Monday, March 22, 2010

Reivew: Chizine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words.

Winner of a 2000 Bram Stoker award for editing ChiZine is an original, no frills quarterly webzine dedicated to unearthing stories and poetry that are left of the centre with a variety of subject matter. The stories featured in this selection were the winners of the contest The 11th CHIAROSCURO short story contest.

Author Cat Rambo gives credence to her name with a tale (involving a cat), entitled Grandmother's Road Trip. The predominant theme here is one of metaphor: A family of mother, daughter and grandmother are on an escort mission cross-country which will eventually see Grandma placed in a nursing home against her will. The road is long, and mirrors life's journey to reach old age. What works well here is not so much the supernatural undertones as sharing space with three generations of women and how they interact with each other. The prose is literate and at times funny , Grandmother's Road Trip is certainly one of the stand out's.

Sins of the Father by S.E Ward was the winner in the competition which saw 241 entries; this story left me with not only a looming question mark but also a furrowed brow. Delving into the often ambiguous lives of a small village of Muslims and Jews in France, Sins of the Father is a confusing mix; try as I might, I just couldn't get into it. Some would probably argue that it's intelligent and somehow thought provoking to mirror the world's current climate - but, in all truth, a short fiction piece hasn't bored me this much in a long time. The protagonist, Rashid, goes through a humbling metamorphosis (that of a vampire Ghulin), in which we see him rotting away , although this part has merit the rest of the story is unmitigated tripe.

Lastly, there's a highly unique story by Stephen M Wilson entitled Dream Caused By the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate. This one grows on you the more you read , a flight of fantasy that is at once entertaining and strangely educational. It's hard to coherently describe this story without giving certain elements away: suffice it to say bees are a big component and the prose is unlike anything you'll have come across before.

After going back into the vault and reading some of the earlier issues, my initial assumption that ChiZine sought out quirky, idiosyncratic tales and poetry was warranted. All issues contain a small amount of dark poetry as well as fiction , with book and film reviews thrown into the mix as well. Although this issue felt awkward and slow, Chizine is still a viable force in the dark fiction community.

For those interested in how such a webzine evolves into a powerhouse performer on the world stage, here is a short stanza from managing editor Brett Savory:

A fella named Vanace Fiddler and I had an online conversation about the dearth of dark fiction 'zines online back in mid-'97, and decided we'd start our own. Since I was the only one who knew HTML, I did the coding, and we hashed out the vague direction of the content together. Vanace and I kept in touch about it for the first couple of years, but then we lost touch and, since I was doing all the actual work of coding, etc., I just carried on without him. I started paying 1 cent for fiction around mid-'99, based on banner ads I created for small presses and various authors. Then I landed sponsorship from Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing) in 2001 in exchange for exclusive banner ads, enabling me to pay 3 cents per word for fiction and $5 per poem. It was around the same time that ChiZine received the Bram Stoker Award for editing from the Horror Writers Association. A couple of years later, I presented Leisure with our increased traffic status, and requested an increase in word rates; they obliged, and I was paying 5 cents per word for fiction and $7 per poem. A couple of years on and I was presented them with more increased traffic stats and asked for cents per word and $8 per poem. Again, they obliged. It's been a great partnership, and ChiZine would have folded ages ago if they hadn't stepped in to sponsor us, because I hated the hand-to-mouth status of trying to scrape by with whatever I could get from skint small presses and similarly broke authors.

Review: Shadowed Realms Issue 8

It's November, and Shadowed Realms once more catches the attention of our collective consciousness. Labeled the 'graphic horror issue', the stories broadcast here fit the criteria of what I think this enterprise should be about . . .

A story relating to love at its most primal level, Mark Barnes's SERENADE delves into the subject of infidelity and whether or not such a sin can ever really be tossed aside. 'We're all wolves in sheep's clothing,' the protagonist at one stage utters to his beloved while reclining after sex and it is this declaration which makes it a great story. Through the serenade of bygone disciples, revenge is a dish best served cold.

It's rare for a short story to be perfectly well-rounded, but CONGA JENGA by Shane Jiraiya Cummings felt like a faultless, brutal sphere. It's short, sweet, and no holds barred as our protagonist does battle with a parasite for transgressions committed in the wilds of Congo. Shane's sentences come off nicely timed, with just the proper intervals. What wonders lie in store as he develops his themes?

So many horror tales (perhaps too many), fit the premise of revenge; of justice being served. Matthew Chrulew's gives us a bleak take on the formula called IN MEMORIAM. Molly, perpetually in a disconnected state of remembrance (I loved the opening line; it was a killer), makes us grieve with her as we visit the scene of her lovers death. She finds solace, however, in a gruesome but ultimately fitting way.

Constantly evolving, Shadowed Realms does indeed feel like a cut above the rest. Personally, I enjoy the stories as though participating purely for entertainment value that has nothing to do with critique. Stories are, after all, not substitutes for reality but tools for change . . .

In the next installment I will be reviewing the concluding serials NOTHING OF HIM THAT DOTH FADE by Poppy Z Brite; AUTOPSY by Robert Hood. Also, DECIMATED by Lee Battersby and JACK O LANTERN by Eric Christ.

DECIMATED, by Lee Battersby, is a serial look at torture. These types of stories are always uncomfortable and Lee does a fine job of it. Like previous stories in Shadowed Realms, it has a kind of futuristic fatalism. Our main guy has been 'chosen' to undertake a ritual involving scalpels and insects. The sentences - especially toward the conclusion, are disturbing, so it fits nice and snug in a horror anthology. Be sure to read his biography; it's impressive. A fine line for me was: My tongue flaps about my cavernous maw . . .

Having an American author named Eric Christ certainly puts a spin on things. Here, he offers THE JACK O LATERN. It's simplistic, and funny in a childlike way. Billy's carving up the old pumpkin for Halloween, and what it has to show him, regarding his sister and father's relationship, makes Halloween a day of atonement. The only gripe is perhaps Eric's overuse of sentences following one after the other with the obvious HE.

Flanagan - our wako from the previous three AUTOPSY installment's - is back and it seems he still hasn't found what he is looking for. This one's a little shorter than the rest and I must admit to being a little confused with the conclusion as it takes on supernatural elements. Obviously, there is a species of formula in what Rob's trying to do here: numerous stories before fit into this equation; the looming question mark can either be a scourge or a blessing. Regardless, it's a fine tale all-round for fans of schlock splatter . . .

Poppy Z Brite's jilted lovers return one last time in NOTHING OF HIM DOTH FADE. It was never going to be a sweet finale for our couple Leo and Jack, but there is a romantic liberation which unites them both. Over the spectrum of the whole story we find a great character study of two discordant homosexual lovers and how calamity can often be a special kind of release.

Note: Poppy is a native of New Orleans's heart - in which she has set some of her more literal novels. Unlike her encumbering lovers, I sincerely hope she weathered the storm . . .

This issue is just as explosive and dark as ever; Angela Challis obviously has her finger on the pulse of what readers want to hear. I anticipate the next volume of Shadowed Realms as the system board lights up with nothing but all fresh material.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Review; The Devil's Rejects

Writer/director (and rocker) Rob Zombie's sequel to 2003's House of 1000 Corpses finds us in familiar yet unique territory. House was a structured, homage ridden gore fest that was commercially successful enough to warrant the follow-up (Rob actually started penning it the weekend House went to no 1 at the US box office), while The Devil's Reject's is attacked from an almost completely different angle with the 70's horror/action genre evident in every reel.

The start is a mishmash of what-went-before interlaced with news snippets regarding the current status of the sicko Firefly family. As stated before, Zombie's direction is full of reverence for the techniques of others, yet he does it to great effect, mining a by-gone era with sallied stills-in-action of bloodshed and gore. You feel strapped in for a jolly ride, and want to know who to root for when the action cranks up a notch -

And crank up it does. Picking up almost immediately after the first film, the exploits of Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), and Otis (Bill Moseley), come to a head as we see the police find wind of their debauchery and lay siege to their property. Both Sherri and Otis escape while the mother is captured by the Sheriff with a score to settle. The family inevitably become small celebrities as the media picks up on their case and labels them 'The Devil's Rejects'.

An off the map motel is the scene for most of the films macabre moments. After a brief introduction to the current inhabitants , a traveling old-timers country band is among them , we're treated to their subsequent kidnapping by the Firefly's while they wait for their father (Captain Spaulding) to arrive. And this is where Zombie makes things more than a little - uncomfortable. Our captors have no mercy as they subject the couple's to torture and humiliation at its most primitive. Sid Haig as 'the clown' is genuinely repulsive, and he uses his comical caricature sparingly but well. During it all, we're fleetingly reminded of Natural Born Killers as we follow Sheriff (William Forsythe) exorcizing personal demons on his jaunt to catch the psychopaths. Later we encounter a black desert pimp who helps out the Firefly's when they escape again. The pimp offers us some much needed lighter moments as the film builds towards its climax.

House was regarded by fans of the genre twofold: it seemed to be loved or hated. One of the strong things about the sequel is a viewer can tell Zombie just doesn't seem to give a damn. This is his world, his characters, and his rules. I felt totally ensconced in the realm he creates: the dust, dirt and grit of life in
Texas during the 70's; the songs intertwined during action sequences that make them poetic and disturbing. Although not as tell-tale as House, The Devil's Rejects nonetheless acts as a worthy successor to the original.

Review: Urban Legends 3: Bloody Mary

The third installment in the Urban Legends series makes the other two appear almost regal. The first one offered us an Aussie director who emulated the Scream franchise and did a pretty good job; part two saw the quality dwindle a bit, but the magic was still there -

Welcome to part three: Bloody Mary.

Just how the studios provide the money for these atrocities is beyond me - I could tell, just from listening to the dialogue, that the script was beyond awful. There's a cheap quality to it that makes itself apparent immediately: camera angles look contrived and like something that your family might have filmed. Worse still are the vain attempts at trying to reconcile it with references to films such as Clive Barker's Candyman. By the half-hour mark, my partner was milling around the phone and trying not to look bored. It's a pity - because the premise offers a plethora of plot-strands potential moments -

There will be no detailing of the story, here. Even if you were a fan of the first two, please avoid this disaster - it will only taint your perception of the original

News: Mick Garris releases debut novel

Mick Garris, the spearhead behind many of Stephen King's television projects, will be releasing his own tale of fiction in late 2005 entitled Development Hell. The novel - an insider's view into Hollywood movie-making mechanisms , has already received a slew of reviews from noteworthy colleagues such as Frank Darabont and even Stephen himself. Clive Barker, author of dark tinsel-city tale Coldheart Canyon, has this to say about it:

"You want to see
Hollywood's dark side? Read Mick Garris' Development Hell. Garris has earned the right to tell this story from years of working in the creative salt mines of Tinsel Town. He finally gets to show us the way it looks from the inside, and it isn't pretty. This is a sharp, funny and chilling book; an unflinching report from the ego-haunted wasteland behind the face lifts and million-dollar smiles."

For those not familiar with Garris, he has been instrumental in bringing the true scope of King's fiction to the screen. Not content with a mere two hours to subject an audience to the myriad of characters and situations one usually encounters in a King epic, Garris has instead fashioned The Stand, The Shining, and the forthcoming Desperation into large scale television mini-series. Although some of these have not met with the best reviews, most fans agree it's refreshing to see the works stretched to mirror the original novel format.

Review: Antipodean SF

While lacking a little in the creative design area, AntipodeanSF nonetheless manages to fit the bill as a viable source for flash-fiction speculative writers to promote their wares. Showcasing ten tales each issue, the Australian aspect of the site is apparent and refreshing: it displays a reversed continent as a logo and is imbued with a green and gold color scheme.

That said, it was a surprise to find the first tale to be from American author Matthew Mapes, whose story The Commute ruffled my feathers a little concerning its hidden implications: the future is going to be nothing but a constricting work-world with a massive amount of time devoted to , you guessed it: commuting. There is an element of truth here . . . more and more of the worlds current climate mirrors this theme.

Next, we have a comical doozy entitled Mommy Come Quick by full time
Adelaide author Jason Fincher. It's a reverse coin attempt where we have human beings as tiny little pests and everybody's favorite aliens as lobster-like beings with huge pincers. You'll certainly want to give this one a go.

Despite the promise of the title, Douglas Belle's Aliens Don't Poop is less jovial but still fun. Almost entirely dialogue, there's a nifty little conclusion with a nice reference to our homeland. John M Floyd gives us The Stopover , where we see an intergalactic federation existing on the other side of the spectrum. 79.9 by Shaun A Saunders examines the horrifying world of retail giants and corporations with a revolutionary setting. Similar is The Language of Tomorrow by Niall Keegan; a story with the feel of big brother consumerism and is quite an original effort from the twenty year old from
Perth. However, the flash-fiction here doesn't get any better than Karen Miac and her tale Through the Window , a gem of a story that probably owns its conception to an old housewive tale but one which I found a wicked slice of female thaumaturgy and revenge. Even in such a short space, we can see that her writing skills are strong and engaging. Rounding up the ten are Re-evolution by Rob Williams: again it tackles a theme of a future gone awry , on this occasion its thanks to global warming and humanity's futile attempts to breed new organisms to combat it, resulting in an unexpected epitaph for future generations. Dust in the Wind by Wesley Parish is perhaps far too elaborate for flash-fiction; a reader will need a couple of sittings to garner it. It's intelligent, but the scope is limited. Finally, Mark Elias Keller supplies At the Top of the City. Although it was probably never intentioned by the author, this one reminds me a little of Stephen King's The Last Rung on the Ladder, whereby the solace of suicide is more fitting than the comfort of life.

AntipodeanSF aims to 'flip' the mind of the reader into another realm.' And, with a few exceptions, it manages to do this. For this reviewer 'Flash' fiction has never held great appeal, but I found myself warming to it. Also, some of the stories hint on the darker aspects, and I would like to see this continued. A featured section in this issue is the third part of a fascinating article by Dr Toni Johnston Woods of Queensland University as he investigates the state of Antipodean science fiction in the 'Pulp Years' from 1948 to 1952. This being my first read of AntipodeanSF, I went back to the archives and read through the first two parts. A critique of this will be presented in the next review.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Review: Hunters of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet.

From such humble beginnings this planet has haunted me like no other in fiction. A tale that was given only a cursory glance upon publication has steered itself into a literary jungle without equal. The annals of science fiction are soaked with this story; imitators have tried - and they've ultimately failed. Frank Herbert delivered an epic masterpiece for the masses, his scope and genius only apparent after careful consideration; after the words had stopped flowing …

I was fourteen when I learned there was going to be a movie called DUNE on television. I'd been reading sci-fi in and out over the past two years, but Horror was my main thing, as some of you might know. And here was a movie based on one of the all time sci-fi greats. I could not miss this; I made food preparations and curled up with my Siamese. It was going to be a long night - but a good one. Sitting through the entire duration, I came away humbly awed and proceeded to purchase all six original Dune novels. For those not in the know, Hunters of Dune is the seventh novel in the sequence, and a direct sequel to Chapterhouse Dune following on directly from those advents recorded in that novel. Kevin J Anderson and the late author's son Brian have sculpted the six prequels and rounded off the saga with Sandworms on Dune - thus tying up all loose ends and serving symmetry to the epic tale.

Chapterhouse Dune concluded with an aching cliff-hanger of an ending, and Hunters picks up the action directly after: Duncan Idaho and Sheeana have escaped the Honored Matres in the no-ship Ithaca. Mother Commander Murbella is now head of a new faction combining Bene Generists and the brutal, murderous Honored Matres. The opponent that humanity believed to be long extinct has reappeared from the edge of the Universe - mankind now fears nothing can stop its wonton destruction of worlds. For this is the Hunter, a machine entity the slaughters carbon based life wherever it dwells and is intent on finding the Ithaca.

Even with only a cursory knowledge of the Dune mythology, I believe readers can be suitably entertained with Hunters of Dune. All the elements are there - every player, so to speak. There is the Guild, strange, morphed beings that navigate the universe and fold space. There is the Bene Telielax, masters of genetics who have found a way to grow clones, named gholas - and bring back legends from the past. Including the ultimate Kwisach Haderach, Paul Atreides - a male who could see into a place no else dared look and prophesy the future. The Bene Gesserit. And, of course, there are the giant Sandworms themselves, creatures now regulated to a small scattering around the planet Chapterhouse, mining the sands to produce Spice - a drug that is the bartering commerce of this far flung future with Rakis now destroyed. Without it the Navigators cannot fold space; the Bene Gesserit cannot see into the future and alter their metabolism. The Spice is instrumental for all of mankind; it is the exchange in which wars can be won.

The one thing that often surprises me about the new Dune novels is the sheer horror and dark brutality these enemy factions inflict on each other. Indeed, I would go so far to say some elements are more on par with Horror fiction. In Heretics of Dune, the female splinter group Honored Matre are ruthless and all conquering, often eliminating their adversaries in gruesome moments of bloodshed and torture. Picturing beautiful females ruling the universe with an iron fist is certainly something to behold.

If you haven't cottoned on to a Dune novel, do so immediately. Hunters of Dune is probably not the best place to start, but if you're familiar with the mythology, it can be a novel read on its own. This reviewer was lucky enough to meet Kevin J Anderson some months ago, and I can say with all honesty this man is the right person for continuing Frank Herbert's imagination and forethought. Dune goes into another movie incarnation very shortly and Brian Herbert and Kevin will be acting as executive producers. Also, Paul of Dune should be released some time later this year. Any sci-fi buffs out there would do well explore this utterly beautiful universe...  

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: Shadowed Realms Issue 7

Shadowed Realms sets a high standard for writers and readers of the dark persuasion. Right off the bat in the introduction, the scene is set with some eerie, brooding music: we know where we are, here , and we know which genre we're going to be privy to. Featuring a seedy suburban back-water on the front, this no-shame approach works.

Nothing of him Doth Fade, by Poppy Z Brite is included here as a multi-part serial, and for a good reason: it's the best tales that are given this treatment. Immediately, we are placed into a thirty-something male relationship, a participant as they bicker endlessly on their Australian holiday sojourn from the States. One could argue that it's formulaic , we've seen countless stories across the spectrum presented in such a fashion , by for my money these tales never lose their allure. King himself has rendered it into an art-form (Children of the Corn, Rainy Season) and Clive Barker (In the Hills, The Cities) but Poppy puts a spin on things with this gay couple's vain attempt to rekindle their once healthy rapport. I won't prattle on about this story: for me it's a work in progress. Suffice to say elements of recent blockbuster Open Water here surface, and a reader will look forward to what's in store.

Another serial, Autopsy, by local Rob Hood, follows. It's a well known sub-genre, and after reading the title thought I was in for another belt of King's Autopsy Room Four . . . but this tale is a little stranger, a little darker, and we're thrust into it with no introduction , and certainly no apology. Flannagan, a disgruntled figure who feels he needs to 'find' something in people , literally , has developed a concrete way to make this possible. Dissecting his subjects with no more aplomb than fixing up a culinary dish, that 'something' keeps eluding him. Only through finding the right victim will his curiosity come to fruition. Rob's deft handling of the evisceration scene's are penetrating, so too the tension that builds. Only readers with a strong stomach may apply here.

An interesting title in the collection is Triad in the Key of Lies by Joseph Paul Haines. The story is poetic, but somewhat bloviated with such lines as 'The sky blue as innocence' and 'the sun warm as forgiveness' Aside from these tiny triad's in themselves, it's elegiac as we see a police-officer make a fatal road mistake with a special woman , and, punctuated with italics, will ultimately get his just desserts.

Brisbane writer Trent Jamieson gives us Downpour , a strange, very short beast. With such a short stanza it's difficult to coherently describe it. It may well be that it holds different meanings for different readers. After a massive drought, a community band together and summon dark forces to their aid. What it bids, however, is not what was originally bargained for: the old adage of everything the Devil offers turns sour.

Malik Rising by Paul Haines is a concise, futuristic blend of a group of religious zealots offering themselves as guinea pigs to purge a civilization. The viral strain is cursed and enigmatic; I had the feeling this could be expanded into novella length to resemble something not so unlike 12 Monkey's.

The next tale here has a similar theme of faith. Flight, by Josh Roundtree is expedient in its attempt for the protagonist to showcase loyalty through strange and arbitrary ways. For instance, Ray (our protagonist), has made for himself a set of crude metal wings 'ribbed with bones and assembled with care.' Through the ministrations of a street-witch, he is forced to carry out a deed which will ultimately decide if she is a prophet of truth or damnation. Although not stated, you get the feeling these stories are set in some far-future destitute landscape.

With only a couple of lines Tom Wiloch gives us Paper Cut. The title gave me a shudder, but the story a lingering question mark . . .

Next on the agenda is Professional Responsibility, by Nathanial James Parker. Through dialogue, Parker wants us to explore the doctor/patient relationship in a hostage situation. Here, we sympathize more or less with the psychotic kidnapper. All doctors (especially psychiatrics); seem to have an irritating arrogance that belies their chosen occupation. In an unsettling finale, patient becomes the teacher. It's simple, but very entertaining.

Without publications like this one , albeit on the net , and the individuals working hard behind the scenes to make them happen, Australian dark fantasy and horror could be waylaid into a quagmire without hope of redemption. Shadowed Realms is bold, innovative, and presently has just half a dozen editions (they are all available on the site) so it is only in an infancy stage. Each issue contains five to eight stories , and, with a new one every two months, the future of Shadowed Realms seems to be in good hands. The editor and publisher Angela Challis has an impressive background with all things alternative, and with Shane Jiraiya Cummings clicking away to give it a Cimmerian underbelly, this is one writer and reader who will be coming back for more.

Review: The Store by Bentley Little

Small American tows as the epicenter for strange goings on - the hallmarks for many writers of horror fiction. And yet we keep coming back to these tales where sleepy, conservative municipalities are transformed into cauldrons on the cusp of Hell. Midnight by Dean Koontz showcased what would happen to a modern town if HG Well's Dr Moreau happened to drop by - Peter Straub has transformed a fictional town called Millhaven into a realm where the serial killer has a permanent home. And Needful Things by Stephen King is perhaps the penultimate tome whereby destruction takes a town by the throat.

Now Bentley Little has his chance to cut a swath on the map with the hot, baking towns of
Arizona as the centerpiece for mayhem.

Do not be fooled by the blurb on the back, or the title of this story. Perhaps parts of it are a homage to Needful Things, but Bentley stamps his mark with his own unique brand of fiction.

Welcome to Juniper,
Arizona, the off-the-map dessert town where retail giant The Store has chosen for its new location. Now everything you could want is under one roof, at unbelievable prices. But you'd better be careful what you wish for; this place demands something of its customers that goes beyond brand loyalty -

Our protagonist, Bill Davies, is the driving force behind this novel that sees the town he loves becoming swallowed by the giant commercialism of The Store: local businesses are forced to shut their doors; agents of The Store have infiltrated the echelons of local government, making it all but impossible to operate independently. The entire town is slowly but surely pinned under the thumb of corporate supremacy and unless Bill can usurp them by some means, Juniper will fall under the spell of its charismatic owners and converted employees -

The Store itself is creepy. Although inside it resembles nothing so much as a K-Mart on steroids, the objects its sells become perverted and are converted into The Store home brands. The employees are issued with Store-worker handbooks that are like malign bibles glorifying the Hugh-Heffner-ish major owner Newman King.

That said, Bentley's heroes are likeable and engaging. He seems to have an overt grasp of local small town milieu and their inner workings. The chapters are structured cleanly and effectively to resemble what they should be: maps of intent. Not only is the writing mature, but the dialogue is established and at times hilarious. We know some of these people: they are our neighbors, friends, and are easily recognizable.

Now we come to the pitfalls: although not directly part of the this novel per say, I've had a little difficulty fathoming why such talented authors should succumb to titles without imagination and try to make it their benchmark. Little gives us headings such as: The University, The Mailman, The Resort, The ignored, and The Revelation. Appalachian writer Scott Nicholson tries the same thing: in my opinion the world does not revolve around 'The' , and it can give the reader a sterile, almost clinical feeling that flees away from the story.

After delving through four hundred pages, we wait for the spooky things to be resolved: just what, exactly, are those puppet things called the Night Managers that crawl around the store at night? Who is the big-wig Newman King? What does he want from this community besides control? Unfortunately, Little loses himself in these areas, and closure is not one of his strong points. Horror fiction, so flexible when it comes to these elements, should not be shied away from. There are literally millions of explanations that one can employ, yet Little tries his best to avoid them. It's a small weakness in an otherwise engaging novel.