Tag Archives: Tim Curran

Nobody bats .1000 — Michael McBride’s Blindspot and Tim Curran’s The Underdwelling

In previous reviews, I’ve frequently sung the praises of both Michael McBride and Tim Curran, two prolific authors who’ve carved out deservedly strong reputations in the horror specialty press world — witness my reviews of McBride’s Quiet, Keeps to Himself, and Curran’s The Spawning and Bone Marrow Stew.

But a potential danger of being so prolific is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the increased likelihood that quality may suffer due to to quantity… and I’m afraid I have to say that may be the case, at least to some degree, with both of their new novellas: McBride’s Blindspot and Curran’s The Underdwelling.

Published by Dark Regions Press, Blindspot is the tale of biomedical research scientist Dr. Parker Ramsey, who under the sponsorship of the U.S. Army has been developing a device to capture from the optic nerves of the recently-deceased the last image they saw before dying. Shortly after the story opens, Ramsey is spirited away to a remote area of North Korea, the apparent site of a recent nuclear accident. Escorted by a small group of elite special forces soldiers, Ramsey is there to field-test his prototype, which has to date been successfully tested only on laboratory mice.

Ramsey is kept in the dark about much of the mission, and spends a lot of time during the lengthy trek to the site wondering just why the hell he’s been clandestinely transported halfway around the globe. When the group finally arrives at its destination, there are no shortage of bodies from which to potentially harvest final “images of death,” but the condition of the corpses gives Ramsey pause because… well, suffice to say that the cause of death does not appear to have been from the effects of a nuclear explosion or subsequent radiation exposure.

Things only get stranger once Ramsey is able to test his device on the corpses. He’s thrilled to find that the device works just as expected, but the results unfortunately don’t shed any light on exactly what happened to the dead, due to a particular optical effect, cited in the book’s title:

“‘It’s the blindspot,’ Ramsey said… ‘Every eye has one. There are no photoreceptor cells at the point where the optic nerve enters the retina. No rods. No cones. No nothing.’”

On all the victims Ramsey surveys, their blindspot unfortunately blocks a portion of their final image in such a way as to block the view of their cause of death. I’ll refrain from offering any further details so as to avoid spoilers.

Blindspot features McBride’s usual great plotting and pacing, but his characters unfortunately border on stereotype. At least that’s my takeaway when you’ve got a gruff, cigar-chomping General, a group of stoic, macho soldiers, and a brilliant but insecure and somewhat socially awkward scientist. Of course, stereotypes often exist for a reason, and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in some of McBride’s characterizations…but the bottom line is that several of his characters here *do* seem superficial in terms of their traits, and that serves to detract from what is otherwise a captivating tale.

It’s worth noting that when one of the aforementioned characters — the lead soldier, Rockwell — steps out of his stereotype, it’s a jarring departure, as he suddenly launches into a detailed explanation of backstory, using some very unexpected language, such as:

“‘We were, however, able to able to conclusively determine from samples of the nearby soil, air, and water that there were no traces of nuclear byproducts. What we did find were a multitude of toxins, alkalyzing agents, and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.’”

A more gradual and nuanced reveal of Rockwell’s character would likely have been beneficial.

As a big McBride fan, it’s a little concerning that this is the second consecutive book of his I’ve read (Predatory Instinct, which I read but didn’t review, was the first) where the stories have seemed very “cinematic” — meaning that they’re action-packed, well-paced, and would likely translate well to the big screen, but feature somewhat cliched characters and at times seem formulaic.

Even when operating on less than all cylinders, though,  McBride is still better than an awful lot of other writers out there. This is an entertaining novella, and many readers will likely be very enamored of it, but I think the author has done significantly better.

*  *  *

Turning to Curran, his novella The Underdwelling, published by Delirium Books, features an underground setting, which I’m usually a sucker for, generally strong character development, a taut storyline, and has no really significant flaws, but… I can’t escape the feeling that there’s a large amount of unrealized potential here, as there’s unfortunately little true frisson generated from what should be a chilling scenario.

The story is related from the perspective of Boyd, a recent hire at a the Hobart iron ore mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s about to go underground for the first time after a couple months of working up top, but is beset by vague premonitions of something *bad* about to happen. Despite his ill forebodings, Boyd figures he’s a miner at heart, just like his father, and he desperately needs the money, and so he rides the trolley down, into mine that stretches 2500 feet beneath the surface, with a mix of stubbornness and trepidation.

The characters he interacts with are an interesting mix, including Breed, a big man whose partial-American-Indian heritage is apparently reflected in his nickname; Maki, the requisite know-it-all jerk; the seasoned and confident shift boss Corey; and brainy but respectful mining engineer Jurgens. There’s some sharp-edged and realistic repartee between the parties, often involving the acerbic Breed.

Boyd is a quicker study than most of the others, and as a result Jurgens takes the time to explain to him the strangeness of the rock formations they’re seeing.

“See, Boyd, the ore is here, we just have to get through this goddamn limestone first.” He led Boyd over to the wall and knocked on the striated rock there. “This is all limestone laid down during the Permian.”
“Sure,” Boyd said. “Sedimentary rock. Layers of mud and sediment.”

Jurgens nodded. “That’s right. Thing is, it just doesn’t belong here. I mean, from a geologic standpoint, this is the first Permian rock ever found in Michigan. So that’s something, but there’s no goddamn ore in it. See, this part of Michigan is all old, very old Precambrian rock. Anywhere from 500 million to three or four billion years old. And this Permian strata is fairly new, roughly 250 million years old. It just doesn’t belong here.”

Given that this is a horror novella we’re talking about, it’s probably no surprise that the interlopers find that it’s not just the limestone that doesn’t belong there. They stumble upon, and almost into, a 400-foot deep hole that, according to Jurgens, was formed by glacial meltwater, but looks strangely artificial. Exploring the abyss is a must, to determine if it’s a threat to the mine’s overall stability, but Boyd is none too thrilled to be venturing even further into the abyss.

Upon plumbing the depths of the hole, they discover that there’s something alive down there, something that’s been trapped there for a very long time, and is very lonely…and very hungry. There *are* a few tense moments,and the well-drawn characters help to hold the reader’s interest, but as mentioned, the story never becomes truly frightening, and there are a lot of questions left unanswered. As a result I found The Underdwellinga bit underwhelming although, as always, your mileage may vary.

Curran Events – Reviews of Tim Curran’s THE SPAWNING, BONE MARROW STEW, and FEAR ME

I’ve been on quite a reviewing roll lately —  I’ve found at least something to like about every single book I’ve read for the past three months or more, and in several of them I’ve found quite a lot to like. My streak mostly continues with this post, which examines not one, not two, but three titles by Tim Curran, an impressively prolific writer who fortunately doesn’t sacrifice quality to achieve quantity.

First up is The Spawning, a meaty novel from Elder Signs Press that effectively combines eldritch Lovecraftian horrors with shape-shifting aliens a la The Thing, all in a harsh, foreboding Antarctic winter setting of nearly perpetual night.

The novel kicks off with a bang-bang prologue that seems like it will be impossible to follow, but Curran keeps the action flowing through the course of 125 short, punchy chapters. The plot initially bounces frequently between several Antarctic locales — The Polar Clime Station, NOAA Field Lab Polaris, and the Emperor Ice Cave — making the action a little hard to follow at times, especially given the large palette of characters used, but fortunately none of those characters seem cliched or stereotypical, and the identities of the primary figures are soon well-established.

Chief among them is Nick Coyle, the camp cook and confidante at Polar Clime Station and a veteran of 12 Antarctic winters. His good friend Frye and friend-with-benefits Gwen are also frequently on stage, and its eventually the plight of these three that the reader comes to most strongly identify with.

When a helicopter from the clandestine, military-controlled Colony Station crashes, a Polar Clime rescue team is first to arrive on scene and sees in the wreckage the body of something alien…and terrifying. Meanwhile, the research crew stationed at the Emperor Ice Cave make the ill-advised decision to thaw out their own alien discovery. The awakening creatures initially manifest their presence in the thoughts and nightmares of nearby humans, but then later in a more physical fashion. For those trapped in the station, all hell literally begins to break loose.

Curran leverages his setting well, juxtaposing the vast, foreboding Antarctic ice fields with the claustrophobic confines of polar shelters. Finally, Curran’s depiction of the shoggoths and shapeshifters are vivid and well realized, and his descriptions of the Old Ones’ master plans are likewise chilling, as here:

“Its kind waited it all out, sleeping away down here in their frozen tombs in black cellars of dead cities while men rose from ape-like ancestors and skittered across hillsides like white ants, self-important, brimming with conceit over their mastery of nature and their rising rudimentary intellect, never knowing, never guessing in their supreme arrogance that they had been engineered, created to fulfill a purpose and that purpose was to be harvested, wheat to the scythe as the Old Ones had engineered, modified, and harvested so many life forms.”

The Spawning is 384 pages of tiny print, easily 500 pages in a more standard font size and layout, and despite the onslaught of action, it does drag a little at times, usually when Curran gets a little overly fixated on providing a thorough description, and winds up saying essentially the same thing two or three different ways. That’s minor criticism, however, for a book that features generally stalwart pacing, admirable character development and — notably — strong, believable dialog.

The Spawning is sub-titled “Book Two of the Hive series,”  and on the plus side, I didn’t feel like I missed anything by not having read Book 1, but the ending of this novel does seem more like a pause than a conclusion, which is not unusual for the 2nd book in a trilogy. Hopefully there won’t be a five-year gap between books 2 and 3, as there was between books 1 and 2.

Bone Marrow Stew, a collection of Curran’s short fiction from Tasmaniac Publications, is another large volume, coming in at 455 pages, although the typeface is of a more standard size here. The book gathers 17 stories, with publication dates ranging from 1995 to 2007, plus two originals. It’s likely no coincidence that my favorite stories were consistently the longer ones, wherein Curran has more opportunity to develop his characters and his plotlines.

A case in point is the science fiction/horror tale “Migration,” which — like The Spawning — focuses on a group trapped inside an outpost under siege from outside forces — in the case, the group are part of a mining operation on the planet Cygni-5, and suddenly find themselves in the migrational path of a previously-unknown species of deadly arthropod. Although “The Chattering of Tiny Teeth” and “Long in the Tooth” feature vastly different settings, with the former taking place on the battlefields of World War I and the latter in the contemporary English marsh country, both build creepy atmosphere and feature similar creatures — small, childlike, but hungry and lethal. “The Legend of Black Betty” is a voodoo western, with a high Priestess cum bordello madame transplanted from New Orleans to Nevada, where she is angered by the local settlers and takes out her vengeance via a zombie uprising.  In “The Wreck of the Ghost,” a 19th-century whaling vessel encounters Cthulhu on the high seas, while in “One Dark September Night…” what starts out as an innocent coming-of-age story takes a very nasty turn when three boys find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, spying upon a man burying a body. As you can see from the wide variety of locales and subject matter, Curran is no one-trick pony — he writes on a variety of subjects, employing diverse styles, and the result is almost always entertaining.  There are only a small handful of stories here that I didn’t care all that much for.  The author does still at times display a tendency to become verbose and repetitive in his descriptive passages, but for the most part this doesn’t detract significantly from the stories’ impact.

The collection is rounded out with an Afterword from Curran, wherein he explains the genesis of each story. As an aside, I had wondered, given that Curran is American, why he had two titles appear recently from Australian publishers — this collection as well as Zombie Pulp from Severed Press. Curran’s Afterword offers a likely explanation, as he mentions that he appeared in all 10 issues of the Australian magazine Dark Animus, a fact that no doubt helped introduce his work to Australian readers and publishers.

Providing a fine overview of Curran’s shorter fiction, Bone Marrow Stew is limited to 250 signed, numbered copies, and also includes signatures from Intro-writer Simon Clark and artist Keith Minnion. It’s sub-titled Collected Works – Volume One, so perhaps Tasmaniac has plans for more Curran.

Last up in Tim’s trio is the novel Fear Me
from Delirium Books. So, does this book complete a top-notch trifecta for Curran?  Well, not quite.  Fear Me is certainly not a bad book, but the repetitive passages that occasionally detract from the two titles discussed earlier are much more painfully apparent here in a story which, at 202 pages, is stretched well beyond what would seem to be the comfortable limits of the rather bare-bones plot.

Protagonist Romero is a hard-ass convict who’s a long-term resident of maximum-security Shaddock Valley prison. When he gets a rather wimpy-looking new cellmate, one Danny Palmquist, Romero figures it’s only a matter of time before Danny is forced to become a Daniela, made to perform sexual acts and stripped of all dignity and self-respect. Sure enough, Palmquist is not even in-house for 24 hours before the brutalization begins. But what Romero and the other cons don’t realize is that Palmquist is more than he appears. Far more.

At his last stop in the penal system, Brickhaven, multiple unexplained killings were left in his wake, resulting in his transfer to Shaddock Valley. And just like clockwork, Palmquist’s initial attacker at his latest correctional facility is soon found murdered, while locked in his cell. And not just murdered, as Curran describes:

“Weems looked like a pillow that had its stuffing scattered in every conceivable direction. His insides were on the floor, smeared on the walls, dripping from the ceiling.”

Despite the grisly fate that meets Palmquist’s attacker, there’s no shortage of others looking to do him harm, starting with an assassin seeking payback for the deaths that previously occurred at Brickhaven. Even though he knows better, Romero inexplicably begins to feel bad for his new cellie, and starts looking out for him… not that Palmquist really needs the help, given the seemingly supernatural presence that extracts revenge on anyone looking to do him harm.

Events proceed pretty much predictably, culminating in a bloody riot. None of the characters ever manage to rise above stereotypes, not even Romero, who at least does the unexpected at times, but he’s never given a backstory to make him more than two-dimensional. All in all, Fear Me isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours, but it’s far from Curran’s best work.