Dark Scribe Reviews
Reviews of Dark Fiction and Non-Fiction Books, Short Fiction, and Magazines
Harper / September 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Inexplicably, Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan’s Bram Stoker Award-winning third novel – has languished in my to-be-read pile for far too long until recently. I claim inexplicability because I fell head over heels in love with Langan’s work after The Keeper (2006) and its sequel-of-sorts, The Missing (2007), so it’s a bit of a mystery why I hadn’t moved this one to the top of the pile long ago.
The titular character – surname Lucas – moves into an apartment building called The Breviary. Intrigued by the building’s rare Chaotic Naturalism architecture and drawn to its bargain-basement rent, Audrey seems willing to overlook the fact that the previous tenant in 14B – a famed opera singer – drowned her four children in the apartment’s bathtub before slitting her own wrists. It isn’t long before the haunted apartment building and its creepy denizens – think Rosemary’s Baby meets Cocoon here – begin to command the rising architect to build a mysterious door. As Audrey’s Woody Allen-esque neuroses and obsessive compulsions ramp up to full-tilt, she – and the reader – begin to question her sanity.
Audrey’s Door is an interesting departure from the author’s previous efforts. Whereas both The Keeper and The Missing had a strong, almost claustrophobic sense of place from which the characters had little respite, Audrey’s Door doesn’t immediately give the reader a sense that its characters are trapped or even in grave danger until well into the third act. Despite increasingly outlandish, hallucinogenic nightmares and a sense that she’s losing control, Audrey never seems confined by the building. Her freedom to go to work, travel cross-country to Nebraska to tend to an ailing relative, and even traverse the city mid-hurricane detracts somewhat from that sense of physical isolation that so marvelously plagued the characters in her first two novels.
But Langan gives the reader a sense of a very different kind of isolation, one that’s less physical and more cerebral, by imbuing her story with the overriding theme of holding on to things that should be long let go of. The notion that what holds us back is a sometimes the overwhelming inability to get out of our own heads drives much of the conflict in Audrey’s Door. The result is paradoxical; the physical haunting caused by The Breviary almost takes a back-seat to the characters’ internal struggles. This lessens the traditional horror elements of the story, yet strengthens the subtler, more universal horrors within the characters themselves giving a more immediate, less fantastical sense of relatability to the characters’ plight. Audrey, a fully-drawn, beautifully flawed heroine, is holding on to her mother – both in memories and the physical sense. Her boyfriend, Saraub, is holding on to a dead-on-arrival documentary project, while his mother stubbornly clings to outdated cultural traditions that prevent her from accepting Audrey and strain relations with her only son. Audrey’s boss at the architecture firm holds on to crippling guilt and regrets about her abilities as a mother in the face of a family tragedy. New friend and fellow Breviary dweller Jayne holds on to long-standing insecurities. Even the kooky assortment of tenants who populate The Breviary are desperately holding on to their youth to grotesque effect. So, while The Breviary is busy exercising its own literal demons, each character finds either doom or redemption by confronting their own.
Langan wisely opts to make The Breviary a character onto itself, both endowing the apartment building with a rich and colorful sense of history and personifying its physical structure to such a degree that it appears to live and breathe. This allows the building itself to be more an active participant in the hauntings it inflicts on others versus remaining a mere receptacle for the malevolence at the center of its history:
It happened so slowly at first, none of them noticed. The walls hummed. The stained-glass birds and mosaics sometimes took flight. The hallways constricted like throats. Hinges creaked. Nightmares flew loose from their authors and inhabited the building like cold air.
That Langan’s work skews heavier toward the more literary leanings of Peter Straub versus the more mass market trappings of, say, Bentley Little makes it easier to overlook the fact that this is dark fiction in which the rewards come in subtle, character-driven moments versus a series of grisly set pieces or overt shock. Although Audrey’s Door lacks some of the creepier horror elements that permeated both The Keeper and The Missing, the tremendous humanity with which Langan draws even the most minor of characters will enthrall. Read a chapter like “Baby’s Breath” in which one of the characters meanders through the house late at night considering each member of her family and you’ll quickly find yourself pleasantly disoriented, as if you’ve stumbled into a gorgeous piece of literary fiction of the highest caliber.
Audrey’s Door may be indicative of Langan’s greatest strength as a dark scribe: Elevating what’s essentially a tried-and-true horror story at its core to a wholly unique literary hybrid that almost defies categorization.
Purchase Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan.
Tor Books / March 2011
Reviewed by: Mark W. Worthen
Before there was Lestat, before Jean-Claude, before Bill, Eric, Russell and their True Blood crews, and long before Edward and his family arrived on the literary scene, there was Ragozcy Franciscus, Count Saint-Germain. In the late 70s, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the Grande Dame of the Gothic Vampire, created what is surely the first of the characters of his kind — archetype of the heroic romantic vampire figure.
According to her official website, Yarbro read Dracula at an early age, and immediately became a vampire aficionada. Later, when she began to write her own vampire, she desired to create a different kind of bloodsucker, one who wanted – needed – to involve himself in the affairs of humans in order to become more a part of the world he feels somewhat alienated from. She moved away from the “Dracula model” and is repeatedly credited with having laid the ground work for the vampire as a romantic figure rather than a frightening one.
Saint-Germain first saw light (so to speak) in the 1978 novel, Hotel Transylvania, a work that placed the man in his native area for the first time and introduced readers to the melancholy character – alchemist by day, mysterious figure by night – dressing in black and gray adorned with fabulous jewels, many of his own making. It is rumored that Saint-Germain is based on a true historic figure, one equally shrouded in mystery and carrying the same name and title.
An Embarrassment of Riches is the twenty-fourth installment in the Saint-German series, and Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes of Santu Germaniu, as he is known in this time (he changes the order, spelling and pronunciation of his name to match the language of the area where he resides) arrives in Praha (Prague) in the latter half of 1269 A.D. Exiled from his native earth, he arrives in Praha, capital of Bohemia, as an exile from the court of King Bela of Hungary, the current boundaries of which encompass Ragoczy's lands, Santu Germaniu, and the people in his fief who live there. King Otakar II of Bohemia is away expanding his territories, leaving his pregnant queen, Kunigunde, who happens to be Bela’s daughter, to rule over the city.
Rakoczy takes a fixer-upper mansion in Praha, and, after revamping the place, he moves in and begins to make jewels for the queen. Not much time passes before Rozsa, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting comes to offer Rakoczy a proposition. If he will take her as a lover to fulfill desires her husband cannot satisfy, she will not cry rape, which would result in his burning at the stake and suffering the true death. He accepts her proposition. But she is cold, aloof, requiring him to service her, but not giving him the closeness and intimacy he requires to stay alive, not only painting him into a political corner, but denying him even the opportunity to derive sustenance from or even enjoy his position.
When not with Rozsa, he provides the requisite jewels for Queen Kunigunde, but is additionally forced to fill the coffers of several others scrambling for political position, including the local bishop, a few strategic courtiers and Rozsa herself. Finally he is tapped to provide monetary resources for the king’s battles. Such a project does not prove terribly difficult for Rakozcy; his expertise in alchemy enables him to make any jewel except pearls in his athanor. He bakes them like cookies, but the time consuming process forces him to spend most of his days in his laboratory as a result.
Tongues wag at his riches, and court intrigues ensue, including another liaison with a younger lady-in-waiting and a visiting young woman who attempts to throw herself at the count. All the events in the book come to a head in the final forty pages. In the end, Rakoczy realizes that an embarrassment of riches (of more than one variety) is not necessarily the answer to his problems.
Yarbro has a unique way of telling her stories. She often chooses what at first appear to be long scenes where people only talk and do a mundane project or service for someone, such as rubbing the pregnant queen’s feet in the height of summer — but it is during these scenes she often reveals crucial information to either advance the plot, add to the local color that influences the situation or both. During the first two parts of the book, there is a subplot in which the bishop must decide if the rat infestation in Praha should be taken care of by killing the rats, despite the fact that they are creatures of God. He ultimately decides the disease-ridden beasts should indeed be exterminated. The counselors of Praha appeal to Rakoczy, at which time he reveals his knowledge of poisons. Since poison is often the weapon of choice for assassinations, this adds to the precariousness of his situation as he and his servants fall under suspicion first by the bishop, then by the court.
The richness of historical details in Yarbro’s writing are dead-on accurate. In fact, she has a reputation for researching the time period, costumes, architecture, language, customs and technology of each book long before she begins writing it. One characteristic of the Saint-Germain novels is that Yarbro likes to place the reader in as authentic an environment as possible. So you get elegant descriptions of everything. One of Yarbro’s strengths is weaving in these descriptions either with action or scenes portraying daily court life. But Yarbro is too savvy a writer to let each scene serve only a single purpose. As such a multi-tasker, most scenes will perform three or more of the following chores: Describing traditional behavior or customs, portraying clothing or architecture, providing information that will, of course, become important in advancing the story. There isn’t a single scene that only accomplishes one purpose. At first read, the descriptions make some of the prose seem heavy, but it is not. It is tight and provides the reader a fast interesting read — which is not common among writers of historical fiction, who frequently tend to lean towards the ponderous.
Upon reading this book, your first instinct will be grab a dictionary or to look things up on the Internet. Don’t. Quinn Yarbro will make it clear exactly what she’s talking about, and if she doesn’t, she’ll tell you what it is in her introduction — skip the intro at your own risk. But as she trickles in her plot details, showing people get dressed, you will learn words like bleihaut, chainse, soler, and pectoral.
As dark scribe John Skipp often points out, “All art is a Rorschach test.” For me, then, I’m a history geek and a vampire nut. You have to be a little of both to really get into this, which is why Yarbro’s work appeals particularly to a cult following — a massive cult following to be sure, but cult nonetheless. If you’re like me and enjoy this kind of book, An Embarrassment of Riches gets a B+ for story — it does move at a slightly more sedate pace than say, Blood Games, for example. But I give it an A (as always) for its historical accuracy. If you only marginally like vampires, or do not care for slow-building horror or fascinating historical details, you’ll probably be better served choosing something else altogether.
Just because An Embarrassment of Riches is about vampires doesn’t mean it will be your cup of tea. But if you like vampires and history, spies, steamy love scenes, court intrigues, backbiting and infighting, you should be all over this work of literary and fictional art.
Purchase An Embarrassment of Riches by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
Apex Publications / December 2010
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
The proliferation of zombies in pop culture has forced conversation, debate, and reflection on what the human race would do if it actually found itself in the middle of a bona fide apocalypse in which the flesh-eating living dead walked the earth. Would we fight for the survival of our race? Would we hunker down with loved ones and wait out the inevitable? Would we party like it’s 1999 all over again? If you’re one of the characters in Mark Allan Gunnells’ Asylum, you’d get down – and go down – on that hot trick you’ve been eyeing all night at the neighborhood gay bar.
There’s got to be something said for a novella that begins with front-seat fellatio and ends with bareback anal sex. The descriptor attention-grabbing certainly comes to mind. But such bold provocativeness can only carry a story so far, so it’s fortunate that Asylum delivers ample zombie savagery for the hardcore devotee of the undead.
The set-up strays little from the classic zombie formula: A group of disparate strangers find themselves holed up against throngs of the risen dead. In this case, the setting is a gay club and the characters run the gamut from an awkward college kid and his worldlier flamboyant BFF to a maternal drag queen and a burly pony-tailed Vietnam Veteran-turned-barkeep. Thrown into this zombie stew for flavor are an African-American go-go boy sporting both a G-string and an English accent, the requisite stable gay couple, a buffoonish lothario and his self-doubting fag hag who harbors an unrequited love, and a club DJ whose deep-seeded fundamentalist background is resurrected by some zombie trauma.
If you’ve seen Dawn of the Dead or read any of Brian Keene’s books, you know what comes next, and Gunnells ably demonstrates some fine chops for the zombie sub-genre. As the titular establishment is besieged by the ravenous undead, Gunnells provides all of the requisite flesh-chomping, appendage-ripping, and organ-gnawing that fans of zombie fare have come to expect and crave.
Gunnells straddles a fine line between preachy and persuasive when it comes to the social commentary woven throughout, and some readers may find it difficult to swallow his logic of a zombie Armageddon somehow acting as an aphrodisiac. That said, Asylum reads like the literary equivalent of a John Waters-Quentin Tarantino collaboration on a grindhouse zombie flick, and it wears its sense of contagious Dawn of the Dead-meets-The Birdcage celebration proudly.
Does Asylum add anything groundbreaking to the puzzlingly popular zombie sub-genre? No, but LGBT readers will undoubtedly appreciate the most front-and-center representation since Keene’s largely asexual protagonist in Dead Sea. And, best of all, Asylum levels the playing field between hetero- and homosexual apocalypse survivors — both proving utterly stupid at times opening those damn doors some other character begs them not to.
Purchase Asylum by Mark Allan Gunnells.
Cemetery Dance / December 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud
Shivers VI is the weighty new edition in Cemetery Dance's theme-free, horror fiction anthology series. The table of contents boasts an impressive collection of authors, including Melanie Tem, Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Brian Hodge, Lisa Tuttle, Brian Keene, Peter Straub, and Stephen King. The collection itself is a mixture of reprints and original fiction, and on average the good stories outweigh the unremarkable.
"Serial" by Jack Kilborn and Blake Crouch is an odd choice to begin the anthology with. This reprint is still available as an e-book — downloaded several hundred thousand times for Kindles and other e-readers last year, and has even been expanded into an e-novella called Serial: Uncut. The story itself is quite grim, gruesome, humorous, horrifying and well told. It takes the conceit of melding two rival hitchhiking cautionary tales–the murderous hitchhiker and the murderous motorist–and then blurs them together. To its credit, it does so in a way to distinguish it from David J. Schow's "Pick Me Up", which I've long assumed to be the ultimate statement on this particular monster mash up. "Serial" tells a brutal story, one that turned my stomach yet kept me reading.
"The Crate" by Stephen King is this volume's biggest selling point. The story appeared in a 1979 issue of Gallery magazine as well as a handful of anthologies over the years, but it has not found its way into King's prose collections. A comic book adaptation was featured in the Creepshow graphic novel, since "The Crate" formed one of the memorable pieces from that film. The story deals with two professorial acquaintances, a shrewish wife, and a janitor whose unlucky loss of a tossed quarter leads to the discovery of the titular storage container (and its monstrous inhabitant). The story is firmly entrenched in EC Comics territory, and is as much fun to read as the best in King's Night Shift collection.
"The Last Beautiful Day" by Brian James Freeman is a somber piece about grief, and using art (in this case photography) to work through grave personal loss. The horror here is less about the murderous or the monstrous (as exemplified in the anthology's first two stories) than the shattering effect of losing a child. The piece is brief, the prose is serviceable, yet I found this grim and meditative story a little too short to fully explore its themes.
Kealan Patrick Burke's "Cobwebs" posits the chilling goings-on in a retirement home. Alfred Ross wakes to find thin webbing on his mouth, and soon discovers his comfortable (one might say terminally boring) existence inexplicably changed. When his chess friend "The Cowboy" passes in the night, Ross grows to suspect unnatural events at work. This tale thematically echoes Joe R. Lansdale's "Bubba Ho-Tep", and yet the story it tells aims for mysterious instead of mojo. Burke's prose is strong, though the plotting visits familiar ground. The atmosphere is rich, and the characters are nuanced.
Norman Prentiss' "The Old Ways" succeeded in pushing my buttons almost right away and never letting up. Lisa finds herself stuck in a town where the men try to dissuade her doing "man's work" around her house. When she tries to buy tools from the hardware store, she's told to let her husband do the buying as he'll be using it. When she tries to scrape paint off the gutters, an elderly neighbor tries to do it for her and suffers a heart attack. Lisa is stuck in a very strange little hell, and as this quirky story unfolds, her world grows increasingly absurd, claustrophobic and chilling. The emotions are immediate and accompanied by sharp satiric jabs at chauvinism. This story has teeth, and knows how to use them.
Brian Keene's "Waiting for Darkness" is a flash fiction piece, with memorable imagery and a tongue in cheek touch of EC comic book horror. While the protagonist's predicament – he is buried in the sand and abandoned as the tide rolls in – invokes another segment in Stephen King's Creepshow, it avoids that film's zombie resolution.
Glen Hirschberg's "Like Lick 'Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey" is well written and complex. Sophie and Natalie are sick and on the run together, playing Thelma and Louise. Their travels deliver them to a Waffle House in Georgia, and what they find there changes everything. This story relies on its reader to fill in the blanks about its protagonists' affliction, and while it steers clear of outright clichés, it treads a little too close to one of the genre's most overused staple monsters for my taste. The writing and characterizations are quite good, and the dialogue is quotable.
"Ghost Writer in My Eye" by Wayne Allen Salee is a brief, humorous piece about the relationship between artists and their creations.
Alan Peter Ryan's atmospheric dark fantasy "Palisado" uses eerie winter imagery and reader's genre expectations to set up one ending while delivering another. The prose communicates the wintery cold as effectively as Dan Simmons' The Terror.
"Stillness" by Richard Thomas uses rich imagery to tell a layered story about survival and personal apocalypse. The prose is lyrical, if occasionally baffling.
Brian Hodge's "In the Raw" is a powerful piece of storytelling. Renny gets out of prison and tries to go straight. However, working every day rendering bone meal from dead animals can wear on any man's soul. When his trouble making uncle shows up with promises of a big score, he finds the temptation too hard to resist. "In the Raw" is an uncompromising piece of crime fiction, with a twist ending that actually surprises.
"I Found a Little Hole" by Nate Southard tells the story of a young boy who discovers a friend while playing in the yard. This friend is buried in the ground, however. The story, though brief, has some striking images.
Post-apocalyptic nastiness informs Scott Nicholson's "Fallow." Denyse Hammen is caught in a day-to-day struggle to survive a nuclear fallout poisoned world. She finds her life forever changed when she comes across a baby goat suckling its dead mother's teat. The story following this discovery is slow but tense.
Al Sarrantonio's "Last" uses a science fiction backdrop for a pursuit and conspiracy tale. Mathis' memories have been expunged by a radical medical routine to make room for occupational programming: Mathis has become a hunter, and his mission is to find a criminal called Shields. Over the course of this brief story, he does just that, though what he finds is not what he expects. In Twilight Zone fashion, this story builds to a twist ending revelation as to the Mathis-Shields' relationship and the purpose behind Mathis' hunt.
"Mole" by Jay Bonansinga exposes a special investigator for the Vatican to a bizarre occult murder mystery, where the solution requires dickering with the infernal. He soon discovers the contacted unclean spirit wants to play stoolpigeon, if a deal can be struck. While I'm often uninterested in this sort of Catholic horror, Bonansinga's story has enough intriguing things going on to set it apart from The Exorcist and its clones. The conclusion leaves things plenty of hanging plot threads for a lengthy follow-up.
Melanie Tem's "The Shoes" is a powerhouse of emotional honesty, particularly attentive to human failings and regrets. At its heart is Nicole, a nurse-in-training whose simple observation about an AIDS patient's footgear upsets her world. "Cool shoes," seems an unlikely invitation to either a haunting or the threat of self-destruction; however, it becomes just that. "The Shoes" combines the best elements of ghost stories and psychological horror tales to create this book's standout piece. It is a shame it takes readers 247 pages to get to it, but the story is well worth the wait.
Shivers VI's other female author, Lisa Tuttle, offers a surreal and chilling take on loneliness and relationships with "Bits and Pieces". Though body parts aplenty occupy this story, it manages to avoid being a simple splatter fest, eschewing the gruesome in favor of thoughtful, soul numbing chills. Fay wakes up after a one night stand to find her lover gone, but his foot left behind. She soon discovers this is a recurring issue--body parts in her bed after amorous evenings — and having no idea what else to do with these discarded parts, Fay saves them. Soon, she finds herself trying to assemble a perfect mate, though a few important pieces remain to be collected... Though the ending is a tad predictable, getting there is dark delight.
New neighbors move next door to an elderly woman in David B. Silva's contribution, "Trouble Follows". Here, a boy with a nasty dark side runs rampant, and what might have been another Bad Seed knock-off takes on a chilling freshness with a supernatural exploration, which recalls both William Hughes Mearn's eerie poem "Antigonish" and a darker bent on Robert Lois Stevenson's "My Shadow." The star here is the narrator's voice.
Conspiracy and paranoia reign in Robert Morrish's "Keeping It in the Family". The story begins with a sister coming to stay with her brother because of her degenerative MS. Following her death, the plot takes a hard left turn into the supernatural, and the story becomes a bizarre and affecting piece about grief and disease that harkens to the sort of creative sf-horror found in better X-Files episodes.
Taking a line from Stephen King's "The Breathing Method" for his title and theme, Bev Vincent's "It is the Tale" centers on five college kids who gather to tell scary tales. Events turn gruesome and gleeful when four of the friends conspire to scare the fifth one out of his mind only to find their bad intentions leading to an unexpected end.
Rounding out the collection, Peter Straub's "A Secret Place: The Heart of A Dark Matter" serves double duty. First, it is a short story about murderous mentors and students (more precisely: masters and apprentices). Second, it fills in some background on a character featured in his recent Black Quill Award-winning novel. A Dark Matter has proved a rich vein for Straub, appearing in two similar-but-different editions (apart from the Doubleday release, Subterranean Press published an earlier draft as The Skylark limited edition), and Straub's contribution to Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman's Stories anthology employed that novel's guru character. "A Secret Place: The Heart of A Dark Matter" (which originally appeared in a limited edition from Borderlands Press) is both complex and simplistic, eschewing a complicated plot in order to delve into its characters' twisted psyches. When Keith Hayward gets in trouble for killing a neighbor's pet, his Uncle Till is the man to set him straight about the importance of getting a secret place if his nephew is going to continue pursuing his bloody interests. Keith soon does as Uncle Till suggests and gets himself a slave to serve his whims (his beleaguered fellow student, Miller). He soon learns such a secret place is both literal and metaphoric. What follows are two intertwined stories about dominance and submission: in one, Keith plays apprentice to Uncle Till, in the other, Keith plays master to Miller. The narrative builds to a bloody Christmas encounter between these two storylines. While serial killer tales are pretty much a dime a dozen these days – plot wise, there's little in "A Secret Place" that hasn't been seen before – Straub presents some interesting psychology and relationships. On its own, the story is a well done education-of-a-killer piece, but taken as part of A Dark Matter's cycle of works, it assumes a greater resonance. The key to this story's success is found in Straub's craft--the words are assembled well, the sentences are lovely, the paragraphs are a treat to read, the metaphors and symbols are rich, and yet these things all work toward building the story's characters. The heart of this dark matter is both disquieting and seductive.
All told, the sixth volume in the Shivers series presents a wide ranging blend of horror fiction. There's something here for most interests. While I am disappointed in the short supply of contributing authors that aren't straight white guys, plenty of chills and thrills repaid my invested reading time.
Purchase Shivers VI, edited by Richard Chizmar.
Cemetery Dance / May 2010
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand
Catching Hell is a difficult book to pin down. It starts out feeling like a coming-of-age/road trip story as we join three good friends (plus one hanger-on) getting ready to spend one last summer weekend together before going their separate ways. It veers quickly from there into a classic horror scenario: that of the strange town in the middle of nowhere, the one that seems stuck in the past and is filled with mysterious-to-the-point-of-creepy residents. From there, it detours into yet another story type familiar to horror fans, one that I’m reluctant to spoil here. Suffice to say it leads into the story’s final transformation into a survival tale, albeit one with a Twilight Zone-type twist at the end.
Pulling off such schizophrenic storytelling is no easy task, but for the most part author Greg Gifune is up to the challenge. He takes the time in this compact tale (number 20 in the Cemetery Dance novella series) to build solid, likeable characters in Billy, Stefan, Alex and Tory before throwing them into chaos, which is important in a story like this — if you don’t care what happens to the group, you really don’t care what happens in the story. That’s not to say they couldn’t have used a little more fleshing out — Tory, in particular, is more stereotype than true character, saddled with the mellow mindset and laid-back surfer-speak straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Still, the fast pace of the story helps gloss over some of these deficits in character development.
The one true qualm I have with Catching Hell comes with the revelation of what is really going on in this strange little town of Boxer Hills, that third story shift that I don’t want to give away. It’s not what is happening, necessarily – although it’s not exactly original, it’s certainly a rich enough situation that familiarity isn’t a bad thing – it’s how the characters discover the truth of what’s happening to them. It’s just a little too convenient having your characters literally go into a library and immediately pull down the exact books that explain most of what is happening to them. This occurs in a single chapter about midway through the book, and it really brought the story to a halt for me. Instead of the mystery that drove the first half of the book, we suddenly know almost everything there is to know, and the book goes from discovery and survival to a simple race against the clock. Don’t misunderstand — it’s a taut, well-written race against the clock, but the heavy exposition that gets us there just takes away from the whole experience.
Catching Hell is not without its problems, but it does have quite a bit working in its favor. Gifune keeps the story running at a quick pace, and the tension of the slowly unfolding situation is palpable throughout the first half of the book. From the moment the group leaves the library the tension is still there, but it’s changed; that amazing sense of unreality that keeps the characters off-kilter is gone. It’s a shame, because up until that point the book was a can’t-put-it-down thriller. From then on, it’s merely good — not a bad thing, of course, but still so far from what it could have been.
Purchase Catching Hell by Greg F. Gifune.
Blood Splattered and Politically Incorrect / Del James, Brian Keene, Thomas F. Monteleone and Lee Thomas
Cemetery Dance / December 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud
Cemetery Dance Publications' Blood Splattered and Politically Incorrect is a chapbook anthology of four short stories. This saddle stapled volume comes as a signed edition limited to 750 copies. As the title suggests, the contents employ potentially offensive themes and situations — its stories wants to upset you, and therein lays the potential pitfall.
Shock alone has a short shelf life before it becomes rather boring. Tales that intend to offend need to work double hard to engage their readers. After all, a story that doesn't entertain is not going to hold the reader long enough to draw them through to the punch line. Blood Splattered and Politically Incorrect is typical for an anthology, in that some stories succeed better than others.
The opening piece is Del James' "Sick Puppy." James is the author of The Language of Fear collection, originally released in the 1990s under Dell Books' Abyss imprint. His most well-known piece is probably "Without You," cited as the inspiration for the Guns N Roses' "November Rain" music video. James' works are concerned with the same themes and subjects as the original splatterpunks; they present fast paced, urban horror stories peopled with social outliers — punks, wastrels, and the downtrodden. "Sick Puppy" is firmly rooted in this tradition. It relates the many failings and setbacks of a nameless, diseased, junkie narrator. Though it begins on the ugly, realistic side of life, it soon delves into the supernatural, when a drug trip preludes a horrific encounter. After this, the narrator receives horrible power, and spends the remaining story discovering its limits and uses.
"Sick Puppy" is delivered with a raw, often unfocused style. It bounces between wildly divergent topics, offering up voluminous research atop a thin plot. While this builds a decent sense of the uncertain world and times the character lives in, this reviewer found very little insight into the narrator himself. The piece is all surface, little depth, so when it delves into the realm of bloodletting and shocking horror, it is unsuccessful at stirring the emotions. The ending is meant to resonate, and yet it leaves me wondering just who this story is intended for. The piece is told first person, but why are we hearing it? While the story has a few moments worth visiting – particularly the opening sequence, which offers the single instance of empathy for its protagonist when he watches the televised images of the 747s destroying the Twin Towers on 9/11 – "Sick Puppy" never really gels into a memorable story.
Brian Keene's "A Revolution of One" is pure rant. Its unnamed, first person narrator makes gleeful attacks on whitebread America's proclivity for banality and passivity. The piece's structure is deceptively simple, repeatedly delivering a "This Is Why You Fail, but I Succeed" argument, which builds to a world changing revelation.
Keene began his career with confrontational message board antics, blog posts, and prose (e.g. 2002's Talking Smack), and "A Revolution of One" reveals the years have not tempered his rancor but have honed his ability to deliver it. Though this piece is not quite a story in the traditional sense – there's no real plotting involved, unless one makes the stretch that the reader is intended to be the protagonist, and the narrator the antagonist (or vice versa) – it still held my attention. This is a neat trick since the "you" the "I" talks to is about as far removed from me as possible. Brevity is a saving grace here. As anyone who has suffered a message board flamewar knows, if left to go on too long, a rant grows tiresome. "A Revolution of One" knows when to stop, and it does. While it might not satisfy everyone, I found it an entertaining way to kill a couple of minutes.
Thomas F. Monteleone's "Real Gun Control is Hitting What You Aim At" targets Rowe Carlin, an advocate for gun control, affirmative action, school vouchers, etcetera, etcetera. This journalist soon discovers his liberal beliefs put to the test when an intruder breaks into his house. What follows is a gruesome comedy of errors, wherein Mr. Carlin finds himself drowning in trouble until he arrives at the not-unexpected ending.
This piece aims to deliver a tongue-in-cheek assault against hypocritical pundits. Unfortunately, the protagonist falls into the too-stupid-to-live category, so the conclusion lacks any real punch. Were Carlin an actual character instead of a straw man caricature capering as the plot-engine demands, this piece might have had some real bite to it. Alas, its teeth have been pulled.
With "Testify," Lee Thomas delivers a powerful piece about hypocrisy and homophobia. It begins with a corpse in an Austin apartment, and then delivers the back story. At the heart of this tale are Reverend Robert Wright, a well known anti-gay religious leader (modeled in no small part after Fred Phelps), and his lover Jimmy "Angel" Royce. When Wright's relationship comes to light, it ignites a storm of controversy, building to murder.
Instead of providing a single viewpoint character, "Testify" presents all its information through over twenty sources, including social media updates, personal statements, newspaper quotes, and other documentation. The result is akin to flipping through a well-made scrapbook, which pulls a coherent story from disparate material. "Testify" is a jigsaw puzzle of inconsistent viewpoints and opinions, recalling such compelling crime fiction mosaics as Jim Thompson's The Criminal and The Kill-Off. Perhaps its finest success is in asking interesting questions that linger after the entertainment is done. Thoughtful and compelling, "Testify" is the standout piece in this anthology.
Shock fans looking for sizzle will find something to enjoy in each of the pieces. Those readers eager for strong storytelling will likely be less satisfied with Blood Splattered & Politically Incorrect. Then again, this anthology knows its preferred audience — the title doubles as a warning label.
Purchase Blood Splattered and Politically Incorrect, with stories by Del James, Brian Keene, Thomas F. Monteleone, and Lee Thomas.
Prime Books / November 2010
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Reviewing the works of Stephen Graham Jones is a daunting task. Not because of any shortcoming or lackluster aspect that requires the careful deliberation of words but because the work, quite frankly, is so brilliant at times that it demands the most circumspect, most diligent of analyses. To put it another way: A review of Stephen Graham Jones’ work necessitates living up to the quality of the work itself. Anything less would feel…well, somehow unacceptable.
Indeed the thirteen tales that comprise Jones’ cerebrally chilling short story collection require refreshingly more from the reader than your run-of-the-mill compendium. And, yes, while there are glimpses of comfortingly familiar genre tropes sprinkled throughout The Ones That Got Away in the form of zombies and werewolves and ghosts aplenty, there is nothing comforting or familiar about the context and texture in which Jones wraps them. The situations his characters – who are achingly real at times – find themselves in are painful and discomfiting in the best sense of the words. In turn, the reader is challenged to keep up, to survive the horror with his characters, even when it’d be easier to simply close the book and set it aside on the nightstand. Laird Barron, in his able introduction to the collection, characterizes its literary ambiance perfectly:
“The Ones That Got Away is a slippery collection; it resists and gnaws at the bonds of genre, yet may be the most pure horror book I’ve come across. The cumulative effect of these stories includes dislocation and dread — the manner of dread that arises from what is known by our soft, weak, civilized selves through rote and sedentary custom and symbolic exchange of cautionary fables, as well as a deeper, abiding fear of the ineffable that’s the province of the primordial swamp of our subconscious.”
Dislocation takes center stage in the collection’s first offering, “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit”, in which a father and his young son are lost in a snowy wilderness. Although the unsettling cannibalism at the story’s center is masked within the boy’s delusions of heroic bunny rabbits that provide sustenance in their dire circumstances, there is a gorgeous humanity here in the form of the lengths of a father’s love for his son juxtaposed against how childhood minds can mask the cruelty of adult realities.
The resiliency of the child’s mind also factors heavily in “Till the Morning Comes”, in which an uninvited houseguest comes calling in the form of a hippie uncle – complete with a collection of Grateful Dead-style velvet posters sporting creepy skeletons that greatly unnerve the story’s twelve-year-old narrator. When a spooky story involving a Dad who sings to dead kids in the back of a VW bus wreck spurs more than the narrator’s sudden onset bedwetting, Jones ratchets up the familial tension to the breaking point. “Till Morning Comes” is a shining exploration of the lengths children will go to keep the skeletons that frighten them in the closet where they belong and a heartbreaking tale of how families are pulled apart and put back together again.
In “The Sons of Billy Clay”, more cannibalism as a veteran prison guard regales –then horrifies – his young trainee with tales of the souls of bloodthirsty killers trapped inside bulls. Jones shows a real flare for spot-on dialogue in this prison-set, Southwestern-flavored campfire tale.
“So Perfect” finds Jones revisiting his patented pitch-perfect present tense narrative structure that feels deceptively experimental while really sporting quite a polish. He nails the Pretty Little Liars-esque narcissism and catty banter of adolescent girls in this cautionary tale about body image run amok. And ticks. Lots of icky, creepy-crawly ticks.
“Lonegan’s Luck” exemplifies Jones’ sharp knack for blurring genre lines, here taking the Old West and infusing it with modern-day zombies in this story about a nomadic snake-oil salesman who peddles his own unique brand of zombie virus to unsuspecting, God-fearing townsfolk. In classic woman-scorned style, Jones doles out satisfying dollops of literary comeuppance in this thoroughly entertaining genre mash-up.
Cujo meets the living dead in “Monsters”, a surprisingly poignant coming-of-age tale during which first love blooms with nightmarish consequences. This at-once relatable “one of those magical summers…” stories is easily one of the best examples of Jones’ ability to creep the reader out and then suddenly wallop them with a profound dose of humanity that threatens to rip the heartstrings from the chest. Consider the unadulterated gorgeousness of the following passage in which Jones goes from horror to humanity in the space of a single (albeit long) sentence:
“I swallowed, my eyes full with what had happened, with who, or what, I’d led to Elaine, with what he might be picking from his teeth right now in whatever dark place he was holed up in for the daylight hours, and then, to make up for it, to start making up for it, I draped my new granddad’s arm across my shoulders, to help him up the hill, and understood a little even then, I think, about what it might be like to have spent your whole life alone, so that just one person reaching up to help you along could mean the world, and save your life, and make everything all right for a few moments.”
In “Wolf Island”, a shipwrecked werewolf, some playful dolphins, and a killer whale are the unlikely characters that populate this story of lycanthropes versus marine life — with a surprising winner. Jones’ work here perfectly illustrates his uncanny ability to throw seemingly random ingredients into a pot and yet somehow manage to serve a literary stew impeccably balanced in flavor.
A cancer-riddled homicide detective is on the hunt for a seeming anthropophagic serial killer in “Teeth”. Perfectly blurring the lines between reality at the story’s start and surrealism as his protagonist’s disease process progresses with the story, “Teeth” is (again) infused with subtle hints of humanity. When the detective wonders if the animal control facility he’s visited earlier in the day leaves lights on for the animals at night, Jones adds marvelous depth and dimension to what could be – in lesser hands – a forgettable stock character.
The Stephen King influences are on fine display in “Raphael”, which sports some of the best introductory paragraphs you’re likely to ever read in a camaraderie-amongst-teenage-outcasts story. Think It or “The Body” or even Dreamcatcher in spots and let Jones morph into the master for a few thousand words and carry you through this tale of an unsettling childhood mystery that becomes a heartrending adult tragedy.
What can this reviewer say about “Captain’s Lament”, Jones’ Black Quill Award-nominated tale of merchant marines and urban legends? Well, this.
In “The Meat Tree”, Jones brings that forlorn face-on-the-side-of-milk-carton (or, in this case, on a flyer stapled to a telephone pole) to life in this story of damaged children growing up into broken adults. With childhood demons in hot pursuit at every trippy twist Jones lobs at the reader, aimlessness and obsession collide with extortion, vegetarianism, and one man’s quest to find himself — quite literally. One of the more cerebral offerings in the collection that will require some mental calisthenics before, during, and after the reading experience.
In the collection’s titular story – and its shortest – Jones paints a bleak picture of wayward teens awash in juvenile delinquency. One botched kidnapping mistaken for a home invasion later, childhood itself becomes the harbinger of lost opportunity that follows the story’s protagonist into adulthood. Caution: Recurring theme ahead.
Jones seemingly takes each striking element from the dozen stories that precede it and with “Crawlspace”, the collection’s closing novella, offers a master class in short fiction. An ingenious premise (a baby monitor as an otherworldly conduit), a lead character so well-drawn that you think he’s actually in your cell phone contacts by story’s end, an air of mystery (here revolving around paternity) mixed with a palpable sense of tension (here involving infidelity amongst friends) all make for a page-turner of unexpected proportion. Again, Jones will jump out at the reader from amidst the spooky goings-on to surprise with a penetrating reflection on the humanity of his characters, this time giving keen voice to the comforting intimacy of friendship between men and the bittersweet hopefulness of shared dreams:
“Quint laughs, rubs his dry bottom lip with the back of his hand, and joke-punches me on the shoulder, and for a moment it feels like I actually wasn’t lying the other week — that we are all still the same. That our kids are still going to be born the same year, to grow up together like we did. That our wives are going to sit in the kitchen with weak margaritas while we burn things on the grill, one of us always running down to the store for ice and beer. Taking just whichever truck’s parked closest to the road.”
Jones is really a maverick among today’s dark fiction writers, his writing style brilliantly nonconformist while remaining engagingly accessible. The Ones That Got Away is the perfect showcase for his wide-array of literary acrobatics and eccentricities that often fall just outside genre boundaries yet always seem firmly entrenched in darkness, each story in this exceptional collection a cerebral Ritz cracker to feed the farthest corners of the darkest mind.
Purchase The Ones That Got Away by Stephen Graham Jones.