Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Disappeared by David B Silva

This was my fist foray into the fiction of David B Silva, an author now somewhat of a veteran in horror circles. Without hearing even a sliver of the story The Disappeared was chosen by this reviewer purely for its enigmatic illustration. If there is one thing we all know the small press does well it’s displaying aesthetic covers with imaginative paintings vastly more appealing to the dark fiction enthusiast than their large publishing equivalents. What we have on offer here is a big thriller stepped in the sinister world of unexplained medical mysteries and shadowy government corporations hell-bent on secrecy.

Ten years ago Teri Knight and her husband went through the crippling effects of losing their only son Gabriel after he ventured to the local park one day and never returned. With no eye-witnesses and no clues pertaining to his mysterious vanishing, this lack of closure or any answers at all results in their divorce and Teri is sentenced to a life of estrangement and despair. On one rain-swept evening many years later Gabe suddenly returns home in the company of an unknown woman. But this Gabe cannot be her son … for the boy at the front door hasn’t aged a day. He is eternal, frozen in time – and now Teri has to suspend her disbelief if she is to unlock the revelations at hand. Enlisting the help of an old ally (Walter) who also collaborated in the search effort for Gabriel previously, Teri begins to unravel an intricate web that sees a family physician at the centre of the nightmare – and also discovers Gabe isn’t the only child who fell victim to a conspiracy where science tackled the dark heart of mortality and tried to find a solution for one of humanity’s oldest follies: death itself.

Written during the nineties, this is the kind of formula pertinent to novels of that era. Running like an undercurrent through the prose there is a distinct Dean Koontz flavor … reminiscent of one of the many books he penned under the pseudonym Leigh Nichols. (Think The Key to Midnight or The House of Thunder). Taking off my professional voice for a moment, I will just admit that I enjoyed those novels immensely. They don’t pretend to be anything than what they are intended: maps of intent where the good guys are good and the bad ones are simply nasty. There’s an everyman quality to the method that’s pure entertainment … and the story at the heart of The Disappeared has a safe and homely feel like a good recipe.

There are small weaknesses – mainly that of the perplexing reaction of a family doctor when confronted with the presence of Gabriel for the first time – his inability to notice something different about the child and voice this concern to the mother is something that is never fully addressed. Another plot strand involving an individual that Walter is tracking doesn't quite come to fruition in just the right manner and leaves a lingering question mark. (Although I have a feeling these are small narrative puzzles that a second reading could possibly cure).

Here, David B Silva has concocted a workable thriller that harkens back to the suspense of a more culpable time in human history. My first title from Dark Regions Press – they have created a slick and worthy edition to hold in the hands. This is just the beginning, and I look forward to becoming acquainted with David’s impressive dark fiction resume in the future. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: The Ward

Psychiatric Wards. Mental Asylums. Institutions. Call them what you will – they have been the ideal vehicle for countless films and books over the years as the perfect playground for the horror genre to stretch its wings. With outings like Gothika, Session 9, and major studio releases like The Butterfly Effect setting a benchmark, the trick now is to try and dig something new out of the sand. Currently in vogue with directors is using the human mind like a stunning chess board or Russian Doll piece (Shutter Island, Identity), where layers can be stripped away and revelations granted with each subsequent piece removed. Here, legendary director John Carpenter has tasked himself with adding something new to the fray.

Oregon, 1966: After setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse, Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to the North Bend Psychiatric Ward. She has a tenuous grasp on anything except her name … although remains confident in her unwavering sanity. At first the lack of details here are frustrating, but we keep watching because of the sheer uncertainty of it all. Slowly, Kristen is introduced to her fellow inmates: an all female clique of misfits and mavericks who give off subtle clues pertaining to Kristen’s predecessor and the ward’s history of a haunting. Throw in an ominous, unlikable nurse with a penchant for needles and a cryptic but likable Doctor and suddenly everything’s on the plate for a workable thriller.

The drawbacks? There are many - most notably the clunky, unrealistic dialogue and script shortcomings. No matter how much energy is vested in trying to create something epic here, at its core the plot fable is nothing more intricate than a stand-alone episode of Supernatural. This is old school horror (as testified by Carpenter himself), but as much as we pine for that yesteryear the sad fact is the world has ultimately moved on. In this era, snaring the attention of the collective tribe and keeping it there requires a lot more than merely paying homage to the thrillers of old. That said, this is still a grand step up from a film like Vampires: the musical score itself is a beautiful, child-like drone reminiscent of films like the original The Amityville Horror. Key jump moments are prevalent and accomplished with great effect. The entire hospital is mined like a character itself, with slick cameras speeding through the corridors and dowdy colors being used to reflect the chrome world of an asylum.

After a lengthy delay of over a decade in celluloid John Carpenter returns to the genre he helped fashion and create. With a hit and miss ratio in latter years that has produced ambiguous results (milestones like In the Mouth of Madness but also fatally flawed outings like Ghosts of Mars), this is a bittersweet homecoming and one eagerly awaited by those that have traversed his career since the very beginning. If one goes into this with expectations that the man still has something groundbreaking to say - you will be sorely disappointed. But overall The Ward, for all its shortcomings, can still act as a worthy piece of Saturday-matinee entertainment.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review: Samhane by Daniel L. Russell

Originally from the United Kingdom, author Daniel I Russell moved to Australia in late 2008 to set up shop and carve his own niche in the local dark fiction community. This, his debut effort, is the accumulation of a lifetime spent studying the terrain and mapping the territories. And the resultant outcome, Samhane, is like a cross pollination of the best the genre can offer infused with Daniel’s everyman lyricism and sometimes comic aim. 

We begin our journey with Donald Patterson, middle age horror writer with a day job who aims for something loftier and dreams of the big-time. Initially, this opening was a mild turn off, for at once the protagonist’s headspace seems to be that of the authors. Many writing instructors – some more than others - will be quite vociferous putting across the message that you must distance yourself from your own work. However, it goes without saying that if every published writer heeded such counsel a huge chunk of them would not have graced us with their best. Although not transparent upon publication, it eventually became apparent that of course Jack Torrance embodied the personality of Stephen King. The same could be said of his central characters in Misery, The Dark Half, and countless others. Here, Daniel is writing about what he knows … and that’s the ineffable truth that horror lovers across the globe like to see the inner workings of a creative mind laid out bare on the page.

After purchasing a new laptop on eBay from an ominous merchant (Roger), Donald comes across something on its hard-drive that may well be a snuff film. This tainted piece of evidence plunges him into a world where the vendor suddenly realizes his error and will do anything to secure its return … including kidnapping his wife Beverley and holding her for ransom in the far-flung English town of Samhane. There follows an odyssey of torture, sex and clout whereby Donald discovers the existence of a cult who uses the streets of Samhane as a playground to attract the benedictions of a long-forgotten deity.

There are two-plot strands here, with the second revolving around a father and son team (Brian and Sam) in the lucrative business of dispatching supernatural baddies. Holing up in Samhane to work at the behest of the Mayor, they have their work cut out for them as the town is suddenly inundated with ghouls, morphing human worms and female water-wraiths. Eventually the strands collide in an epic showdown of avant B grade style horror with Lovecraftian overtones.

What I loved here, from beginning to end, was the delicious cavalcade feel. Samhane is a cauldron on the cusp of Hell, and this is a formula that has its roots firmly entrenched in the genre and never gets boring. Needful Things by Stephen King displayed a similar mechanism: the streets and people being reigned in by a mysterious entity that sits nonchalantly in the shadows merely enjoying the show. Popcorn horror, but horror of a species that reminds me of why I got into reading in the first place. There are slight drawbacks (I would have liked to see the cast expanded further and at times the third act finale feels somewhat ponderous), but as a working whole this is splatter narrative at it’s finest and a debut that could teach even veterans in the field a thing or two about entertainment value. Hopefully with works likes this, Australia will see a renaissance of cinematic horror in fiction that will enable similar works to be taken more seriously in the mainstream.