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, I chose The Disappeared purely for its enigmatic cover. If there is one thing we know the small press does well, it’s cover design vastly more aesthetic to the dark fiction enthusiast than their large publishing counterparts. On offer here is a thriller stepped in the sinister world of 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 results in divorce, Teri 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 door hasn’t aged a day. This one is eternal, frozen in time – and now Teri must suspend her disbelief if she is solve why. 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 with a family physician at the center of the nightmare. She'll also discover Gabe isn’t the only child who fell victim to a conspiracy where science tackled the dark heart of mortality: death itself. 

Written during the nineties, this is the kind of formula pertinent to that era. Running like an undercurrent through the syntax is an undeniable Dean Koontz flavor … reminiscent of one of the many tomes penned under the pseudonym Leigh Nichols. (Think The Key to Midnight or The House of Thunder). Taking off my professional voice briefly, I will admit I enjoyed those novels immensely. They don’t pretend to be anything than what's on the page: maps of intent where the good guys are good, and the bad ones are simply nasty. The method is pure entertainment … and the narrative at the heart of The Disappeared has a safe and homely feel like a good recipe.

There are weaknesses – mainly the perplexing reaction of a family doctor when confronted with the presence of Gabriel for the first time in years: his inability to notice anything different about the child is something never fully addressed. Another plot strand involving an individual Walter is tracking never quite come to fruition and leaves a lingering question mark. (Although I have a feeling these are narrative puzzles a second reading could possibly cure).

Here, David B Silva has concocted a workable thriller harkening back to the suspense of a more innocent time in history. My first title from Dark Regions Press, they have created a slick and worthy edition to hold.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Ward

Psychiatric wards. Mental Asylums. Institutions. Call them what you will – they have been an ideal vehicle for countless mediums over the years; a perfect playground for the horror genre to stretch its wings. With outings such as 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. What seems currently in vogue: using the human mind as a stunning chess board or Russian Doll piece (Shutter Island, Identity), where metaphor's can be stripped away and revelations granted with each successive piece removed. Here, legendary director John Carpenter has tasked himself with adding something new to the sub-genre.

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

The drawbacks? There are many ... most notably The Ward's clunky, unrealistic dialogue and script shortcomings. No matter how much energy is vested in trying to create something epic here, at its core the narrative is no more ambitious than a stand-alone episode of Supernatural. While this is an attempt at old school horror (as testified by Carpenter himself), snaring the attention of the collective tribe requires a lot more than paying homage to the thrillers of old. That said, this is still a grand step up from a film like Vampires; Mark Kilian's musical score is a beautiful, child-like drone reminiscent of The Amityville Horror. The hospital itself is beautifully mined like a character, with slick camera rigging speeding through corridors and dowdy colors being used to reflect the chrome world of an asylum.

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

Friday, June 3, 2011

Samhane by Daniel I Russell

Originally from the United Kingdom, Daniel I Russell moved to Australia in late 2008, setting up shop and carving his own niche in the community. This, his debut effort, is the accumulation of a lifetime spent studying the terrain and mapping the territories. The resultant outcome, Samhane, is like a cross pollination of the best the genre can offer infused with Daniel’s every-man tone and occasional comic aim. 

We begin our journey with Donald Patterson, middle-aged horror writer saddled with a day job who dreams of the big-time. Initially, this opening was a mild turn off ... for at once our protagonist’s head-space mirrors the authors. Many writing instructors – some more than others - will be vociferous you must distance yourself from your work. Though it goes without saying that if every published writer heeded this counsel, a huge chunk of them would not have graced us with their best. Although not outwardly transparent upon publication, it eventually became evident 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 reader's across the globe like to see the inner workings of a creative mind dissected on the page. 

After purchasing a new laptop on eBay from an ominous merchant (Roger), Donald comes across something on its hard-drive that could potentially be a snuff film; tainted evidence plunging him into a world where the vendor will do anything to secure its return … including kidnapping wife Beverley and spiriting her away in to the far-flung English town of Samhane. There follows an odyssey of torture, sex, and clout at the hands of a cult who uses the streets of Samhane as its playground to attract the benedictions of a long-forgotten deity.

There are two-plot strands, 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 when the town is abruptly inundated with ghouls, morphing human worms, and female water-wraiths. Eventually the strands collide in an epic showdown of grindhouse horror with Lovecraftian overtones.

What I loved here, from beginning to end, is the delicious cavalcade feel. Samhane is a cauldron on the cusp of Hell, and this is a formula with its roots firmly entrenched in the genre. Needful Things by Stephen King displayed a similar mechanism: the streets and people being reigned in by a mysterious force that sits nonchalantly in the shadows. Popcorn horror, but a gentle reminder 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 the third act finale can feel somewhat ponderous), but as a working whole Samhane is a lofty splatter debut that could teach veterans in the field a thing or two about entertainment. Hopefully (with works like this one), Australia will see a renaissance of cinematic horror fiction ushering in similar works into the mainstream.