Hot summer, (mostly) hot books…

As usual, it’s taken me much longer than planned to post an update.  I’ve had five reviews complete for a while, and a couple more drafted, and kept hoping to refine the two drafts before posting, but… it’s time to just give it up and post and what I have.  Coming soon: reviews of titles by David Herter, Terry Dowling, and more… and some News and Views, to go with the Reviews.

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There’s not too much to say about Silver Scream: 40 Classic Horror Movies, Volume Two, 1941-51 (Telos Publishing) that I didn’t already say in my review of Volume One, which appeared in Cemetery Dance #63.

Author Steven Warren Hill’s enthusiasm and unabashed love for his subject matter still shines through on virtually every page. His sections entitled “The Ongoing Story,” “Version,” and “Trivia” are still consistently the most entertaining and interesting, providing a combination of historical perspective and behind-the-scenes info. There are still a few films covered that don’t truly warrant inclusion in a book with the word “Classic” in its title—for example, The Flying Serpent, The Mummy’s Ghost, and Jungle Woman, all of which receive scores of less than 50 on Hill’s 100-point scale. And the book’s lowpoints are still found in the ill-advised “Another Perspective” section, in which friends of Hill offer capsule reviews that are too often utterly vapid.

In an earlier draft of this review, I said “… true horror film aficionados may not find much new here,” but the publisher has since pointed out to me that Hill performed a great deal of original research, scouring libraries rather than relying on Wikipedia and the like, so I’ll gladly retract that minor reservation. Silver Scream, Volume II

All in all, Silver Scream should be a fun and interesting diversion for most. I certainly enjoyed the two volumes.

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Humpty’s Bones, by Simon Clark, is an attractive little 122-page trade paperback from Telos Publishing that includes the eponymous novella and the short story “Danger Signs.”  In his Introduction, Clark nicely summarizes the novella: “I imagined what it would be like to find an ancient burial in a supposedly ordinary garden. Yet it couldn’t just be some inert skeleton, could it? …after so long in the earth an alchemy must have taken place, and (the bones) will possess a power…” Eden Page arrives in the rural village of Dog Lands, planning on an extended stay with her aunt and uncle, but finds that her aunt Heather has just unearthed the aforementioned ancient burial.Humpty's Bones

As Heather becomes obsessed with her discovery and her husband Curtis grows increasingly stressed and angry, the tension rises quickly within the household, and strange things begin happening just outside the walls. Meanwhile, Eden pieces together clues about the true identity of the skeleton and some unsettling local history and customs. It’s unfortunate that none of Clark’s characters, not even Eden, are very likable, because the premise and plotting are compelling. The included short story “Danger Signs” is a slighter effort—a creature feature, from the perspective of a group of children who encounter a beasty on an abandoned military base—but it’s a fun read nonetheless.

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I’m a big fan of Darren Speegle, as partially evidenced by the two stories I purchased from him for publication in CD. I thus greatly anticipated his collection, A Rhapsody for the Eternal, from Raw Dog Screaming. Unfortunately, it turned out to be not quite what I was expecting.  A Rhapsody for the Eternal

That’s not to say by any means that the stories contained within are bad. Far from it–they’re carefully constructed pieces, showcasing the author’s deft use of language and flair for the fantastic. But they’re also very, very different from the Speegle catalog that I was accustomed to. There is a healthy sprinkling of science fiction among the 12 stories here, but more importantly there is a strong scent of the surreal–the phantasmagorical, even–pervading nearly all of the stories. Given that my favorite Speegle stories tend to be strongly rooted in the real world, despite their flirtation with the dark and the fantastic, it’s perhaps not surprising that I was less enthralled, and sometimes even frustrated by the tales here.

Among the stories that did engage me, “The Lunatic Miss Teak” was probably my favorite, an unsettling bit about a grotesque doll that the protagonist stumbles upon in a shop window in Germany. “For a thousand cents she can be yours,” the sign says, an offer that the narrator is unable to resist. Once is possession of the doll, he finds it has the apparent ability to grant wishes–a certain number of them, anyway–within certain limitations and for an ultimately high price in return. Caveat emptor, and all that.

I also found something to like in two of the SF stories–“Elephant Speak” and “The Man in Window Three,” the former concerning the first “ghost” born in centuries (with the definition of ghost being the true linchpin) and the second detailing an attempted outer space art heist. I do fear that the fact I most admired the first three stories in the collection reflects the fact that I soon lost patience with the style employed.

As always, this is a matter of personal taste, and while I didn’t find these stories to be among Speegle’s best, you may well react differently.

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I reviewed Lisa Morton’s The Lucid Dreaming in CD #64, giving an emphatic thumbs up to her first published work beyond short-story length. Fast on the heels of that novella, she’s back with The Castle of Los Angeles, her first novel (albeit a short one), published by Gray Friar Press.  The Castle of Los Angeles

I have to admit I was a bit slow to warm up to The Castle. The basic premise seemed like a stretch, and the characters started off a tad stiff. Said premise centers around Beth Ortiz, a struggling theatre director who seems to luck into a great situation when her friend Eric has to move back to the midwest to take care of his ailing father. The move forces Eric to give up the artist’s loft that he and his roommate/business partner Terry have converted into a small theatre, The Lofty Repertory Company, and he asks Beth to take his vacancy, both as roommate and partner in the theatre company. It doesn’t take Beth long to accept the offer. The only seeming downside is that the move effectively ends the long-simmering potential romance between Beth and Eric. Beth soon quits her day job and throws herself fully into the theatre venture.

The aspects of the premise that I struggled with were the sheer logistics of turning the loft space into an “absurdly small” theatre, and the nature of the building housing the loft–namely the eponymous Castle, a brooding sprawling gothic structure built in 1885, formerly home to a diary processing plant, a private gentlemans’ club, a toy factory, and an asylum…and located, seemingly incongruously in downtown Los Angeles. Having lived in LA for a few years, I can certainly attest to its occasional oddities, but the idea of the tiny theatre inside the central-LA castle was difficult for me to accept.

Happily, Morton’s plot and character development were sufficient to sink a hook in me. Along the way, Beth meets some other, strange occupants of the Castle, befriends a prostitute in the course of doing research for an original play, learns first-hand about some of the Castle’s shadows and secrets, and is surprised by the reappearance of someone from her past.

Overall, I can’t say that I quite agree with Introduction-writer Gary Braunbeck–who calls it, “quite simply, a superlative piece of storytelling…”–and I still think that Morton’s novella The Lucid Dreaming is a superior work. But The Castle of Los Angeles is nonetheless a promising debut novel, and is well worth your time.

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UK native Stephen Volk is an acclaimed writer for film and television (Gothic, Ghostwatch, Afterlife, etc.) and an occasional author of fiction. His collection Dark Corners was published in 2006 by Gray Friar Press, who have now published Volk’s novella Vardøger.Vardoger

According to Wikipedia, a vardøger “…is a spirit predecessor, from Norwegian folklore. Stories typically include instances that are nearly déjà vu in substance, but in reverse, where a spirit with the subject’s footsteps, voice, scent, or appearance and overall demeanor precedes them in a location or activity, resulting in witnesses believing they’ve seen or heard the actual person, before the person physically arrives.”

The story begins as Sean Merritt and his wife Alison arrive for a long-overdue get-away weekend at the Shewstone House Hotel. No sooner do they arrive than the desk clerk informs him that his reservation was for the prior weekend…and according to computer records, he did, in fact, arrive and stay the prior weekend. A peeved Sean initially assumes the snafu is some combination of credit card fraud and hotel incompetence, but soon various hotel employees begin recognizing and greeting him. As the plot thickens, it seems that not only did Sean’s “double” commit some rather despicable acts during the prior weekend, he’s currently in the hotel with Sean and Ali, continuing to plague Sean’s very existence.

Although there are some interesting variations, the plot is, at its heart, basically a riff on the “unreliable narrator” theme—is Sean hallucinating, or is there another entity, possibly supernatural, at work? Given the reliance on this rather common foundation, the story is bound to succeed or fail on the strength of Volk’s voice. The author is an accomplished storyteller, and he indeed penned a compelling tale here. While Vardøger perhaps does not qualify as an unmitigated success, the pluses far outweigh the minuses, making for another fine offering from Gray Friar.