Dark Scribe Reviews

Asylum / Mark Allan Gunnells

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.

Posted on Friday, April 8, 2011 at 11:02AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Shivers VI / Edited by Richard Chizmar

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.

Posted on Friday, April 1, 2011 at 11:15AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Catching Hell / Greg F. Gifune

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.

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 03:20PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

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.

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 02:01PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

The Ones That Got Away / Stephen Graham Jones

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.

Posted on Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 03:55PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Willy / Robert Dunbar

Uninvited Books / January 2011
Reviewed by: Paul G. Bens, Jr.

A dilapidated school in the middle of nowhere. An encroaching winter. Dozens of troubled, teenaged boys, some violent and some...perhaps not. Add in an old and dying Dean of the school who’s been secreted away and an enigmatic boy named Willy — who seems to strike fear in the hearts of all the adult administrators — and you have all the makings of a classic horror/suspense piece. The question is, will the author take the clichéd route, or will he take those elements and weave them into something complex, fascinating and utterly suspenseful? Lucky for readers, Robert Dunbar, author of The Pines, The Shore and Martyrs & Monsters, is never one to take the road most travelled, and with Willy, Dunbar doesn’t disappoint, giving readers a novel that is challenging, full of dread and peopled with characters both appealing and frightening.

Shuffled from one “school” to another, an unnamed narrator is our guide, the events of the novel unfolding via entries he makes in a journal suggested by his previous therapist. Though the boy himself doesn’t understand the worth of it all, he dutifully — almost obsessively — tells his story as he finds himself at yet another facility, one as broken and out of place as he himself seems to feel. Often disjointed in tone and focus, these early entries reflect a stream of consciousness fragmented by transience and capitulation to the world around him as the boy’s attention is drawn from one thing to another at the drop of a hat. The result is a jarring narrative that keeps the reader off balance, leading one to wonder what his boy might have done and what he might yet do.

Dunbar’s dedication to the boy’s voice is unwavering, capturing the essence of a young man beaten down by life, numb to it almost, and the conceit works well. Our narrator catches only snippets of things the adults around him say and seems only to acknowledge his surrounding to the extent he needs to in order to survive. Largely, the adult supervisors and teachers are dismissive of him, looking down their noses at yet another “troubled youth.” It’s a label and attitude the narrator has not only come to expect, but one which he has begun to believe about himself. He is nothing more than an inconvenience — hardly a person at all — a case to be passed from one institution to another as he teeters on the brink of insanity.

He is assigned a room in the institution amidst whispers and a sense of fear that grips the adults, though one is never sure why. It seems that our narrator’s roommate is, perhaps, the worst of all the problem kids:

But the black lady wasn’t laughing anymore. “We can’t be putting him there,” she kept repeating. “You know what I’m saying.

Though the adults seem afraid to even whisper his name, the titular character is, no doubt, to be the young man’s roommate. But Dunbar doesn’t introduce us to Willy for quite a while, his absence going unexplained. Instead, the reader is given a chance to let their imagination run wild as they wonder what horrible thing Willy could have done to have landed here and, more importantly, what he did to deserve such a protracted absence from the school. In short, Dunbar lets us construct our own monster, indulging our voyeuristic tendencies as the narrator discovers Willy through his belongings and through the cryptic comments of the ever-present adults. By doing this, Dunbar builds a slow, methodical sense of dread, a palpable suspense that is really quite masterful. When we meet Willy, we are certain he’ll live up to every horrible thing we’ve imagined.

But Dunbar pulls the rug out from under us. When we finally meet Willy, he’s not some axe murderer or psychopath; he’s affable, fiercely intelligent and incredibly charismatic. He soon bonds with his new roommate, and Dunbar builds a remarkable relationship between the two, one reminiscent of that between James Dean’s Jim Stark and Sal Mineo’s Plato from Rebel Without a Cause. As in the cinematic classic, there’s homoeroticism here, but more important is the dynamic of two “troubled” youths, one wise enough not to believe he is the offal the adults paint him to be. As Willy shows him his intrinsic value, our narrator begins to grow beyond the labels, embracing his intelligence and wit, and the journals entries slowly become more lucid and confident, driving the narrative.

Willy is clearly a leader amongst the boys. And that, perhaps, is what puts the adults around him so ill at ease. He is their Jack Merridew, intelligent and savage at the same time. But is he dangerous because of some unspoken, violent past? Or is it because he sees through them, knows all their little secrets, and is not content to take what they say simply because they have been placed in a position of power?  We surmise there is something horrible in his past — mostly from the vague comments of the teachers — but Dunbar never reveals what it is, so we’re kept off balance throughout the book.

And when Willy is suddenly sent away, is everything exactly as it seems?  The boys begin to unravel without their leader, the mansion seems more decrepit, and the adults are far less balanced than they should be. Amongst it all, our narrator is haunted by the memory of Willy. Or is it the ghost of him?

“Willy?” I moved really slow down the corridor and pushed the washroom door. “Hello?” I kept my voice soft so as not to scare him. Something rustled, and I went in, blinking at the light when I hit the switch. “Willy?”

Those familiar with Dunbar’s work will not be surprised at the complexity of this novel. He takes a simple premise and imbues it with a keen literary sense. Some readers might be put off by the fragmented style of the beginning of the novel, but by page 20 the voice and emotion of the narrator will grasp them. Dunbar excels at capturing the emotion of troubled youth and not a stick of dialog feels forced or out of place. He also manages to attach us to these boys, making us root for them although we know they are likely doomed...at least some of them.

While the adults that populate the novel are less sharply drawn, this is with reason. The adults pay little mind to the boys in their charge; likewise, our narrator has little use for them, seeing as he will only know them for a very short time before circumstances change again. Under Willy’s influence, however, he becomes more attentive to their whispers. He sees their dynamics, learns a little of their secrets and the political maneuverings within the school. Slowly he begins to see that they are no better than he and the other boys. In fact, they may be worse, their lives apathetic and passionless. This too serves to ratchet up the suspense as we find ourselves wondering what is going on behind those closed doors at night.

This reviewer also appreciated that Dunbar does not spoon feed the reader. We never really learn what it is that Willy or the other boys have done to land them in the institution. Dunbar knows that sometimes what is most frightening is what we don’t know or what we only catch glimpses of, that unknown something lurking in the corner, and he uses that well. In the end, it is inconsequential what they have done. It is what they have been made to be that is important.

There are a lot of unanswered questions throughout the novel, but never is it dissatisfying or frustrating. Expertly crafted, intensely moody and infinitely suspenseful, this is horror at its best, most fulfilling. If you tend to like your suspense and horror a bit on the simplistic side, with clear-cut good guys and bad, this may not be the novel for you. However, if you prefer well-crafted suspense with a literary style that is both cryptic and creepy, there is much here to appreciate in Dunbar’s latest — one that continues to haunt long after the reader puts it down.

Purchase Willy by Robert Dunbar.

Posted on Friday, March 25, 2011 at 11:07AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

To Each Their Darkness / Gary A. Braunbeck

Apex Publications / December 2010
Reviewed by Daniel R. Robichaud

Gary A. Braunbeck's second foray into book-length nonfiction, To Each Their Darkness, is a complex work that is at once a memoir, a reflection upon the writer's craft, a review of the highs and lows of horror entertainment, and a call to action for creators of dark fiction. While this book might easily lose its way trying to cover so much ground, Braunbeck's capable prose and emotional honesty hold the book together. The result is both thoughtful and provocative.

This volume owes quite a debt to Braunbeck's Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life (Betancourt & Company, 2004). In fact, Braunbeck reprints much of that book's material here. The author is quite upfront about this, elucidating the rationale behind revisiting his early work and the differences between the two texts through five humorous and self-effacing introductory explanations. In brief, Braunbeck views the current book as a variation on a theme, an attempt to better express the points the previous volume approached but missed. As Fear in a Handful of Dust was an expensive hardcover, Apex Publishing's reasonably priced trade paperback is a welcome edition.

However, To Each Their Darkness is not a lightly revised and minimally expanded variant on Fear. This book offers new material, including intros and afterwards (for works by Mort Castle, Glen Hirschberg, Fran Friel, etcetera), some musing on film adaptations, and a heartfelt tribute to horror fiction legend J. N. Williamson. In addition, readers will find plenty of erudite analysis of other writers' works, the current faltering state of horror fiction, and Braunbeck's high hopes for the field.

This book's central argument is one of self analysis: without understanding the darkest parts of one's own life, the book argues one cannot create something truly horrifying. Going one step further, the book turns Douglas Winter's infamous speech equating horror with emotion on its ear, stating horror is not an emotion at all, but a byproduct of other feelings. Thus, the Braunbeckian ideology of horror calls for a complex tapestry of emotions, responses, and relationships. Only through well drawn characters, can fear be communicated.

A book of this nature can be viewed in two wildly divergent ways: it is either a smorgasbord of encyclopedic knowledge and analysis about the honest value of horror entertainment as seen through one fan and creator's life and work, or it is a self-indulgent attempt to establish the importance of personal hobby horses to an indifferent world. I side with the former way of thinking, while accepting the existence of a vocal contingent for the latter: to each their opinion. These are the same responses granted to any work wherein writers grapple with the juxtaposition of fiction, film, and life, including Harlan Ellison's The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, and Harlan Ellison's Watching, Stephen King's On Writing and Danse Macabre, David J. Schow's Wild Hairs, Joyce Carol Oates' Faith of the Writer and In Rough Country, and Larry McMurtry's In a Shallow Grave; To Each Their Darkness comfortably stands in these titles' company.

When the book works best, it draws together autobiography, film criticism, an aesthetic vision, and gallows humor to portray Braunbeck's own life and reflect upon this life as a source for the terrors populating his fiction. Stories, whether told through prose or pictures, do not exist in a vacuum — the better tales draw upon personal experience while responding to stories that came before and inspiring those that follow. Just as Godard could criticize a film by making another film, authors contribute to a grand conversation with each novel or short story they write. In its successful sequences, To Each Their Darkness shows one creator's process for contributing his individual voice to that ongoing discussion. Though it leaves little room for popcorn escapism – save for a cheeky introduction to Ray Garton's 'Nids and Other Stories, which feels oddly out of place here – these passages offer the clearest call for creators to aspire for larger things than yet another zombie-apocalypse or simplistic vampire tale.

Like the best of Braunbeck's fiction, To Each Their Darkness is intensely personal. As such, it won't be to everyone's liking, but this is a book that neither requires nor desires blind devotion. It is a curiosity, a puzzle that is at once illuminating and frustrating and confrontational but always engaging.

Readers who have not read Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life will find much to think about. Those familiar with that volume may be disappointed by the ratio of reprinted material to new, but in any form, this volume's ideas are well worth revisiting.

Purchase To Each Their Darkness by Gary A. Braunbeck.

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 08:41AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint