Brett McBean’s The Awakening is an eye-opening read

I try to review as many titles as my time allows.   My desire to be as prolific as I can be means that I have a natural affinity for shorter works… and, conversely, a slight tendency to avoid longer works.  It’s thus probably no surprise that I sighed deeply when Brett McBean’s novel The Awakening landed in my mailbox with a resounding thud.  Beautifully produced by Tasmaniac Publications in a signed, limited edition (200 copies) hardcover, and featuring striking cover art by Erin Wells and an insightful introduction by Ray Garton, The Awakening weighs in at a hefty 470 pages.

Although Tasmaniac is an Australia-based publisher and McBean is an Australian author, The Awakening is almost completely all-American, with the only exception being a character from Haiti.  But more on him in a minute.  Operating in a milieu that has to be largely foreign to him, McBean does a remarkably good job rendering small-town USA in this coming-of-age tale.  I noticed a small handful of mistakes in language use, but for the most part, McBean nails it.

The story is set in a typical Midwestern town and revolves around 14-year-old Toby Fairchild, his best friend, Frankie, and the object of Toby’s affections, Gloria.  Determined to enjoy their last summer before the trials of high school begin, Toby and Frankie are on the cusp of growing up, torn between lingering childhood interests and burgeoning teen obsessions.  But summer has barely begun before a traumatic attack destroys their idyll.  Toby has no memory of the incident, but he at least finds some solace from the fact that he develops a relationship with Gloria in the wake of the attack.

The other person with whom Toby subsequently develops a bond is the aforementioned non-American – his reclusive neighbor, Mr. Joseph , a Haitian immigrant.  As Toby gets to know Mr. Joseph, he learns that the rumors and prejudice surrounding the old man are unfair, while at the same time discovering that the world is a much bigger, and stranger, place than he realized.  And, although it sounds cliché, Toby also discovers that monsters are real, but their identity is far different than what he’d supposed.

So what about my initial, at-first-sight impression that this book is too long?  Well, even though the story is compelling, and the characters extremely well-developed, the fact remains that precious little happens in the first half of the book, and many dialog-heavy scenes extend beyond what’s really necessary.  Although these lengthy scenes do serve to further cement our perceptions of Toby and Frankie, they do so at the price of narrative momentum.  Don’t get me wrong – every time I had to set aside The Awakening, I found myself eager to return to the unexpected twists and turns found within its pages.  But the book would have been even stronger if there were a few less of those pages.

A final note: unfortunately – although fortunately for the publisher – The Awakening sold out prior to publication, so tracking down a copy may prove problematic.

Quick Take: Stuck in the middle with Matthew Warner’s No Outlet

I’ve been a fan of most of the titles published by Thunderstorm Books, and the latest title of theirs to land on my desk (well, figuratively speaking, since it was an ebook) is Matthew Warner’s novella No Outlet.  The tag line for the book is “every man’s worst nightmare,” and that’s an apt descriptor for a story that’s set entirely within the confines of a mega-shopping mall.

Steve and Tanya Clarke are a bickering, debt-ridden couple visiting their local mall for what’s supposed to be a quick trip to buy a single Christmas gift.  But soon Tanya is reverting to her usual shopaholic ways, leading to more arguing, and a decision to leave.  But they can’t find the exit…and then they see stores in different locations than normal, not to mention strange stores they’ve never noticed before, and every path they take leads them in circles.  When they try to ask for help, they’re ignored, insulted or ultimately assaulted.

As their frustration and fear mount, the bickering couple’s old wounds re-open:

He glanced at Tanya. Her nose was wrinkled in disgust. Ugly and imperious. He knew that look: the baby who didn’t get her way, the one who got angry to hide how scared she was… the only reason she got so mad was because she was used to Colonel Warbucks giving her everything. Well, welcome to the real world, sweetie. Not everyone had their way paid through college and their career jumpstarted by the good old boy network. Not everyone had a maid growing up who would lint-roll the dog hair off her coat and make sure the animal stayed out of her bedroom so she wouldn’t have to deal with its slobber and piss…

When they finally encounter another couple who are cognizant of the bizarre situation, and willing to talk about it, Steve and Tanya seem to at least have found allies…but even that small island of sanity soon submerges in unexpected fashion.

There was a point in this tale, relatively early on, where I thought to myself, “this is a great little idea, but it’s best suited for short-story length…how is he going to be able to successfully stretch it to novella length?”   Fortunately, via subplot and unexpected developments, Warner does manage to extend the plot without padding it.  That said, there are a couple aspects that prevent No Outlet from being completely successful.  Most notably, the see-saw nature of Steve and Tanya’s feelings for each other starts to grate a bit after several swings between rekindled love and restored contempt.

Set on Black Friday, No Outlet perhaps appropriately has a sense of black comedy to it at times, interspersed with moments of true horror and Twilight Zone-style strangeness.

Drinking deep from Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s Bottled Abyss

Benjamin Kane Ethridge made an impressive book-length debut in 2010 with Black & Orange, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in First Novel.  In some years, that’s a dubious distinction, but in 2010 BKE’s competition was substantial, in the form of Gemma Files, Lisa Morton, and Lucy Snyder (come to think of it, maybe Ethridge received the male sympathy vote…I kid).  Regardless, Ethridge has followed up with the novel Bottled Abyss from Redrum Horror, a book that stands out based on the audacity of its ideas, the uniqueness of its plot, and the depth of its characters.

Herman and Janet Erikson are a broken couple, unable to move past the hit-and-run death of their daughter.  Herman tries to lose himself in his work while Janet courts suicide at the bottom of a liquor bottle, and all the while they drift further from each other.  When their dog is mauled in the desert by coyotes, Herman encounters a strange man who miraculously heals the dog’s wounds.  Although he doesn’t realize it, Herman has just met the Ferryman, the (not) mythical guider of dead souls across the River Styx.  The time of the Gods is long gone and the Styx long since dried up, but the Ferryman lives on, carrying the last of the river’s water with him in a bottle, and he’s desperate to recreate the river and restore the old ways.

Unbeknownst to them, Herman and Janet have become inextricably bound up in the Ferryman’s plot, and the situation ultimately forces them to live again — with Herman acknowledging the world outside of work and Janet climbing out of the bottle (if only to, ironically, fall under the spell of an even more dangerous and enticing bottle).  The couple are flawed in many ways, as are their best friends, Evan and Faye, who are also integral to  the story, resulting in a cast of characters that are believable and still worthy of empathy.  The Ferryman’s machinations, meanwhile, are opposed by the Fury, another elemental figure who clings to existence seemingly only to thwart the Ferryman, creating a dynamic that helps to propel the story.

I read a lot of horror fiction (as should be no surprise), and after reading the same basic plots, with the same familiar tropes, so many times,  it’s refreshing to encounter a novel like Bottled Abyss that features new twists, albeit ones based on ancient mythology.  And it’s worth noting that Ethridge adroitly interweaves a lot of mythological and other background information without ever resorting to extended info-dumps.  His prose style is smooth, although I wasn’t moved to quote any particular passages, as readers of this blog will know that I am wont to do.  Filled to the brim with loss and lamentation, Bottled Abyss is well worth gazing into.