Archive for Book Reviews
G.J. Wise’s Spiritwood is a novel of small town horror driven by centuries-old American Indian lore. The story is typical of the subgenre of rural community horror but definitely tends toward a contemporary and extreme feel. There are some excellent characters that the reader will find themselves invested in, heroes to root for and villains to rail against. The plot has its ups and downs and not all of the threads have the same compelling pace, but the fate of the players is enough to keep one reading through to the end.
The town of Spiritwood, Wisconsin dates back many generations to a time when it was populated by Native Americans, the last of whom were the tribe of leader Red Eagle. A massacre of his people leaves them interred in a burial mound in the dense forest outside of the town proper, a burial mound that will retain a strong supernatural energy to the present day, when the novel is set.
Few residents know the mound exists, and only one, the elderly Henry Crowdog, knows what it actually is. The grave is often littered with the bones of small animals that have ventured onto it, a sign of its destructive power. The biggest illustration of the burial mound’s dark power comes when Henry, a young man some 50 years before the book’s main story, finds it, passes through the circle of trees around it and sits atop it. Unable to stop himself, Henry inflicts wounds upon his own body, wounds that were not fatal only through luck and Henry’s personal resolve. After his recovery, Henry takes it upon himself to guard the mound to make sure nobody breaks the circle of trees surrounding it or violates it otherwise.
The main conflict of the novel begins when artist and sculptor Jed Guinness buys the rural home and property in which the burial mound is located. Jed has a special gift that allows him to see things, people, shapes in wood, and it’s that ability that allows him to sculpt, or carve, with such precision. He doesn’t cut figures into the wood, he simply cuts away what wood is in the way of the shapes that are already there. His new neighbor, young B.J., is the only other person who can see the things in the wood like Jed and it’s B.J. that will connect Jed to Henry and drive the narrative through increasing violence to its ultimate conclusion.
The characters are the greatest success of the book with the supporting players being as interesting, if not more so, than the lead players. The plotting of the book is a bit uneven, with the stories of certain characters working well, like Henry, B.J. and the main antagonist Bruce moving along at a quick pace. Other characters, though well realized, don’t have strong plot threads that lead to occasional slowdowns. The book’s only real failing is with a series of dreams and visions that happen at about the midway point in the novel. The dreams go on entirely too long and nothing of substance to the story. If the reader can get through them, though, the story picks up steam again through increasing madness and violence to a strong conclusion.
Mother of Demons is the latest release from Maynard Sims, the pseudonym for long time writing partners Mick Sims and Len Maynard. It’s also the latest Department 18 Novel, the fifth in a series of supernatural horror novels focusing on a clandestine British government organization tasked with protecting the country from threats of the mystical variety. The authors put out consistently high quality novels that read fast and fun, and this story is no exception.
The novel starts out with Erik Strasser and his followers, members of a fast growing coven. Strasser is the high priest and is forced to intervene when Alice, one of his followers, gets intoxicated and decide to try and fly from a high hotel balcony. This establishes the relationship between the two and how Strasser desires to protect Alice. Alice is the niece of Vi Bulmer, an associate of Department 18, and her plight is what brings the organization into the case.
Alice’s family manages to wrest her away from Strasser and his coven only to see her escape from the treatment center they sent her to. As two workers are killed when she escapes, Harry Bailey involves the Department as the deaths seem to be the result of supernatural origin. Along with Vi and her assistant Jason, Harry and Department 18 work with the local law enforcement to uncover the truth of Strasser and his relationship to Alice. The characters are solid and have strong backstories, especially if the reader has experience with the previous novels in the series.
The plot develops in an interesting way that keeps the pages turning fast. What seems to start off as a conspiracy involving a secret society quickly becomes both more than that and less than that. Less in a good way, as a tighter story that focuses on characters and their relationships. The plot becomes something of a revenge-horror story infused with a heavy dose of the supernatural at things build to a solid climax. Mother of Demons is a solid and enjoyable book from beginning to end.
Brian Kirk’s new Samhain release, We Are Monsters, employees the tried and true horror setting of the mental health asylum to ask some provocative questions: What does it mean to heal the mentally ill? Who really needs healing? and Who are the real monsters? The employees and patients of the Sugar Hill state hospital become involved in a reality bending conspiracy to use experimental treatments to cure schizophrenia and the results are horrific. The story has strong characters and starts very strong before slowing down some in the hallucinatory third act.
The novel starts off strong with the main character, Dr. Alex Drexler, administering an unapproved trial drug to a restrained patient. After just a matter of moments it becomes clear that things have gone very wrong and that Drexler will have to take extreme measures to see his experiment through to its conclusion. His desire to complete his work soon becomes central to the goings on at his main place of employment, Sugar Hill hospital. Drexler has to navigate the maze of employees from his boss, Eli Alpert, who knows nothing of the experiment, to board member and chief supporter of the experiment, Mr. Bearman, who pushes Drexler to use his new procedure on Crosby Nelson. Nelson is the famous Apocalypse Killer, a clearly paranoid schizophrenic man who appears to be a perfect test subject, but will end up being the downfall of all involved.
The plot starts off strong, establishing a cast of believable and relatable characters and a realistic setting in the Georgia state hospital, Sugar Hill. In the first act, the doctors, counselors, orderlies and patients have a rich a thoroughly developed backstories, and in establishing this the story never becomes bogged down in exposition but keeps plowing ahead. Dr. Drexler’s need to prove his experiment a success leads him to try it on his mentally ill brother. The experiment with his brother ends in tragedy for his family and the hospital. The second act follows the hospital through changes in the wake of the events with Alex’s brother. Dr. Drexler is forced into even more drastic actions when his entire professional life is put at risk.
The third act is, in concept, a fascinating idea. It forces mental health professionals into a situation where they must deal with hallucinatory mental states themselves, effectively putting them into the position their patients have always had to deal with. While the concept works, the execution is lacking. There are three parallel narratives at this point and only the one focusing on Dr Drexler fully works. The threads about Angela, the counselor, and Dr. Alpert, the boss, seem extraneous to the greater plot, as did shorter passages about them earlier in the work. The backgrounds of these characters is filled in here, and some readers may appreciate that, but it takes a while to get there.
The end of the story is satisfying and worth the digressions of the third act, especially considering the strength of the majority of the novel. We Are Monsters is a solid horror novel and an entertaining read, but it is the discussion of mental health and its attendant issues that makes it really worth the read. Author Brian Kirk manages to strike the delicate balance of discussing pressing social issues without ever resorting to preaching to the reader.
Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by one of our sponsors.
“This was not the time for hearts and flowers.It was all blood and barbed wire now.”
The fantastic Devil’s Breath is the latest dark-thriller/ horror novel from Greg F. Gifune. It is a brooding and atmospheric story that combines the best of mystery, noir, horror and supernatural genres, creating a unique and compelling tale. When strong characters are added to the mix the result is a compulsively readable work.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of Stan Falk, a dishwasher with a mysterious and combustible past. Things begin when Stan learns that his bank account has been drained without his knowledge and, somehow, by himself. Aided by insights into the drug scopolamine, street named Devil’s Breath, and the worship of the god Saturn, he finds that answers to his questions are stranger than he could have ever imagined. The story shifts from a gritty noir to a supernatural horror with a seamless ease that belies the complexities of the plot.
Along with his coworker and friend Sophie, Stan is sucked into a conspiracy that is beyond his ability to understand. Other characters pass through the story and help Stan along his journey to the heart of a vast conspiracy. His homeless friend Duane is a deep, sympathetic and enigmatic character who provides insights and intelligence that transcend his station in life. The remaining characters are also good, but play very small parts, serving to help Stan along in his journey.
The novel contains scenes that are possibly flashbacks, maybe dreams or hallucinations. When the relevance and true nature of these scenes is revealed it takes the quality of the structure of the narrative to an even higher level. The novel ends with a climax of sex, violence and the supernatural that could only be pulled off by a talented writer at the absolute top of his game.
The Alien vs Predator universe sure is one crowded house. There’s a whole bunch of awesome movies (and a couple not-so-awesome ones), some badass video games, there’s action figures and now, there are some brand-spanking new comic books.
There are currently four different comic series set in the Fire and Stone storyline: Prometheus: Fire and Stone, Aliens: Fire and Stone, Predator: Fire and Stone, and this one, AvP: Fire and Stone. Each series is four issues long and every series shares an interconnected story. The upcoming June 23rd release of AvP: Fire and Stone collects issues 1 through 4 of the same name comic, previously released throughout 2014 by Dark Horse Books.
AvP: Fire and Stone picks up after the events of Prometheus: Fire and Stone. Elden, a synthetic (think Bishop from Aliens or David from Prometheus) who has mutated and is currently self-evolving into some sort of alien-robot-human thing, is on the hunt for his creator, Francis. Elden finds Francis aboard the Geryon, a ship initially sent on a rescue mission to the planet LV-223, where the events of Prometheus transpired. The ship is now on the trip home to Earth, seemingly unaware that Elden is on his way to seek answers (and maybe get a little vengeance) on his creator.
The Predators show up…because…well, this is an AvP installment after all. I’m assuming it’s because the Preds love a good hunt, and hey, what better game than the ever-transforming, ever-unstoppable Elden? Either way, once Elden, the Predators and the Aliens are onboard the same ship, there’s a whole lot of blood, guts and metamorphosis going on.
The storyline is very Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Elden struggles with his identity and his raison d’etre as he becomes more and more self-aware. His quest to find Francis, his creator, isn’t so much to kill him, but simply to find out why Francis made him the way he is. Elden is a sympathetic character; he’s the robot-alien on the verge of self-discovery. The story, penned by Christopher Sebela, has enough action and keeps the pace of the story moving along well enough that boredom isn’t an option.
Artwork wise, there are a lot of gorgeous things happening here. First and foremost is the beautiful cover art by E.M. Gist. Also included is a variant cover by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. The interior art by Ariel Olivetti is amazing. Every decapitation, every instance of acidic green blood, every mutation and evolution, it’s all lovely. It’s the kind of stuff that you want to hang on your walls and stare at all day.
Based on the artwork alone, this compilation of the AvP: Fire and Stone series is worth getting your hands on. It’s the best way to get your fix of the Alien and Predator universes until the next adventure in the franchises comes out.
In Shane McKenzie’s tense and different novella Mutt, Patrick, a young white/Korean male who is often mistaken as Mexican, lives with his mother, works at a boxing gym cleaning up and basically stays out of trouble. That is until he meets a Mexican girl who mistakes him as being the same as her. Pat is too smitten with desire to correct her and finds himself taken to a party by the local gang Los Reyes Locos. When he discovers he has been “drafted” into joining, it is too late and he is neck deep in a lifestyle he doesn’t want with a girl he cannot resist. He must fight his way out to save himself and his family.
McKenzie’s writing is very visceral. As in his previous work, Muerte Con Carne, there is plenty of action and violence. Yet while Muerte Con Carne is clearly a horror tale, Mutt is closer to a suspense and crime tale, and throws in a lot of human drama into its characters’ development and emotions. Patrick is mixed race but is frequently mistaken as Mexican. Patrick is based on the author’s own situation and speaks of his own dilemma as being judged as someone he is not. While the author is taking his queues from his own life, I am fairly certain the actual plot is not auto-biographical or at least I hope not! The fictional Patrick’s situation is extreme but it works as an illustration of one of our own inescapable issues in our American life: being judged on appearance and race rather than for who we really are. Mutt is just as much a coming-of-age tale about growing up in race and class torn America as it is an edge of your seat thriller about gangs and violence.
That is why this book and the main character of Patrick moved me so much. Patrick is a normal kid who wants to be accepted and wants the girl. He is tricked into a lifestyle he does not want for a girl who may have other plans for him. In the midst of this plot we have great writing that brings Patrick and the gang of Los Reyes Locos to life. There is no sugar coating. Patrick is sleeping with cobras and he knows it. The scenes of violence are intense but fit squarely into the story and we see Patrick’s own terror and bewilderment as he experiences it.
It is that part of McKenzie’s writing that senses the horror of life choices when it collides with the human-created horrors of society that makes me come back to his stories. Whether it is cannibal families as in Muerte Con Carne or homicidal gangs as in Mutt, the author goes deeper than the suspense and visceral thrills inherent in the tale and digs into the existential dread that one will find themselves in. I hope the author continues this exploration of the human side of dark social and racial themes in future stories. Even if he decides to just thrill and terrorize us I will be pleased. He does it so well. But he has the gift of social observation that does not ignore the individual psyche and I hope he uses it again.
My first ever review of a horror fiction magazine is for issue 45 of Black Static. There’s nothing finer than sitting back in your favorite chair and paging through a new magazine, and, if the publication is good enough, you will find yourself reading it from front to back. If not, well…
So which kind of magazine is Black Static? Judging by this single issue, I’d say it’s something you’ll treasure.
First off, I like the way it’s bound – it has a proper spine instead of staples so that you can see which issue sits on the shelf. The cover design is professional and the artwork throughout is tasteful and catches the eye. A real top job.
Between the covers, what you have is a healthy dose of frightening fiction sandwiched between non-fiction articles. In this issue, in a section called “Comments,” we have an article for screenwriters and a second article about the female body in horror. The community of horror writers on the Internet is healthy and I can see how the hunger for writing tips might spill over into a fiction magazine, however I am not sure if many non-writers would care about selling a movie script. A good article to be sure, but let’s see more like the second.
Next up, we have what most readers are really after: horror stories. I was pleased with the level of quality and the variety of tales here. There is not one subpar story in the bunch and I foresee each horror fanatic having their own personal favorites among them; mine were the ones by Laura Munro and Danny Rhodes—a matter of preference, as all these authors are either old pros (Tem) or writers to watch. Really excellent stuff in the heart of the thing and an easy recommendation for horror fiction readers of all tastes. Quite an accomplishment.
At the back, we have movie and book reviews. Tony Lee packs in a ton of film reviews in a limited space with not a word wasted. This is really efficient writing and what I prefer in a DVD review, rather than having fewer, long-winded ones. On to the book reviews and, as is appropriate, Peter Tennant stretches things out a bit to accommodate his shrewd opinions on recent publications. Also included here is a fascinating author interview with Helen Marshall.
So, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. I don’t recall reading a more engrossing fiction magazine in recent years. Black Static is damn good and I look forward to reviewing the next issue where I hope to focus more on fiction.