Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: The Devil's of D-Day

This is the kind of review that deserves the title ‘from the vault.’ Somewhat tacky, but useful in the dismantling of an older work. After previously tackling numerous new releases, I found a brief window to embark upon something smaller. Oftentimes a reader, much like a writer, might feel the need to take a step back in between longer projects. (In King’s world think The Body and Apt Pupil in between longer works like The Dead Zone and The Dark Half). For my own part exploring the vast catalogue of the Graham Masterson factory has always been something on the agenda.

Over thirty years after the infamous D-Day landings, Dan McCook returns to Normandy as nothing more than a cartographer for a book about World War Two. In his travels he encounters two men who whisper of battlefield ghosts and point the way to an abandoned allied tank. Deciding a picture might be good for the book he locates the rusted hulk and bumps into a farmer’s daughter (Madeleine) who illuminates the rumors of hauntings that have affected the area … with the derelict tank a central-crux for the malign anecdotes. After consulting a local priest on the tank and its history, Dan McCook then decides it’s high time to solve the conundrum and open it up. Suddenly he is swept up into an ancient world where thirteen demons who inhabited the realm as flesh desire to walk again …

Graham’s first person narration is clear and home-spun. We have here a prolific author who was born to write (I can’t put it more simply). There’s an everyman quality to it, layers of prose injected with a rare quality that is reminiscent of James Herbert without the English nuances. At the time of publication I doubt it was meant to feel nostalgic, but traversing through Normandy under bleak skies and snowy environs with the Devil of swords, daggers, and razors as a constant companion the reader will feel just that. One of the hazards with this kind of book is the supernatural material; one might find that during this modern era the threat of Satan and Demons (biblical baddies) parading around in fiction just isn’t scary. But we remember the story was conceived at the time of The Omen and The Exorcist. Knowing this, a reader can happily suspend belief and get lost in the tale.   

At times the climax is somewhat ill-fitting; Graham describes wonderful, hellish creatures almost Lovecraftian in their finery, but then has them espouse language like uneducated humans. All that aside, the images are harrowing and graphic; the dues ex machina involving a certain character ultimately one that pays off. Highly recommended for those wanting to take a trip down horror's memory lane.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: The Haunting of James Hastings

Following up an astonishing debut is never an easy thing. Whether under the guise of music or the auspices of horror literature, proving to the masses that lightening can strike more than once can fill the creative heart with dread. It was two years ago now that Christopher Ransom delivered to us The Birthing House … a kind of wandering homage to the ghost story’s of old – but bristling with new enthusiasm and a modern take. Although riddled with some of the pitfalls of a first appearance – it still managed to be a beautiful nativity-fabled gothic that gives it a pride of place on any bookshelf.

Some authors like to wear many hats, but it was apparent that with his sophomore effort Christopher is setting up shop and carving out his own niche of the modern ghost story. After a quick perusal I knew that what we have here is more of the same - but that was fine by me. Sometimes writers (like musicians), will stick to a formula that sets them apart. It becomes a kind of territory … a backwater where the imagination can frolic.

James Hastings is a body double for the widely successful hip hop artist Ghost, an obvious literary reverence or echo to the real life Eminem. (This aspect was a mild turn-off at first, but we give the writer the benefit of the doubt and see he is more than capable of holding up a mirror to our own world in a brutal and somewhat enlightening way). After the death of his wife Stacey in a small but mysterious accident, James – like his alter ego Ghost – goes on a sabbatical to deal with his grief. Soon his neighbors come to his attention, and after purchasing a telescope, a spying game then ensues. After the death of his next-door-neighbor after a heart attack, a new resident moves in. She is young, alone, and bares a striking resemblance to Stacey. A relationship is then forged, and James goes on an odyssey of pain and learning – tempered by the haunting reality of Stacey’s ever too real presence. Not only in his house … but in the eyes of his new neighbor Annette.

As avid readers of dark and speculative fiction (I assume you all are), most of us know the correlation between music and fiction: they feed each other – both giving rise as influences so the other exists. And that’s what we have with The Haunting of James Hastings: a striking hybrid of gothic romance novel and a CD box set choc full of lyrical extras. Like his previous book, it does take the cue from novels like Rebecca and Bag of Bones, but I found at its heart a beautiful illustration of domestic married life and how emotions can be woven into the brick and mortar of houses. As a fan of first person narration only second, Christopher’s homely voice is so easy and accessible you won’t even know that it is. A decidedly male voice … but one that resonates with this reviewer.  

The Birthing House had a climax that seemed to raise more questions than answers, but you’ll find the revelations ladled on in The Haunting of James Hastings to be just as hair-raising and surprising than anything an early M. Night Shyamalan could dream up.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Review: Tales of Sin and Madness

A successful short story collection in the horror genre – when all the elements come together properly – is a rare and powerful thing. They are strange beasts, and unless a name is synonymous with a proven track record, very hard to get off the ground and into the collective hands of a reading public. Fortunately, an established history is something that Brett McBean has been working on for the past decade, so I was more than eager to put up my hand for Tales of Sin and Madness – a vast, Aladdin’s cave of stories that span many years.

One of things I usually do when reviewing such a collection is give an appraisal of each story … but you will understand (when reading it) that this will not work in this scenario. Like a feast of S. King stories, Brett has taken the time to provide lengthy notes at the end of each one. The resultant outcome of this is something like a delicious banquet that’s more on par with a classic album, each story finely dissected and put under a microscope so we can see the genesis behind each tale. Any detailed breakdown will only spoil what Brett has in store for you. And what he has in the offing here is one of the most entertaining pieces of Australian dark fiction to come along in years.

We start off with Brett taking a jaunt into Brian Keene’s zombie world of The Rising and reporting what he sees there. When then go into the twisted maze and minds of serial killers and find, more often than not, that it’s possible for our sympathies to lie with them. Personal standouts included Hearing the Ocean in a Sea Shell … a nicely executed fable of a rising elevator that’s like a macabre metaphor for past (sins) and a lifetime of transgressions. Also Christmas Lights – a short and melancholy funeral song that first appeared in the Festive Fear anthology.   

Throughout it all, you can feel the inspiration and personal homage’s to an author like Richard Laymon, but a reader will also hear a pertinent new Australian voice, one that isn’t bogged down in the past or feels dated in any way. On the surface - and taking off my professional voice for the briefest of moments – it’s no wonder that the stories here spoke to me: the author and I both live in the same country, are products of the same culture and grew up on a steady diet of the same literature. Brett McBean is the contemporary Australian voice for a new millennium and beyond.  

With all the interesting discussions about ebooks lately, one cannot help but think their future is still down the track a little ways. For every now and again an edition will come along that is perfect to hold in the hands and cherish: LegumeMan Books new release of Tales of Sin and Madness contains six more stories than the previous North American edition and is a definitive must-have for any horror disciple.