Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: The Finger of God by Keith Williams

A retired Astronaut who once called the International Space Station home, Jordie MacAlister now spends his days in a different kind of isolation, sequestered away on the West Coast of Scotland and mourning the death of his wife after an inoperable brain tumour. Furthering his woe, he discovers his time in space has severely weakened his heart, thus curtailing short a career with NASA. His life is peaceful – if not quiet idyllic – until a top-secret NASA database is unaccountably downloaded onto his computer's hard drive in a blinding flash of light. With his inside knowledge, Jordie knows that such a thing isn’t possible. So it begs the question of whom or what is the power behind this inexplicable event that is now beginning to be felt around the world …

In the early stages of The Finger of God, we get the feeling this might be a short and speculative excursion not unlike a stand-alone episode of The X-Files. All the elements are there as Jordie recruits old friend and retired conspiracy-theorist Alan Sinclair to help him decipher the code. But what started out as a small mystery soon dovetails into an apocalyptic novel incorporating every device and trope of science fiction whilst invigorating the plot with horror elements reminiscent of the destruction and carnage found in a Roland Emmerich film. The action cranks up as we shift settings on a global scale from Geelong, Australia to the upper echelons of NASA. The darker aspects of the novel get even darker as Williams juggles an alien monstrosity hell bent on total abolition and the blemishes found within the human heart when put under such duress.

Unfortunately, when charting a plot evocative of sci-fi television, it becomes easy see everything through the lens of these shows, and a downside here is probably the clich├ęd characters and their dialogue and reactions. We have troubled, hardened cops voicing hackneyed thoughts; we have male and female protagonists who are brought together romantically through the fall of civilization. Underlying it all, we get the feeling Williams is using this stage to preach philosophy about human follies, and at times, I found myself getting bogged down in semantics that tapered the enjoyment of the fast moving plot. There are certain stages when you’ll ‘know’ you’re reading a book. A perfect example of this would be:

"That statement from Maurice injected reality back into the surreal atmosphere as awareness of the impossibly dire situation permeated the kitchen."

All that aside, we can tell Williams is a gifted author whose talent is only just coming to the forefront, and The Finger of God is perfect for people who enjoy savvy science fiction with subtle hints of horror.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Borderland (2007)

When first reading the caption ‘Inspired by a True Story’ a horror aficionado invariably recoils. Do we have on our hands another Texas Chainsaw Massacre replica trying to emulate the success of that franchise? Or perhaps this is just another torture-porn outing with a series of advents so loosely resembling the original crime its entire story is nothing more than a fictitious construct? Initially, that was my first impression of Borderland … a sordid tale set on the fringe of Mexico.

If there was any question regarding the film-territory we inhabit, the opening sequence quells all doubts in a hurry as two Mexican police officers find themselves in the hands of a drug-cartel that applies human sacrifice to please deities and thus remain anonymous from enemies. It sounds far-fetched, but the tone and mood of Borderland enables the scenario to be utterly plausible. None of this is for the squeamish, and although we have a sinister world very Tarantino/Rodriguez on offer, I had the feeling even those icons would be applauding this.

Next, we cut to the main-players and inevitable future victims of the blood-cult: Ed, Phil, and Henry – three arrogant and ambitious American’s celebrating graduation. The boys have decided that before college they’re going experience freedom and liberty as defined by those living south of the border. At first reluctant, Ed joins his friends and we are then treated to their adventures with alcohol, drugs, and sex. But this is no teeny-bopper outing where dim-witted adolescents are fodder for embarrassing lines and actions; I found the characters innocence and naivety to be genuine. When the subsequent abduction of Phil takes place, the tension becomes palpable.

The prescription for a movie like Borderland is, of course, the same one applied to films like Hostel. But it’s a formula that will always work for horror. This is foreign land, everybody is corrupt, and when the maelstrom comes there is nobody to help you or hear you scream. The added true-story element (of which there is a surplus of information in the special features) gives credence to the harrowing brutality of human sacrifice. When the tides turn, and the victim seeks retribution, we discover they are capable of just as much atrocity as their tormentors. Although at times the pacing is slow and the dark tones will have you squinting, the climax ensures Borderland rises just above the usual crop to be a better than average horror film.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Review: Aegri Somnia

Note: A review from 2006 I somehow missed. 

Aegri Somnia is a Latin phrase, one that means, literally, ‘A Sick Man’s Dream.’

Aegri Somnia
 (for me, at least), was always going to be a winner. The news spread; little banners and bookmarks circulated with an illustration that was enough whet my fantastique taste-buds. For dark fiction lovers like us – for I assume you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t – the appeal that can often come with holding a little package like Aegri Somnia goes beyond mere words. Whereas some people see nothing more than a little book to perhaps use as a drink coaster on a coffee table (god, I do hate that); we aficionado’s perceive a treasure trove; something that is perhaps priceless in value. And certainly more than the retail price: Tiny imagined worlds that a lot of sacrifice, sweat and time went into.

Jennifer Pelland is our first executioner of tales with YY, and it’s a very worthy opener. Reminiscent of the design on the cover, we know we're in a kind of monster territory. Little monsters. Monsters that scurry. After an abortive attempt to fashion a human baby goes horribly wrong, the man for whom the experiment was designed has to repair the damage. Although concerning fiends, the story’s heart is ultimately a cordial domestic one between a small boy and a grieving adult ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to put things right.

Christopher Rowe’s The League of Girls is a little more subdued. The plot seems to fit well into the Aegri Somnia theme, but I was a little baffled; maybe this was the point. After coming home from hospital following debilitating injuries from a plane crash (or was it)? Sammi is allocated a place in a girl’s boarding house that may well be some kind of afterlife.

One of my favourite’s follows: All Praise to the Dreamer by Nancy Fulda. It’s another story that’s strongly tied with parenthood, and the lengths we go to preserve our brood. What makes this one tick, however, is the strange, sentient creatures that prey on humanity’s infants. They are even given a delicious name (one I won’t reveal here), and you can tell the author has fun with her creations. A clever ending ensues.

Mythology comes to the forefront with Nothing of Me by Eugie Foster. Deity’s everybody will be familiar with – those from Homer’s Odyssey, rear up in a tropical setting set in present day. It’s a cool little story, and a lot of people will enjoy it; however, I’d just finished reading Dan Simmons’s epic Ilium and Olympos the night before. Hence, this particular reviewer was a little put off coming back to Zeus and his immortal family of gods, goddesses and demigods. They seem to be everywhere in current fiction, marauding around our writers heads begging them for more tales. But I’m just being morose here, ladies and gentleman. Eugie’s tale is infused with curses, betrayal and romance with immortals Scylla and Glaucus at the centre of things.

Natural storyteller Scott Nicholson gives us Heal Thyself, probably the ultimate standout in this collection. Jeffery Jackson has problems – big problems. And when he sees a past-life hypno-therapist to heal his cerebral sufferings, his psyche dovetails into area’s better left unexplored. I’ve made it no secret in the past (no pun intended) that I predict Scott’s only a couple of books away from breaking through big-time, and you’ll see why with Heal Thyself. There is a miniature here, and (in my opinion) he seems to grasp topics he might know little about with a fiery, almost effortless imagination.

Perhaps the only story that doesn’t quite fit in here is On the Shoulders of Giants by Bryn Sparks. This is probably due to the hard science fiction factor that seems no body else really ventured into. Apex readers will know that Bryn is very talented, however – and he fuses human emotion with robotic sentience quite well.

Dream Takers by Rhonda Eudaly tackles sleep disorders. Those familiar with insomnia or nightmares that invade us when we close are eyes will be chilled by this. In this future, technology has enabled one Timothy Lindsey to snatch nightmares from the subconscious and give them to somebody else. In this case, its inmates on death row . . . monsters already filled by the void. And of course, there is always a price …

The next piece, Letters from the Weirdside by Lavie Tidhar, seems dedicated to all the struggling dark fiction writers out there. We begin with a typical day in a horror magazine editor’s work-place. There follows his decent into story realms that fracture known reality and question the often blurry line between fiction and our own four-dimensional world: a motif Stephen King has explored at great lengths.

Every story here seems to feed off the one before it, and the next one, Wishbones by Cherie Priest comes off just as good as the rest. The plot concerns ancient mythical secrets during the civil war and is branched into the present involving teenagers working in pizza store. Cherie’s use of language (especially between the teenagers) is right on the money; their banter flies from the page like you’re watching it on the screen. Also, it’s the images evoked during the war camps and not the supernatural elements that ultimately win out.

All becomes as Wormwood will certainly make a lot of techno-phobes and environmentalists out there squirm in their respective reading chairs. It’s authored by Angeline Hawkes, who purveys the wasteland that is Chernobyl years after the meltdown and reports what she sees. Alex has permission to travel to the abandoned city to add some verisimilitude for a school report and perhaps take a few photographs. Alex discovers (after his motorcycle breaks down, of course), that Chernobyl isn’t as deserted as the world thinks and it seems the city has one last, horrifying gift for the world. Sounds great, and it is … except there is an element of disbelief for the reader as Alex comes to terms with the new environment astonishingly quickly. We’re thrust forward into B grade territory as though we’ve been there all along – and you might find yourself frowning. However, it is a short story, and Angeline is to be forgiven.

Well of the Waters by Mari Adkins falls into the same category as Nothing of Me. Although I’m probably wrong, stories such as these seem to be aimed at a female readership . . . and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. My personal taste, however, won’t easily be held sway here. Like Dream Takers, it revolves around a kind of sleep incubator. Another realm with powerful female thaumaturgy also comes into play.

It seems just when you think the best story has shown itself, along comes Mens Rea by Steven Savile. What started out as seamy cop London story – perhaps a very gruesome take on TV’s The Bill – suddenly goes ape into dark regions involving experimental brain surgery, hoodlum thugs with telekinetic gifts – and an ending that just begs for some kind of universe to be explored. Steven takes to the theme beautifully, imbuing Mens Rea with a vigorous, complex and ultimately uplifting tale.

Well, it was a good ride. And I was happy to make the journey. All authors are to be commended, as they have been given a task and responded resoundfully. Bravo Jason Sizemore and Gill Ainsworth for editing. You can purchase Aegri Somnia from Apex Publications.