Reviews of books by Herter, Dowling (2), and Morlan…

We’re back, with a handful of new reviews.  The “news and views” I promised last time?  Er, not so much.  But they’ll be here soon.  Really Soon Now.  On to the reviews…

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The latest entry in Earthling Publications’ annual Halloween series. A talented and highly touted author possessing great admiration and respect for Halloween and the horror genre, penning a nostalgic novel that’s a loving tribute to Hollywood stop-motion effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, written solidly in the distinctive, evocative style of Ray Bradbury. What could possibly go wrong? Well, unfortunately, something does go wrong somewhere along the way in David Herter’s October Dark, a promising novel that ultimately frustrates.

Starting with the positives, Herter’s style is truly lush and at times lyrical, and he wields a wonderful premise here, featuring two timelines in the decaying city of Grenton, one set around Halloween 1931 and the other in the weeks leading up to Halloween 1977. In the former storyline, O’Brien is opposed by the evil and seemingly immortal magician Henri Mordaunt.  In the more contemporary storyline, thirteen-year-olds Will and Jim (names that will certainly be familiar to fans of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes) are devoted aficionados of fantastic cinema, reveling in the recent release of Star Wars, with dreams of making movies themselves.  Common to both timelines is Hollywood model maker Les Deerton, who worked with O’Brien and seeks to protect Will from a deadly presence.

Herter name-checks a variety of movie luminaries, weaving an intricate alternate history and at times creating some truly creepy atmosphere, but this nostalgic novel gets bogged down in sentimentality and torpid pacing and soon starts to feel maudlin and self-indulgent.  It pains me somewhat to pass a negative judgment like this, because I really did want to like this novel, but the tail-dragging pace ultimately left me bone-weary and in search of a finale that was far too long in coming.

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I’m a big fan (I know, where have you heard me say that before?) of Australian author Terry Dowling. Although I was never able to get Dowling to submit anything for CD magazine, I did manage to twist CDP honcho Rich Chizmar’s arm into publishing a collection of Dowling’s work, Basic Black, which I edited and designed. I was thus thrilled to see not one, but two new Dowling titles show up recently in my mailbox: his first novel, Clowns at Midnight, from PS Publishing, and the collection Amberjack, from Subterranean Press.

Let’s start with the novel first. As its title implies, Clowns at Midnight involves clowns. And protagonist David Leeton—like Dowling, an Australian author of dark fiction and an occasional lyricist—is unfortunately in violent agreement with Lon Chaney, who supposedly said that the most frightening thing he could think of was “a clown, at midnight.” Leeton, in fact, has coulrophobia—an abnormal or exaggerated fear of clowns—that also encompasses masks, dummies, marionettes and the like, and which is exacerbated by his counterphobia, a condition which leads him to seek out the very things that frighten him.

On the rebound from a long-term relationship that ended badly, Leeton has just started an extended house-sitting gig in a remote location, where he hopes to put his past behind him and get a lot of writing done. He soon meets his neighbors Carlo and Raina Rissi, an enigmatic couple from Sardinia who by turns seem interested in befriending Leeton and deceiving him. Strange things soon begin to happen to Leeton, and it seems clear that someone is trying very hard to frighten him…but why they’re doing so is not at all obvious. There is a sense of omnipresent mystery and growing dread throughout Dowling’s debut novel, which is hampered only by a tone that seems detached, at times almost bordering on clinical.

As a side note, during a conversation between David and Carlo, Dowling manages to make reference to the sub-titles of his two recent collections (Basic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear and Amberjack: Tales of Fear and Wonder):

“It’s what fear does,” he said. “Appropriate fear. Puts us back in the world. War and crisis, loss of loved ones, they always make life vivid again. We all need appropriate fear and wonder.”

Speaking of Amberjack, this new collection gathers 12 stories and 13 poems/lyrics, with the Table of Contents weighted more heavily towards science fiction.  At his best, Dowling’s horror stories can be truly chilling, and the majority of the four collected here fit that bill.

“The Fooly” is the slightest of the four, the story of a ghost with a cruel sense of humor and a vicious streak getting his well-deserved comeuppance. More substantial is “Jarkman at the Othergates,” in which the rather pompous young film director Nils Jarkman journeys to Tessian’s Edge, a distinctive dwelling perched on the edge of the majestic Megalong Valley in New South Wales, Australia, where he’ll be filming his new movie. Upon arriving, a couple days before the rest of the crew, Jarkman meets Donald Tessian and his niece, and discovers the strange history of the family and the dwelling, which includes some rather unusual mirrors and an early lobotomy device. It’s just as offbeat as it sounds, and equally eerie.

“The Suits at Auderlene” is a darkly quirky tale concerning some several incongruous suits of armor, but the other real highlight is “Toother,” a chilling tale involving recurring character Dr. Dan Truswell, who helps try to track down an apparently supernatural serial killer with a particularly nasty M.O.

Given the relatively small number of horror stories collected in Amberjack, it’s difficult to recommend this collection to those who are strict fans of the horror genre, but if your tastes are a little more varied, there’s plenty to like here (the SF tales, beginning with the bittersweet “The Lagan Fishers,” are uniformly strong).

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A.R. Morlan has been producing powerful short fiction for more than two decades, as evidenced by her collection Smothered Dolls, which includes stories from as far back as 1987 (the oldest tale is reprinted from the late, lamented The Horror Show, incidentally).  Surprisingly, Smothered Dolls is her first collection and was actually published by Overlook Connection Press back in 2007, but it didn’t receive a whole lot of publicity at that time, and as a long-time admirer of her work, I wanted to do my part to try and bring a little better-late-than-never attention to the book.

Smothered Dolls contains 15 stories, two of which are originals, but it’s no insult to those stories to say that the Afterwords which follow each story are the most absorbing elements, even if they are more than a little sad and disturbing. The Afterwords serve to lend great insight into the forces and experiences that helped forge Morlan into the writer she became…and at times the reader can’t help but marvel that Morlan even managed to persevere and survive.

Take, for example, the title story, which describes the abuse suffered by a young girl at the hands of her own family members. The tale becomes infinitely more disturbing when the reader learns from Morlan’s Afterword that the tale is autobiographical, a memoir of “ugly memories and pitiful truths,” as she puts it. Similarly rooted in real life is “Powder,” the story of a woman recuperating in the hospital who’s terrorized by a visit from the bizarre “Sophie Sunshine,” a woman Morlan reveals in the Afterword to be her grandmother.

The remaining contents of this collection literally fall all over the map, genre-wise. “The German Lady,” for example, is a slightly bittersweet tale about a caregiver who agrees to walk an elderly woman into the woods so that she can gather some of the bark that she uses for her hand-made braided creations — but it’s not truly bark that the old woman seeks. “Civic Duty” also features an elderly woman, this time as the protagonist, whose eponymous task is decidedly beyond the accustomed realm of jury duty. “Yet Another Poisoned Apple For the Fairy Princess” is a darkly comic fantasy about a stereotypical female “ball-buster,” as Moran says, taken to the next level.

If there’s a complaint to be had with Smothered Dolls, it’s perhaps the variety that I was just describing – the stories are so wide-ranging that the reader is kept a little too off-balance. But that’s faint criticism for what is overall a decidedly strong collection.