Archive for Book Reviews
Mike Lane came to LA to be an actor but the zombie apocalypse got in the way. After a decade of walking dead, things are calming down. There are a few stragglers to take care of. However Los Angeles, as with the rest of the world, has returned to a slightly fragile form of normalcy. Mike, now working on the Los Angeles Reclamation Crew, is responsible for finding the straggling zombies and “reclaiming them,” putting them at rest. But the last few are pretty rotted and dried up. The dust from their bodies seem to be affecting those who breathe it in and it just happens to be the season for Los Angeles’ notorious Santa Ana winds. This new dust problem is especially affecting Mike’s crew except for Mike himself who is left to wonder what is happening and is desperate to find out if there is anything he can do about it.
This is the beginning of John Palisano’s refreshingly different zombie novel Dust of the Dead. With the glut of undead books and movies out there with mindless brain-eaters, Palisano gives us something a little different. The author‘s creatures aren’t interested in brains and are not exactly mindless. They appear more disoriented and angry at first but, as the dust unsettles, they seem to be developing a speed and strength not inherent in the first zombies. The author goes over the first zombie apocalypse rather quickly giving us the background through Mike Lane’s eyes. Mike is the center of this story and his first person narrative is dead on, letting us experience the carnage, sense the inevitable societal breakdown and know what we need to know in a nicely revealing and steady pace. The first zombie invasion, as Mike describes it, is treated rather casually. It is described as more of a major inconvenience. This is a good decision as it moves the tension and our expectations directly to what is to come. Without giving any spoilers, I will just say that zombie dust becomes a whole different matter and makes the protagonists a little nostalgic for the day of zap, bash and kill.
Even with all the surprises in store, the book mainly works because it is seen through the eyes of Mike Lane. Mike is pretty average. He is doing a job, has a girlfriend who he likes more than he lets on and develops a bond with his fellow colleagues. Mike has adapted to some hard times yet is seeing his world fall apart due to something that was previously unimaginable to him. It is that viewpoint that makes Dust of the Dead so interesting and worthwhile. It is brash, involving and full of thrills and scares but we also feel for our narrator and share his emotions as the world and his friends changes.
Mostly set in the San Fernando Valley, Palisano has a great sense of locale, taking us on a little tour of the Valley in Zombieland. The novel has a good regional feel and is especially entertaining for someone who loves Los Angeles yet enjoys reading it being destroyed, such as your fellow native Valley Dude reviewer. Novels with a good regional setting, even if you are not familiar with the locale, are always interesting when the area takes on its own character and meaning. Mike is a Valley Guy and feels like it. I appreciated that in the tale.
But even if you don’t “feel” the environment, there is no getting around the fact that Dust of the Dead brings something new to the long-suffering and more than slightly-worn zombie legacy. It is good to see something new in this sub-genre. There is room for a sequel as the ending is intentionally open-ended. This is one of those rare times I would welcome a sequel.
Scarecrows: Childhood Fears by Christine Hayton is one of four new novellas comprising Samhain Horror’s new Childhood Fears project. From the original call for submissions:
“Ah, childhood. A time of innocence, wonder…and unbridled terror. Childhood fears. We all had them. Maybe it was clowns. A particular toy. Something under the bed? Or that creepy house at the end of the block. Admit it, there was something that scared you.”
In Scarecrows, the titular monsters haunt the thoughts of young Cathy in the years leading up to her seventh year. Her bedroom overlooks a neighbor’s cornfield, where she is convinced she sees scarecrows stalking the night and killing people. The root of her terror is interestingly due to her father who tells her the scarecrows will get her if she ventures into the dangerous field. Though her father told her about the scarecrow for her own protection, to keep her out of the realistically dangerous area, the fear in imparts has tragic consequences.
The novella opens with a very strong scene as Cathy’s parents wake to find her missing from her bedroom and home during the night. This is made all the more frightening due to the fact that Cathy’s friend has just gone missing in the days prior. Robert, Cathy’s father, soon finds the girls out in the cornfield. Cathy’s friend is dead and it seems clear that Cathy has killed her. Cathy insists that the scarecrows killed her friend, an assertion that leads to her being institutionalized.
The idea of “Childhood Fears” is at play here in more ways than the obvious. Not only is the clear fear of scarecrows here, but fears about childhood and child rearing are present as well. The parents fear for their daughter getting lost and hurt in the cornfield is central to forming her scarecrow fear. Also, the fear of having a child who does something horrible, or having a child who suffers from a serious mental illness, are addressed. This is the most interesting part of the story, the interplay of numerous fears from and about childhood.
Most of the characters are sharp and clear individuals, Cathy is a very real young girl and her father Robert’s love and fears for his daughter are, at times, painful. Cathy’s guardian at the institution is a great character and Cathy’s best friend and neighbor Jimmy is a highlight of the tale. While the main characters have strong, well-defined arcs, one of the weak points of the book is that Cathy’s elder brother and one of her doctors just drop out of the story with no reason to have been there in the first place.
The book’s conclusion is generally satisfying, with the story of Cathy and her parents coming together very nicely. The tragedy surrounding her best friend Jimmy and his family also brings good closure. The idea of letting go of childhood fears and realizing what really is out in the world to be feared brings this entertaining novella full circle.
Joyce Carol Oates is a unique voice in American literature. She is well-respected in the literary circles yet writes in a style that is fine-tuned to the mainstream public. She is also not afraid to enter dark regions that border on horror and suspense. In fact, I would say her best work sits comfortably in the shadows. Her newest novel, Jack of Spades doesn’t just border, it falls head first into the suspense thriller category with a dose of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the millennium set. Jack of Spades is psychological suspense at its finest.
Andrew J. Rush is a moderately successful writer of mysteries. His mystery novels are the proper and polite mainstream kind that reward good and punish evil. Others have dubbed him (a little embarrassingly to Andrew) as the “Gentleman’s Stephen King,” yet unbeknownst to his publisher, agent and even his family, Andrew also writes under the name of Jack of Spades. Jack is the opposite of Andrew. His books are violent and filled with depravities. Jack’s persona is one of a sociopath with no real regard for morals and decency. Andrew keeps this literary double life going steadily until his daughter discovers a Jack of Spades novel and finds some disturbing scenes in it that are too close to her own childhood memories to be coincidental. Add onto this a lawsuit from a woman that claims Andrew J. Rush’s regular novels are plagiarized from her own works. Rush is upset by this lawsuit but his alter ego may have other ways to deal with it. Rush at first understand the contrary thoughts going through his head and is able to tell right from wrong, but quickly things change and the reader wonders whether Andrew’s creation is part of the author’s mad genius or simply mad.
Oates’ novels are normally character driven and Jack of Spades is no exception. She is one of the living masters of psychological suspense. The strength in our protagonist Andrew is that he is normal: he may have a secret but his life is steady and regular. He has the love of his wife and children and the respect of his community. His violent novels under his pseudonym are the only strange part of his life. In a lesser writer’s hands, we might say his progression is unbelievable, but he is totally believable because we get a good view of the logical workings of his mind as he deals with his new found stresses. The first person narration is perfect for the development of the story and it works well as we find out more about Andrew that may explain the odd events. Each event and twist moves the narration along. The novel is relatively short, a little over 200 pages, but reads swiftly and feels shorter simply because it wastes no sentence and has no filler scenes.
It is hard to say much else about this novel for the thrill of the chase is learning what develops beyond the basic plot and setup. Writers of psychological horror and suspense would do well by studying each page of Jack of Spades for it is almost perfect in its structure and telling. Andrew J. Rush is a person of his times and maybe a warning (or even an arbiter of doom) for all those wanna-be writers out there. I can’t help thinking Joyce Carol Oates may be toying a little with her own mind in this sneaky little thriller and telling other authors that writing about the lines between reality and fantasy is a potentially fragile and dangerous thing.
With The Remedy, author Asher Ellis achieves something very impressive, the consummate hard-core horror novel. There’s nature as a beast, brutal body horror, backwoods cannibalism, small town horror conspiracy and more. It’s with nothing but respect that I write that there’s very little new or groundbreaking here, but what there is is everything that any story could possibly need. And you’re not going to find a book that executes those needs any better. If you want to read a new horror novel that harkens back to the early days of splatterpunk, that is never slow or misses a beat, pick this one up.
The characters are similar to the plot. They fit the modern horror paradigm, the popular girl, the por smoking bad boy, the loner who may or may not be what he seems, the matriarch of a hillbilly clan and even a masked killer. The characters are uniformly solid, a few are great to the point they the reader will find themselves rooting for them and the masked killer is a personal favorite.
The plot is deftly handled and transcends the typical car-breaks-down-on-the-backroad trope. There are twists when one might expect, but they’re never the twist expected. There are points where no reader is going to see a twist coming, but it pops-up regardless.
The most unique points of the novel build as the story moves along. The “loner” character follows a great character arc. There’s a sex scene that’s is truly impressive, one could argue important even, in that it takes traditional gender roles and destroys them. The general theme of the novel also evolves into one of, for me but I’m sure others will differ, guilt. How does one deal with guilt. It brings up a serious philosophical issue that you probably wouldn’t expect from a novel with the lines: “It’s not your fault. How were you supposed to know your friend was related to a family of cannibals.”
Live Bait is a fantastic new novella from Cameron Pierce, author of Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon. Pierce uses his love of fishing to provide a backdrop for a story of loneliness and the search for a human connection at the end world. Two men, who live solitary lives, are drawn together during a fight to land a monster fish. The two men soon become close friends, less because of their similarities that out of their yearning for a human connection. Gordon narrates the story from his point of view and brings the reader into his world, contemporary Portland beset by monster fish.
What will happen to the outsiders, those who live on the margins of society, when the world comes crashing down? Live Bait tackles that question with admirable results. The story is engaging from beginning to end and takes on, at different times, a hallucinatory vibe, the portrait of a friendship, a tale of water monsters and class differences as the known world crumbles. There is a ton of stuff going on is this roughly 80-page story, enough that when you finish it in one sitting, you’ll be left thinking you’ve just read a thousand-page epic.
Earlier this year, Cameron Pierce released Bottom Feeders, co-authored by Adam Cesare, which was also a great yarn about monster fish. The fascinating thing is that Live Bait is as different a story as it can be while still being about man-eating and world-destroying fish. It’s a lyrical, intelligent and emotionally raw story that delivers from beginning to end.
It’s no secret that Black Static is one of the top magazines in the field of horror and dark fiction. The current issue confirms once again the high quality of the material included, both fictional and non fictional. The fiction section provides stories by Andrew Hook, Cate Gardner, Emily B. Cataneo, Laura Mauro.
To me, however, the more accomplished tales are SP Miskowski’s interesting ” The Second Floor,” featuring a teacher returning to Seattle for a visit; “The Visitors” by Stephen Hargadon, an enticing journey into the world of British pubs; “The Fishing Hut” by Steve Rasnic Tem, an intriguing story about a disconcerting fishing expedition and “The Cleansing” by Danny Rhodes, a grim tale of urban horror.
Tony Lee once again compiles a massive review section of horror DVDs while Stephen Volk contributes a very enjoyable, thought-provoking commentary on some movies and TV series. Lynda E. Rucker provides interesting observations on various feminist (and not) topics also linked to films.
In a perceptive interview, Peter Tennant portrays one of the very best new female genre writers, the talented Helen Marshall.
Tennant also reviews a bunch of dark fiction books, including the latest Ellen Datlow anthologies and some recent titles from the excellent Swan River Press. His incredible ability as a book reviewer is actually the main reason why I’ve been a subscriber to the magazine for a while, but also the reason why later I canceled my subscription. As a reviewer, Pete puts to shame anyone else’s commentaries and that, believe me, does hurt.
The second installment in Jonathan Ryan’s 3 Gates of the Dead series, Dark Bride, caught my attention on page one and kept it for nearly 340 more pages…but not for the reasons I might list for most novels generally classified as “horror.” In fact, the first sentences—“The church is a whore. The church is your mother”—seem to link the story more to theology than to monsters, gruesome deeds, or uncanny situations.
Nor do the next few pages suggest the directions the story will soon take. A small group, referring to themselves as “Scoobies,” have met in a local pub for their Sunday-evening get-together, where they discuss matters relating to religion, not unsurprisingly since one of them is a Presbyterian pastor and another an Anglican priest. Also among those present is the “resident skeptic,” a physics professor from a nearby university, whose self-appointed purpose is to keep thinks from becoming too ethereal, too other-worldly. For much of the time, they simply chat.
A summary such as this sounds rather insipid, until one realizes how adroitly Ryan is using the time—to establish essential characters through their actions and their speech rather than by merely describing them; to suggest the commonplace, largely ordinary locale for the story—mid-west America; and to leaven those introductions with touches of humor that humanize every participant, especially with the mention of the “curse jar” into which each drops a quarter for every bad word, the contents to go to charity.
But more than that, and almost without the reader noticing it, Ryan surveys the key actions and consequences covered in the first volume of the series, 3 Gates of the Dead (2014). In lesser hands, such information would probably have ended up as undigested lumps blocking the current narrative; in Ryan’s it forms a seamless part of a dialogue that ends abruptly with the intrusion of the supernatural.
With the second chapter, things become complicated. There is a sacrifice evoking a voodoo ritual. Eerie events at a local farm that rapidly escalate from spectral lights to physical assaults and spiritual sieges. One man’s seemingly innocuous flirtation with computer sites best left unviewed that gradually entwines everyone in the story in a perilous web of fear, terror, and horror. The discovery of an ages-old secret society devoted to hunting down and destroying evil…actually, of two of them, one bluntly physical and the other partaking of the mystical, yet both essentially seeking the same ends. There is a world in which “the fight against evil is a real fight, with real casualties and real sacrifices.”
By the end of Dark Bride much has been accomplished in that fight…but much more remains, presumably to form the core of subsequent books.
Dark Bride is, to me, a remarkable novel for what, on the surface, seems a rather unremarkable reason.
It is a difficult story to categorize precisely. The first novel in the series has been described as blending “theology, murder mystery, horror, and paranormal investigation,” which might serve as an overview of Dark Bride, except that stringing together the names of so many disparate genres and sub-genres suggests that Dark Bride might be more patchwork than integrated pattern—and it certainly is not. It is focused, unswerving, and precise in what it sets out to do and how it achieves its end.
More generally, Dark Bride might be called simply “horror,” but to do so would miss multiple layers of complexity, several almost as important to the novel as are its eerie happenings, gruesome deaths, and inexplicable appearances. And while that single word might be the tag assigned by a bookstore as a convenient sales strategy, it would ultimately not be true to the novel.
Lest anyone think I have lost sight of my earlier sentence, I haven’t. Trying to pin the novel down to a specific “kind” leads directly to the reason I found the story so remarkable. Let me explain.
Several months ago, I published a short study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) titled, unsurprisingly enough C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. In it I attempted to show that one of the most direct ways into the three novels was by seeing each as Lewis’s attempt to use different literary forms to achieve a single end. Out of the Silent Planet, I argued, seems superficially science-fictional, when in fact it opens itself more completely when read as essentially fantasy. Perelandra is so strongly tied to mythic backgrounds, particularly the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, that it seems difficult to see it through any other lens except that of Myth (meaning the ultimately true Stories we tell ourselves to explain the universe). And That Hideous Strength…well, that one is almost always the sticking point for contemporary readers. It is science-fictional, yes, but then there is also that untidiness, almost an unpleasantness, with Merlin, with Planetary Overlords descending to Earth (also read: angels), with the Tower of Babel, with the Fisher King…with any number of things that basically have nothing to do with science fiction.
And that, I concluded, is the “secret” to the novel. It is science fiction, but of a sort that encompasses not only scientific innovations but—gasp!—God and Angels, Myth and Religion, as functional components of Lewis’s narrative reality. That Hideous Strength can incorporate theology, murders, elements of horror, and the supernatural and still claim to be science fiction because it is SF of a particular sort: Christian Science Fiction.
Wait a moment…. “Theology, murders, elements of horror, and the supernatural.” Given a slight difference in wording, those are the same characteristics readers have found in 3 Gates of the Dead and will find in Dark Bride. And the reason is as unremarkable as the novel is remarkable: Jonathan Ryan is writing, not just contemporary horror or yet another supernatural thriller, but Religious—even, perhaps, Christian—Horror.
Actually comparisons between Ryan’s story and Lewis’s Ransom novels are quite apt. There is a tone to each, a matter-of-factness that elevates them above the superficialities of their genres and allows readers to enter their worlds completely, especially its religious elements. Neither Lewis nor Ryan overtly preaches, although the theological underpinnings are always present. Neither presents a merely one-sided view of humanity, nature, and the universe; hence, the presence in both stories of an objective, dispassionate rationalist. Rather, both accept from the inception that great evils exist—supernatural evils—that must in the end be combatted by mortals. But a key addendum to that acceptance is a parallel assumption. In the words of a seventeenth-century writer, “If witches, then God; if no witches, no God.” In other words, if great evil exists, even if only for narratives purposes, then so does supernal goodness.
Dark Bride deals with mere mortals confronting immortals…or, at least, entities whose lives seem not to fall under normal rules. Ryan’s characters know that they represent righteousness; but they do not sit back and wait for God to take care of them. Nor do they behave as do the stereotyped priests and ministers of much horror, who seem content to thrust a cross in the face of a vampire and expect the creature to self-implode; Stephen King destroyed that cliché in ‘Salem’s Lot decades ago.
Instead, they set out to meet evil on its own grounds but steadfastly refuse to play the game according to its rules.