Archive for Book Reviews
Recently, the Fall 2014 issue of Dark Discoveries concentrated much of its attention—in both fiction and non-fiction—on the possibilities inherent in secret societies in horror. It is a bit of a shame that I did not receive the ARC of David Morrell’s newest thriller, Inspector of the Dead, sooner, since had I done so, my contribution to DD might have taken a distinctly different turn.
Not that Inspector of the Dead is explicitly linked to horror. Indeed, as might be expected from a sequel to Morrell’s earlier Murder as a Fine Art (see http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2013/03/david-morrell-murder-as-fine-art-well.html for my review), none of the traditional monsters of horror appear in this intricate tale of murder, madness, and revenge in mid-Victorian England. Darkness there is aplenty, and blood and gore, some tastefully insinuated, some described in intimate detail. But the story emphasizes the intellectual (and occasionally physical) exertions required for Thomas De Quincey, the notorious “Opium Eater”; his brilliant and resilient daughter, Emily; and their two stalwart detective friends from the London Police to solve a series of gruesome, upper-class murders that have a single point in common—clues left at each scene point to previous attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, suggesting a network of dangerous, unknown malcontents.
And the clues are moving irrevocably closer…presumably, to another attempt on the monarch’s life.
As did the earlier story, Inspector of the Dead encapsulates history, sociology, psychology (both current and nineteenth-century understandings), criminology, and literature in a complex web leading to devastating discoveries and—as promised—a cataclysmic confrontation in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace itself.
All of these elements are intriguing, of course, but what makes the novel of particular interest for me is that at its most fundamental levels, it is about monsters, the most devastating kind: human beings. There are allusions to other sorts, as when customers at a pub, having drunk doctored beer and gin, hallucinate creatures and break out into a deadly public brawl. But throughout, the story concentrates on what transforms humans into monsters.
For some, monstrousness is an almost unavoidable response to rigid Victorian morals, standards, and values. Churchgoers in the finer parts of town see nothing wrong with turning away starving children, often condemning the children to a lingering death by starvation…or worse. In their world, social status determines individual worth, and, in spite of twenty-first-century attitudes, many of Morrell’s characters merely act the way they believe they are supposed to act. The main characters constantly confront this kind of unthinking evil as they move from the highest levels of society to the lowest and reveal to readers how tragically locked into assumption every stratum is.
Unfortunately, too many powerful and influential people turned their backs on a particularly egregious social injustice that resulted in the horrifying deaths of four Irish immigrants and set the surviving child on a course of revenge that would take dozens more lives in horrendous, meticulously planned murders.
Acting in the name of a secret society, “Young England,” a criminal mastermind manipulates private and public confidence in the government, the nation, the monarchy itself nearly to the point of revolution, so convincingly that everything the police attempt to track down the villain results in strengthening the hold the society exerts.
The substrata of political and social commentary ultimately merge with the plotline to provide a single sentence, quoted from the historical De Quincey, that illuminates the entire volume: “The horrors that madden the grief that gnaws at the heart.”
From such horrors come madness and desperation, obsessions with revenge and retribution…and human monsters.
Lest I have made Inspector of the Dead sound too much like a sociological treatise, readers can rest assured that Morrell provides not only opportunities for thought and consideration but also moments of high adventure, ranging from the battlefields of the Crimean War to the shadowed back streets of London’s worst districts. The book is a brilliant amalgam of history and fiction, of reflection and speculation, of possibility and probability. And a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end.
In his introduction to Inflictions, Christopher Golden describes John McIlveen as an author who “pull[s] no punches.” The short stories in this collection prove that sentiment accurate. McIlveen’s writing wraps around you like tentacles from a fog, and drags you into the ferocious mists kicking and screaming.
The stories in Inflictions are all loosely tied together under the broad theme of dark secrets. The tales examine the sinister secrets we lock away from the public. McIlveen tears away the façade of “normal” to expose the raw terror lurking within. Abuse, lies, transgressions, and fear haunt these pages. The title story highlights addiction, a topic threatening into the cliché, but in this case skillfully drawn in both sympathy and horror as we follow protagonist down an endless spiral into nothingness. In “Make a Choice,” we see a “typical” family trying to connect in a disconnected, modern world. Their attempt at “normal” turns into a terrifying nightmare (no spoilers here) that will chill the blood. McIlveen’s work reflects the ever-increasing isolation between individuals, and the monstrous results of that disconnect. His protagonists lose because they fail to see truth, reality, or their mistakes in time. Isn’t this the darkest, most terrifying fear we have? We will be the cause of our own downfall? McIlveen has found that glowing coal of fear in our hearts, and he’s ignited a firestorm.
The collection slows a little in the middle with “Jerks.” The idea is clever, but it’s long and doesn’t entirely fit with the pacing of the shorter stories. Overall, this is an outstanding collection. McIlveen even manages to sneak in a bit of humor amidst the horror to keep his readers from sinking into the abyss entirely. Very well done and highly recommended.
Shrieks and Shivers from The Horror Zine is the third anthology selected from pages of the e-zine by Jeani Rector. Rector is no slouch when it comes to writing horror, with highly respected novels and short stories to her credit, but as an editor and anthologist, she is even better—I might even suggest phenomenal. In five years, she has catapulted The Horror Zine into an innocuous little website into an award-winning e-pub juggernaut, where best-selling scribes (the current issue includes a Piers Anthony story) and lesser-known authors intermingle freely in the table of contents.
The only change from the previous two books is the new publisher, Post Mortem Press. Everything else remains unchanged–Rector has again selected an exceptional collection of the best of the best: 33 stories in a well-balanced collection of emerging writers blended with tales from such luminaries as Joe McKinney, William F. Nolan, Ray Garton, Elizabeth Massie, Tim Waggoner, P.D. Cacek, and Tom Piccirilli. Just to add to the name-dropping, the book also features a foreword by Bentley Little and an introduction from John Russo.
More importantly, there is little repetition in the stories; Rector gleefully bounces from haunted castles to sideshow freaks, from parasitophobics to somniphobics, and from organ harvesting to suicidal sky divers. Even when the standard beasties such as zombies, ghosts, lycanthropes, and witches appear, they are new twists, not the same tired tropes. As one example, “Reflector Eyes” by Garrett Rowlan is a modern retelling of Frankenstein (or Pygmalion and Galatea for the purists). Only instead of spare body parts and a mad scientist, you have spare auto parts and a sculptor, with a little Wizard of Oz on the side.
Bentley Little’s foreword mentions his dismay that this could be the last Horror Zine anthology. I agree. The variety and quality offered by Rector and The Horror Zine is a standard to which other anthologies should strive, and the loss to the horror genre would be immeasurable.
“Death Anxiety”: Fear of the end of life as we know it. Something many of us at one time or another, if not already, will suffer.
This collection of horror-filled tales will have you questioning your personal thoughts on the subject, while you squirm with fear and unease; preparing to turn the page, leading you upon a journey into the unknown.
James Ward Kirk, the author and publisher/editor of many amazing writers, has shown us the ability to make you shudder is yet another of his incredible talents!
Among the 13 stories housed within this brilliant book are interesting sketches, some roughly drawn, but nevertheless both beautiful and disturbing. The artist with the gifted hand is Gidion Van de Swaluw. Gidion’s art, definitely adds that touch of elusive madness, secretly residing in a mind on the brink.
Madness, murder, gore, ghostly visitations, all which create unease blended with just enough spine-tingling horror to create the perfect tome for those cold winter nights.
I must mention a few pieces that stood out among the rest, leaving the indelible mark of horror just as the author intended.
A favorite of this reviewer, is “Synesthete,” which reads like poetic literature. Kirk truly did his research on this one. Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences via another. Kirk delves you into the mind of a synesthete, where senses collide in an eerie fashion. Each word lingers but for a moment before gliding into beautiful imagery. This combination in a story meant to chill you shows great command of the written word.
“The Rose Garden” extracts both fear and sorrow from the reader as a police officer mourns the death of his wife; discovering there is more than beautiful roses dwelling within her immaculate garden. What is it that exists beyond the thorns? Is it his salvation or his destruction?
Another which deserves mentioning is a tale of a writer whose family is brutally butchered. “Ghosts in the Mirror” guides us through the desperation and torment of the author as he takes the law into his own hands. What he discovers may threaten his sanity.
Death Anxiety is not meant for the squeamish nor those below the age of consent. For those seeking a well-written twist on horror, this compilation is a must! No two stories are alike and none, I assure you, is like anything you have ever read. This reviewer looks forward to more from this gifted author. Once you’ve turned the first page, I’m certain you will agree.
W & B Publishers Inc.
March 5th, 2014
Reviewed by Catherine Bader
Zack Treadwell was five years old when his parents were attacked and killed by a group of – what? Zombie like creatures? People who were no longer human? Zack saw what happened and could not convince anyone that they were real.
T.S. Charles’ characters burst from the pages in a coming of age tale that takes you through Zack’s life as he moves from one foster home to another over the years. Then he comes to Stone Creek, West Virginia to attend the local high school. And the real story begins.
One of his new friends has a secret and as their friendship grows, that secret finally comes out. Nick Tinderson keeps a binder filled with news clippings of strange events and bizarre happenings. The murder of Zack’s parents is one of them.
Then Nick tells him of a place in the woods where there is a vault door covered by brush. On several occasions he has seen a helicopter drop off some seriously messed up people who look an awful like the people who killed his parents.
From there the book explodes into their plans to get inside somehow and tell the world about it. Secretly, the two boys find their way in…..
The prose is explosive as the boys experience the horrors within and try to find their way out. The true terror in that place will come to you in bloody, tattered, unfettered ways and leave you truly frightened.
This is a finely tuned, intensely scary, well written horror book. The ending will haunt you.
How can you not like an anthology that, before you even read a single story, already has three things in its favor: a foreword by Leeman “Ask Lovecraft” Kessler, an afterword by S.T. Joshi, and most importantly, 17 new stories, none of which are by the usual group of writers that seem to appear in every Lovecraft anthology.
Editor Jones’s previous anthology Red Phone Box (2013) wove the stories of 23 different authors together in such a way as to be distinct tales but interconnected through an underlying story arch.
Essentially, Jones has done the exact opposite in Cthulhu Lives!, where the lack of connectivity essentially evokes the basic Lovecraftian tenet that the irrelevancies of mankind are beneath the notice of an uncaring universe, and that mankind’s interactions with the Old Ones are unnoticed to the gods, and mind-rendering and messy for mankind. Jones has carefully avoided the twin traps of overt pastiches and generic stories that simply drop a familiar name or book title. Instead, she has chosen stories that evoke the themes of cosmic horror and fear of the unknown without slipping into tropes. The story lengths swing wildly in both directions, a calculated risk by Jones in her selections. It works because the stories are a diverse lot, leaping from steampunk Victorian England to a modern day physics lab, from England to Australia to North America. Some stories are a bit more obvious in their influences such as “Hobstone” by G. K. Lomax, which is evocative of “Rats in the Wall,” while “The Highland Air” shows author Gethin A. Lynes to be a devotee of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” This is an observation, not a complaint; all the stories evoke the classic Lovecraft disquiet of the unknown that quickly escalates into abject terror. If you’re looking for stories from the wretched interpretation of Lovecraft where professors sail through space on then the backs of byakhees, you’re in the wrong book.
Cthulhu Lives! is a solid addition to Lovecraft fiction, respectful of the source material but willing to test the boundaries. Salomé Jones has done a remarkable assembling this collection and Ghostwoods Books should be encouraged to pursue similar projects.
In the rural town of Konnor, Oregon, aliens have landed. The aliens are using humans to host their eggs, the vanguard of a secret invasion. The aliens have a hive mind, meaning anyone infested with the parasite can’t be trusted. The last line of defense is a band of flawed heroes. The difference here that author Muir takes the concept of the flawed hero and runs with it to extremes. His heroes have powers and abilities that are, for the most part, pretty useless: a bodybuilder with glass jaw, literally; a punk rocker with an mysterious energy supply; a man who wakes up with various body parts randomly appearing and disappearing each night; an old woman with dementia and clairvoyance, and the world’s dullest man. They must combine forces with other similarly feckless heroes to save the world without killing each other. Of course, the fact that the world scorns them ain’t exactly helping with motivation either.
Author Brian Muir may be best remembered for writing the cult sci-fi classic Critters (1986) but his film résumé includes 15 films for Full Moon, including the classic Gary Busey headliner Gingerdead Man (2005). He was also a popular mystery writer as well, with multiple appearances in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. After his premature death in 2010, his literary executor discovered a number of unpublished manuscripts as part of the estate.
The Outcasts was Muir’s earliest written novel in this treasure trove on new material. It was completed after Muir scripted Critters, but shows the same seamless transition from humor to tension. The rapid-fire jumping between characters in has a bit of 1980s throwback vibe to it, but for a 30-year old creation, it does not feel dated. Also included is a previously unpublished essay by Muir on the best screenwriting advice he ever received and a fond retrospection on the birth of Critters. This should be in the collection anyone who fondly recalls the black humor films of the 80s, as represented by Muir’s carnivorous alien hairballs.
The author’s cousin and literary executor Charles Austin Muir and Post Mortem Press should both be lauded for allowing more of the all too brief career of Brian Muir to be introduced to a new generation of fans.