Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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 mourning the death of his wife in the aftermath of an inoperable brain tumor. Furthering his woe, Jordie discovers his time in space has severely weakened his heart, thus curtailing a career in NASA. His life is peaceful – if not idyllic – until a top-secret NASA database is enigmatically downloaded onto his computer in a blinding flash of light. With his inside knowledge, Jordie knows such a thing isn’t possible. So it begs the question: whom or what is behind this inexplicable event now beginning to be felt around the world …

In the early stages, we get the feeling The Finger of God may be a short and speculative excursion not dissimilar to a stand-alone episode of The X-Files. This element is present as Jordie recruits an old friend and retired conspiracy-theorist to help him decipher the downloaded code. But what begins as a small mystery soon dovetails into an apocalyptic narrative incorporating every trope of science-fiction with added horror elements like those sprinkled throughout a Roland Emmerich film. Shifting settings from Geelong, Australia, to the upper echelons of NASA, Williams juggles an alien monstrosity hell bent on exposing the dark folly of the human heart.  

Unfortunately, when charting a plot evocative of sci-fi television, it becomes easy see everything through the lens of these fictions. There are troubled, hardened cops voicing cliched overtures; there are male and female protagonists linked romantically through the fall of civilization. And underlying it all, we get the feeling Williams is using his stage to preach on human hubris; maps of intent weighted down with half-baked philosophy that manages to taper the enjoyment of a fast moving plot. During certain sections, 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."

Mishaps aside, The Finger of God will still manage to resonate with readers who enjoy old-school tropes with subtle hints of horror.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Borderland (2007)

When first reading the caption ‘Inspired by a True Story’ I invariably recoil. 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 events 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 somehow be 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

Aegri Somnia

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 enough whet my fantastique taste-buds. For dark fiction lovers – 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 see nothing more than something to perhaps use as a drink coaster on a coffee table (god forbid), aficionado’s perceive a treasure trove; something priceless: imagined worlds evolved from sacrifice and sweat.  

Jennifer Pelland is our first executioner of tales with YY, and it’s a worthy opener. Reminiscent of the design on the cover, we know this is 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 somewhat 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 favorite's follows: All Praise to the Dreamer by Nancy Fulda. It’s another story strongly tied with parenthood, and the lengths we go to preserve our brood. What makes this one tick, however, is the strange, sentient creatures preying 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 present day tropical setting. 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 the night before. Hence, was a little put off coming back to Zeus and his immortal family of gods, goddesses and demigods. They seem to be everywhere in fiction, marauding around writers heads and begging them for more tales. Eugie’s one is infused with curses, betrayal, and romance with immortals Scylla and Glaucus at the center of things.

Natural storyteller Scott Nicholson gives us Heal Thyself, probably the ultimate standout. 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 (pun intended), I predict Scott’s only a couple of books away from breaking through big-time, and here you'll see why. There is a miniature to Heal Thyself, and (in my opinion), he seems to grasp elusive topics with a fiery, almost effortless imagination.

Perhaps the only story not quite fitting in here is On the Shoulders of Giants by Bryn Sparks. Though only due to the hard science-fiction factor others have shied away from. Apex readers will know Bryn is talented, however – and here he fuses human emotion with robotic sentience. 

Dream Takers by Rhonda Eudaly tackles sleep disorders. Those familiar with insomnia (or nightmares) that invade us when we close our eyes will be chilled. 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 realm, known reality fracturing and the often blurry line between fiction and our own four-dimensional world ripped asunder: a motif Stephen King has explored to great extent.

Every story here seems to feed off the one before, and the next one, Wishbones by Cherie Priest, comes off 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 a pizza store. Cherie’s use of language (especially between the teenagers), is right on the money; banter flies from the page like you’re watching it on the screen. Also, it’s the images evoked during the war camps (as apposed to 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 of Chernobyl years after the meltdown and reports what's there. 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), that Chernobyl isn’t quite as deserted as the world argues ... and 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 his new environment perhaps too swiftly. Here, we’re thrust forward into B-grade territory as though we’ve been there all along – and you might potentially find yourself frowning. However, it is a short story, and ultimately the author is to be forgiven.

It seems just when you think the best story has shown itself, along comes Mens Rea by Steven Savile. What started out as a seamy cop London tale – perhaps a very gruesome take on TV’s The Bill – abruptly goes ape into dark regions involving experimental brain surgery, hoodlum thugs with telekinetic gifts – and an ending just begging 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.

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. Bravo Jason Sizemore and Gill Ainsworth for editing. Aegri Somnia is sold through from Apex Publications