Paranormal Hijinks – Ian Rogers’ Trio of Felix Renn chapbooks

It should come as no great surprise that I love horror, and I also happen to love comedy. However, I’m usually not a fan of horror/comedy mash-ups. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I do enjoy horror-comedy when it’s done well, but more often than not I find attempts to combine the two genres fall flat. So when I say that I really enjoyed Ian Rogers’ three darkly humorous Felix Renn novelettes, understand that I’m a tough critic when it comes to these types of tales.

Published by Burning Effigy Press, the series features wisecracking Private Investigator Renn and is set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands. The first volume, Temporary Monsters, appeared in 2009 and starts things off with a bang as Felix’s lunch with his ex-wife Sandra is interrupted by a vampire ravaging a fellow diner. Renn’s reaction to the vampire provides a good sense of the wry humor on display here:

“I reached instinctively for my gun, then remembered I wasn’t wearing it. One shouldn’t come armed to lunch with one’s ex-wife. I think Confucius said that.”

Although appearances by vampires and other creatures are not necessarily uncommon, the fact that the vampire’s attack comes in broad daylight is unusual, and Felix becomes enmeshed in the ensuing investigation, which takes an interesting turn when it’s learned that the vampire is not some nameless creature from the Dark Lands, but actually a famous actor. Felix’s sleuthing takes him to a local movie set, where one of the stars suddenly transforms into a rampaging werewolf. Although Felix’s non-silver bullets should not harm the werewolf, they do, making two creatures in a row whose behavior does not match their established reputation. Digging deeper, Felix finds that the creatures have essentially been manufactured — “temporary monsters,” in a sense.

By the time we reach the second book in the series, 2010’s The Ash Angels, Felix’s ex-wife Sandra has become his assistant but not much else has changed for Felix, who on Christmas Eve is feeling maudlin and missing the more intimate relationship he formerly enjoyed with Sandra. And like any decent, self-respecting PI, he spends a fair amount of his time drinking, as described here:

“I came to the conclusion that while drinking straight whisky shots could be viewed as unhealthy, this could be alleviated if I had a mixer. A holiday mixer, in fact. Then I wouldn’t be pounding drinks straight from the bottle, I would be indulging in the sort of festive drinking that is permitted, practically encouraged, at everything from office Christmas parties to family get-togethers.

That was how I went out in search of eggnog and almost got myself and several other people killed.”

Felix’s quest for nog leads him into another supernatural encounter, although this one is more of a grim ghost story than the monster mash found in the first volume. This episode starts when Felix chances upon a possible crime scene — centering on a “snow angel” that’s actually made of ash — and has an impromptu meeting with members of the Paranormal Intelligence Agency, a governmental group that exists to try and keep natives of the Black Lands from intersecting too frequently, or too violently, with our world. Before all is said and done, a villain from Temporary Monsters resurfaces and several characters in this story, including Felix, are supernaturally influenced to attempt suicide. It’s probably not the feel-good Christmas story of the year, but it is a lot of fun.

Black-Eyed Kids, the most recent chapbook in the series, appeared in 2011 and it’s Rogers’ most accomplished work so far, featuring not only the familiar and welcome comedic touches but also the darkest and most chilling threat yet, in the form of the children referenced in the title. This time around, Felix is hired by a jealous husband to tail his wife, who he suspects of cheating. But while Felix is sitting outside the woman’s apartment, she’s murdered, half of her body goes missing…and the supposed husband is nowhere to be found, all of which leads to Felix’s failings being pointed out by a PIA member:

“‘I think the most unusual part of your story,’ Kovac said, ‘is that you were hired by a man named Barry to keep an eye on a woman named Mandy, and you never figured out he was using false names.’

‘That fact has been firmly established,’ I said curtly. ‘Moving on.’

Kovac remained silent for a long time. His face was impassive. I couldn’t tell if he was deep in thought or if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open.”

It turns out that the Black-Eyed Kids are seldom-seen, mostly-rumored denizens of the Black Lands, with a very special purpose — they come to our world for revenge, to hunt and kill humans who have made it a point to do the same to Black Lands creatures. Much to Felix’s chagrin, he’s now in their cross-hairs, and spends the remainder of the story trying to survive.

Ian Rogers tells three very entertaining stories here, especially so in the case of Black-Eyed Kids, which I heartily recommend.

Know-it-all: J.R. Hamantaschen’s You Shall Never Know Security

Among other laudatory remarks, the cover copy for J.R. Hamantaschen’s collection You Shall Never Know Security states, “These are stories that, in the finest tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Dennis Etchison, and T.E.D. Klein, articulate what you’ve always suspected: that life is a losing proposition.”  As any reader of this blog should know, the authors cited are some of horror’s most accomplished short-fiction practitioners, making for a quite a lofty comparison to a writer whose biggest publishing credit to date is probably The Harrow online magazine. So, is Hamantaschen equal to the association?  Well, there are undeniable signs of significant talent to be found in these stories, but more often than not they’re hamstrung by some unfortunate failings, which I will elaborate on below.

Issued by new publisher West Pigeon Press, You Shall Never Know Security contains 13 stories, including five originals. The lead story, “A Lower Power,” provides good examples of both the positives and negatives to be found in Hamantaschen’s work. The plot is engaging — focusing on the narrator’s significant other, who has a rather dark secret that he unintentionally reveals during a middle-of-the-night transformation — there is some genuine frisson generated, and there are some memorable phrasings, such as: “First thing you’d notice about him: his hair is like a choreographed fight scene.” On the other hand, there are a few self-indulgent passages that fairly shout “Look Ma, don’t I write pretty?” and this is just the first of many stories to show how the author struggles to craft solid endings.

In “Come in, Distraction,” the mundane tale of a blasé pick-up artists and his latest conquest reveals a far more interesting story through casual comments and background details — namely, an unexplained wave of mass madness and murder that swept through England before the country was essentially vaporized to prevent the contagion from potentially spreading. In addition to the rage and insanity, the infected were also marked by a bizarre lengthening of their arms, as the protagonist reflects:

“He extended his arm, wondered what it would be like if it extended another thirty-feet, coiled up and folding upon itself like fancy drapes, claws dancing over her face.”

“Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” utilizes an interesting narrative technique, relating the story of a murder by way of a district court’s written response to a legal motion, although the approach falters when attempts are made to inject some drama into the drabness of the legalese. Hamantaschen frequently employs a theme of strangeness and horror just beneath the surface, and that features strongly in “There is a Family of Gnomes Behind My Walls, And I Swear I Won’t Disappoint Them Any Longer,” wherein the protagonist’s new roommate reveals that a book of arcane wisdom has led him to determine that behind the wall of their loft apartment lies a trigger of sorts, a means to elicit a reaction from forces beyond our world. The story’s painfully verbose title brings to mind the fact that, in many cases, the titles seem to be odd choices at best.

The closing novella “There Must Be Lights Burning Brighter, Somewhere” truly captures both the highs and lows of Hamantaschen. Related in a sophisticated style with interwoven flashbacks, it features an engaging premise, with main character Alex haunted by memories of an incident three years earlier, when a sudden invasion of a bar by otherworldly creatures forced him and two others to cower in a backroom closet in hopes of surviving the onslaught. Alex and Gabriel indeed survived the incident, but their closet companion Victoria did not, and it’s the details of her demise the plague Alex still. The story is unfortunately too drawn-out in places — like many tales here, it would have benefited from some judicious editing — and there’s some strangely laid-back dialog between the characters trapped in the closet that serves to sever the suspension of disbelief.

All in all, there’s too much of a sense of self-indulgence and seeming pretentiousness running throughout this collection for me to feel comfortable recommending it. Perhaps I’m being too mindful of the cover-copy author comparisons I mentioned earlier, and perhaps I’m being too hard on Hamantaschen, but I can’t shake the feeling that he won’t begin to approach his substantial potential as an author without a strong editor and some badly-needed maturity.

On Terror Firma with James Cooper’s Terra Damnata

When I reviewed James Cooper’s The Beautiful Red several months ago, I briefly lamented the fact that the stories contained in that collection were for the most part surreal in nature, while I preferred Cooper’s work that features more of a realistic bent.  I’m happy to say that Cooper’s recent novella Terra Damnata, from PS Publishing, is gritty and lucid, and it’s thus perhaps no surprise that I found it to be a gripping read.

At its heart, Terra Damnata is a tale of anguish, loss, and regret, as personified by two very different couples who’ve both endured the tragic deaths of adult children.  It’s been less than a week since Arthur and Beth Woodbury lost their daughter Cherise to a drunk driver, but before they’ve even begun to come to terms with that event, they’re forced to deal with a bizarre intrusion upon their grief by millionaire Rupert Appleton, whose son Daniel was likewise killed by a drunken driver, several months previously. Since Daniel’s death, Rupert’s wife Hester has become obsessed with the idea that the unmarried Daniel will be spending eternity alone.

“She’d stumbled upon an old Chinese tradition where relatives of the dead would shower the grave with archaic objects to supposedly make the deceased’s afterlife more pleasant. When she started to leave some of Daniel’s childhood toys inside the vault, Appleton had sat in his darkened conservatory and cried.

Hester had also unearthed another ancient tradition, this one slightly more bizarre. Apparently some Chinese families of dead bachelors would buy corpses of unmarried women and bury them with their sons in posthumous wedding ceremonies, thus ensuring both spirits a smooth passage into whatever awaited them on the other side. Hester had become so enchanted by this idea that it seemed to Appleton a more effective outlet for the woman’s grief than five years of therapy. He’d agreed to buy Daniel a bride, someone his son might have connected with had both parties still been alive, if for no other reason than to satisfy his wife’s flailing spiritual belief. Yes, it was desperate; yes, it was obscene, but he was doing it, Appleton said, simply because he could.”

Arthur and Beth are, of course, initially inclined to rebuff Rupert’s overtures, but there are complicating factors that force them to reconsider. Arthur has a gambling addiction that has not only burned through the family’s savings but also led him to build up a substantial debt to casino owner Norman Foley who, not surprisingly, is an evil man who’s prepared to bring real harm to Arthur and his wife if the debt is not repaid. Faced with the loss of everything they have, and the real threat of physical violence, the Woodburys are forced to accept Rupert’s offer.

In possession of a check that will pay off his debt and leave him with plenty left over, Arthur’s first move is to return to the casino tables, a reaction sure to make most readers cringe in anticipation of a character intent on self-destruction. But Arthur is not a simple character, and all is not as it seems. Throughout, Cooper’s prose is rich yet precise, creating lasting images such as the one conjured by this description of Arthur’s return to Foley’s casino:

“There was a rich, hedonistic cloud of cigar smoke circling the room and six roulette tables spaced evenly along the posterior wall. Behind each table was a meticulously-dressed croupier, each one bearing the solemn demeanour of a pall bearer, understanding implicitly that each client was engaged in a personal duel, not against the House, but against chance itself and whatever demons their desire had conjured up.”

After Arthur’s re-entry into the world of gambling, he finds that he’s not finished with experiencing tragedy, either. To say much more would be to risk a spoiler, but suffice to say that Norman Foley has a central role in the proceedings. Terra Damnata is seemingly the perfect length, and the perfect style, for Cooper to show his stuff, and he certainly delivers the goods.

Dark and Dynamic – Black Static #27

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed an issue of Black Static magazine, and it’s high time I rectified that. The issue I chose to examine, Black Static #27, dated February-March 2012, proved to be an excellent choice, featuring five solid-or-better stories and the usual interesting array of non-fiction.

All of the stories have something to recommend them, but the standout is Jacob Ruby’s “The Little Things,” which starts out as a straightforward chronicle of a young girl who’s doing whatever she can to support her homebound mother and her… siblings, but gradually transforms into an exercise in sublime weirdness:

“Of course, there were many things that had fallen off of Mother, far too many to count, each living at least briefly on its own. From flakes of dried skin, hair, and moles to full tumors, everything she spouted came with its own life; what survived, Cassie named — what didn’t became a treat for the rest. Mother was a walking, breathing Garden of Eden, blessed with abundance from God.”

Also worthy of special mention is Simon Bestwick’s “The Churn,” in which the aging Alison Corbett suddenly starts experiencing bouts of dementia and apparent hallucinations as well. The people she should most be able to count on — her male companion Graham and the social services worker assigned to her — instead seem to be aligned against her.  Bestwick’s tale of an unreliable protagonist is fast-paced and intriguing, although I’m not sure if I understood everything the author wanted me to. Lack of complete comprehension was also a factor in Stephen Bacon’s “Cuckoo Spit,” the tale of a daughter visiting her ailing mother and renewing their contentious relationship. The meaning of the title is…interesting, if not exactly appetizing, and I’m not at all clear why it’s intrinsic to the story. Family relationships also figure prominently in V.H. Leslie’s “Family Tree,” wherein young Tyler Burrows tries to keep his mother from embarrassing him too much in front of his school-friends and tries to ensure his strangely absentee father stays out of sight. Ultimately, you could consider it a coming-of-age story of a son in a bizarrely dysfunctional family.

I don’t always agree with what Black Static’s three opinion columnists — Stephen Volk, Mike O’Driscoll, and Christopher Fowler — have to say, but their viewpoints are always interesting.  This time around, Volk offers a retrospective on recently-deceased filmmaker Ken Russell, O’Driscoll reviews the UK TV mini-series Black Mirror, and Fowler manages to effortlessly disparage a handful of films.

Tony Lee’s DVD review column, Blood Spectrum, covers 13 films, with highlights being A Vanishing On Seventh Street and a reissue of Rolling Thunder. Peter Tenant’s Case Notes book review column, meanwhile, includes interviews with Alison Littlewood and Cate Gardner, as well as a variety of reviews. As always, Black Static features exceptional design and four-color printing throughout. Add it all up and it’s another entertaining issue of the best regularly-published horror magazine going.