Monday, April 5, 2010

Mischief by Douglas Clegg

Clegg is another writer whom (like Jack Ketchum) has somehow managed to go under my radar over the past couple of years. Recently, however, the author's presence seems to be everywhere: social media; websites dealing exclusively in dark fiction ... and of course having his titles pop out with ever-increasing reliability in book stores and their bargain bins displayed out front. And (like Ketchum), seems to be one of those sculpting a high reputation, releasing a novel every year with timely precision and garnering distinct words of praise while doing so.   

Apparently Mischief is the first of a trilogy in the Harrow Academy series, which also features a previous e-serial prequel Nightmare House ... and the entire thing (does) read like something you must have prior knowledge of. In this regard, my ignorance was frustrating; contained within were too many mysteries that lacked revelation; too many character reactions that were perplexing. However, other's will no doubt be overly intimate with the Harrow legacy … and it seems written with these reader's in mind.

Jim Hook is on a scholarship at Harrow, a prestigious prep school located in the Hudson Valley of New York. Years before his older brother Stephen and father perished in a car accident, and the wounds are still raw. Not only was Stephen the epitome of a perfect brother everybody looked up to, he was also a catalyst for shaping Jim’s philosophy and might have secreted a small supernatural pledge into Jim’s life in the aftermath of his death. We follow Jim as he adapts to the all-boys school and are introduced to the people around him: Lark, his beau from a nearby all-Girl's school; popular Trey Fricker, his best friend. And underlying everything is an almost invisible threat, never clearly articulated. It appears when his brother Stephen died, Jim unwittingly became a channel that would potentially enable something malign to enter the world ... and when Jim gets caught for cheating, he is inadvertently thrust into the realm of the Cadaver Society, a secret fraternity who have been pulling the strings at Harrow for a long time. Facing the threat of expulsion and upcoming initiation rights, he becomes haunted by ghosts of the living and dead ... 

A favorable thing for me was the prose; Cleggs style is simplistic and easily accessible. But there are many puzzling aspects here like signposts with no clear direction: a plot-strand involving Harrow’s principal that is curtailed before it even begins; the mystery of his father and brother's death with allusions the official story involved a conspiracy. As a reader, I felt as if I had been handed a pile of jigsaw pieces, none of which seemed to belong to the same portrait. Clegg puts a ton of effort into making the climax creepy ... but (for me), the aim was too lofty, and ultimately confusion ensues. That’s not to say other reader's won’t find things to like - and I can see it appealing to those who like their horror with a smattering of the juvenile.

As a novice to Clegg’s work, I think I (may) have stumbled upon the wrong book to get the juggernaut rolling. However, Mischief will  pique your curiosity, and I have the novels You Come When I Call You and The Halloween Man with appraisals to follow. 

The Burning by Bentley Little

Like many horror writers working today, Bentley Little has crafted a style all his own own. While his books invariably follow a formula, it is a well-mapped formula, ensuring a dedicated audience and often-imitated writing method.
Little's dedication in The Burning is interesting, and gives a fascinating insight into the roots of stories and how they manifest and evolve. In this case, Bentley' son requested a story including a haunted train and two graves marked Mother and Daughter, respectively. Taper this with his method, and Little delivers a simple, elegant novel with no pretensions about its grassroots influence.
As with previous forays, our narrative is heavily influenced by a Chinese mythology. In The Burning we have Angela Ramos, an hispanic university student who has just moved away from home into a share house with a ghost. There’s Henry Cote, a Native American Park Ranger plagued by perverse, erotic dreams of Chinese twins who haunt the Canyonlands. Recently divorced Joylene has moved to Bear Flats with her son Skylar to start a new life living with mother … soon to come across the eerie graves of Mother and Daughter. So too will they witness the gaunt, leprous face that peers in at Skylar during the night, grinning malevolently. And finally a Chinese American, criss-crossing the country on a journey of self discovery, being called toward something he only partially understands; toward ancient ancestors seeking redemption for past transgressions.

At the center of this group (and slowly peeled away through their strange encounters), a hellish Train raised from the bowels of history and carrying the departed souls of different races seeks reprisal. Those that have been wronged by Caucasian man since the Civil War and beyond.

At its heart, The Burning is primarily a revenge novel, seen through the eyes of very disparate characters trying to connect the dots before the inevitable showdown as our train finally pulls into its metaphorical station. What I liked about this novel – as apposed to Bentley’s previous outings – was the more worldly aspect to it. Too often, Bentley concentrates on small-town mythos (and though this is a perfectly honorable way to tell the tale), it was utterly gratifying to see things like the White House being laid waste to eternal powers. Moreover, our trips back in time to witness heinous acts committed by those before the turn of the last century. And it does this without being too preachy or trying broadcast a message. 

There exists another horror review site that parcels out stars based on the smell of a book. A little eccentric, but one oddity I think we all can relate to. In the spirit of this, I give The Burning 5/5.

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door

As a dark fiction aficionado for most of my remembered life, I am at pains to divulge the sad fact that I have never read a book by Jack Ketchum. From a distance I have followed his career on the peripheral sidelines, often frequenting his website and keeping myself up to date with his resume and celluloid adaptations. As I type these words I am at a loss as to the precise reason I have never held one of his novels in my hand. Marketing is a big factor—during a thousand entrances into a thousand bookstores his name has never popped out among the ranks of many others. Even when strolling through the horror or fantasy sections with an eye for detail has my index finger skated across his name. And there exists no rhyme or reason to not having purchased one online. Chalk it up to the same fate that has befallen authors like Graham Masterson or even some of the authors whose name appears with mine in the editors/reviewers list on this site. There exists a desire to eventually get around to them … once I have gotten through the myriad of tomes in a perpetual and never ending reading list.
Regardless of never having tackled one of his books I do know that Jack Ketchum is held in very high regard among the collective tribe. His fans include the prolific and the not-so-prolific writers, as well as commanding a dedicated and loyal fan base of readers. The Girl Next Door has been adapted from a 1989 novel of the same name and stars a bunch of relative unknowns who give charm and sophistication to this harrowing study of human innocence; an education delving into dark regions that so far have been relatively uncharted in cinema …
To call this movie ‘harrowing’ is an underestimation. And a little too simply put as it does not fall neatly into the realm of horror. We begin our journey with the introduction and narration of an adult David Moran living in the present day. Plainly, emotional demons assail David as he recounts a sequence of events from his childhood where he bore witness – and participated in – unspeakable acts against an innocent girl. Think the same formula King utilized with IT or perhaps Hearts in Atlantis. Tapping into the nostalgic era of the 1950’s to present how inarguably terrible and magical puberty can be. This, however, works - and Ketchum and the filmmakers have their fingers pressed firmly on the button of bringing this period to life: the cars, fashion, hairstyles and politics are like a metaphor for what’s really going on; that lurking beneath the veneer of plastic suburbia beats the malicious human heart only waiting to rise to the surface and take over.
A typical teenager, David is introduced to a new girl who has recently moved into the neighborhood whilst catching crawfish. Megan Loughlin and her crippled little sister have come from another town to live with their Aunt Ruth Chandler (David’s next door neighbor and an eccentric divorcee). Ruth has three sons of her own and her house is like a relaxed beacon to the neighborhood kids during the summer: beers can be drunk within; cigarettes can be smoked. However, her authority and discipline can be just as far reaching as her philanthropy. At first, her chastisement of Megan for relatively benevolent or even nonexistent crimes is subtle – this is, after all, 1958. But when her unconventional ranting on why punishments must be dealt out to Megan fan out into madness, she proceeds to take the children on an odyssey of torture and clout where adults write the rule of Law and anything they say is permissible.
There are so many ethical and emotional questions raised in this film it would be foolhardly to list them all here: discover them for yourself. Answer them for yourself. The Girl Next Door is a devastating picture you will not easily forget.

The Box

Love or hate the work of Richard Kelly, there is no denying this writer/director has had a huge impact on cinema. 2001’s Donnie Darko was the film hundreds of film geeks the world over had been clamouring for: an utterly original dark portrayal of a troubled youth (Jake Gyllenhaal) set in the eighties that is now a cult phenomenon. Although it borrowed a few motifs, nobody had quite seen anything like it before. The eccentric editing and camera angles, hallucinatory sequences, and the ability to raise more questions than provide answers all added up to an unforgettable experience that is rich enough for many repeat viewings. Kelly's follow up, Southland Tales, was an apocalyptic excursion that received less-than-stellar attention, critically and commercially, yet does have a small cadre of admirers. It is apparent that with The Box, Kelly is attempting somewhat to shift into the mainstream.   

But his definition of ‘mainstream’ is probably not what you think. Aside from having some familiar faces (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella), The Box is utterly mired in weirdness. Based on Richard Matheson’s short piece Button, Button – things start off subtly then proceed to delve into that weird and wonderful Darko dominion; a complex series of intrigues like a Russian Doll piece. And this is a good thing. The Box requires your unmitigated participation and imagination. Nothing is overtly ‘done to you’. Ultimately it's up to the viewer to connect the dots and find your way to revelation.

Norma and Arthur Lewis are happily married suburbanites in 1976 with a young son. One night, they are awoken by their doorbell to find nothing but a package containing a small wooden box complete with button. Initially, the gift-bearer vanishes, and we are slowly introduced into the couple's lives. Authur works for NASA in development; Norma is a teacher with a secret. While a somewhat mundane progression, I loved this aspect of it ... because we're taking a short trip inside Richard Kelly’s skull: his own father worked for NASA, and the decade is pulled off with precision.  Houses, automobiles, and fashion; all of it enough to induce nostalgia. Of course, the mysterious stranger returns, and informs the couple that if they press the button, they will be awarded one million dollars tax-free. The price? Someone they do not know will die. Simple as that. Except its not, and the consequences are more far reaching than either of them can imagine.

There is a slight carnival feel to The Box. Like King’s Needful Things we have the dark, forbidding stranger gentlemanly in nature but not altogether human. If you’re familiar with Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, you’ll see many of the same faces from both films. Toward the end, similar effects are ratcheted up as we cross into other realms of experience. There’s a touch of humour … and the feeling of being simultaneously in suburbia yet ensconced in the otherworldly is a welcome duality. Performances are solid, especially those of Diaz and Langella. The score (composed entirely by Arcade Fire), is used to fantastic effect and becomes a pivotal part of a stunning climax.

While not containing the mythic and enduring quality of Darko, The Box is still a reputable effort in Kelly's envious oeuvre.  

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sorority Row

You always come to these films filled with slight trepidation. On one hand the intellectual within screams that you must not enjoy this particular sub-genre. Because only dullards subscribe to campy schlock where there is more flesh on display than blood and the plot is derivative of a thousand such other outings. On the flip side, there is an inner-child that recalls those outings with such unalloyed fondness you yearn to be dazzled by the mindless spectacle again. 

During my first screening of Scream many full-moons ago, I recall nothing but unadulterated joy. A re-awakening was in the offing – horror was in the process of a reinvention and we had a shining future ahead with more its ilk to follow. And follow they did: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Valentine, Final Destination and The Faculty. It kick-started mindless sequels and reinventions of past maniacs. Did I garner enjoyment from these horror/thrillers even though there was now a trite formula and almost identical looking posters?

I did.

And this is where Sorority Row fits in. The cast is young, American, and utterly beguiling. The stage is Theta Pie – a Sorority House where Jessica, Claire, Ellie, and Megan are celebrating upcoming graduation. They have a motto and are sworn to trust, in secrecy and solidarity. It opens up with a huge party: everyone drinking from the quintessential American Pie red cups that seem to be the only type of cup in a thousand college films. After discovering one of the girl’s brothers has cheated, they devise a revenge scheme in the form of a prank entailing feigning death. Not everyone is in on the joke, however, and when the prank goes horribly wrong the audience is treated to some grisly moments and surreal tension. Similarities abound with I Know What You Did Last Summer. 

In the aftermath of their friends death the remaining girl's keep their motto by swearing to never speak of it again. Of course, such a plan is doomed to failure - and the outcome warrants a trapezoidal odyssey of carnage as someone has taken to enacting revenge by picking them off one by one.

Apparently, the actors in this film are reality television stars making the leap onto the big screen. Though their previous forays are not apparent as the audience is treated to some witty dialogue and even grow to enjoy their arcs. The body count and dispatching – though not overly huge – is lent some creative drive as our over-sexed and alcohol guzzling young adults are terminated in new and interesting ways. The guessing game of who’s responsible comes into play … and is handled with intelligence.

Will Sorority Row be a mind-numbing experience worthy of repeat viewings? No. Will it become a cult-classic? Probably not. But I do recommend taking your favourite thrills partner to enjoy a film that pretends to be nothing but good entertainment. 

Deadlight by Troy Barnes

Many of you might be aware of Troy Barnes. In 2008 this native Tasmanian burst onto the scene with the self-financed debut Deadlight here under the microscope. The very next year he went on to publish MONOChromacy. Troy’s work is like holding up a mirror to some of the more archetypal horror stories of the past, while he still manages to find his own voice over the extended length of a supernatural thriller.

What has consistently drawn me to Deadlight over the past two years (and finally made me grab it), is the cover illustration. From a distance it piques the interest: a dynamic blue color scheme by graphic designer Jessica Turale acting like a beacon. After a quick perusal of the art and blurb, we have a good idea of the territory on show. 

Carter City: Detective Nathan Stone and his partner Ritchie Clements are on the trail of a female serial killer dubbed ‘The Messenger.' Over time, with no clues and no leads, the bodies begin piling up. What becomes evident is they are dealing with a young woman of no ordinary ilk. With almost uncanny super-human strength and agility, Sarah is able to fight and ‘see’ the malignancy inhabiting a human spirit - those who have committed heinous acts in the past. This gift (or curse) was bestowed upon her after awakening from a coma. Her assignment on this side of the veil is to dispatch those who dwell within the Deadlight.

There are great portions of Deadlight that deal with police mythos and work. In parts it’s gritty and stylish, reflecting a kind of washed-out noir world of chain smoking detectives. In other parts, the banter can be loose and ill-fitting. Oftentimes, authors can deploy the act of imagining with minor attention to verisimilitude. When reading, I was reminded of how Stephen King once remedied this. After completing a preliminary draft of From a Buick 8, he took it upon himself to spend some time with real-life troopers in Pennsylvania, thereby adding flavor that wasn't just guesswork and things cobbled together from reams of modern US cop shows. Of course, not everyone can have such resources at their disposal, so Troy is ultimately to be forgiven.

Things certainly crank up around page 120, as Sarah is more heavily introduced into the fray of the wicked. One of the positive things here is Troy is no slouch when it comes to bloodletting: Sarah’s lack of conscience and irrational behavior can be grating at first, but over the course of the novel we see how and why this is so. At times, her method of purging humanity’s dross happily reminded me of Jigsaw from the Saw franchise; the same ethical conundrums present themselves … and the killing methods are just as creative.

After completing the novel I was in two minds: on one hand certain errors were jarring. On the other we know we’re dealing with an author who is in the infancy of their career. Troy Barnes is talented, and you can tell he cares about what he is doing. There’s both heart and determination in Deadlight. I imagine that by the third or fourth effort, he will discover an ambitious narrative that will ultimately sell books. For this reason, Deadlight is certainly worthy of purchase.

The Birthing House

Christopher Ransom has burst from the blocks with one of the most astonishing debuts to emerge in recent years. He has created, with The Birthing House, a distinct and homely voice that will find a devoted readership. Although the story falls within a genre that is well-established, Ransom here defies tropes with the  kind of syntax only the most gifted writers can tap. 

Initially, I must admit to almost bypassing this one. Etched on the bottom is the kind of mantra one wants to avoid when purchasing a novel: If you like Stephen King, you’ll love …’ Let’s face it: nine times out of ten these would-be Steve King’s fall very short on capturing anything but a swollen and pale imitation. However, The Birthing House does not deserve this dime-store treatment. Of course, there are comparisons to other books, but the author has shoved all of these together with such disparate force The Birthing House reads like the ultimate homage … with Ransom’s unique voice shouting to be heard above the others. 

Conrad Harrison is a man that likes new beginnings, fresh starts. The decision to pack up and move to Wisconsin from California seems a natural one after the death of his father. Although never close to the old man, his inheritance gives him an opportunity to move himself, his wife Jo, and their two dogs to a 140 year old Victorian house in Black Earth.  After his wife disappears on a training program, Conrad is left behind to soak up the house's long and unique history. When the neighbors decide to hightail it for a holiday while leaving behind their pregnant daughter Nadia, the house decides more history is in the offing … this time featuring Conrad and his pregnant friend.

After much consideration, The Birthing House is the literary equivalent to Nirvana’s semaphore effort In Utero; an album whose music and artwork is themed with birth, babies, and new beginnings. Christopher Ransom’s book works in much the same way … inviting the reader to share with him an event of existence steeped in blood and mystery. It’s full of life, the prose like a professional, and certainly not a debut.

To give birth to a novel like The Birthing House, to bring it into the world all bloody and screaming, Ransom has consulted that which has come before: Bag of Bones, A Winter Haunting, The Stake, Misery and Secret Window, Secret Garden. But The Birthing House resonates with his own unique interpretation of the concept … and this is the reason for its success.

Drag Me to Hell

One of the principal horror directors of all time has taken a break from gargantuan blockbusters and returned to the genre that sparked a revolution amongst the dark faithful. The Evil Dead Films basically showcased the genesis of a new and fantastical way of low budget film-making: a trilogy sparking thousands of imitators and setting the bar for what can be achieved when natural, creative genius is given free reign. Drag Me to Hell is a fictional nod to many influences, but still stamped with Sam’s unique brand of inventive camera work and strong visual style … 

The film starts off in a mundane world all of us know to well: the office space. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), is a loan officer in a bank and adheres to the whims of her superiors in the hopes of landing a lucrative Assistant Manager position. This is great angle; Sam and his brother Ivan have penned a realm clinical in the details; the familiarity of the nine-to-five hum drum is so part and parcel with all of us that (knowing what is to come), we feel strapped in for a joyride. We know Christine’s world is about to be shattered, her cosy niche forever transformed by what we have seen and know of the plot.

And that (the plot), concerns one Mrs. Ganush, an old gypsy who is refused an extension on her mortgage by Christine, is ultimately shamed, and seeks vengeance by cursing her in an ugly stoush that has to be seen to be believed. Sam Ramai knows what repulses us, and he uses the character Mrs. Ganush to really get under our skin in this regard. For me, there is just something so ultimately creepy about old hags … especially ones that cackle and have a vendetta or score to settle. In the aftermath of her confrontation, Christine is visibly shaken, and persuades her boyfriend Justin (Clay Dalton), to consult a fortune teller … perhaps a way to gauge whether or not the cursing of her jacket button had any real ramifications. The seer is Rahm Jas, someone who is wise in the ways of dark arts and is, in due course, recruited by Christine to help understand the enigma she is dealing with.

To go into detail regarding this enigma is probably giving too much away, but suffice to say Rami, during the course of this dark excursion, gives us everything we’ve come to expect of him. There’s the horrific moments of possession laced with delicious slapstick comedy; scenes of pure relentless terror where nothing is shown and everything is only suggested or hinted at. An apocalyptic climax with genuinely gross scenes … and of course no modern horror or thriller excursion is complete without an unexpected twist. Here, the performances are solid, and the effects are ratcheted up to very decent levels. I have a feeling Raimi would have enjoyed working with a limited budget without the mind-numbing intricacies a franchise like Spiderman would have presented. 

Throughout its duration, there was at least half a dozen times the audience visibly jumped or were rocked backwards ...

Hackles raised in a crowd is a sure sign this observer was viewing a future classic.

The Lobby by Christopher A. Durish

Walls closing in. 
Crowded blood soaked recollection ... 

This is just a small stanza of The Lobby's opening lines. It's a book that, after a brief skimming, was supposed to put be put down in favor of more pressing titles. However, what began as a mere perusal ended up being the catalyst fire for reading the entire novel ... a sure sign Christopher A. Durish knows the right hooks.   

Zachary Bell is an up and coming yuppie in the world of advertising. He's a married father of two daughters living in New York. Yet his existence resembles nothing constituting the American dream. For his nights are spent attending the sordid parties of a wealthy elite, and succumbing to infidelity. More distressing is his apathy and utter lack of conscience. So when Zach's car plunges off a cliff in the aftermath of one of his infamous parties (his mistress at his side), it is no little surprise to observe he feels no remorse for her resulting death ... 

From here, we're treated to a kind of surrealistic Hell as Zachary awakens from a brief coma. Though attempting to return to stability he's assaulted with fleeting images of the afterlife and creatures germane to that realm. This is where things crank up, as Christopher paints a mesmerizing picture of the underworld's environs and those souls who skate along the peripheral abyss. That said, The Lobby tackles a Judaeo-Christian mythology ... and those who find this belief system somewhat implausible when trying to get their chills may be disappointed. However, The Lobby's prose, like an intricate webbing of the grotesque, is maturely handled and not bogged down with dialogue. I was eerily reminded, pleasantly so, of novels like Dean Koontz's Hideaway or perhaps one of the latter (but better), Hellraiser adaptations.

At times the horror on show can be somewhat clichĂ© in the details, and certain paragraphs will have the same word repeated multiple times (a pet hate of mine), but overall this is an excursion worth taking. Here, the domesticity of family is handled deftly, and there is an oddly comforting chaos as Zachary is propelled toward his destiny.

Without using any eloquence, I'll just say I really enjoyed this book: its pulpy, yet simultaneously sophisticated.

The Lobby
is available from Sense of Wonder Press.

Earth Ascendant by Sean Williams

Earth Ascendant opens to selective sabotage, phantasms, and explosive assassination attempts. Here, Sean wastes no time introducing the reader back into the fray of his Astropolis universe begun with such skill in Saturn Returns.

Imre Bergamasc, 'First Prime' and leader of a burgeoning empire, is seeing through his plan to forge the bonds between The Returned Continuum and the outlying systems yet to return to the fold. His whistle-stop tours have taken him on a journey of self-discovery and revelation. With his latest destination, Dussehra, seemingly no different from the other hundreds of worlds subsumed by his motley crew with their agenda of avenging the Forts and restoring the galaxy to its previous incarnation. But Dussehra's inhabitants are not so willing to be annexed, and before Imre can return to Earth, dark mysteries will manifest in the form of its leaders ... 

Although Earth Ascendant begins with one of Imre's whistle-stop tours, the book is primarily about Earth. Upon arrival into the flourishing beacon where the Returned Continuum has set up shop as capital, many changes become apparent. With centuries and sometimes millennia transpiring during hardcaster and space travel, the dynamics and structure of civilization can alter dramatically. With such a facet, Sean reminds us just how vast the stage of the universe can be ... and not just in the realm of fiction. Unexpected and surprising developments greet Imre, not least of which the revelation that he (or his previous self) might have sired a child. During his absence, Imre's old ally Helwise Macphedron has ruled as Regent in his place, something with potentially devastating effects.

With answers to unanswered questions coming thick and fast, Earth Ascendant is a remarkably good ride. The prose is how first-rate space opera should be: lyrical, philosophical, and poetic. It does the job of putting things into perspective regarding our own earthen empire, and how religions manifest and evolve. Truly unexpected villains greet us toward the conclusion as the story runs riot with Doppelgangers, parasites, and a broken higher intelligence. The third in the series, The Grand Conjunction, promises to be an epic thrill ride tapering off a remarkable journey that might well be the author's greatest achievement.


Cenotaxis by Sean Williams

A novella that fits nice and snug in between the first two books of Astropolis, Cenotaxis bridges Saturn Returns and Earth Ascendant to a form a short yet complicated piece focusing on a variety of elements.

From the first, it felt good to be back in familiar territory. Just hearing the proverbial terms used in the Astropolis universe was like a homecoming. There are the Frags, Fort components resembling Primes or Singletons but possessing little true individuality. There's the 'Slow Wave' itself - a cataclysmic event that destroyed the Continuum and Forts and sent humanity reeling backwards throughout the galaxy. It had been awhile since Saturn Returns permeated my senses, but stepping back into the setting was like stepping into old shoes. The painting on the cover is highly imaginative and seems to sum up the intricate webbing that is the Continuum and the characters whom inhabit it.

But Cenotaxis is also a stand alone novella in itself, and, although it does take place during the same time-line, the action occurs far off on the long abandoned and scarred planet of Earth. It is here a divine human has arisen, in the form of Jasper, the leader of a resistance and the only thing stopping Imre Bergamasc from taking the Earth into the cradle of his burgeoning empire and false religion. As the clash for Earth erupts into all out war around them, Imre and Jasper face off against each other.

There are many concepts to like in Cenotaxis. Firstly, Williams has made a similar creation to the Forts with 'the Apparatus’, a seemingly artificial intelligence who is Jasper's advisor. It eventually intrigues Imre enough he changes tactics to find it. The fact that Jasper believes himself an incarnation of God is utterly fascinating in itself; it gives Williams the opportunity to postulate how religions and creed play such an important role in shaping humanity's future.

Probably the most interesting facet of Cenotaxis is Jasper's uncanny, superhuman abilities. He has an 'anachronistic' way of experiencing time, jumping through it in ways suggesting he is the product of something that is at least omniscient in nature. Through this prescience, Jasper escapes many traps laid out by Imre - which leads our false prophet to question the origins of his prisoner in more ways than one.

As always, Sean Williams gives us a tasty afterward detailing the origin of the title, and the many influences that brought the novella into being. Fans of Saturn Returns have much to applaud here, as Sean Williams has given us another riveting chapter celebrating his imaginative genius.

Duma Key by Stephen King

Few King novels in recent history have reviewed quite as well as Duma Key. Not only were the preliminary appraisals heaped with acclaim, but the usual naysayers and flame throwers seemed to have battened on to this novel as though it were a life raft amid a sea of literary chaos. There is some merit to all of this, of course. If a majority lean toward it favorably, then there is every chance the novel is favorable.

Let's set the scene, shall we? Edgar Freemantle, big boy in the construction business, is involved in a freak accident which tears off his right arm, and subsequently severs his marriage. After the suicidal thoughts and rage subside, Edgar heads to the Florida Coast of Duma Key to heal himself of the physical and cerebral demons. There he rents a sea-side dwelling named Salmon Pink (later nick-named Big Pink). In this environ he takes up the childhood passion of sketching and painting ... talents seemingly harmless to begin with soon take root into something dangerous and malign.

Told in first person, King's prose is simple and elegant; in a nutshell, its pure storytelling. While the syntax can be (at times) cumbersome, I've yet to read a King novel yet that doesn't bloat to some extent. In some ways, it's what makes his tomes worth the wait and money. One could (almost) say it's what makes them endearing.

Upon moving to Florida, Edgar strikes up a relationship with his neighbors: Jerome Wireman, an ageing Hispanic. And Elizabeth Westlake, Wireman's elderly charge who has developed Alzheimer's in her twilight years. Inheriting her house (El Palacio) from a tycoon father, Elizabeth also owns Big Pink and a huge chunk of Duma estate. Soon, Edgar begins painting, and with such a location, his inspirational tools never run dry.

Now onto the supernatural happenings: As in the The Dead Zone, King's protagonist develops extra-sensory prowess. In this instance, they're related to art, seemingly caused by Edgar's phantom limb. Without giving too much away regarding this, I'll say some of this art, aside from paintings of Duma itself, feature characters from his past and present life. His powers enable him to ... change things. One aspect that (irks) me with this premise are similarities to The Dead Zone. For no apparent reason, cataclysmic events seem to surround almost everybody. Something bad, exceptionally bad, besieges these individuals. Sure, a lot of people have skeletons. But it all feels a little too convoluted; too convenient. When Edgar charges himself with remedying these adversaries, you can probably guess the results. 

Journeying with Edgar as he finds his muse, a reader will be completely taken in. The sights and sounds of Duma Key, as well as Edgar's use of art as medication, create a tapestry of emotion and feeling that is vintage King. Personally, I never tire of the authors beliefs concerning art. Whether it's writing, painting, or even music, King has his finger pressed firmly on the button detailing these acts of the mind. Minor pitfalls: perhaps there are too many scenes before the action cranks up: the trivialities of family; the slow process that sees Edgar find an audience for his work. In the build up to the ending, plot lines can become somewhat mystifying, but instinct told me this was nothing a second reading couldn't cure.

During his career, Stephen King has made the nostalgia of certain times and places resonate with aching clarity.

Duma Key is no exception.

Apex Magazine

Blackboard Sky by Gary Braunbeck

This issue's opener is by the prodigious Gary Braunbeck, a story accurately encapsulating what Jason Sizemore probably had in mind when terming the phrase 'Science-Horror' to describe his magazine. A brief tale, it serves as surveillance on Art as medicine ... a theme King himself often uses as a playground. Although not having read any of Braunbeck's novels, I have the distinct feeling isolation and loneliness is a theme he habitually explores. A central character, Vincent, has become symbiotic with a device from another star system originally charged with the task finding God. Vincent, tortured and vulnerable, uses the power successfully, but cries out for help to another soul in the format of storytelling.

Spinnetje by Stefani Nellen

Any story featuring scuttling metal spiders that have a relationship with the human brain has to be disconcerting for anyone. Spinnetje is described by the author as: an autonomous creature composed of a horde of nanites that could crawl through brains like a crowd of tourists crawling through ruins. (Charming.) Our main guy,
Milo, uses it to experience and taste the emotions of other's - in this case his partner. For a while everything runs smoothly ... yet we know the horror to come and wait with bated breath. Primarily, this work details obsession turning into possession. And it's the nuances, the subtle things that provide it life. Such as kitchen-ware preforming self-sanitation by folding into balls and bouncing away. Also, there are tangible scenes that evoke familiar grotesqueries. In this case, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch.

Ray Gun by Daniel G Keohane

Retro nostalgia comes to the forefront as an old man wakes up early one morning to find a spaceship crash-landed in his backyard. A friend comes over to help, and havoc ensues. This is 'every day Jill's and Joe's getting caught up in a nasty situation' kind of tale, and they never fail to entertain. One of our aliens is described thus:

An octopus with too few heads one moment, too many the next.

Uncanny by Sammuel Tinianow

Told in first person, Uncanny by Samuel Tinianow is extremely short and ... uncanny. While too many question marks come into play, you'll want to read it anyway to have a crack at decoding it. Lying in a hospital bed, our narrator recounts the story of a female cyborg who has been adopted by his family while they patiently wait for her resurrection.

The Moldy Dead by Sara King

Another classy sci-fi story with a 'pulp' feel, The Moldy Dead is the epicenter of this issue. Esteei is a receiver who joins a motley band of inter-species aliens to discover a 'mold' planet orbiting the fringes of space. Years back, Stephen King gave us a sand planet with Beachworld. Now, there's mold on the agenda. Although it starts off somewhat sluggishly, The Moldy Dead becomes a tearful tale of endurance and grief. Sara King is a newbie, and in this issue she shares space with Gary Braunbeck to take away top honors for best story.

Also included in this issue is a fascinating interview with Braunbeck (whose Mr. Hands in now in the post and flying my way), and writer Bryan Smith. The highly entertaining Althea Kontis gives us her thoughts on Curses, and there's a quaint epilogue of a story entitled What to Expect When Your Expectorating by regular Jennifer Pelland.

Fivefold by Nathan Burrage

Already an innovative and respected story-teller in the shorter format, Nathan Burrage has now crossed the often-unattainable threshold of publishing his first novel FIVEFOLD. A work of art the author (from what of I've garnered), has been tinkering away on for some time. Upon arrival at my doorstep and a quick perusal through, you get the feeling the toying with this tome has been well worth the wait: holding its weight, you feel the books editorial prowess: nicely condensed in mass and word-count.

Nathan's prologue appears on his site, and some of you might be familiar with it. A common approach used in many novels, we begin our adventure with a bygone-era setting in the Yorkshire Dales. Rudiments dominating this period are, of course, priests and secular societies; Nathan springs the foundation of the book with secrets being consumed by the eternal thing that is such a pertinent component in any mystery: fire. This sacrifice guarantees the classified secret will remain dormant for generations to come - until the curtain is raised again and another cast of actors take to the stage.

One such character is James Steepleton, a British twenty-something almost any young man can relate to: James is in trouble after running afoul of the law in a drunk-driving accident and it suddenly falls to his friends to provide the necessary support - financial and emotional - so James doesn't have to do a stint behind bars and ruin his burgeoning acting career. I don't think I'm giving away any secret when stating his friends (from the heady days of University) are the FIVEFOLD. A cabal of individuals blessed with untapped powers resembling manifestations of the Mysteries: psychic, extrasensory and mystic abilities that are the benchmark of the supernatural genre. And FIVEFOLD lies within a genre not easily defined; although anybody who has taken the journey The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams will be familiar with the territory. Elements of religious and mythic structures compounded in folk-lore: Kether, Binah, Chokmah ... and states of being or deities of the underworld or higher realms.

With chapters heralded by one of the FIVEFOLD, Nathan shifts gear slowly depicting each individuals quirks and faults. 
A small task is keeping up with the names - you might find yourself backtracking to keep up with whom is pertinent to whom. That said, the sentences are clean-cut and refreshing; rarely does he begin a paragraph with the old tropes. Also, it's pleasing and often downright funny to hear the English language communicated without the American panache. Here, Cell phones are Mobiles. And you'll feel as though you're treading familiar ground with the English locale.

It takes a re-awakening in an ancient clearing to give the five just a snippet of what they can accomplish together. And, with any cabal, opposing forces are hot on their tail. Some of novel resonates with an early Clive Barker feel; feints and charms are used; possession is a factor. Also, there are philosophical undertones on the nature of pain and pleasure - and whether eternal ecstasy and agony are fundamentally one and the same. James is tempted by the seduction of the opposing forces, but Nathan doesn't do anything run-of-the-mill here. You'll be surprised, on numerous occasions, the direction and severe turns the novel takes.

Above all, FIVEFOLD is just plain entertaining. With synaptic sparring, mental warring, and clandestine cabals, this is an absolute impressive debut and a novel that could perhaps teach even veterans a thing or two about the game. There are many layers to the plot (an older generational cabal called The Brightening Dawn take James's league, the new torch-bearers of the mysteries into their counsel, is just one); but to reveal more be like displaying used storyboards before sitting down to a celluloid epic.

Technically published in 2008, the majority of this story was read in 2007. Without question, FIVEFOLD went straight to the top of the list as one of the better novels I had read during the year.

Apex Magazine

A story of cat and mouse, hunter and hunted, opens this issue of Apex entitled Madness Blows the Winds of History. Tom Piccirilli's story is a cerebral and cryptic piece of cyberpunk. In only a couple of pages he'll dislocate your attention with rapid, brain-bending syntax. Tobalt Tre is the bounty hunter of a renegade human named Thompson. Tobalt is a Mollunk: an entity with invasive modifications of a humanoid body. And Thompson is apparently a butcher of worlds - many worlds. Using a manifold of space-travel called The Ledge, the two converge on a Terran world utterly devoid of humanity. As in all speculative fiction, however, surprises abound. It's a great piece, and I found myself more entertained by Tom's command of language than anything else.

As you may have guessed, the front illustration gives birth to the story Blood Baby by prolific Jennifer Pelland. As it suggests, Blood Baby is a mischievous, gore-soaked parable. Beginning with the obligatory 'Once upon a time' (something which I've come to dislike yet fits here nicely), we are introduced to a mythical township that could possibly exist in any time period or place. In
Cloister Valley, young Kaia wants nothing more than to be a mother. But this town has a citizen who demands a 'blood mother.' A spirit who craves a relinquishing of menstrual blood to appease its underground dormancy. And when Kaia runs away to keep her dreams intact, the baby she spawns will mean chaos for the world. To reveal more would be too much, but suffice to say, scenes and imagery toward the end are genuinely unsettling. In Jennifer's world, Once upon a time does not guarantee a happy ending.

'Apocalypse' seems to be the motif of this issue and we enter that realm again with A Place of Snow Angels by Matt Wallace. In this piece, it's Ice that has reduced the world to a scattering of survivors. Another common angle in a 'day of reckoning' setting is the rise of a child prodigy who will perhaps reverse or halt a cataclysm set in motion. Young child Joshua has been chosen for this task, raised by a small phalanx who through science have engineered the boy to realize his impeding destiny ... although the final results are a far cry from what was initially envisioned. This story won the first annual Red Light District/Apex Publications contest of dark science fiction.

And so we come to a contribution entitled Genesis Six from HorrorScope's own Shane Jiraiya Cummings - a story I was initially hoping to find flaws with in an attempt to display no bias. However, I haven't come across a story in Apex yet that is disdainful, so its inclusion here is one of merit. Beginning with a domestic setting with mother Libby and daughter Jessica, it moves fast as they are driving to escape the void; an endless nothingness annihilating all in the 'Apocalypse.' With honed and precise sentences, Shane narrates a climax with religious overtones.

The Death Singer by John B Rosenman tickled me; here we encounter one of those silent and enigmatic alien species. After Captain Musen and his team crash-land on an alien world inhabited by these Jax - spider thin creatures capable of inexhaustible energy and patience - the captain is hospitalized without much chance of future survival. Enter the Jax Death Singers, whose task taking vigil besides the dying is just as strange as their physical appearance. This story is lent one of the more imaginative illustrations in the issue.

William F Nolan, the literary giant behind such novels as Logan's Run is next on the menu with Mommy, Daddy, and Mollie - a short and delicious horror tale with young Bruce narrating on the unfortunate demise of his Mommy and Daddy. Billy recounts the epilogue to their death and is surprised to find out the dead never really die ...

The next tale felt familiar - if only because at one time or another I have envisioned such a thing. In Last Chance Morning by Timothy Waldron Semple, the future holds a unique and brilliant execution device: massive steel blocks which slam together with enough force to reduce a human being to red servile. A human pancake, in other words. Amid this setting are a couple of cons tying to waylay their inevitable destiny, and while you'd think the execution component would be enough to drive this story, Timothy unleashes a yet grander scheme toward the end.

Following on is Babble by MM Buckner. Although at its heart this is a simple horror story involving a haunted Hill (a cell phone tower is its evil heart, of all things), MM Buckner manages to imbue it with everyman characters who give the tale a real sit-around-the campfire feel. Another with a very clever ending.

And lastly, we finally come to the concluding serial first begun in issue 5:
Temple by Steven Savile. This story has all the ingredients of a classic, and I felt glad I had waited until now to enter its dark heart. Many influences spring to mind as we journey with Temple: Mad Max, Escape From New York, and even King's The Gunslinger. With a species of romance Temple is a lone ranger after the Fall; a seemingly ordinary individual but unique in that he is truly lost. Having awakened one day in a motel room with no memories of who he is (and no recollection of the reflection staring back at him in mirror) Temple's mission is clear ... although not at first. In the beginning it takes a starving little girl looking for her brother to give him insight, and from there he seeks the answers through a fallen and insane priest. Not unlike an errant knight, he is tempted by demons and Gods in his journey to be whole. The slow pinnacle to achieve this state is handled deftly and somehow marks the zenith of this issue.

Also included is an interview with Tom Piccirilli and essays by Dr Amy H Sturgis and Alethea Kontis.

All in all, a solid edition. The featured writers making regular appearances are certainly carving a niche. And, with Aegri Somnia (Apex's evil twin), nominated for a Stoker, the future can only get better.

Bentley Little's The House.

It is well known Stephen King, like many of us, will carry a book of fiction while travelling to appease the boredom from life's mundane activities. And for those of us who have read On Writing and followed his accident with a Dodge Van will know, he has a penchant for taking long walks during the afternoon. What isn't a well-known detail (and a few might be curious about), is that King was reading The House when Bryan Smith intervened with his Dodge van, nearly depriving us all from reaching Roland of Gilead's Dark Tower. Apparently, the paperback was discovered lying meters away from King's broken body ...

It's an interesting side-note, one I was not aware of when I picked up my own copy of Bentley Little's The House. Published in 99 (around the time of King's accident), The House suffers from the kind of 'dumb, plodding, and obvious' virus writers occasionally bow to after a few critically acclaimed and well-received novels. When Bentley is at the top of his game, he is truly master of all he surveys; when he misses: al la The Summoning and Dominion, he abruptly falls short not just a little (pun intended), but a very long way indeed.

The book is formulaic, the plot seemingly purveyed in the horror medium by everyone who's ever had a crack at the genre. For me, there seems to be the tale of 'strangers who have something horrific from their childhoods or past in common and come together as adults to battle it again.' In this scenario, it involves a House; or, rather Houses, each one identical to the next but in different States across
America: dark, brooding and ominous, the quintessential haunted house. Six separate characters (an old academic scholar, a guy in the movie business, a young girl who just remembers that she's been adopted, among others), have all had an identical up-bringing involving a scary Butler named Billings and his young daughter, she who elicits feelings of lust tempered with loathing. Yep, that's right: a child. The whole thing nearly falls apart at the beginning with this tasteless development. From here, it stagnates as all six individuals go through the tedious (and annoyingly identical), process of recalling The House. And, although they have no idea why, must return.

In the second part, things pick up as our strangers converge. But, try as he might, Little's haunted house isn't scary. With little dolls walking around attempting to encourage mayhem (and the blonde girl turning up on occasion to lift up her dirty slip and tempt them with sex), one gets the feeling Little has no idea where to go and tacks on an ending as if his editor was on the phone and haranguing for a swift conclusion. Ultimately, the conclusion is as unnecessary as the confusing prologue.

The most frightening part reading this story came not in the form of its prose, but rather a real life event that mirrors the one above. During a long walk through woods winding through my area, I decided to heed King's advice and take a book. Of course, it was The House I picked up, and about halfway through the journey tripped over a log and scraped my ankle, the accident jettisoning blood over the binding. It led me to think that somehow the book might be cursed . . . a plot-line that would potentially make a better story than the one I was reading.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Apex Magazine

Among the most paramount in this collection, Starfish by Steve Parker exudes the kind of sci-fi feel that slides slickly down the gullet. Right off the bat, we know we're in a future
Japan made famous by outings such as Bladerunner: teeming throngs of humanity lurch and bustle through neon hazes and rain-swept high-rises. A young couple, Petr and Katya, have one last chance to escape the brimming city: an opportunity as illegal as it is perilous. In this future, earth has become galactic, with a sophisticated form of underwater creature making first contact. Such a species is abhorrent to the idea of human's pillaging their oceans for fish ... and thereafter it becomes a viable commodity (almost a drug) ushering in an underground war that will see Petr and Katya gamble with their lives. Its decadent Japanese setting is a boon, with more than a few squeamish moments. A good, gritty read.

Next follows Inspiration by literary giant Ben Bova. Bova takes on the theme of time travel and adds a twist: his protagonists are nearly all legends from the past. (HG Wells and Albert Einstein, to name a few). At times it can be jolting, but by the conclusion all strings are neatly wrapped up.

Away by Robert Dunbar is a puzzling mix. On one hand it has the tried-and-true ingredient of a shifty, clandestine human operation; you'll keep turning pages just to find out what the hell is going on. On the other hand there is little illumination. A man has awoken in a room with no idea whom he is or why he's there at all. Minor clues are offered, and by the finale you'll either be smiling or gritting your teeth  ...

EV 2000 by Amy Greech is one of those tales that's prescribed but never fails to entertain: artificial intelligence developed with malign results. Harold has just patented a new technology enabling blood donors the option of donating efficiently with no more aplomb than an exchange at a bank teller. With shades of stories like Demon Seed and Electric Dreams, EV 2000 is decidedly creepy.

With a demonic blend of revenge and time-travel, J J Davis gives us Wall of Delusion: here, the time travel aspect is fresh with our main guy Scott (after committing a double homicide when he finds his wife in bed with another) undergoing radical new therapy involving nano brain-machines and memory. Although we assume this takes place in the future,
Davis doesn't draw back the curtain until the end. My only gripe with an otherwise rewarding tale.

Lastly, we have Scotch on the rocks by William F Nolan. With a subject matter that's close to my heart (UFO's), this is a comedic treasure rounding off the issue nicely. A short essay by Gill Ainsworth accompanies it.


A magazine needing almost no introduction, Interzone
 has been at the forefront of literary science-fiction and fantasy since 1982.

Sundown Sheila
by Gwyplaine Macintyre is this issue's opener, and what an opener. If the title doesn't grab you, the opening line will:

The red sand was as dry as a Nun's nasty ... 

So begins this bizarre tale narrated in glib, Australian slang. Sundown Sheila is an amalgam of future science with backward characters set in a far-flung locale. The main players here are two 'compozzies'; DNA scripted cyborgs working in the perpetual
noon of an Australian-like planet. However, their world soon changes when an unexpected female visitor drops by ...

While at times the prose is hard to digest with Macintyre's lyrical waxing, Sundown Sheila should be applauded for its sheer originality. The planet of Terry Novar, and the 'boofs' who inhabit its everlasting sun, will almost certinaly stay with you long after the final sentence.

The Macrobe Conservation Project by Carlos Hernandez.

A traditional science fiction romp involving Robot companionship with a soupçon of the Frankenstein theme thrown in for good measure. Young Randy resides on an orbiting Space Station around the planet called
New Hope. His father is lead scientist in charge of The Macrobe Conservation Project. Keeping him company are two 'asi' robots that personify a brother and mother, temporary replacements for Randy's biological family were not chosen to make the trip into space. Strengths: the sarcastic voice of our first person narration ... and the comical use of invented language. Features a stand out illustration that hearkens back to bygone pulp fiction. 

A bleak, pessimistic view of the future follows with The Unsolvable Deathtrap by Jack Morgan. The story opens at a frenetic pace and stays in overdrive until the end. Our narrator is a cabbie with an understandably paranoid view of the world: his city has been transformed over the centuries to resemble 'Hives'; intestine-like tubes with motorists infiltrating them like microbe organisms.

Author Gareth Lyn Powell gives us The Last Reef, and manages, via a powerful torrent of invention, to showcase a myriad of ideas more in league with a novel. In such a short space, we are treated to a potential future where simple communication nodes in an interplanetary radio network develop sentience with awesome results. Humans, in their desire to evolve, enter this matrix and are subsequently altered. Some experience physical or mental deformities; others are elevated to a higher level of consciousness. People transformed by the Reef are highly sought prizes as the Reefs themselves slowly morph into different realms or are terminated by the powers that be. Against this backdrop are three characters trying to reverse the reef's destructive forces. Using love as a motivator, Powell provides clever flashbacks throughout that dovetail inexorably toward the conclusion. Another one accompanied by a brilliant illustration.

As always, Interzone delivers. Under under the auspices of the new publishers, I anticipate a wider readership. This issue also contains an illuminating interview with legendary author Terry Pratchett.

Shadow Box Anthology

Upon first hearing of the contribution process, then subsequently the October release of Shadow Box (edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings and Angela Challis), I was excited - yet did not pursue the details to any great extent. The only hints we had were a glowering, Chucky-esque logo, a palate warmer for October. In the end, this turned out to be prudent. Not learning a magician's tricks gave the overall Shadow Box experience more substance.

And make no mistake: substance abounds in Shadow Box. What we have received is a totally original, well-crafted masterpiece for the masses. Its sheer volume - seventy slices of dark flash fiction and artwork - does not hinder the experience, only enhances it as a fusion of these elements into a digital event. Our journey is unique, filled with bridges and by-ways, turnpikes and intersections ultimately leading to a kind of nirvana in Hell.

'Come play with me' a sinister-looking doll asks the reader as a malign child caterwauls in the background. It's as fitting a start as any, and even prompted a panicked response from another person who was present in the room. Effects with sound are short, but if turned up loud enough, are effective at grabbing your attention. Some of my favorites in the first half include: Coming Home by Rick Kennett; this is extremely short, but a doozy. Entwined by Chris Barnes, a piece with gothic substance. Changing by Susan Wardle is charged with an erotic, almost incestuous feel. And Clown Face by Daniel Slaten is accompanied by one of the best pieces of art entitled 'Smile'. The editor, Shane, leaves us feeling uneasy with summer after penning a trinity of flash (in the first half), where blood reigns on a beach.

By this stage we've been given the gift of the genre: a cold comfort and a convergence of emotions. For this reviewer, flash has often been ambiguous, with other publications showcasing efforts that ultimately leave me perplexed. But this is not the case with Shadow Box. Each story, effectively, was easy to comprehend. And I have a new-found respect for this kind of author. Within only a few lines of stanza, talent is apparent.

In the second half, cream rises to the top with: The Capture Diamonds by Karron Warren. Here, words such as meat-eater, amputate, and human ash are not wasted. Light by Christian Girard encompasses a species of prose I haven't quite encountered before. For gross-out factor, consult Smooth Trajectory by Esteban Silvani. And for ghost factor, the dead have a voice in Listen by Horrorscope's own Stephanie Gunn.

By and large, Shadow Box has everything on show. From award winning authors to the up-and-coming, this e-anthology is a must-have for all fans of dark literature. And if this isn't enough, all profits will benefit charity and The Australian Horror Writers Association. In 2006, we are privileged enough to have a sequel. Entitled, Black Box, the horror community waits with bated breath.