Suffer the Children / Sara Jayne Townsend

Lyrical Press / April 2010
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: (From Lyrical Press)

Fear has a face…

Orphaned at eighteen, Leanne's life is adrift in a sea of grief and drug use. She washes up on the shore of estranged relatives, the Carver family, struggling with loss of their own. The transition from her South London council estate to her new home in the Surrey middle-class suburbs is difficult for Leanne.

But beneath the respectable veneer of the quiet neighborhood, something terrifying lurks. Displaced and troubled teenagers are disappearing. Leanne recruits her cousin Simon and his girlfriend Carrie to help get to the bottom of the sinister mystery. Can the three of them stop a creature of unimaginable evil before Leanne becomes a target?

Review:

Suffer the Children is a good, old-fashioned horror story, with a touch of the paranormal, a little classic mythology, and a healthy dose of suspense, all set down in a contemporary British setting. It’s the kind of book perfect for curling up with on a rainy afternoon and reading from cover to cover. Author Townsend has a facile, easy way with her prose and a keen observer’s eye for people, resulting in unique and breathing characterization. Townsend’s characters are mostly young adults, late teens to early twenties, and she captures them well, in all their late-adolescent angst and bad decision-making.

It is this age group that forms the central conflict and central horror to the novel. The orphaned main character, Leanne, has lost her mother to a drug overdose (one long in coming) and discovered, almost at the same time, that she has an aunt and a ready-made family she never knew existed until her mother died. Leanne’s entry into this middle-class, white bread family, after growing up in what is essentially a London ghetto, makes for the novel’s initial dramatic tension.

But then teenagers begin disappearing. Teenagers like Leanne, fosters, delinquents, and the like, all turn up missing and leave not a trace behind. The Carver family, who have adopted Leanne, lost their own daughter, Emma, and she may have fallen victim to the same plight as the other missing kids, although her disappearance does not fit the pattern. But the author cleverly explains Emma’s disappearance.

The tension really ramps up in the novel when the pattern of disappearances begins to get noticed, not so much by the authorities, but by Leanne and her friends.

Unfortunately, the tension is slow in coming. And I fear many readers may not stick with Suffer the Children long enough to get to the really good parts. A reader is a full quarter of the way into the book until he or she truly begins to see some horror and some nail-biting suspense. If I hadn’t been reading this book to review, I don’t know that I would have stuck it out to get to the latter part of the book, when the tension, dramatic conflict, and terror really accelerate. In short, I think Townsend could have benefitted from a good editor, to help her shape and focus the novel a bit more. A good horror novel needs to grab a reader right from the start and Suffer the Children fails on that count.

But it is worth sticking with. In spite of a rather predictable climax and denouement (I saw the villain coming from a mile away), the book works. The author’s creation of likable characters who grow over the course of the novel, the palpable sense of tension and dread, and the effortless prose all combine to make Suffer the Children a horror experience I can definitely recommend.

Purchase Suffer the Children by Sara Jayne Townsend.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of more than sixteen novels, three collections, and short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Monday, March 21, 2011 at 11:06AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments4 Comments

Darkness on the Edge of Town / Brian Keene

Leisure / February 2010
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: One morning the residents of Walden, Virginia, woke to find themselves cut off from the rest of the world by an impenetrable wall of darkness.

Review: The premise above sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Especially for fans of books like Stephen King’s Under the Dome or even Michael Grant’s Gone. Like Darkness on the Edge of Town, those books both had apocalyptic breakdown of civilization premises and both of them worked, more or less. I wish I could say the same for Keene’s work.

The simple synopsis above, taken from the book’s Amazon detail page, is chilling – and it pretty much encapsulates the whole novel – and that’s too bad, because the premise offers so much more potential. The dark is one of our greatest human fears, with us from as far back as most of us can remember. To imagine a world where a thick wall of darkness has surrounded it, cutting off rain, wind, electricity, and other humanity beyond the confines of our one small town is some genuinely creepy fodder for spine-tingling horror. What lurks in the darkness? What if the darkness were a real thing? A force, evil and unconquerable?

To his credit, Keene does explore those last couple of questions in his story of a small town where suddenly darkness reigns and it appears that its twelve thousand or so residents are the only people remaining in existence. But it almost seems as though he set out to downplay what could have been a genuinely horrifying thrill-ride and mute it, burying it in shades closer to gray than black.

Like Stephen King, to whom this author is often compared, Keene gives us a ragtag assortment of working class characters, everymen and everywomen, and sets them down in circumstances that are bizarre and terrifying. Here we have the good-hearted average Joe pizza deliveryman, living with his pot-smoking girlfriend in a rundown apartment. The deliveryman narrates the story, or what there is of a story. The characters, like the story, are bleak and hopeless.

Unfortunately, Keene doesn’t give us much of a story; he gives us a situation. Darkness falls. Darkness is a real thing, a hungry beast capable of preying on our worst fears and longings. Darkness may have destroyed the rest of the world save for the inhabitants of this small Virginia town. Darkness is driving the townsfolk crazy, pitting them against each other and causing them to revert to raping, killing, and mutilating beasts.

But that’s really it. We watch as things go from bad to worse. We listen in on endless conversation about how hopeless the characters’ plights are. We see them feebly try to beat back the pitch. But there’s no real tension. There’s no suspense. The book plods along and never really finds a good foothold, not in sympathetic characters or in a careful building of conflict and tension. I kept reading, partially because I knew I was reviewing the book for this column and partly because I have read other Brian Keene books and loved them. I hoped that this one would redeem itself. I longed for a crackerjack of an ending, a devious twist, maybe an explanation of why.

And I got no payoff. The book, like some of the town’s residents, limped along to an anticlimactic ending that left me feeling dissatisfied and disappointed.

I usually try and write about books that cast a spell in a good way for this column. Unfortunately, Darkness on the Edge of Town cast only a spell of impatience to move on to the next book.

Purchase Darkness on the Edge of Town by Brian Keene.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of thirteen novels, three collections, and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 07:43AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments4 Comments | References6 References

Mozart’s Blood / Louise Marley

Kensington / July 2010
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: Award winning author Louise Marley’s compelling, intricately layered story of a beautiful soprano who shares an everlasting bond with the world’s most notorious musical genius…

Octavia Voss is an ethereal singer whose poise and talent belie her young age. In truth, she is a centuries-old vampire who once “shared the tooth” with Mozart himself. To protect her secret, Octavia’s even more ancient friend Ugo stalks the streets to find the elixir that feeds his muse’s soul.

With Mozart’s musical prowess coursing through her veins, the ageless Octavia reinvents herself with each new generation. But just as she prepares to take the stage at La Scala, Ugo inexplicably disappears, leaving Octavia alone — and dangerously unprotected. Octavia vows to find Ugo, but his fate is in the hands of forces much darker than she could ever imagine. And when she learns the truth behind his disappearance, Octavia realizes too late that the life hanging most in the balance is her own.

Review: Just when you think you’ve read everyone in horror who matters, along comes Louise Marley with her amazing and lyrical vampire tale, Mozart’s Blood. Gripping, artful, tellingly detailed, and impossible to put down, Mozart’s Blood is that rare kind of horror novel that works on more than one level. It’s visceral. It’s evocative. It’s scary. It envelops you in atmosphere and delivers on its promise to tell a compelling story.

There’s that old saw – you know the one – about there being nothing new under the sun. Well, I’ve often heard that about vampire stories. They’ve been around so long and told in so many ways and with so many variations, is there really anything new left to say? Or is everything written about vampires just a rehash of the same old tropes we know, love, and dread?

Louise Marley has taken the vampire mythos (and, stunningly, the werewolf one, too) and breathed new life into it. Breathing new life into the undead, whether you’re speaking literally or about literature, is no easy feat. But Marley, with her tale of an opera diva who was “turned” during a ménage a trois with Mozart himself and a Czech aristocrat, has used her imagination to craft something wholly original and often beautiful to behold. I love the way Marley takes us through the various lives of the singer, having her go away and then return as a new persona, so she can continue to indulge in her true passion, which is not blood, but music. And what music! One of the conceits of the book is that vampires, each time they take blood, they also take the memories of their victims. Our opera diva has the memories – and feelings – of Mozart himself. Who better to sing Donna Anna in his Don Giovanni? Any good opera singer knows half the battle is not in the voice but in the intention and the emotion behind the notes.

The book is infused with music, with global color (the descriptions of Italy and La Scala in Milan in particular are rich and detailed), and with a kind of strange love. A Sicilian werewolf she meets during the great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco looks after our opera singer. His story is as compelling as hers and their intertwined lives over the years make fodder for fascinating reading. This was one book I was sorry to see conclude.

Marley also cleverly uses music as metaphor for immortality, tying it all together superbly with her paranormal creatures and showing how they’re linked as both curse and blessing.

Mozart’s Blood is one you won’t want to miss.

Purchase Mozart’s Blood by Louise Marley.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of thirteen novels, three collections, and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about Reed at his official author website.

Posted on Monday, August 16, 2010 at 11:32AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments1 Comment | References2 References

Vicious / Kevin O'Brien

Pinnacle / June 2010
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: For more than two years, he held Seattle in a terror grip - a cold-blooded killer who abducted young mothers right in front of their sons and murdered them execution style. Then, as suddenly as the killings began, they seemed to stop.

Susan Blanchette is looking forward to a relaxing weekend getaway with her fiancée, Allen, and young son, Matthew. But something about the remote lake house doesn't feel right. A woman vanished from the area a year ago, and now Susan thinks she's spotted someone lurking around the property. And when Allen disappears, her fear grows.

A psychopath has returned, ready to strike again. Someone who can't resist the urge to kill, who derives pleasure from others' pain, and who is drawing nearer to Susan as each minute of the weekend ticks by. But she's just one pawn at the heart of a killer's deadly game — a killer who is unrelenting, unstoppable, and absolutely vicious.

Review: Although it’s being marketed as a thriller, Kevin O’Brien’s latest Seattle-set chiller would be more appropriately classified as a horror novel. It’s in the same true-life vein as, say, a horror novel by Jack Ketchum or a movie like Last House on the Left or The Strangers. It’s the scariest kind of horror, because it could really happen.

I say the above because Vicious is a book that defies convention as a thriller in the same vein as Harlan Coben or Lynwood Barclay. Vicious, unlike most books in the thriller genre, is all about the villain (or villains) and the victims. O’Brien spends very little time on police procedure or even amateur investigators getting to the bottom of crime. Most books classified as thrillers make the detection of the principle crime the heart of the work. Vicious brings us brilliantly into the mind of a very sick and twisted killer – dubbed by the press as the “Mama’s boy Killer” because he kills only the mothers of young children – and his victims.

O’Brien is a master at ratcheting up the suspense and doing the thing that all suspense writers long to do: keep us compulsively turning the pages in an almost frantic quest to find out what happens next. Part of the reason for the escalating tension and mounting suspense is not only the author’s careful plotting and timing, but his facility for creating a truly sympathetic cast of characters. He makes his good characters so real and believable that we become not only observers, but protectors, watching over their every move and trying with force of telepathy to warn them about the peril they are placing themselves in. That’s masterful suspense.

Even with O’Brien’s less savory – and yes, evil – characters, there is a strong element of if not sympathy, then fascination. O’Brien brings us close enough to the fiery heart of evil to get scorched. He capably and credibly shows us the malice lurking in the twisted mind of a killer. And best of all, he allows us to understand the twisted and tortured logic of one who kills.

He sets all this down in territory I’m very familiar with — Seattle and the more untamed parts of the Pacific Northwest that border the “rain city.” I would say that even if you have never been to this part of the country, O’Brien makes it very real and palpable. The woods, the darkness, the snap and chill of the air, and the often gloomy landscape provide a very compelling and evocative backdrop for the author’s tale. The real-life locations, such as Seattle’s beautiful Volunteer Park, make the horror that much more believable and real.

This is the first of this author’s work that I’ve encountered. I have already followed that up with his also excellent Final Breath, and I am so impressed with his ability to tell a dread-inducing tale (however you want to classify it) that I am certain I will complete his entire oeuvre by year’s end.

Purchase Vicious by Kevin O’ Brien.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of thirteen novels, three collections, and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official website.

Posted on Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 08:37AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments71 Comments | References26 References

Out of the Darkness / Lesli Richardson

Lyrical Press/January 2009
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: Ancient evil forces a woman to fight for her life - and true love.

Man may forget horrors, but the land remembers. Built on a cursed patch of ground, George Simpson's house of evil has ruined many lives over its hundred-year existence.

Author Steve Corey rents the place as an early anniversary surprise for his wife, hoping it might repair the deep rift his alcoholism has created in their marriage.

Before they moved to the Simpson house, Samantha Corey thought getting Steve sober was the hard part. But the house's dark nature has turned her thoughts to Matt Barry, Steve's best friend and agent...and her old love. Can they overcome the ancient evil threatening them all from Out of the Darkness?

Review: Horror literature is filled with tropes. Look at all the rules, traditions, whatever-you-want-to-call ‘em surrounding vampires and werewolves. There’s a whole ‘nother set of well-worn paths when it comes to writing about haunted houses. It can make a confused horror fan wonder if there really is anything new under the sun.

The answer is yes and no. Even I, as a horror writer, will admit that something truly horrific and original is really hard to come by these days (for that, I would refer you to Sarah Langan or the early work of Kathe Koja, i.e. The Cipher). One of the many comforts of any genre fiction is that, with it, often comes familiarity. We read horror (and mystery, thrillers, or romance) because we know what to expect.

Lesli Richardson’s haunted/possessed house story is a good old-fashioned horror story about a house built on cursed land and the evil that comes to visit the generations that follow the initial evil and who have the nerve or naiveté to inhabit the land. From The Turn of the Screw to The Haunting and on to The Shining, we’ve read this story before.

And yet we haven’t. See, there’s no harm in taking a well-worn plot device like possession, ghosts, curses (or even vampires and werewolves and zombies—oh my!) and using them as long as the writer makes them his or her own.

Lesli Richardson takes the familiar haunted house tale and makes it all her own. And that’s why I would recommend this novel to even the most jaded horror aficionado. Richardson breathes fresh life into a genre that could be stale in less capable hands. She does this in several ways.

The first is the writing itself. It’s competent, economical, and has a voice exactly like someone you might know. There’s no purple prose, no flights of fancy…the prose here is every day, down-to-earth and readable. Simple but never simplistic. That same feel of the ordinary also extends to the characters in this book, who are not fantastic, but normal, almost run-of-the-mill people you’d meet in real life. What makes Out of the Darkness so terrifying is that it seems real in Richardson’s hands. This is not some fantasy world or a nightmarish vision (although at times it can certainly be the latter), but everyday people set down in bizarre and horrifying circumstances.

Richardson also gives the book a refreshing twist by creating two main characters that are (pardon the pun) hauntingly familiar to those of us who are familiar with the private lives of Stephen and Tabitha King. Whether this was intentional or not, you’d have to ask the author, but I couldn’t help but think of the famous pair as I read this book.

The setting, too, contributes to making Out of the Darkness a mesmerizing and original read. Not many horror novels are set in rural Florida. And because the author is a native, she gets beyond the coastal Florida we are familiar with from postcards, TV, and movies, and gets into the real heart of this southern state, where evil lurks just out of sight, like an alligator in a quiet lake with only his snout exposed.

So, like so many things, it’s not the genre a writer picks, but what he or she does with it. Lesli Richardson makes the haunted house story completely her own with Out of the Darkness.

Purchase Out of the Darkness by Lesli Richardson.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of twelve novels, two collections, and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Monday, May 31, 2010 at 12:34PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments4 Comments | References2 References

The Girl in the Woods / David Jack Bell

Delirium / August 2009
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: When Diana Greene leaves her hometown for a new life, she thinks she has left the past behind: her sister's disappearance, her mother's illness, and the visions Diana used to see...a clearing in the woods...a moonlit night...and human bones buried in the ground. And her past remains dormant until the day a mysterious woman appears on Diana's doorstep, promising Diana something she can't resist. "If you help me find my missing daughter, I'll tell you what happened to your sister." Soon Diana is digging into the past, uncovering secrets the town has long since buried, secrets that the powerful wish would stay hidden. But when another girl disappears and the visions return to Diana with a vengeance, she knows she is on the brink of solving more than just a few missing person cases. She is on the brink of discovering the dark and violent covenant that the town itself was founded upon.

Review: As both a writer and reader, I always am confounded by genre definitions. Do I write horror, suspense, mystery, paranormal, dark fantasy, thriller, or speculative fiction? All of the above? A, B, or C?

I suspect, on the basis of The Girl in the Woods, David Jack Bell might be confounded by the same difficulty. Is The Girl in the Woods a smart thriller, a paranormal tale about a strange clearing and its compelling effects, a police procedural, a dark fantasy about psychic visions? My answer to all of the questions above is: does it matter? As long as it’s a good story, I leave the pigeonholing to the literary critics, and the readers and reviewers who concern themselves with such things.

The Girl in the Woods is a good novel, period. It's a sharp, well-written page turner that as a reader I could not keep my hands off of, so compelling was my desire to see what happened next. Bell keeps us involved by creating an enormously sympathetic central character, Diana Greene, who is either a touch psychic or is a receiver for the pull of the mysterious clearing that is the heart of the book, a place where great evil has been done in the name of power. Bell also gives us a gray-shaded antagonist, a pitiable creature who only wants love, but is willing to kidnap, rape, and kill to have it. Somehow, Bell manages to make us feel something for this tainted creature aside from hatred.

I enjoyed The Girl in the Woods for many reasons, mainly the author’s crisp economical prose and his ability to breathlessly drive a narrative. Those two things demonstrate Bell’s talents as an author because he manages to sweep us up into his world and makes us forget the words he uses to describe it. That’s good writing: when an author can provide the verbal clues to spark and engage our imagination.

As good as The Girl in the Woods was, I did have a couple of quibbles. Spoilers ahead! (Be warned in case you want to come to the book with no preconceived notions.) One aspect of the novel I thought that really undercut the suspense was having the present-day missing girl be killed about three quarters of the way through the novel. I would have been more engaged as a reader if she had been alive and in jeopardy. Her being killed so early on was somewhat of a literary premature ejaculation, with much the same result as its physical counterpart: my interest declined precipitously. But Bell does manage to get a twist in near the end that I was not expecting, so he somewhat righted himself. The other thing that bothered me about the book was Diana’s mother, who seemed to also have a psychic connection to her missing daughter, yet the connection seemed off. She tells her daughter, “You have to go there. You have to find her.” We know she’s referring to the clearing and we assume (and rightly so) that she’s referring to her missing daughter, and Diana’s missing sister, Rachel. That turns out not to be the case…so I was left wondering why the mother knew anything at all, unless it was simply to place a red herring in the narrative.

Overall, though, I would highly recommend The Girl in the Woods to both fans of horror and suspense — and even true crime.

Purchase The Girl in the Woods by David Jack Bell.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of twelve novels and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 11:10AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

The Hollows / Ben Larken

LL Publications / November 2009
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: 1949: A young girl is traumatized when she witnesses a grisly murder in the forest behind her home. 1999: A loving wife disappears in the middle of the night, leaving no trace of her whereabouts. 2009: Former detective David Alders rents an apartment at a typical complex; a quiet unassuming place nestled in the outskirts of Fort Worth called The Hollows.
 
David is at a dead end after ten maddening years searching for his vanished wife. With mounting bills and a daughter on the verge of college, he makes the only logical choice: sell the family home, get back to work, and take a cheap apartment. His daughter, Melanie, is secretly thrilled about the change hoping it means a fresh start for their withering family.

But The Hollows has other plans…

As a new community welcomes the Alders into its midst, elusive figures watch from the periphery, waiting for their moment. On the first night, a grotesque, burnt man seizes Melanie in her bed, spewing insane ramblings before disappearing into the darkness. She struggles to convince her father what happened was real, but David has his own problems.

Like the fact that he has just woke up in the wrong day.

Welcome to a tour through the dark underbelly of the last half-century where invisible hands take you by force to the demons of your past. Where you can find terror, time travel, and murder — all for one low monthly rent.

Review: One of the pleasures of this job is seeking out the little horror and suspense gems that are out there. You know, the ones you might not find on the front displays at Barnes and Noble or talked up in Publisher’s Weekly.

One such book is Ben Larken’s The Hollows, which breathes whole new life into the horror genre by taking the time-honored device of time travel and turning it on its head. Larken’s smart, compelling book was a real pleasure to read for a jaded old horror fan like myself, demonstrating to me that there is something new under the sun when it comes to terror. The Hollows was truly a book I didn’t want to put down the entire time I was reading it.

Larken, like Stephen King, to whom he’s been compared, shapes his horror out of the mundane: a poor, working farm, a Texas apartment complex, and characters in jobs that are anything but glamorous. When a writer combines these seemingly everyday people and places with something decidedly out of the ordinary, the horror and dread ratchet up.

Larken masterfully weaves a tale that moves seamlessly from 1949 to 1999 to 2009, effectively linking his characters and events along the way and spinning readers toward an almost apocalyptic climax. Larken knows that some of the best horror springs from not only having his characters’ very lives hang in the balance, but the whole worlds’ as well. And Larken also knows how to scare you, not by creating monsters that bear fangs and have yellow eyes, but by crafting them from the stuff we might encounter in our everyday lives. Never before have I been so frightened by a man in a black suit...or the sound of a ticking clock.

The Hollows takes us not only on a time-travel adventure, but is also smart enough to give us a look into the lives of his characters that’s deeply sympathetic and plays upon a universal chord: the wish to return to a former time, to either right past wrongs or find out the solution to a mystery plaguing us. His characters, good and bad, have flaws and they’re seldom presented in simple shades of black and white. I like that complexity and it makes his story, with its inherent danger and suspense, flow that much better.

If you’re looking for something fresh, original, and with an honest take on the human condition, you’ll find all of those things within the pages of The Hollows. I don’t want to spoil its carefully-arced storyline, its often gruesome and shocking details, or its ability to hold a reader in a grip of suspense by giving away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that The Hollows is a good ticket into nightmare country.

Purchase The Hollows by Ben Larken.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of twelve novels and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 07:24PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments2 Comments

Victim Six / Gregg Olsen

Pinnacle / February 2010
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: The bodies are found in towns and cities around Puget Sound. The young women who are the victims had nothing in common — except the agony of their final moments. But somebody carefully chose them to stalk, capture, and torture... a depraved killer whose cunning is matched only by the depth of his bloodlust. But the dying has only just begun. And next victim will be the most shocking of all...

Review: Before Gregg Olsen began writing crime novels, he wrote true crime books. I was a fan of his work even before a chance encounter on MySpace made us cyberfriends. I loved his profiles, especially of females ensnared in crime: Mary Kay Letourneau, Sharon Nelson, and Tanya Reid spring immediately to mind.

But when Olsen began penning crime novels, spinning tales out of his history of reporting on and investigating real crime in the real world, I became an even bigger fan. I think that’s because, maybe more than any other writer working in the suspense/thriller/crime genre, Olsen can be counted upon to deliver a tale that has the ring of authenticity. You get the feeling, as you read Olsen’s fiction, that this could really happen — and that makes his novels all the more compelling. The fact that Olsen is at liberty, in a fictional world, to delve even deeper into crime, letting his well-informed background and imagination roam free, makes his novels some of the best stuff around today when it comes to fiction that explores crime in all its aspects.

Victim Six is no exception. This is Olsen’s fourth novel and he gets better with each outing. He always had the ability to write about crime, its victims, and its villains in a way that was utterly believable, but it’s obvious his craft as a writer of fiction continues to grow in terms of characterization, pacing, and plotting. Victim Six is a riveting, one-sitting kind of read that spins a serial killer tale that goes above and beyond what jaded readers of the genre have come to expect.

For one, and I’ve said this before, Olsen’s background in true crime gives him unique insight into the minds of killers. Many other authors write about police procedure and past and potential victims, but few can gives us the kind of insight Olsen does into the criminal mind. All of his novels delve into the killers’ stories as much as their victims and investigators, making for a well-balanced and terrifying read. Olsen knows that one thing readers of true crime and fictional misdeeds really want to know is “what in the world were they thinking?” when it comes to antagonist’s choices and compulsions.

For another, Olsen gives us something unusual in the canon of crime writing, either real or imagined: a pair of serial killers, male and female, and fully realized. His killers in Victim Six are a married couple and their killings play into their sick codependence. It’s unique, original, and makes for a disquieting and wholly original read.

I only have a couple of small quibbles with Olsen’s Victim Six: one is the ending, which seems formulaic and predictable once you’ve gotten into the story. I would have liked to see a few more twists as we got to the final few pages, rather than the tidy wrap-up Olsen gives us. And that leads me to my second quibble: in his other crime novels, Olsen builds the suspense a bit better, ratcheting it up with complications and true character terror. Here he goes a bit more from A to B to C, leaving me a bit unsatisfied. I wish that Olsen had given us more suspense which might have been achieved by delving into the “why” of his killers. Victim Six is an excellent read, and one I highly recommend, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more heart-pounding suspense from such an original story and such deliciously evil villains.

Purchase Victim Six by Gregg Olsen.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of twelve novels and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 02:39PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments3 Comments | References1 Reference

Alive on the Inside / Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks

Amber Quill Press / December 2009
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: Nick Harper has a nice life, a nice job, and a nice girl. Until Labor Day Weekend, when the Phantasmagoria Traveling Wonder Show comes to town.

Seduced by the dark and wickedly erotic charms of both the Phantasmagoria and Torturo, a man known in the freak sideshow as The Pain King, Nick embarks on a journey of self-discovery, love, and pain.

But the show is not what it seems. It changes those who come with it in ways they can never imagine, not even in their worst nightmares.

And Nick's changes are just beginning...

Review: Next to Six Feet Under – one of my all-time-favorite television series – was Carnivale, which was also a product of HBO. It had a weird, convincing, apocalyptic sense of dread about it that I loved. Its story of a traveling carnival and sideshow was gripping, creepy, and in many cases, universal.

Alive on the Inside has a lot in common with that show. It’s the story of a traveling carnival and sideshow called the Phantasmagoria and it’s also replete with a slightly creepy midway, freaks, geeks, and a sinister not-quite-out-of-sight overseeing presence. And while it wouldn’t be fair to compare Carnivale and Alive on the Inside, this new book from two authors whose work I admit to being completely unfamiliar with is original, scary, and thought provoking in its own way.

Alive on the Inside takes the horror story and turns it on its head, making it a one of the most original love stories you may ever come across. Like a geek biting the head off a live chicken, this story of love and a kind of redemption is one that’s hard to look away from, but one that you wish at times you could. It’s by turns gruesome, shocking, tender, poignant, and nauseating (but in a good way fans of horror will understand). Underneath the dread, terror, and mystery of the Phantasmagoria is the continuing thread of an unquenchable timeless love between two wounded men: Nick, a closeted homosexual whose journey to self-acceptance, confidence and eventually, self-love is breathtaking; and Torturo, the “King of Pain” who helps bring Nick to that final place. Theirs is a story that, like other erotic romances, is one that never does run smooth, but is undeniably steeped in a deep and abiding love. Sparrow and Brooks give us two lovers who, by turns, are passionate in their love, lust, and yes, hate and who feed off each other’s best and worst. It’s heady, compelling stuff.

Along the way, readers are immersed in a startlingly original horror tale. I know I found the book hard to put down as I turned pages, searching for answers to the enigma that was the Phantasmagoria. All is revealed toward the end, and while I will not reveal those secrets, I will say that their solutions are somewhat predictable but richly satisfying and imaginative.

Alive on the Inside comes from a gay romance imprint, a place where readers of horror may not be tempted to search for their next nightmare fix, but trust me, this book is a unique and terrifying find…one that will haunt your nightmares as well as your most depraved fantasies.

Purchase Alive on the Inside by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of eleven novels and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 01:30PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments1 Comment | References1 Reference

The Monster in the Box / Ruth Rendell

Scribner / October 2009
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: The Monster in the Box is the latest addition to Ruth Rendell's classic Inspector Wexford series. Rendell’s latest entry in the series takes Inspector Wexford back to his days as a young policeman, and to the man he has long suspected of serial murder.

Outside the house where Wexford investigated his first murder case – a woman found strangled in her bedroom – he noticed a short, muscular man wearing a scarf and walking a dog. He gave Wexford an unnerving stare. Without any solid evidence, Wexford began to suspect that this man – Eric Targo, he learned – was the killer.

Over the years there are more unsolved, apparently motiveless murders in the town of Kingsmarkham, and Wexford continues to quietly suspect that the increasingly prosperous Targo – van driver, property developer, kennel owner, and animal lover – is behind them.

Now, half a lifetime later, Wexford spots Targo back in Kingsmarkham after a long absence. Wexford tells his longtime partner, Mike Burden, about his suspicions, but Burden dismisses them as fantasy. Meanwhile, Burden's wife, Jenny, has suspicions of her own. She believes that the Rahmans, a highly respectable immigrant family from Pakistan, may be forcing their daughter, Tamima, into an arranged marriage — or worse.

In The Monster in the Box, the twenty-second book in the Inspector Wexford series, fans will be thrilled to meet the now-aging inspector in the robust early days of his career. For new readers, no introduction to this spectacular writer and her compelling protagonist could be finer.

Review: I admit it: I am in love with a woman. Ruth Rendell has long been one of my literary obsessions, a woman at whose feet I unabashedly kneel and worship. Time magazine has called her, “the best mystery writer in the English-speaking world” and this is not hyperbole. She is. She really is.

Ruth Rendell has two personas. One is Barbara Vine, who writes compelling psychological thrillers (which I prefer) and the other is Rendell, the author of the Inspector Wexford mystery series (Wexford is named after a place in Ireland Rendell visited shortly before coming up with the idea for the first Wexford book, From Doon with Death).

I mention the first book in a series that spans decades and encompasses more than twenty stories because with The Monster in the Box, Rendell charts the territory of Wexford’s past. Aside from being a provocative mystery whose solution is never obvious but surprising and ultimately logical, Rendell gives us a Wexford who is still sharp, but who is comfortable in his domestic life and still has a keen eye for social causes. It makes sense that the aging Wexford, nearing retirement, would be motivated to look into his past: his first loves, meeting his wife Dora, and the England of his youth. He is motivated not only because he suspects a serial killer who has tormented him for years with improvable murders has possibly returned, but also because he has reached the stage of life where one turns to one’s past and examines it. The Monster in the Box, while a cracking good mystery, is also a meditation on life in the latter years and the title is a nod to the self-help of putting a difficulty in an imaginary box and setting it aside. The serial murderer at the book’s center is Wexford’s monster and, although he had been able to put this monster in a box (it has been highly frustrating for Wexford not to prove the killer’s culpability), circumstances have released the monster once more. One of the most fascinating thing Rendell does in this latest outing with Wexford is that she makes us wonder if the old Chief Inspector isn’t beginning to lose it…is the killer really a killer, or is Wexford beginning to mistake his own intuition for solid detective work?

Rendell is a school inspiring authors should enroll in. She knows how to create characters, craft believable dialogue, pace her plots so that one is compelled to continue turning the pages, and she wraps all this up in prose so simple and elegant that it ceases to exist. Instead, her stories come to life in the reader’s mind. The Monster in the Box is no exception, which is why Ruth Rendell is both a treat for readers and writers alike.

Purchase The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell.

Columnist Rick R. Reed is the author of eleven novels and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his official author website.

Posted on Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 10:58AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments1 Comment
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