Out-of-this-world expectations — Brett J. Talley’s The Void

Brett J. Talley’s first novel, That Which Should Not Be, received quite a bit of acclaim — enough that I finally decided that I simply had to read it… but before I could do so, his second novel — also from JournalStone Publishing — was announced and a review copy arrived.  That second novel is The Void, and it’s a classic combination of science fiction and horror (a genre mash-up that I’m an absolute sucker for), in the same vein as Event Horizon, Solaris, or Moon (to cite film comparisons only).

Between the acclaim for That Which Should Not Be, the advance praise for The Void, and my affinity for sf/horror combos, my expectations for this book were sky-high, and that’s a heavy burden for any author to bear.  How did Talley fare?  Let’s examine…

Set aboard the intergalactic starship The Chronos in the year 2169, the story employs a small but interesting cast of characters that for the most part resists resorting to type and includes the following notables:

  • Captain Caroline Gravey, a recently-retired Navy veteran who’s taking the helm of a private vessel for the first time.
  • Navigator Aidan Connor, who has no memory of the catastrophe that destroyed his last ship, a disaster that only he survived.
  • Rebecca Kensington, a somewhat-secretive passenger who possesses a few misgivings about her hidden agenda.
  • Dr. Malcolm Ridley, the ship’s resident psychiatrist, a role that’s required due to the mental effects that sometimes result from warp-drive travel.

Warp travel necessitates that crew members and passengers be sleeping during the journey, and the “mental effects” mentioned above — which can result from the strange, frightening dreams experienced during warp sleep — essentially translate to insanity.  What’s worse, the affect can sometimes be gradual and insidious, so waking from warp travel and feeling fine is not necessarily indicative of anything.

When the Chronos emerges from warp travel, the crew discover that they’re not where they’re supposed to be.  Instead, they’re in a remote, unpopulated area of space, near an unidentified and seemingly derelict vessel, surrounded by black holes.  With a small window of time before the other ship is pulled into one of the black holes, the true nature of the situation into which  the Chronos has been manipulated is revealed, while the other vessel turns out to be perhaps not so derelict after all.

The fear of losing one’s mind is effectively conveyed, and later in the story there are seemingly human threats to deal with, but the greatest sense of terror here comes from the eponymous void — the endless reaches of space, the black holes, the vast nothingness.

So, at the end of the day, did The Void live up to my expectations?  To some extent, yes.  There’s no denying that there are the seeds of a very good novel here.  What detracts from the book’s overall impact, though, are a few occasional awkward sentences, some rather jarring shifts in style, and far too much time spent on chapters exploring the characters’ dreams, some of which really drag.  In sum, I’m glad I read The Void, but I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.

Quick Take – Stephen Mark Rainey’s Blue Devil Island

Obviously, I’m a fan of horror fiction.  I also have a strong appreciation for war-oriented fiction — being a big admirer of books such as Stewart O’Nan’s The Names of the Dead, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.  It should thus come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for war/horror hybrids.  Or that Stephen Mark Rainey’s novel Blue Devil Island, reprinted in trade paperback  in 2011 by Marietta Publishing (after appearing in hardcover from Five Star back in 2007) caught my attention.  Rainey’s tale features a World War II setting — the beginning of the American offensive against the Japanese in the Pacific theater during the autumn of 1943, to be exact — and is extremely rich in military and period detail. Rainey has clearly done his research, and the following excerpt gives a brief taste of the wealth of background information sprinkled throughout:

“The smell of avgas had replaced the tang of salt in the air, and the roar of Pratt & Whitney engines thundered above the grinding of the jeep motors…I firmly pressed each rudder pedal to make sure the tension was correct and then shifted the control yoke forward, backward, and side to side to check the action.”

The narrator above is Lieutenant Commander Drew McLachlan, a veteran pilot who leads a squadron that goes by the nickname of “Blue Devils.”  The squadron has recently been deployed to a remote island in the Solomons, from where they’re launching sorties to try and take some of the backbone out of the Japanese defense.  Unfortunately for the squadron and the other military personnel on the base, they soon find that they are not alone on the island, and that the Japanese are the least of their worries.

The island is home to volcanic caves that seem to run deep beneath the surface, and which are home to something that begins to speak to the soldiers, subtly at first and then with increasing influence and hostility.  McLachlan is one of the first to understand the nature of what they’re dealing with:

“…Drew, just what is in there do you think?”

‘Something very old,’ I said softly. ‘I believe we’ve woken something up. And it is not happy. No, it is not happy at all.'”

As the evil draws closer to the surface, first manipulating its minions and later emerging itself, the novel moves rapidly into cosmic, eldritch horror territory.  Blue Devil Island is tailored with a pulp sensibility, but written with far more intelligence and attention to detail than most traditional pulp fiction. In fact, it’s that attention to detail that is the only minor flaw here — there is so much detail that sometimes the sheer amount of it threatens to derail the narrative.  But fans of historical and supernatural fiction should find much to like here.

Ants, Cops, and Criminals — Joe McKinney’s The Red Empire

Joe McKinney is an author whose name I’ve been familiar with for quite some time, but who I haven’t had a chance to read until now. His collection The Red Empire and Other Stories, from relatively new but rapidly expanding publisher Redrum Horror, provided me with an opportunity to rectify that.

Even though the collection includes only a modest total of eight stories (the title story is a long novella, taking up more than 40% of the book), including three originals, there is a fairly wide array of styles and genres on display here, with the contents touching upon everything from a ghost story to cosmic horror to SF to police procedural to non-fiction.

The aforementioned eponymous novella “The Red Empire,” which leads off the book, is probably the highlight here, a taut page-turner that’s not ashamed to take a B-movie plot and make the best of it.  A military truck transporting a dangerous payload, in the form of genetically-engineered fire ants, crashes during a storm in rural Texas, unleashing the ants.  The military and their nefarious scientists attempt to capture the ants, enlisting the help of local police and a local doctor who happens to be something of an expert on fire ants.  Complicating matters are an escaped killer who’s invaded the home of a single mother and her daughter, who’s recovering from a serious eye operation.  On the heels of the killer’s arrival comes a wave of the deadly ants, trapping the unlikely trio in the house.  It’s all expertly-paced and a lot of fun.

The second tale, “Blemish,” is the other standout, as a former cop turned private investigator is haunted by his past, via both the ghost of a former lover and his still-living ex-girlfriend.  It’s a melancholy tale of wrong turns and missed opportunities, and the ending will likely haunt you as much as the two women have haunted the main character, Scott.

The collection is unfortunately a bit front-loaded, as the remaining contents for the most part can’t live up to the high standards set by the first two stories. “Eyes Open” comes closest, as a seemingly schizophrenic homeless man picked up by the police turns out to be the bearer of a sanity-threatening message with Lovecraftian overtones.   “Burning Finger Man” is also worth noting, a fairly straightforward drama about a sexual predator plaguing a housing project.  The story features an interesting array of characters and manages to wring a lot of emotion from its depiction of vigilante justice.

Showing the influence of McKinney’s day job as a Sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, four of the eight entries feature cops in primary roles, and his first-hand knowledge certainly helps lend a strong sense of realism to those stories.  McKinney has largely been known for his zombie-oriented fiction, and this collection gives him the chance to show his chops in some different areas, and he largely does a fine job of doing just that.

Quick Take – Lorne Patterson’s Witch

One of the new publishers I briefly covered in my June 2012 round-up of new publishers was Dark Hall Press. I’ll save you the trouble of navigating to that post by telling you the key parts of what I said about Dark Hall: “Launched on Halloween, 2011, DHP debuted with the novel Witch by Lorne Patterson, and has so far announced two more books, including a new Ty Schwamberger title.”

Not longer after writing that, a review copy of Witch came my way. It’s a short novel, or perhaps novella, weighing in at less than 100 pages, narrated via two juxtaposed timelines. The first, set in 2013 Scotland, comes from the perspective of Detective Sergeant Jamie McFadden, who as the story opens is visiting a private psychiatric facility called Haven in order to interview Caroline Blair, the only surviving victim of a pedophile and killer who’s now also been murdered . The second takes place in 1591 Scotland and focuses on Margaret Berwick, a young woman wrongly accused of being a witch. It seems apparent from the first few pages that there will be a connection of some sort between Blair and Berwick.

The McFadden-based chapters focus on his investigation and some intriguing discoveries he makes about Haven and the nearby town, while Berwick’s chapters are primarily descriptions of her torture at the hands of her sadistic jailers, which is a little detailed a little excessively for my tastes, and her apparent conversation with a demon in the midst of some pain-induced hallucinations.

Anytime that an author elects to split their storyline (via multiple timelines or multiple primary perspectives), the potential downside is that one thread will resonate much more strongly with the reader. That’s exactly what happened with Witch, as I found the contemporary storyline much more engaging. The historical thread is well-written, but it seems apparent from the get-go what’s going to happen, and for the most part, what’s expected is exactly what happens.

Although Witch has its blemishes, none are too glaring, and there’s certainly potential flashed here as well. This is author Patterson’s first novel, and I hope we see more from him.