Archive for Book Reviews

Nightmare-Carnival-Ellen-Datlow (1)Nightmare Carnival
Ellen Datlow, ed.
Dark Horse Press, September 2014
Trade paperback, 383 pp., $19.99
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

The title Nightmare Carnival is both precise and descriptive. The fifteen tales collected in the anthology are nightmares—of the purposeful, literary sort—that, like the smell of circus peanuts, linger in the mind to be replayed again and again. And they are a carnival, with its etymological evocation of flesh, complete with exotic animals fanged and unfanged, ghoulish and ghastly clowns, lithe trapezists seemingly defying death (although death always wins), and an assortment of freaks…whether one applies the term to physical aberrations or psychological ones.

The first story, N. Lee Woods’ “Scapegoats,” is a powerfully horrifying glimpse into the human need to assign blame, even when we are ourselves the cause of whatever has damaged us. In this instance, the scapegoat is an elephant, condemned for doing what any creature—sentient or not—would do…striking back at something that has caused it pain. The initial conflict seems minor, but the consequences, and the need for someone or something to pay, grow with each paragraph, culminating in the first overtly horror-driven scene in the collection, one that is almost too revulsive to bear. And yet, we must; it speaks to and about us.

Priya Sharma’s “The Firebrand” and Dennis Danvers “Swan Song and Then Some” are about kindling passions. They focus on the compelling power of love, even when that love is tied inextricably with death. And they are about the underlying human need to experience vicarious danger, symbolized by the circus/carnival with its juxtaposition of pomp and glitter and color with the ever-present threat (or apparent threat) that wild animals might attack, that a trapeze artist might fall, that someone might actually die while entertaining paying customers. And in the latter tale, Alexandra fulfils that desire in all, singing her “swan song” as she plummets from the tent’s top rigging, holding one impossible, indescribable note as she plunges to the ground, and to her bloody, terrifying death…every night and two times on Sunday.

Nick Mamatas’ “Work, Hook, Shoot, and Rip” and Terry Dowling’s “Corpse Rose” both play with the carnival’s unique jargon. Words that seem pedestrian in the outside world become sinister, threatening, in the world of the carnival, and as characters—and readers—understand more and more about the words used, the darkness beneath the lights reveals itself.

Jeffrey Ford’s “Hubler’s Minions” diminishes the carnival to its smallest possible manifestation: a flea circus. These fleas, however, are not ordinary—nothing presented in Nightmare Carnival is ordinary. They rise from the dust bowls of the 1930s to infect and devour, first animals, then fellow performers. And, if they get their way, all of humanity.

It would be possible to highlight any of the stories in Nightmare Carnival, point out excellences in each. Datlow is a first-rank editor, and her choices ring true throughout. Several stories are told from in third-person present-tense (e.g., “She walks away….”), which I normally find distracting and less effective than past-tense narratives…except that here, there are  specific reasons for that choice, pay-offs for readers that validate authors’ decisions and Datlow’s selections. And that comes as near as I can to a negative comment on the anthology. In all, it is strong, with fascinating characters, conflicts, and settings; it is intriguing that the term carnival can be made to mean so many things and incorporate to many varieties of horror…including one bona fide werewolf.

If you have a lingering fear of clowns, perhaps stemming back to reading Stephen King’s IT on a dark and cloudy night; if you are not certain why lions can be so intimidating, even locked in their cages; if you wonder what life must be like for those for whom the anonymity of a carnival back lot is the only choice; if, in a word, you suffer from any form of “carnival nightmares,” don’t let this book pass by.

It’s a killer.

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DisorderedMinds2_3125Disordered Minds
By: Paul S. Huggins
Published on August 11th, 2014

Reviewed by: Catherine Bader

Great title for six great stories!  These tales will have you questioning what’s real and what’s not.  How far does the human mind go before the humanity is lost and delusion, horror, maniacal dysfunction – and murder most foul – take its place. Places where the human soul dissipates in a cloud of dust.  These tales will take you out of the realm of humanity – hold on to your seat.

Starting with To My Dearest Mother, the author takes you into another state of mind – somewhere human beings should not go. It begins as a writer seeks a solitary place to write – to get his creative juices flowing.  He takes a trip to a beautiful, secluded area in which he had attended a funeral in years past. He rents a house. What does he find there? Well, you don’t think I’ll tell you, do you?  Just remember, the mind is a terrible thing to overuse – losing control is not a pretty thing.

Next, Crowded Out.  May I say from the start that this one hit me straight between the eyes? Personal to say the least.  But I have never told my story with such terrifying accuracy.  Incredible reading.  If you have this phobia – be very afraid.

Pushed or Jumped. Ah-ha.  Be careful to be polite, no matter what.  Be careful to keep your temper, no matter what. Temper can be a most gruesome thing, untended.  People can lose their temper over some of the silliest things.  Just remember, what’s silly to you isn’t always silly to others.  And this story is no laughing matter.  Enjoy it.

The Hanging Garden. When you think of a hanging garden – well, you think of one of the world’s wonders (Hanging Gardens of Babylon) and you think of green grass, beautiful trees, lovely flowers….   Don has a favorite place to go that surpasses all expectations of beauty. The only trouble he’s had over time – it seems to be a place of suicides – hangings.  (Hanging Gardens…..?)  Sorry, my pun.  You will find this story dreadfully satisfying.

A Batchelor’s End.  Gerald is going to his bachelor’s party, which means he’s getting married soon!  But right now, he’s sadly lost. Can’t find his way around in a paper bag.  But he finally sees a beautiful mansion out in the boonies and presupposes that this is where his party is to be held.  Wow, he thinks – what a place.  When you’ve got a lost bachelor, a gorgeous mansion, the dark of night – all these things should start your brain thinking.  This is, of course, a horror story……

Last, but not least, Duality.  The death of his mother brings a young man to an old village in an out of the way place.  He wants to see where she grew up and to find his roots.  When he gets there, he finally learns the story of his legacy. But he is shocked by the results and so will you be…….

Per a short biography, Paul S. Huggins comes from the United Kingdom in the county of Suffolk.

A quote:  ….Paul was “…scared to death at an early age by a movie called ‘Dawn of the Dead’…”

‘Nuf said.

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Oct
16

Biters – Book Review

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bitersBiters
By: Harry Shannon
JournalStone Doubledown #4
April 2014

Reviewed by: Michael Collings

Biters substantiates the axiom that the best zombie books are not about zombies at all—and this one is an excellent zombie tale.

The eponymous creatures are not quite zombies. They are the survivors of a mutated virus. In their madness they look, act, and eat like zombies, so the differences are minimal. Also like zombies, they create more of themselves through a simple bite…although they are rarely satisfied with just a nibble.  They are incipiently present, of course, throughout the novel, most often as a muted threat, as ragged hordes straggling across the Nevada landscape on the lookout for humans for dinner.

Yet in another sense, zombies—Biters—are at the center of the tale. In the beginning, the main characters seem fully alive, vigorous, survivors of a world dissolving into turmoil. Buck Ryan is one of them, although more mobile than most, driving his old Chevy truck through the death-lands of Nevada toward a small enclave, surrounded by wire fencing and lit by strings of Christmas lights. His destination: a strip joint named The Pussy Parlor, operated by an old flame, Sarah Gallagher.

It takes a few highly atmospheric pages for the principle action to emerge, but shortly after arriving at the Parlor, Ryan is off again into the wilderness, full of plans to hijack a shipment of medicine, drugs, and other critical supplies salvaged from other small communities that didn’t survive the biters’ attacks. He will kill Sarah’s current lover—pimp, cohort, whatever term works best—and split the profits with her.

Once beyond the confines of the fence, Ryan again faces the desolation that humanity has become…in the image of a dilapidated farmhouse and its sole occupant, an emaciated dog; in the image of betrayal as three men attack and savage another small group of refugees; and in the image of betrayal compounded by betrayal as he confronts the man he was sent out to kill.

By this time, the underlying suggestions of the title and the setting become increasingly clear: the true biters—the true villains of the piece, as it were—are not wandering mindlessly through the Nevada desert: they are huddled within the enclave, within The Pussy Parlor, within Buck Ryan and every other ostensibly healthy human in the story. All are zombies. All act only according to their own appetites. All are infected…with greed, hatred, lust, to murder and destroy in a world that is all but dead.

And in the end, only Buck Ryan is given a choice—whether to join the human-biters or to remain fully human.

It is not an easy choice.

Biters is not an easy book. It is harsh, direct, sparing no details needed for the story to move to what almost seems a pre-ordained conclusion (in a cosmic sense, perhaps, certainly not in the sense that the story is predictable). The characters are strong, including the single biter kept captive in a cage outside the Parlor, almost an icon for everyone in the town, who seem free but cower behind their wire-walls as well.

Biters is coupled with Brett Talley’s remarkable The Reborn (for my review, see: http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2014/09/brett-talley-reborn.html), comprising a volume of horrors as startling as it is well written.

Recommended.

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where-all-light-is-left-to-dieWhere all light is left to die by Robert S. Wilson

Some short fiction writers have told me they are not fond of single author collections even if it is their own. They claim that the short story collection corrals the works into a hodgepodge that doesn’t respect the power of a stand-alone short story. You read one and off you go on another without digesting the first tale. But what are you going to do? The sad fact is, without anthologies and collections, short fiction has a short life. One exposure in a magazine and poof! Gone! And we all know short fiction doesn’t pay the bills. Edward Bryant, one of the greatest short fiction writers in fantasy, science fiction, and horror told me that he wanted this engraving on his tombstone: “Died broke. Only wrote short stories.”

But the fact remains that short fiction often brings out the best in a writer. It challenges the writer to flesh out their ideas and emotion in a few pages while still involving and entertaining the reader.  When it works, it can be astounding.

In the single author collection, Where All Light is Left to Die, Robert S. Wilson shows that he can compete with the big names in the field of worthwhile short fiction. There are thirteen works ranging from science fiction to fantasy and horror and a couple that are hard to classify. All of them can be referred to as dark fiction, a description of the type of stories that bring out the more undesirable and fearful moments in our emotional landscape.  The first story in the collection, “The Death Catcher”, is typical and one of the best. It is about a man who can bring dead souls back to the bodies but with questionable results for both the dying and the catcher. It exhibits a number of similarities in the author’s stories; a cautious sensitivity for relationships and families, a mindfulness of the effects of loss and death, and a fondness for the thoughtful ending. “The Boy in the Elevator” is an uncomfortable tale of child molestation with a weirdly satisfying ending. “Forcipules” is an ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ type tale that might also have a hint of dark comedy for anyone who is afraid of bugs. Not all the stories are successful. “Self-Aware” is an attempt to bring detective thriller and science fiction together but it doesn’t work for me. It misses the emotional connection that the other stories have. “The Resurrection of Tommy Derringer” fares better but seems like an intro to a longer and more involved story. However, most of the other stories succeed quite well and should heighten your anxiety factor to an uncomfortable level.

Besides the short fiction, Wilson has included two novellas and one novelette; “The Quiet”, “The Nesting Place” and “Through the Mindhole”. All three shows that the author can branch out and expand his ideas in more complex ways.  I read “The Quiet” two years ago and had mixed feelings. Yet this revised and expanded version proves that the author has certainly developed his skills nicely. My favorite of these longer works, and best in the collection, is “Through the Mindhole”, a complex story involving a detective who is transported to an alter universe in a version of himself that is precisely his opposite in many disturbing ways. That one novelette is worth the price of admission.

Overall, this is a good collection and a nice introduction to a young and promising writer. Anyone who appreciate short fiction should check out All Light is Left to Die and expect to enjoy some pleasurably scary moments of dark fiction.

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wakening-the-crowWakening the Crow
By Stephen Gregory
Publisher: Solaris (November 11th, 2014)

Reviewed by: Marvin P. Vernon

Stephen Gregory’s Wakening the Crow invokes not only the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe but also some of the psychological and supernatural aspects of the master’s writings that has had readers mesmerized since the 19th  century . In Gregory’s haunting and puzzling novel, Oliver Gooch is a marginally working librarian until his 7 year old daughter Chloe was in a car accident. She suffers brain damage and Oliver is only slightly uncomfortable that he prefers this version of Chloe, mute and pliable, to pre-accident Chloe who he describes as “a horrid child” and “rude, petulant, and defiantly uncooperative.” He is also minimally guilty that the large settlement allows him to open up his own book store which he names “Poe’s Tooth” due to a gift he is given by an elderly bookseller.  The reason the gift is given to Oliver is unknown but the bookseller has a connection to the Gooch family that Oliver is yet aware of. The gift comes with a letter stating it to be Edgar Allen Poe’s actual tooth that was pulled from his mouth when Poe was a small boy.

Anyone faintly familiar with the supernatural psychological novel knows that this is not going to go well. Along with the spectra of the tooth, Oliver, Chloe, and his wife Rosie are also visited by a ragged and somewhat sinister looking crow who is reluctant to leave the confines of the bookstore, formerly used as a church. The crow seems to have a strange connection with the mute child. The reader as well as our narrator wonders if the tooth may be some kind of curse and, in many ways, this novel is just as much a homage to W. W. Jacob and his classic short work, “The Monkey’s Paw” as it is to Poe. Yet Gregory is not just writing a homage to the old horror writers and their talent at creating a work of atmospheric terror. He is also creating his own tapestry of a dysfunctional family caught in an inexplicable horror and he does it with the minimum of gore and the maximum of dread and angst. Oliver is not very likable. His relationship with his daughter is creepy at best. And at worst? That is a question the author leaves out there. Rosie seems to be the grounding for the family yet we suspect that grounding is tenuous. Chloe is the question mark. In her post-accident cherubness, she seems to be a tabula rasa for the interpretation that Oliver places on the events. Eventually the entire family become unhinged by the presence of the crow or is it just the secrets, guilt and consequences of the behaviors of this family catching up to them due to the catalyst of supernatural forces?

Gregory doesn’t let you know too much too soon. His hoarding of details and doling out of information only until you need it is quite masterful. It is also why some may feel this book moves a little too slowly. Yet the slow psychological reveal is fast becoming a lost art in storytelling especially in the horror genre. This is why I recommend Wakening the Crow so highly. It is a nice example of introspective storytelling yet when it is necessary, and especially at the end, Gregory can scare the pants off you.  The average reader may also feel uncomfortable with the relationships in the Gooch family yet this adds to the eeriness and developing horror of the tale. Overall, Wakening the Crow is an above average work of horror that will stay with you quite a while after you read the last page.

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concrete-park-volume-1Concrete Park, Volume 1: You Send Me
Tony Puryear, Erika Alexander, Writers
Tony Puryear, Artwork
Dark Horse Books
ISBN: 978-1616555306
October 14, 2014; $9.74 HC

Reviewed by Elaine Pascale

To paraphrase Pat Benatar, (in Concrete Park), Hell is for sexy post-adolescents.  The graphic novel depicts the lives of young, urban detainees, exiled to Scare City—a place with a barrio feel far from Earth; a place that has many of the qualities that we would attribute to Hell.

In terms of the writing, the voices are stark and salted with street slang.  The writers wisely provide us with a glossary of terms that are specific to Scare City.  What is most important is that voices are given to the politically hushed city kids, to the underprivileged, to the gang members. Volume 1 is an introduction to the characters and they are presented with a bullet-like quickness.  The main characters of You Send Me are Isaac, a street tough who introduces us to the mechanism that sends the outcasts to the correctional planet Oasis; and Luca, a cagey gang leader whose soft interior is shown in her thoughts about her lover, Lena.  It is evident that Isaac and Luca’s paths will join in a meaningful way in future volumes.  There are many other compelling characters including a shape-shifter, a gang-leader “The Potato King,” and a DJ whose tracks can be heard on the companion website concretepark.com.

The artwork is masterful.  Puryear’s drawings are rich with ethnic detail, going beyond stereotype to depict individual characters that teem with heat, anger and sexuality.  Puryear makes subtle social commentary in his drawings; for example, there is a depiction of “Sugar Street: the ho stroll” in which three women in burka-style dress are placed in front of billboards featuring nude women with words like “hit it.”  The contrast resonates with contemporary readers, even though the story takes place in the future and on another planet.  A character says, “Across town, something is burning.  Something is always burning,” and the artwork, with its orange, brown and mahogany tones contains the qualities of a smoldering fire on the verge of combustion.

This is a very adult graphic novel with mature language, nudity and enough guns, blood and bullets to satisfy a Tarantino fan.  It is a slick commentary on the choices the “have nots” are forced to make.  The overarching question of Concrete Park is whether the characters will find redemption and live in a world of external and internal peace, or whether they will destroy each other.

It is evident that Puryear and Alexander take great pride in the world they created, and they should.  Though Concrete Park is housed within the fantasy genre, it is stridently honest.  Its gaze is set directly upon characters that represent a hidden underclass.  It is no wonder that Concrete Park was named one of the Best American Comics of 2013.

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The-Medusas-Gaze-and-Vampires-Bite-The-Science-of-MonstersThe Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters
Matt Kaplan
Scribner
ISBN
978-1451667981
October 2012; $26.00 HC, $16.00 PB


Reviewed by David Goudsward

Matt Kaplan is a science journalist who basically believes all monsters exist because mankind made them. Not necessarily literally (at least in the early chapters), but most certainly in a figurative sense. Take the fabled chimera as one example. First mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, the chimera is a fire breathing lion in the front, a goat in the middle and a snake for a tail. Kaplan ponders how such a “morphological mess” could be imagined by the ancient Greeks. He eliminates any possible genetic mutations or atavisms and discusses the possible origins of the beast as a collection of mixed species fossils before settling on remains from a tar pit. The problem of there being no tar pits in Greece is resolved by noting that the Greeks had colonies on the Black Sea, which has oil reserves required for a tar pit. Conclusive? Certainly not, but a viable theory that also explains the origins of other hybrid creatures such as the pegasus or sphinx.

From giant animals through dragons to killer computers with side trips to vampires and zombies, Kaplan carefully reviews why certain monsters resonate in the collective human psyche. Kaplan’s style is easy to follow, and his insights are punctuated by footnotes of sufficient snarkiness to remind the readers that this is supposed to be fun. His science is rudimentary, and he carefully avoids getting bogged down in terminology. I am not personally thrilled to see Wade Davis’s discredited theory of tetrodotoxin poisoning appear in the text as the source of zombiism, but in all fairness, this book of possibilities, not definitive answers.

Indeed, one of Kaplan’s recurring points is that we may never know how encountering a big lion in the woods evolved into the indestructible hide of the Nemean Lion or if a premature burial gave rise to the vampire legend. It is safe to say that today’s treatments of mankind’s monsters say as much about us as the original stories tell about our ancestors.

At least their vampires didn’t sparkle

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