Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: Torment by Greg Chapman

Greg Chapman is one of those breed to have made good use of services provided to emerging Australian horror writers. After joining the local association in 2009 he was selected very quickly into the mentoring program under the auspices of author Brett McBean. (Anyone familiar with my reviews lately will know this to be quite a coup). What is apparent to blossom out of such a relationship is Greg’s obvious love and genuine fondness for the genre - the act of writing and finding an audience for his work is not something recently acquired or new. And this is a good thing. Something the publishers also saw on display.   

One thing that I feel is important to mention here: reading Torment was one of my first experiences with the device known as the Kindle. After a life time of musing on cover illustrations and dipping my nose into paper pages for that unique aroma, these quirks were no longer available to me. But this is not the place for an active discussion on the disparity between the two. Merely that I was initially apprehensive about a potentially great book by an Australian being let down by a new medium and a follow up review that would be much impoverished. Thankfully this is not the case: the device was more than adequate to the task and there was nothing about Torment I felt lacking.

Torment as a novella is a tried and true formula: after a childhood incident sees her mother perish at the hands of clergyman father Douglass during a ritual exorcism, Jessica McKinnon returns home to rural Scotland years later as an adult with husband David and son Alex in tow to exorcise some demons of her own – namely, to find out the reason her father killed himself and subsequently bequeathed the house to her. But ‘tried and true’ is a recipe that works – and we’ve seen those writers at the top (a good model would be John Saul) try it dozens of times: After being witness to an act of horrific debauchery as a child, our protagonist returns to the house on haunted hill to confront ghosts of the past. Readers will have something to identify with, and for a debut author who is genuine unknown, this is a definite hook.

There are problems associated with it, but nearly all of these run the gamut of what the plot means to this reviewer on a personal level. The age of ‘biblical baddies’ (as I’ve previously referred to them), traversing the earth and wreaking havoc now seem as irrelevant to horror fiction as they do in real life. At times the syntax can be somewhat plain (but not unexpected in a debut), and having characters exclaim dialogue instead of simply stating ‘said’ is another pet-peeve that can push a reader rudely out of their chair. But don’t let any of these things steer you away or deter you (there are no doubt more than enough avid fans of The Exorcist and tales of possession still haunting the bookstores) - and simply enjoy it for what it is: as a more than entertaining yarn from an Australian author with grand potential and many more tales to come.

Both print and digital copies can be ordered from Damnation Books. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Concrete Jungle by Brett McBean

In this, the first of a trilogy, Mother Nature has decided to recycle the earth and spade it under with a fresh Eden. Caught in the tumult are a small cabal of luckless survivors who are trapped in a Melbourne shopping centre car park late one night near closing time. Paul is a dead-beat Dad on the fringe, making a last minute pit-stop to buy a present for a birthday he almost forgot. Beth and emo daughter Candice have stocked up on movies so Candice doesn’t get bored grounded at home. Harold is a survivor of World War 2 … a man who will soon endure jungle horrors far worse than he ever had to face on the battlefield. And Bruce is just a desperate loner who sees the cataclysm as the perfect excuse for a man to return to a more primitive existence where morals and the rule of law simply do not exist.

Upon Concrete Jungle first being released I will admit my enthusiasm wasn’t high. The cover illustration from a distance seemed to suggest this was mid-range Brett or something of filler in between longer projects. But it’s a judgment that I now regret … and goes to show there is talent in this country that consistently produces quality work. Moreover, I highly doubt Brett lends his voice to anything half-heartedly or merely churns out something at the behest of an editor. Concrete Jungle might well be The Day of the Triffids told from the unique scaffold of Brett’s imagination, but it’s still a narrative with biting simplicity and more than enough lure to hook a reader.

Standing at a short and sweet 160 pages, this is a species of horror without conscience. On more than one occasion I’ve mentioned the similarities Brett has with an author like Richard Laymon - and it’s still evident here, but imbued throughout with refreshing Australian verisimilitude and references. A few errors jumped out. In one particular stanza the author describes the smell of meat cooking ‘glorious’ but goes on to say mere paragraphs later the smell of cooked rat was ‘mildly appetizing’. But viewed as a whole the writing and editing is crisp with short, choppy chapters not bogged down with weighty or numbered sections. Characterization is right on the money – you will care whether these people live or die. And in the modern horror novel, that will be something ultimately on the menu. Welcome to the jungle.

The Australian small press Tasmaniac Publications just keeps improving its product, and a reader will find the interspersed illustrations by Keith Minion and Steve Crisp more than adequate for the tale. There is a whole universe to explore with Concrete Jungle, and we are provided with two other tales set in the same wilds. Local writer and reviewer Tim Kroenert gives us an utterly funny but dark underscore with Lullaby – it’s the tale of misfit musicians and fans who just happened to be at a concert when the green hell broke loose. Also included is The Cage by Nate Kenyon – Nate takes a look at what prison life would be like for guards and prisoners alike in this post-apocalyptic forest. Another one with droll results. Thankfully with this review I can happily point out copies still remain and the sequel Neighborhood Jungle is available to pre-order.