorating other old monsters in need of a transfusion of fresh blood —and I don’t necessarily mean just vampires.
Brothers by Ed Gorman and Richard Chizmar is a short novella (about 55 pages after the Introduction and Afterword are subtracted) that is as smooth as 25-year-old whiskey going down your parched throat. Here are two of the best writers working today in the United States, but few people seem to be aware of them. Ed Gorman has written several novels over the last two decades, while Rich Chizmar is the creator of Cemetery Dance magazine and publications, not to mention an excellent writer of short stories and novellas. The world needs to know about these two authors because writing doesn’t get much better than this.
The story of Brothers is about two brothers who are police officers in the same town. One is older and promised his father to watch out over the younger one, making sure he doesn’t turn out to be like the old man. The younger one, however, resents the intrusion of his older brother into his personal affairs, but doesn’t seem to mind when his brother gets him out of jams, helps him through college, and then gets him a job on the police force.
The younger brother, who is married with children, is now having an affair that threatens to destroy his family. The man cares, but doesn’t care. It seems as though all he can do is keep traveling down the path that leads to his own self-destruction. The older brother, disregarding the advice of everyone else, wants to save his sibling from doing to the wrong thing.
In a short period of time, however, this leads directly to a collision of tragedy for everyone involved, but especially the older brother.
I’ve never had a brother, though I have had friends over the years that appear to be very much like the younger brother in this story. They won’t change their habits or stop causing the destruction in their wake until someone finally leaves or dies. Then, they’re sorry. But being sorry is only a word and it doesn’t do much to quiet the pain and anguish that others are suffering through. This is what the bad boys fail to understand as they continue to do exactly what they want without consideration for the effect their actions will have on the people around them.
Both Gorman and Chizmar seem to clearly understand this in their creation of the two main characters. It’s certainly a no-win situation for the older brother. No matter what he does, others will blame him for his younger one’s actions.
That’s a tough situation to be in for anybody.
Another thing is that the younger brother’s character is one you want to punch right in the face and then tell him to get lost. Nothing but bad news will come of his actions and the people in front of him will be burned by his inability to care.
Now, if you’re wondering about the writing style here, let me tell you that it’s impossible to determine when one writer stops and another takes over. It reminded a good bit of The Talisman and The Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub. There was no way to determine which author was writing what because their styles merged into something new that was easy to read and had a fast momentum about it. The same is true with Brothers. I didn’t want the novella to end and wished it had been longer.
This is some of the best writing I’ve encountered during the past year, though there are other authors out there every bit as good like Mick Garris, Mike Miller, Tom Monteleone, Michael Marshall Smith, Brian James Freeman, and others who are striving to write the best fiction possible for their growing legion of fans.
Don’t wait on getting this. It can be purchased in both hardcover and paperback from Amazon or from Short, Scary Tales in England. If you would like a signed hardcover from both authors, go to Cemetery Dance Publications and entered it into their search engine. A great read for a small amount of money!
I have always been fond of writers who seem to write in hyperdrive. Whether it is Hunter S. Thompson, Harlan Ellison or Garrett Cook, I like the writers that let it all out, appearing not to care whether you can keep up with them. If their imagination or emotion gets a little ahead of the prose, that is just part of the attraction. The writers I like realize that they can’t write for the audience. The audience needs to come to them and the payoff is when the reader gets into the writer’s strange and manic mind and says, “Wow! Now I get it!” At least, that is the way my own strange and manic mind perceives it.
In The Art of Horrible People, John Skipp becomes one of those authors. Of course he had a bit of a head start as one of the early architects of splatterpunk genre. His standing as a father figure of the bizarro movement doesn’t hurt either. But in this new collection of eight short stories, Skipp seems to be airing a mixture of amazement and repulsion over the acts of the human race which frankly can be pretty horrible. Call it cynicism or realism, Skipp may have held it in for too long to be anything but a torrent of words and emotions. There is a mishmash of genres here from straight horror to dark comedies and styles that border between free association and straight-out rant. Yet they all are entertaining in Skipp’s own manic and sometimes far-out crazy style.
Take the first story for instance. “Art is the Devil” is a dead on depiction of the too often over-hyped and phony world of the visual arts. If anyone is going to be an art connoisseur, wouldn’t it be the devil? It is a funny over-the-top satire of the contemporary art scene.
The second story, “Depresso the Clown,” is very different but just as extreme. It is a straight horror story on the capture of a rather pathetic clown. Whether you call it tragedy or comedy will depend on how you feel about clowns.
“Rose Goes Shopping” is a dark comedic takeoff on the zombie story. It reminds you that even in the zombie apocalypse, old habits die hard. In my opinion, this little story makes the zombies seem relatively decent. “Worm Central Tonite!” is quite short and more of a concept piece. It packs a nice philosophical wallop in just a few pages.
“Skipp’s Hollywood Alphabet Soup of Horror” is essentially 26 flash fiction pieces all about Hollywood and the movie industry. This is Skipp’s cynicism working overtime. You can argue that Hollywood is an easy target but the quick vignettes are essentially spot on and it is clear the author has waded more than once in the craziness of the movie game.
“Zygote Notes on the Imminent Birth of a Feature Film as Yet Unformed” is ironically the best work here. Ironic because in some ways it is the most typical of the bizarro genre yet atypical for this collection because it seems reflective and intimate with multiple layers. I think it is one of the best piece of short fiction I have read from this author.
“In a Waiting Room, Trading Death Stories” is an amusing hiccup of a tale that simply whets our appetite for the last and other best short fiction in the book, “Food Fight.” This is splatterpunk at its best. It is a tale about chaos in a behavioral health center told through different perspectives in Skipp’s equally chaotic style.
Skipp is one of those writers that need to be read to be believed. Although he is mostly a stalwart of the splatterpunks, it is easy to see why the younger bizarro writers see him as so influential to their own movement. But what it comes down to is that Skipp is basically his own sub-genre and resists pigeon holing. The Art of Horrible People is no less than the art of telling a good story.