Tag Archives: Monsters

Anatomy Lessons with Stephen Volk’s Monsters in the Heart

volkMonstersI’ve reviewed a couple titles by Stephen Volk in the past (here and here), and really enjoyed those books, as well as his regular column in Black Static magazine.  His latest collection, Monsters in the Heart, from Gray Friar Press, is a substantial one, reprinting 13 tales originally published between 2006 and 2012, plus two originals.

The book certainly leads from strength, as the top-of-the-order story, “After the Ape” is a true standout, putting an interesting spin on the story of King Kong and his “human mistress,” Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray in the original 1933 version of the film). The story is narrated from Darrow’s perspective, grieving over the tragic loss of her misunderstood guardian.

Other standouts include the following:

  • “Who Dies Best,” which starts with the arresting line “I watched my mother die again today,” and is set in an alternate reality where widespread economic collapse leads to a legitimization and broadening of the “snuff film” concept, with the financially unfortunate becoming “one-off” actors and dying on screen, in exchange for a payout for their survivors.
  • “In the Colosseum,” wherein a relatively innocent film editor is insidiously drawn into a beyond-decadent clique of film crew and hangers-on, led by a particularly perverse producer.
  • “White Butterflies, a tragic tale concerning two young Kazakhstanian brothers whose quest to scavenge scrap metal from an area where spacecraft debris falls leads them to an unfortunate meeting with what Volks calls “monsters…of the predatory human kind.”
  • “Pied a Terre,” in which a woman viewing a potential work-week apartment for her husband encounters something strange in the apartment, and is forced in turn to face certain facts in her own life.
  • “Appeal For Witnesses,” a longer story involving a cop’s investigation of a crime, which leads to an unsettling discovery about the true nature of some apparent Russian gangsters.

The only negative I found in this collection is the *extremely* varied nature of its contents — so much so that it’s somewhat distracting.  Although Volk claims in his Afterword that the collection has a unifying theme that’s expressed in its title, I can’t say that I agree with what  the author says:

The title of this collection, Monsters in the Heart, refers partly to the deep fondness we horror aficionados have for the famous monsters and fright night fiends created by other writers before us…

Some of the stories herein are about human monsters. Individuals with an evil streak or deeply aberrant nature, or those who are simply physically wrong. Others are about, or riffs on, certain myths and legends, or our modern myths and legends from novels or the big screen. Some are about both.

With stories written for the Sherlock Holmes and Hellboy universes — plus other tales such as a surreal bit about a boy with a giant head that grows to fill an entire room, and a sociological SF story set in a near future where genetic screening has become illegal, to name just a couple — there’s an extremely wide range of fiction here. Normally, I’m all in favor of that, but in this case, as I said, it just seemed a little…off-putting, in what is for the most part a very good collection.  As always, your mileage may vary.

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.

SoCal Creatures — A review of Lisa Morton’s Monsters of L.A.

As I commented in my previous reviews of The Lucid Dreaming and The Castle of Los Angeles, Lisa Morton’s fiction output has recently increased significantly. In the last couple of years, she’s published not only that novel and novella, but also the novella The Samhanach and the collection Monsters of L.A., the latter of which I’ll be taking a closer look at here.

Published by Bad Moon Books, Monsters of L.A. is Morton’s first collection and includes 20 stories, all published here for the first time. Each story is named for and focuses on a classic trope — such as Dracula, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and the Hunchback — but each bears a twist that makes it a distinctively L.A. story. Take, for example, the aforementioned “The Mummy,” in which a vain trophy wife in search of the latest in skin treatments finds more than she bargained for behind the doors of a new spa with Egyptian influences. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” features a doctor specializing in gender reassignment whose zeal for greater efficacy leads her to try an experimental drug on herself, resulting in…well, you can imagine, given the title. In “The Invisible Woman,” a nondescript and oft-ignored woman begins to take advantage of her inconspicuous status. A unique perspective — that of the house itself, wanting to be rid of the crew of a Ghost Hunters-style TV series — distinguishes “The Haunted House.” And “Cat People” stands out due to its effective use of the Latin American legend of “La Japonesa” legend, transplanted to Southern California by the workers who migrated there.

Many of the tales are less horrific and more focused on other emotions, such as the poignant “Quasimodo,” wherein a gay high school student tries to finish the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that he’s creating while fending off abuse from fellow students. Or the darkly comedic “Dracula,” which concerns an aging film star who finds there’s more to fear than just a young upstart actor hastening the decline of his career. Or “The Creature,” which has an attention-grabbing beginning — an amphibious creature crawls from the La Brea tar pits, while onlookers assume it be a publicity stunt — but is too short and ends a little too abruptly, with a little too much of a tongue-in-cheek tone, to be successful. The issues of brevity and “winking” tone are ones that are evident at several points in the collection, and unfortunately detract a bit from the book’s overall impact.

At 55 pages, “The Urban Legend” is drastically longer than any other story in the book and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the best story in the book, featuring the Professor and Teaching Assistant from “Cat People” and focusing on legends of a series of hidden tunnels stretching beneath LA. It’s worth noting that this is not the only story to re-use elements from elsewhere — a handful of other stories are loosely-connected to one another and one features a reference to Morton’s novel The Castle of Los Angeles. These are neat little touches that serve to unify the shared milieu, creating more of a cohesive whole, and I would’ve liked to have seen Morton do more of this. Story notes close out the collection nicely, with Morton describing the inspiration for each of the tales.

Writing twenty original stories for a collection is admirable but challenging, and Morton is not up to the task with every story, but she succeeds more often than not, resulting in an unpredictable and entertaining collection.

Going Southard

I reviewed Nate Southard’s He Went Through a while ago, and my very favorable impressions of that chapbook led me to search out more Southard, which brings me to two recent titles — Scavengers and This Little Light of Mine.

Let’s start with Scavengers, one of the first wave of titles from the zombie-focused Print Is Dead, an imprint of Creeping Hemlock Press. Scavengers is an expansion of a graphic novel, A Trip to Rundberg, which Southard earlier scripted. In his Acknowledgments, Southard states “The first two drafts of this novel were written in just over a week.” It wouldn’t be fair to say that the pace at which the book was written is evident in the finished product, but it is fair to say, I think, that expanding the story to novel length may be stretching it a bit beyond the plot’s comfortable limits.

Scavengers starts out seeming like your standard-issue “survival in a post-zombie-apocalypse world” story, with the only question being who, if anyone, will survive. The plot focuses on the plight of the small midwestern town of Millwood, which is a relatively safe outpost, but one that’s rapidly running out of food. Faced with the prospect of slow starvation, the town elects to send a scavenger party of five — three of whom are selected via lottery — to a supermarket in the neighboring town of Rundberg, which is believed to be overrun by zombies. Not surprisingly, the ragtag group is ill-prepared for the ghoulish gauntlet that awaits them.

Featured foremost among the quintet are Blake Ellis, an honorable young man forced to leave behind the woman he’s come to love, and Chris Stevenson, who, to be blunt, is an asshole of world-class proportions. In fact, it’s borderline unbelievable just what a jerk Stevenson is, even in light of what we eventually learn about his past. His behavior, and the other characters’ reactions, at times grows tedious, as there are only so many times that one can read variations on passages like the following:

“[Blake] breathed deep and swallowed the urge to jerk an elbow into the bridge of Stevenson’s nose. The smug prick was really beginning to work his last nerve.”

I feel ya, Blake, I feel ya. Similarly, the characters’ numerous narrow escapes from the hordes of zombies roaming Rundberg start to feel a bit repetitive, with the scenes becoming less tense and almost tiresome.

I’m afraid I’m sounding a bit too harsh, though — it’s not as if Scavengers doesn’t have some redeeming features. For example, the first two-thirds of the story, before the repetition creeps in, features some strong drama and ever-ratcheting tension. And it’s worth noting that, even though flashbacks can often detract from the pace of an action-oriented story like this one, Southard does a great job keeping his backward glances brief, making them informative without being unwelcome interruptions. Finally, there’s a chillingly inventive death scene crafted for one of the characters, and a grimly downbeat ending shortly after that — an upbeat ending would have seemed more than a little incongruous, so kudos to Southard for embracing his dark side.

All in all, Scavengers was a bit of a mixed bag for me, but zombie zealots will likely find much to appreciate.

Much more impressive is Southard’s This Little Light of Mine, a novella from Burning Effigy Press that benefits from wicked pacing sans padding, and features a refreshingly different type of menace. Set entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a parking garage that collapses in the opening scene, the plot focuses on two survivors trapped in the ruins of the garage. Protagonist Brandon is determinedly optimistic and intent on escaping and seeing his wife again, while insurance executive Clair is a bitch on her best days (Southard seems to have a penchant for deploying highly unlikable characters); not surprisingly, the overwhelming fear and stress of the situation brings out her worst.

Literally cloaked in darkness, choked by dust and ringed by rubble, Brandon and Clair struggle to stay calm and keep hope alive. Buried in the underground garage, there’s of course no cell phone signal available, but Brandon finds a hide-a-key on one of the nearby cars, and using the car’s radio is able to tune in a signal from what seems to be the only radio station on the air.

The radio announcer describes nationwide earthquakes and mass devastation, and then Southard twists the knife a little further by having the announcer add:

“Looks like the peanut gallery has decided to join in on the fun, guys and gals,” the man said. “Got reports from all over the damn place now. Ghouls and goblins or whatever coming out of the ground. Just ignore the bullshit, folks. Take care of yourselves and each other. I’ll stay on until they shut me down.”

There’s initially a third, unconscious victim trapped in the garage — Joe, a friend of Clair’s — but as they try to sleep at the end of their first day in the garage, Brandon shuts off the car’s headlights in order to save the battery…and later awakes to the sound of Clair’s screams and the sight of Joe’s eviscerated corpse. It seems the stories of creatures coming out of the underground are not just stories, and that Brandon and Clair’s predicament has gotten even worse.

Weighing in at 52 shuddering, skittering pages, This Little Light of Mine is a riveting read.