Quick Takes: Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man and Michael McBride’s F9

Today we’re taking a peek at two novellas from the Delirium/DarkFuse collective. First up is Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man (which, serendipitously enough, is actually dedicated to our other author, Michael McBride).  Prentiss has previously published two well-received novellas through Cemetery Dance Publications, and seems comfortable working at this length.

fleshless_manThis particular novella concerns two adult sons: Glen, who’s stayed home and spent his life caring for his mother, and Curtis who long ago moved far away to California, and rarely visited since… but has now returned to the nest to visit his dying mother. The brothers’ reunion is somewhat awkward, with old wounds easily reopened. In particular, Curtis’ penchant for making fun of Glen’s obesity during their teen years is still a sore point, even though Glen has dropped the weight and seems to have replaced his fixation on food with an obsession on exercise. Curtis’ history of strained relationships doesn’t end with his brother, although his long-uneasy association with his mother seems surprisingly improved, even if he doesn’t trust it will last.  In the following passage he muses on past conversations with dear old mom, centering on his wife, Lauren:

She needed prompting. You deserve better, he could say for her. Someone prettier, more intelligent. How easy it would be for his mother to slip back into these earlier pronouncements—ones that pretended to flatter her son, puff him up with importance, when they really served only to wound Lauren. The frail, sweet version of his mother couldn’t last. If he stayed here and kept talking with her, the illusion would inevitably crumble. It would be best to end things now.

Against this backdrop (with an eccentric nurse-caregiver thrown in for good measure), Prentiss creates an at-times surreal tale of a house that’s haunted by memories, guilt, and perhaps more.

The eponymous character is a strange creature of gristle and bone who may be an embodiment of all the bad feelings present in the house or may just be a figment of imagination:

Behind her, the Fleshless Man stands tall and more horrible than Curtis could have imagined. The creature is a skeleton coated in dried muscle. Polyps hang all over him like gray drippings off a cheap hamburger patty. His yellowed fingernails curl in long impossible spirals, scraping against the walls as he tries to maintain balance. The creature’s legs skitter awkwardly, like legs pulled off a spider, each movement near death yet twitching with the full energy of life.

The Fleshless Man is somewhat leisurely paced but effectively atmospheric and likely to linger in your mind well after you’ve read the last word.

* * *

F9Moving on to F9… McBride’s latest revolves around a brain function test being conducted by neurologist Ellis Harding on convicted mass murderer Niall Davenport, aka Patient F0, who in 1968 killed nine people in a senseless outburst of violence. Harding has received hard-won permission to perform his tests — using medical imaging to track blood flow and electrical impulses in conjunction with conscious and unconscious thought — on the now-comatose Davenport in order to try and prove a theory of his.

Coined “Mile High Syndrome,” the theory seeks to explain the increased incidence of mass murder in Colorado, which is three times higher than any other state since that 1968 killing kicked off the trend, with all of those Colorado murders occurring in a relatively small area along the slope of the Rockies, known as the Front Range.

Harding’s interest in the topic stems from his own personal experience as a survivor of one of those mass murders — committed in Boulder in 1994 — and the stories of “patients” F1 through F8  are interspersed with updates on Harding’s experiment.

The following passage describes the attack Harding survived in 1994:

She slid up against the splintered railing. Her blood expanded around her, reflecting the overhead lights. She reached for one of the railings, as though to pull herself up or simply to drag herself over. I don’t know what thoughts went through her head before the second shot did.

Besides being a nice turn of phrase, there’s a blast of raw emotion in that final sentence, and that’s something that F9 could use some more of.  Too much of the story is narrated in a manner that feels cold, clinical, and detached.  I suspect that’s actually purposeful on McBride’s part, because it does fit the personality of Harding, but I’m not sure it was a wise decision overall. A little more emotion and a little less intellect would have benefitted the story and lent it more impact. It’s also worth noting that I saw the ending coming before it arrived, but hopefully it will catch you off-guard.  🙂

As is the case with The Fleshless Man, F9 is not the best work I’ve seen from the book’s author, but it’s nonetheless worthy of your time and money.

 

Stephen Volk’s Whitstable — A Bouquet To Hammer’s Hero

I’ve reviewed Spectral Press chapbook titles in the past, but Stephen Volk’s novella Whitstable is the first longer work the press has published.  Volk — who’s known for everything from the early ‘90s BBC chiller Ghostwatch to the co-written screenplay for the excellent film The Awakening to the engaging recent novella Vardoger (reviewed here) to his ongoing column in Black Static magazine — here delivers a tale that’s a loving tribute to famed horror actor Peter Cushing.

The story is set in 1971, when Cushing, staggered by the recent death of his much-loved wife, Helen, has become a depressed recluse. While on a rare, melancholy walk, he encounters a boy, Carl, who recognizes Cushing from his role as Dr. Van Helsing, conqueror of Dracula, and beseeches him for help in defeating a real-life monster in Carl’s own house: his mother’s boyfriend, one Les Gledhill.  The following passage summarizes Carl’s desperate plea:

“What’s movies got to do with it?” The abruptness was nothing short of accusatory. “I’m talking about here and now and you’re the vampire hunter and you need to help me.”

Although Cushing initially believes the boy is simply demonizing a man who can never measure up to his real father, he soon begins to suspect there’s something real, and dark, at the root of Carl’s fears.  As he comes to know more about Les Gledhill, a definite picture begins to form, as Cushing reflects here:

He knew many films where the house outside town harboured inconceivable evil, and had starred in quite a few where the villagers marched up to it demanding justice or revenge, but in this picture fear has the upper hand. The family is powerful. The hero, weak. The community knows how old Mr Olderberry “can’t keep his eyes off children”, but the townsfolk choose to keep their heads firmly in the sand. Even the police think it must be the girl’s own fault.

The child’s own fault.

Once the true nature of the situation becomes apparent to Cushing, he resolves to do something about it, somehow, even though he is a frail, damaged man who by his own admission looks easily ten years older than his age of 57.  Gledhill, meanwhile, is gradually revealed to be a truly nasty piece of work, more vile than any of the creatures Cushing has faced in films.

As one of Cushing’s directors says to him, rather pompously:

“You see, Peter, real evil is not so easy to spot in real life … In real life, evil people look like you and me. We pass them in the street.”

Although the crimes at the heart of Whitstable are decidedly ugly, this novella is, as horror fiction goes, quiet and gentle.  It’s a beautiful melding of fact and fiction, clearly told from the heart, but it does move at a leisurely pace, and is likely to be of most interest to fans of Hammer and aficionados of quiet horror, as epitomized back in the day by Charles Grant’s Shadows series.

The 100-copy hardcover edition of Whitstable is already sold out, but the paperback and e-book versions are still available.

 

Gazing Upward into the Abyss with John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky

langan-the_wide_carnivorous_sky-home

First things first: I’d argue that we all bring certain expectations and/or biases when opening the pages of a new book.  Those feelings can be based on prior reading of the author, reviews, blurbs, feelings about the genre or trope involved, etc. … one way or another, such preconceptions are usually present.  For me, contemplating John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, I couldn’t help but recall that I’d read his debut novel House of Windows, which arrived with some hoopla, and had wound up disappointed.

I thus cracked open The Wide, Carnivorous Sky with moderate expectations at best.  I might have passed altogether on reviewing the book if not for the fact that publisher Hippocampus Press had sent me a few titles previously that I had  not had the chance to review, so I felt I owed them some attention, be it good or bad.

My take-away?  Not only should one never judge a book by its cover, but one shouldn’t judge a book based on preconceptions, either.  I say this because Langan’s collection proved to be more than just a pleasant surprise; the skill and fresh approaches displayed throughout were a real eye-opener.

The collection contains nine stories, with eight reprints capped by an original novella. One thing that’s clear is that Langan likes to start his stories by setting the reader off-balance, if not outright on edge.  Consider the following lead-ins:

  • A man ventures outside to carefully pick vegetables from his mutated garden, all while carrying on a one-sided conversation with his pet crab.

  • A group of military types calmly discuss a vampire that lives in a space capsule in between visits to Earth for replenishment.

  • A meta-theatrical stage manager narrates a story of zombies overtaking a small town, addressing an audience of humans intermixed with said zombies.

  • An omniscient narrator coldly describes the personal history and impending fate of a man running desperately for his life from a pursuing werewolf.

  • A teenager thinks back to his father warning him never to hitchhike, as he lays bound in the trunk of a car.

The first story listed above is “The Shallows,” and as Langan says in his story notes, it’s a view of “a man maintaining his daily routines  in the face  of a radically fractured world.” And while the story start out weird, as described above, it only gets stranger, as tendrils of that fractured world continue to insinuate themselves.

Also worth calling out, despite a few rough spots in its dialog, is the title story, represented by the second bullet in the list above. The combination of battlefields — where the vampire often hunts — with horror elements results in an atmosphere of action and tension, an ongoing chess match between the soldiers and the creature, while Langan seeks to subvert many aspects of popular vampire lore, such as bloodsuckers’ fear of sunlight and affinity for the dark.

The greatest highlight here, however, is “Technicolor,” in which a college professor lecturing his class on Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” takes a detour in order to detail the existence of a mysterious character named Prosper Vauglais, a former soldier in Bonaparte’s army, whose experiences after the war in a strange Russian abbey are later detailed in a book — a book that Poe supposedly reads, leading him to make some dark discoveries of his own.

Before the story veers into exquisitely disturbing territory, the professor describes a vision of Poe’s dead wife Virginia that he believes Poe saw in his last days, a passage that nicely captures Langan’s skill:

For an instant, she’s there, holding out her hand to him with that simple grace she’s displayed as long as he’s known her — and then she’s gone, replaced by a figure whose black eyes have seen the silent halls of the dead, whose ruined mouth has tasted delicacies unknown on this side of the grave.

Other notable tales include “The City of the Dog,” wherein a simple act of attempted kindness — a man seeking to help what he thinks is an injured dog — leads to a spiraling descent into the dark urban underbelly, and “June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris,” in which a kidnapper’s ravings about the creatures he serves unexpectedly prove true.

As Langan says in his Story Notes:

…it’s been my ongoing desire to make my way through the tropes and traditions of the horror field — as well as a desire to see what happens when you bring those tropes into contact with narrative techniques drawn from the length and breadth of literary history.

More often than not, his marriage of literary technique to genre fiction is highly successful. In a couple cases, however, the attempts to be on the stylistic cutting edge lead to some self-inflicted wounds in the form of awkward passages. Specifically, I’m referring to “The Revel” and “Mother of Stone,” both of which utilize a 2nd-person POV, that results in some tortured turns of phrase.

These small missteps aside, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky is a strong and refreshingly distinctive collection, and I have to say that the laudatory Introduction and Afterword by Jeffrey Ford and Laird Barron, respectively, are well deserved.

 

A double dose of Ian Rogers

A while back, I reviewed Ian Rogers’ trio of chapbooks from Burning Effigy PressTemporary Monsters, Ash Angels, and Black-Eyed Kids — all of which feature wisecracking Private Investigator Felix Renn and are set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands.

As I said in the review:

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.

imagesNow Burning Effigy has followed up with a Renn-based collection, the awkwardly-but aptly-titled Supernoirtural Tales, which features the three Ren stories from the chapbooks, plus two other Renn reprints and a new 50,000-word novella.  Since I’ve already reviewed the novellas from the three chapbooks, I’m not going to say any more about them, but I do want to comment on the other tales gathered here.

Let’s start with by far the most substantial of them, the new novella “The Brick.”  As with the three earlier chapbook tales, the higher word count allows Rogers to really stretch his wings and fully develop his fictional world, and it’s the details of this alternate reality, along with the distinctive voice of Renn, that makes these tales something special.  “The Brick” starts with the seed of a simple missing-person case — a teen-aged girl, in this case — and grows into something much more substantial.

The missing girl, Aubrey Wood, turns out to be a runaway, and as Felix undertakes a quest to find her, his friend Jerry Baldwin, a realtor specializing in haunted real estate, contacts Felix out of the blue and lends him the eponymous brick.  The brick is special because it comes from the ruins of what many believe to be the deadliest house to ever exist — Rosedale Cottage.  And Felix soon finds that Aubrey’s grandmother was once an occupant of Rosedale, an experience that marked her forever, as she alludes to in a letter that she wrote for Aubrey:

I remembered something one of my teachers had said. She was quoting someone, but I can’t remember who it was. She said the eyes are the windows of the soul. That phrase came back to me time and time again that summer. I remembered staring up at that alien moon and thinking, If the eyes really are windows, what happens when they’re open? What happens if you let something inside?

Felix comes to understand that something from Rosedale Cottage pursued Aubrey’s grandmother for years, due to certain abilities she had, and with the grandmother now dead, that same creature is now pursuing Aubrey.  Felix sums it up nicely in the following passage:

There were two entities at Rosedale Cottage. One dwelled within the building itself, while the other stalked the grounds on which it stood. One tried to save the people who lived there, while the other stalked and murdered them. Only now, the cottage was gone and the Whyver had left to hunt abroad.

“The Brick” alternates between moments of dread and bits of dark humor, and it does so very adroitly.

The other two works, “My Body” and “The History of the Black Lands,” are much more slight, in terms of length and (somewhat) impact. The former is the first Renn story ever written by Rogers, and it’s a somber tale that possesses none of the wit present in later tales. Nonetheless, it’s well-written, relating Felix’s discovery of a little girl standing alone on a roadside, but goes pretty much just where you’d expect. “The History of the Black Lands” is exactly what it says it is, a faux reference work on the Black Lands, providing some interesting background info on the milieu, but nothing more.

Available as both a trade paperback and ebook, Supernoirtural Tales is a highly entertaining collection, showcasing a character and setting that are decidedly worthy of repeat engagements. If you’ve never encountered Renn through the prior chapbooks, this is the perfect opportunity to get a full dose of Felix, in one convenient package.

* * *

everyHouse_coverIan Rogers’ other recent title is the collection Every House is Haunted from Chizine Publications, and after my prior experiences with Rogers & Renn, my expectations for this book were very high…too high, perhaps, as I came away a tad bit disappointed.

I think a major reason for that disappointment is that, as alluded to above,  Rogers seems much more comfortable when afforded the opportunity to work at greater lengths. As evidence to support that argument, I present “The Dark and the Young” and “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the two longest tales included here and, not accidentally, two of the best.  The former involves a linguistics specialist recruited by a shadowy government agency to help translate a very dark and dangerous book, while the latter (which happens to be a nominee for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette) centers on two operatives from a clandestine organization, who visit a very dangerous haunted house — the “architectural equivalent of a great white shark” — after two deaths occur there, in order to try and find the source of the evil.

Overall, the collection gathers 22 stories, seven of which appear here for the first time.  When confined to shorter lengths (assumedly, many of the 15 stories that are reprinted here originally appeared in markets with word counts that held Rogers far below the length of the Renn novellas), the author sometimes struggles with developing characters and crafting satisfying finales.  What I’m trying to impart via the latter comment is that Rogers relies too often on ambiguous or unresolved endings (at least for my tastes, and I generally don’t have issues with ambiguity).  Witness “Leaves Brown,” wherein an elderly man, who’s recently reintroduced himself to his daughter’s life after a long absence, seeks to counsel his grandson on their shared ability to see ghosts.  It’s a very intriguing premise, but the story just…ends, almost randomly, as if it’s an excerpt from a longer work.  Another strong tale lessened by an “open-ended ending” is “The Candle,” a chilling little ditty centering on a man rising from bed to see why it’s taken his wife so long to go check on a candle that may have been left burning, only to find his wife in an altered state, with hints of similar happenings perhaps occurring in nearby houses.

But enough about unsatisfying finales… Let’s switch focus back to the best tales collected here, starting with “The Rifts Between Us,” a fascinating work with science fictional underpinnings, as summarized perfectly by the following excerpt:

“We’re exploring the borderlands. We found a frequency that the brain gives off before it dies. We can ride that signal into the rifts, the veritable waiting room of death, and explore it.”

But the scientific expeditions to the land of the nearly dead are trespasses into a realm where man was not meant to be, as they soon find out.

Quick summaries of other standouts here:  Like the aforementioned “The Dark and the Young,” “A Night in the Library with the Gods” revolves around a dangerous book — in the case, a tome that can overwhelm the thoughts of its readers. And like the aforementioned “The House on Ashley Avenue,” “Cabin D” also has an operative from a shadowy government agency seeking to neutralize a dangerous dwelling, although in this case a major sacrifice may be necessary to achieve the goal. “The Nanny” also focuses on interlopers in a haunted house, although in this case it’s a real estate agent and a ghost-hunter conducting the investigation.

In “Relaxed Best,” a private investigator follows a wayward husband into a private club that at first evokes humor — “It looks like a Philip Marlowe novel exploded in here, he thought” — but then takes a dark turn. “The Inheritor” is a story that I originally purchased for Cemetery Dance while I was editing the magazine, and this tale of a son whose inheritance from his father includes an unpleasant task that dear ol’ dad just couldn’t bring himself to do remains just as creepy now as when initially published.

While there are some very good stories gathered here, there’s also more inconsistency than I’d like to see, with the lesser works clumped almost exclusively amongst the shortest stories, as mentioned earlier.  Lest I sound too harsh, I should note that, if I’d come to this collection sans expectations, my reaction would likely be pretty darned positive.  Even with my high expectations, I have to say that Every House is Haunted is largely a success, even if a few rooms could use remodeling.

Q2 2013 Roundup of New Publishers

First off, apologies for the lack of any new reviews from me lately.  I started a new job in late March and have been busy drinking from the proverbial firehose.  As fate would have it, the period leading up to mid-June is the busiest time of the year for the group I work in, so I’ll continue in slightly-overwhelmed mode for a couple more weeks, but have a ton of stuff queued up for review and will start catching up asap, starting with a two-fer review of a pair of titles by Ian Rogers.

In the meantime… it’s been more than six months since our last roundup of new publishers, so let’s take stock of who’s newly entered the fray (or recently been discovered):

Biting Dog Publications – A past publisher of titles by Nancy Collins, Neil Gaiman, and Jack Ketchum, Biting Dog had been moved from the Active Publisher list to the dormant and defunct section, but recently re-emerged with more than 30 ebooks.  Authors include Collins (eight titles), Neal Barrett, Jr. (seven titles), Sara Brooke (four titles), and John Paul Allen (three titles).  Several of their “titles” are just short stories, but they also have some book-length works as well.  There’s no editorial presence whatsoever on the website — no indication of why BDP went dormant for quite a while, why they’re suddenly back, or whether they intend to publish any more print books.

$(KGrHqYOKnUE1OjcYQmiBNdZSC!bCQ~~_35Dybbuk Press – Another press that is getting promoted, at least temporarily, from the dormant section back to the Active Publisher list, although it’s not clear whether Dybbuk is really back to stay.  The last post on their website, from August 2012, indicates that they’re almost done reading for an anthology entitled King David and the Spider From Mars.  The lack of any further updates in nine months doesn’t seem promising. To date, Dybbuk has published eight titles, in both trade paperback and ebook format, in their nine-year history, with the most recent titles being an anthology and a collection by Michael Hemmingson. I’ll give Dybbuk the benefit of  the doubt for the moment, but their stay on the Active Publisher list may be very short-lived.

HM2800_600Horrific Tales Publishing – A UK-based publisher that has released two books to date, the werewolf novels High Moor and High Moor 2 by Graeme Reynolds, with each available in trade paperback and ebook format.  As far as I can so far tell, HTP is not a self-publishing enterprise, but if I do find that to be the case, then I’ll remove them from the list. Edit: in late-breaking news, I just confirmed that HTP is, in fact, Reynolds’ own site, so I won’t be adding the press to the list of legitimate publishers (unless/until they publish work by other authors).  I will, however, go ahead and leave in this description so that it’s apparent why they’ve been excluded. 

 

Frights Cover 3-22-12Horror Zine Books – This press is an offshoot of horror website thehorrorzine.com (which has been around since 2009, but unfortunately looks like a GeoCities site circa 1996), and the brainchild of author/editor Jeanni Rector.  HZB has produced A Feast of Frights, an anthology edited by Rector, as well as her novel Accused, a predisposition towards the publisher’s own work that is often not a good sign (at least not if you’re seeking, like me, to track true independent publishers, and not self-publishing enterprises).  However, Rector’s website and anthology efforts have garnered praise, and contributions, from some fairly big names in the genre, including Ramsey Campbell, Simon Clark, Joe Lansdale, and Tom Piccirilli.  I think the two titles mentioned above are the only ones HZB has published, but I’ll be damned if I can tell for sure: the website’s organization is an abomination; for example, clicking on the Books link in the navigation bar leads not to a page on the books HZB has published, as one might expect, but rather to a page of book reviews.  Two earlier Rector-edited anthologies promoted on the site, What Fears Become and Shadow Masters, were produced by a different publisher (Imajin Books).

headerinsidenuovohome1bMezzotints – An Italian publisher that primarily produces genre work in the Italian language (with roughly 8 titles to date), they recently published an English-language-version ebook of Samuel Marolla’s Black Tea and Other Tales.  The thin collection gathers three previously published (in Italian) tales and is edited Benjamin Kane Ethridge, with an introduction by Gene O’Neill.  It remains to be seen whether Mezzotints will produce further English works or if this was a one-off curiosity.

 

DeadSoulsWS-e1358463780350Omnium Gatherum and Odium Media – Omnium, Odium… oh my!  OK, where was I?  Omnium Gatherum has actually been around since 2011 and is focused on, in the publisher’s own words, “providing unique dark fantasy fiction in print, ebook and audio formats. Dark fantasy fiction, as we define it, combines the best of fantasy and horror to comment on history, science, society or the human condition.” Of their 18 titles, the most notable are probably two titles, Knock Knock and Delphine Dodd, by the highly regarded S.P. Miskowski.  Odium Medium, meanwhile, is the publisher’s horror imprint.  They state that the imprint publishes “horror fiction with young adult protagonists and bring(s) classic horror tales back into print.” The YA focus of their original titles is interesting, if seemingly a bit inconsistent with their reprint philosophy.  Titles to date include reprints of Michael Laimo’s Dead Souls and Rick Hautala’s The Wildman, as well as an original novel by Dean Harrison.  Strangely, there seems to be no links from the Omnium Gatherum site to the Odium Media site.  Equally strangely, the idea of actually selling books seems somewhat foreign to the Omnium site — there is no e-commerce aspect to the site, and links to Amazon are somewhat hidden (only available by clicking on book covers).  It’s worth noting that the two website have some some intro graphics that are cool if you’re working with plenty of bandwidth, but annoying if you’re not.  Finally, The founder of the twin imprints, Kate Jonez, is also a writer, with a debut novel due this summer from Evil Jester Press.

cover-art-pstd-3-feb-26-version-2Postscripts to Darkness – I’m going to with this as the name of this publisher, even though the actual publisher listed on their titles is “Ex Hubris Imprints.”  But the latter doesn’t have a website (or any web presence) while the former does have a site… and as far as I can tell, the two are one and the same.  Regardless, PSTD (their website tagline rather cutely says “Pssst…Dear Darkness…Are you there?”) is a Canadian publisher of three anthologies, entitled Postscripts to Darkness volumes 1, 2, and 3.  Publisher Sean Moreland was apparently inspired by a locally-funded visit to Canada by Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins’ long-running annual Rolling Darkness Revue, and he formed PSTD as a result.  Their volumes are short (at least one running less than 100 pages), composed of short-short stories and some non-fiction, available in hard-copy format (either trade paperback or chapbook — I’m not sure of the binding) and are planned to appear twice yearly.  There’s no indication that they’re looking to publish anything beyond this anthology series.

The_Wicked_-_James_NewmanShock Totem Publications – Many publishers in the horror genre first get their feet wet printing a magazine before graduating to books, and Shock Totem Publications is a perfect example of this.  Shock Totem magazine debuted in 2009, with six issues having appeared so far, and fiction by the likes of Cate Gardner, Jack Ketchum, and John Skipp.  The move to books came in 2012 with a limited-edition reprint of James Newman’s novel, The Wicked, which featured a nicely done, retro-style cover with faux creases and bumps.  A collection by Mercedes M. Yardley has followed, with the limited edition including a separate chapbook.  Shock Totem’s regular editions are available in both trade paperback and ebook formats.

SWVol2-WebTradeCoverSomething Wicked Books – Similar to Shock Totem above, Something Wicked began its life as a print magazine in 2006, publishing both horror and science fiction, before converting to an online magazine in 2011, with 19 total issues published to date.  SWB is unique on our list, being the only South African publisher, meaning that many of the authors they’ve published in the magazine and in their two, annual, trade-paperback Something Wicked anthologies are unfamiliar names to U.S. readers (even though SWB points out that they buy from authors all over the globe).  A few of the bigger names include Abigail Godsell, Nick Wood, Lauren Beukes, and Cate Gardner (mentioned above as a Shock Totem author as well).  As with Postscripts to Darkness, the actual publisher listed sports a different name but doesn’t really represent the publications in question (Something Wicked’s publisher, Inkless Media, does have a website, but it contains no direct information on the books published), and so the Something Wicked magazine site is what I’ve linked here.

theamulet_medValancourt Books – This is a truly borderline inclusion, as I’ve excluded many publishers from the list for the reason that the majority of their titles are non-horror, and Valancourt Books certainly meets that description.  I can’t bring myself to exclude them, however, given the roster of horror names that they do publish: John Blackburn, Basil Copper, Gerald Kersh, and Michael McDowell, to name a few.  Valancourt has been around since 2005, when they were formed with the idea of using “modern technology to restore widespread access to rare, neglected, and out-of-print literature.”  Their titles are published in trade paperback form, and they have several book lines, with the most notable being 20th Century Classics, Gothic Classics, and “Valancourt Classics.”

As may be apparent from the descriptions above, it’s starting to feel like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to finding new publishers.  Not surprising (nor necessarily a bad thing), given that there’s the rather astounding total of 185 publishers on the active horror publisher list.  When I started compiling this list a few years ago, even though I considered myself something of an authority on the small press at the time, I had no inkling the list would grow to include so many publishers.

Is the large number of publishers a sign that the economy is better than believed, at least when it comes to genre book buyers and b00k collectors?  Or is it a case of too many people who don’t know what they’re doing throwing their hat in the publishing ring and producing works that perhaps shouldn’t see the light of day?

You decide.

Tyree’s Terrible Tirades, pt. 1

The eagle-eyed among you will have noted that, although I’ve written the vast majority of the content for this site, I did run one review by someone else — namely Mark Tyree, who reviewed Ryan Thomas’ Born to Bleed a while back.  I told Mark I was interested in running more reviews by him, but… Mark has a tendency to go off on tangents now and then — and not just minor deviations, either.  We’re talking about forks in the road that can wind up leaving the reader somewhere east of Timbuktu, with no map, compass, or clue.  That’s all part of his charm as a writer, though.  At least I think so.

Anyway, the point is: if I try to edit out those tangents, what you’re left with is … just not authentic Tyree any more.  It’s the editorial equivalent of emasculating a bull.  So I didn’t want to hack away at what he produced, but given that the goal for reviews on this site is to keep them in the ballpark of 500-750 words, well, Mark strays far off of that reservation.  All things considered, it seemed to me that the best option was to give him a column, with free reign to foam at the keyboard, rather than try and shoehorn his output into a standard review form.

So…without further ado, I present to you the first installment of what will be an irregular column from Mr. T.

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PrimevalPrimeval: Werewolf Apocalypse Book II
William D. Carl
Permuted Press

First off, for this review (OK, column), I’ve started, stopped, deleted, monkey’d with, dumped in a fit of headshakes, disgust and giggles five times or so. Screw it. Lets let fly and see what sticks.

First, a huge apology to my well-respected host for the usual tardiness. No excuses, really. Just gotta realize, in these troubled times, my life’s not the only one that seems to be spinning on a never-ending patch of black ice. While spinning, things of leisure like reading are always on the back burner; chances of kicking back for a nice, relaxing read being sucked away into the hood vent, and the fact I’ve always been a painfully slow reader does not help matters, either. There was no earthly reason for me to be invited into the Twilight Ridge chateau, or for me to smear wet, dog-shit-laced leaves into his beige carpet, drink all the top-shelf booze, scratch his V-Roys CD, insist on a crappy “This is AWESOME!” Asian dvd pulled from a back pocket, pee on the water heater and pass out leaving a soppy, mashed-up puddle of single malt, juniper-and-vomit-reeking drool on the sofa cushion… and you’re all going, “Wow that’s some …fairly specific shit right there …”

Wink. But I mean, really folks. What Robert has put up with this past month shows a patience and understanding (“Where’s that f*****g werewolf book review, damn lazy bastard!”) that would rival that of Job. (Editor’s note: For what I’m paying Mr. Tyree, I can afford to be patient.)

Also, you guys ‘n’ gals come to this site for Robert’s knowledge, taste and recommendations in small press tales of horror (saves weeding through fungible titles spending hard-earned money, am I right ?), not some semi-retired plumber’s ramblings regarding a friend’s book. Yes, a friend’s book. Dumb move. Never EVER will I again open my yap to say “Hey buddy! Send me your book, I’ll read it and give my thoughts on Twilight Ridge. Deal?”

Nope. Dumbest thing ever, reviewing a good friend’s work they poured sweat and oozed blood into creating.  Why?  You need to ask?

If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t trust someone who was stupid enough to review a buddy’s work in the first place. In particular, if said review was positive, would I trust the review from the writer’s friend? Hell to the no!

Fingers crossed. Only way out of this jam, for me, is one door: the fact the book really is good and worth picking up. And you’re gonna need to trust me.

Primeval is the second book in a series, the first being the well-received Bestial. In fact, I’m told that around 2011 Simon & Schuster swung a deal to re-publish several Permuted Press under the S&S imprint… and one of those titles was Bestial, which says something about the book’s quality. Now we have Primeval.

And let me tell ya, the book takes off out of the gate faster than a Bugatti Veyron with the sure-footed self-confidence of a Bowler Wildcat. In Bestial, the writer ripped apart his hometown of Cincinnati with the airborne Lycan Virus. That book had fantastic characters and I was pleased to see them return in this second gore-filled outing; it’s always a pleasure to encounter interesting characters tossed into a blood-soaked horror show.

Primeval initially takes us into the story using one of my favorite tricks for providing backstory: newspaper articles, this time from a rag called World Weekly News under the byline James Creed. Right off, we know Creed will be a major player in the events to come. His articles all concern the Lycan Virus and the fact is that it’s still very much in the here and now. According to Creed, there is no longer a need for a full moon to get things rolling, and the population afflicted now consider it an alternative lifestyle. I love that — “alternative lifestyle.” I could go on about that but, I won’t…

Creed also writes about New York City rats…large, aggressive muthas that look wildly different, besides the fact that they’re the size of cats…(Bowie anyone?) Creed hooks up with a homeless underground dweller named Michael Keene, who promises Creed a helluva story — not just Keene’s personal tale of woe, but a whole lot more. To show Creed first-hand what’s been going on, Keene and his dog lead Creed from the 42nd Street Subway station, down into the darkness…

Meanwhile, expert sniper Nicole Truitt, recovering from the earlier events in Cinci, is on on a wind-down vacation with her partner Sandy in New York when she’s suddenly tossed back into action. Sandy’s there to visit the 9/11 site, where she lost a loved one; to be alone with his spirit and to “Have my moment with Timmy. See what they’re putting up as a monument.” Nicole’s boss, General Taylor Burns, just happens to be in the same hotel, and gives her some b.s. story about why he’s there, too. Burns is Carl’s best character — sad, lonely, ruthless and mean when needed, and the best at what he does. He also considers Nicole to be his own flesh and blood; the love he carries for her is that deep and to the bone. The scene where Nicole tells him she and Sandy are lovers is very, very funny — Burns is, like, “What, do I look stupid?”

Sandy is riding the subway back from her visit to the hotel when the train grinds to a halt, lights flickering… She’s stuck there in the car with a wonderfully rendered, racially diverse group of New Yorkers and, of course, her Blackberry isn’t worth a damn as she tries to contact Nicole who’s watching things go down alongside Burns. The virus is sweeping through at an unstoppable rate, Manhattan being chewed from the inside out via swarms of highly contagious vermin, hungry vermin where a mere scratch changes a human into a beast that would bite the head off their own children…which one does in a graphically filthy theater scene.

Here’s where I hit the pause button for a sec. One of the first horror books I read was James Herbert’s The Fog. What had me ripping through that genre classic was the way Herbert would veer away from the main characters to toss-away characters simply because, (as I read years later in an interview) he was bored, and wanted to kill a bunch of folks in the most fun and ghastly of ways. So he did!

When reading Primeval, I was immediately taken back to the joys of The Fog and yeah, yeah, I know, you’re thinking — why not The Rats, doofus! Because what Herbert did was, to me, simply for fun. Whereas Carl takes us to the hows/wheres and, more importantly, the whens of New Yorkers being attacked, changing, then rip-shit-tear-assing– we’re talking blood-and-guts-a-go-go, here people! He’s letting readers see the progression of the virus. It’s a hoot, too, especially when you recognize a lot of the names involved, including yours truly… Another book I was reminded of was Brian Keene’s ground-breaking The Rising but you’ll have to read Primeval to see exactly what I’m referring to. Sorry.

Anyway, while our two men and a dog grapple with their own horrors underground, Sandy remains trapped, and General Burns and Nicole stand stunned in front of their TV and window, watching one horror after another. It soon becomes apparent that the only way to contain the virus is to cut off Manhattan from the rest of the world. Jets are dispatched, missiles fly. Fun starts. Think road trip underground.

Non-sequitur: another thing I love about reading is, when you’re in good hands, deeply involved with the plot out of the blue, a writer will toss in something along the lines of:

“By the time the smoke cleared, the bridge Walt Whitman had once called ‘The best medicine his soul had ever experienced,’ the world’s first steel suspension bridge, a mile of brilliant design and architecture, was little more than rubble in the churning water.”

First, I’m learning an interesting fact and, second, any writer who can make me feel as saddened by the loss of a freaking bridge as much as the loss of a character is one to keep an eye out for.

I urge you to pick up Bestial before you read Primeval. Sure, you can start Primeval as a stand-alone novel but it’s always more rewarding when investing time in a series to start at the beginning and that rather-obvious remark could not be more true than as with the case of Bill Carl’s werewolf saga. I have to tell you, good folks, in this age of zombies, zombies and more zombies, and silly, sissy, romantic, metrosexual vampires saturating pop culture, well-written, good, old-fashioned werewolf novels, with a brilliant twist, are a breath of fresh air… even if said air is exhaled through monstrous, drool-covered fangs, smelling of chewed meat and fresh, raw blood.

 

Tracking the beast with J.L. Benet’s Wolf Hunter

WolfHunter

I’m typically a big fan of war/horror hybrid novels (there’ve been more published than you might think), and I’m also often a big fan of werewolf novels… so when I heard that author J.L. Benet had made his novel-length debut with Wolf Hunter (published by Belfire Press), a book that combines WWII, Nazis, and werewolves, I was all, “where do I sign up?”  And when it turned out that Benet was, like me, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and that much of the story was set in Ann Arbor, I felt like Wolf Hunter and I were a match made in heaven.  But, as college football pundit Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.”

I don’t want to imply that the book was a complete disappointment, as it does have some things going for it, beyond just the alluring (to me) subject matter…but there are definitely some rough edges as well.  More than anything, Wolf Hunt feels like a modern pulp novel, with an upside of audacious ideas and pell-mell pacing, and a downside of occasional hokey melodrama and awkward dialog.

The book opens with a brief section set during the latter stages of World War II, where Viktor Huelen is one of several subjects of an experiment conducted by a desperate Third Reich.  Under the direction of Himmler, they’re attempting to turn the tide in the war by developing super-soldiers in the form of werewolves, using a device bearing the rather clumsy moniker of “Feraliminal Lyncanthropizer.”  Despite the fact that the scientists are able to induce the transformations, the experiment fails due to a not-surprising inability to control the creatures post-transformation.

From there, the tale jumps to the present day, where the plot centers on two characters, the first of whom, Jack, is an Ojibwa Indian — and a shapeshifter — residing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  His tribe’s shaman elder statesmen have sent him on a mission to dispose of one Albrecht Nachtwandler, another survivor of the Nazi werewolf experiments.  The other primary character is Steve Williams, a frustrated, misanthropic loner, seemingly the type of maladjusted kid who might bring a gun to school one day to settle some scores, but in Steve’s case he chooses to immerse himself in werewolf lore:

Always an outcast and he was beginning to come to terms with always being one. His skin was only the outward marking of his difference; he knew it really went much deeper, into his very soul.

Perhaps that’s what drew him to study werewolves. He was already torn between two worlds, why not make the most of it? … The werewolf was not afraid of becoming an outcast, of losing touch with his humanity.

Through his research, Williams learns of Huelen and blackmails him into helping to reconstruct the experiments.  In turn, Jack receives further instructions from his elders, this time to kill Williams and Huelen, and prevent the revival of the European-style werewolves (more on that below).

Along the way, Benet offers some interesting variances on traditional werewolf mythos, although sometimes the twists seem to add little, or even border on plot contrivance.  Here are a couple examples of the liberties he takes with lycanthropy:

“…if we kill while we are shifted, we would be doomed to walk the North woods forever as an evil wendigo… You will be protected from the evil spirit because of your white man’s blood but you still cannot let the spirit of the shift take control of your soul.”

and

“A bearwalker is a type of American Indian werewolf. They are evil shaman who put curses on people so they die… The European-style werewolf is much stronger. They can only be harmed by silver bullets, fire, or other werewolves. A bearwalker can be hurt by anything that can harm a man.”

Despite some interesting touches, and a plot filled with forward momentum, I can’t truly recommend Wolf Hunt unless you’re a hard-core fan of werewolf fiction.

Mark Morris’ It Sustains Has True Staying Power

it-sustains-signed-jhc-by-mark-morris-1707-pBritish author Mark Morris has been at it now for longer than I care to think (a comment on my age, not his talent), with nearly 20 titles published since his debut, Toady, appeared in 1989.  His latest, It Sustains, from Earthling Publications, sports an Introduction by Sarah Pinborough and a gorgeous cover illustration by Edward Miller; more importantly, it’s a taut, coming-of-age novella that winds up going places you probably won’t expect.

Fifteen-year-old Adam is living a fairly normal, happy life in the small village of Stretton Mere, where his father and mother own and operate the Maypole pub. That idyllic existence is destroyed when a group of drunks, angry over their expulsion from the pub, return to the scene looking to cause some damage but wind up killing Adam’s mother.

The meaning of the book’s title is revealed in the following passage, describing a half-hearted, or even mocking, message from one of Adam’s mother’s killers.

Just before the funeral we got a card from Danny Thorpe, white with a silver dove on the front — In Deepest Sympathy.  Inside the card he had written: ‘So sorry to hear about what happened. A terrible loss.  But ultimately it is love, not grief, that sustains.’

Seeking a new start, or at least fewer painful memories, Adam’s father moves the two of them several hours away, to operate another pub.  But placing many miles between them and their tragedy not surprisingly fails to blunt the emotions of their recent tragedy. In the following scene, Adam hears his father, who’s been pretty hard on Adam, while seemingly staying strong himself in the face of the tragedy, unburdening himself of his pain in private.

…I hear sobbing.

It’s not much, little more than a whimpery hitching of breath, but it is this very thing — this stifled, exhausted quality — that makes it seem so desolate.  It is sobbing without hope, without release; it is sobbing in the knowledge that it won’t make you feel even the slightest bit better afterwards — and it is that that makes it scary.

Haunted by memories and regret, Adam begins to be plagued by unsettling dreams and visions… and the irretrievable loss of innocence, as captured here:

…what he has now been reminded of, in the cruelest way possible, is that life is temporary and fragile, that each day we step out onto thin ice that will eventually, inevitably, splinter beneath us, and that, contrary to what we are told as children, there are no happy endings.

At the same time, he faces far more commonplace complications for someone his age — a growing attraction to schoolmate Adele, and confrontations with bullies, followed by initiation into their “gang,” and brushes with the law.

It Sustains is a powerful tale, full of sadness, despair and unexpected plot developments…but the final plot development may be just a little too unexpected.  Meaning that there’s no justification or rationale presented for a twist that seems decidedly different from what’s come before.  Not that I want or expect rationalization for everything — I have plenty of appreciation for ambiguity and the unexplained — but in this case, the change was sufficiently out of left field to leave me feeling off balance.  Nonetheless, the surprising finale of It Sustains serves to detract only a bit from the substantial strengths of this fine novella.

Michael McBride throws a curve with The Coyote

I’ve reviewed several Michael McBride titles in the past, enjoying the vast majority of them.  His latest book (or one of his latest, I should say, since his prolificity — yes, it’s a word — continues to astonish me), The Coyote, published by Thunderstorm Books, marks a fairly significant departure in some ways for McBride.  Gone are the unusual creatures or perils that often populate his stories; gone are the scientist-type protagonists and somewhat science-fictional underpinnings that he frequently employs.  Instead, we have an FBI agent tracking a very human serial killer.  But while some of the trappings may be different, McBride’s strengths remain: superb pacing, engaging plot developments, and strong, non-stereotyped characters.  The resulting novel is one of McBride’s very best works.

The protagonist is half-Native-American FBI agent Lukas Walker, whose cynical, world-weary view helps lend the tale a noir-ish tone, despite its setting in the wide-open sun-baked desert, as succinctly captured in the following passage:

I shivered despite the warmth of the night and stared out over the valley to the east.  The Amnesty Trail.  An endless stream of victims. Infinite places to hide. The American Dream. The Valley of Death.

Walker has been called to the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona, a hot spot for illegal immigrants crossings into the U.S. due to its thirty-six miles of unfenced border.  Walker has come to investigate a murder that left no corpse, but a great deal of blood, purposely painted on a canyon wall.  He forms a somewhat uneasy alliance with the strangely impassive tribal police Chief Ray Antone, who keeps his personal history and certain other details to himself while at the same time seeking to educate Walker on tribal history and legends.  Enduring the Chief’s machinations and the scorching heat, Walker maintains a grim, wry sense of humor, as evidenced here:

The chief’s squad car was like a sauna. He smirked every time I toggled the AC switch. I was starting to think of it as a stick I used to poke the midget who lived under the hood, prompting him to blow his rank breath through a straw and into the vents.  This kind of heat does strange things to your brain, as I was starting learn. I saw lakes on the horizon, but we never seemed to reach them as they poured off the edge of the earth.

As Walker’s investigation proceeds, more killings occur, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s dealing with a serial killer, one who’s seemingly intent on playing a cat-and-mouse game with him.  In the course of events, Walker — who had believed his personal connection to the Tohono O’odham nation was tenuous at best — learns some surprising facts about his past…and present.

McBride clearly performed a great deal of research in putting together this novel, and it shows — not in the form of massive info-dumps, as you’d find many writers resorting to, but rather via a gradual unveiling of details.  The fascinating background info, the unique desert setting, and the compelling plot all combined to keep me deeply engrossed in the story. It’s also worth mentioning that the Thunderstorm hardcover is a beautiful artifact, with great overall design and production values, including four-color pages kicking off each chapter.  All in all, The Coyote is a significant book, and comes highly recommended.

Orrin Grey’s Never Bet the Devil — A Winning Gamble

As I mentioned in an earlier column, after I had criticized the state of new publisher Evileye Books’ website, they responded by sending me a box of their titles.  I figured I owed them a review for that, so I picked out — pretty much at random — Orrin Grey’s collection Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings.  I was familiar with Grey’s name, but had never read anything by him.  What followed was one of the most pleasant unexpected surprises that I’ve had in a while.

Never Bet the Devil contains nine stories (two of which are debuting here) and a novella.  The tales are consistently fast-paced, frequently feature plots and milieus refreshingly far from the norm, and display evidence of Grey’s obvious, genuine enthusiasm for his subject matter.  For example, in “Nearly Human,” the biographer of the scandalous, purported devil-worshipper Dr. Edward Tate is invited by Tate’s surviving family to investigate what seems to be a poltergeist haunting his former house.  What the biographer discovers is decidedly unexpected (as is fortunately the case with most of the stories here); call this one a nicely-updated pulp thriller.  A novel approach can also be found in “The Barghest,” wherein some highly unusual bones under examination by an archeologist and his assistant yield startling results.  It’s ultimately a riff on a popular trope, but that fact is kept well-cloaked until the end.  The true essence of oil– i.e., the stuff of which it’s made — is explored in “Black Hill,” as an oil company owner comes face-to-face with an evil that dwells below the wells.

“The Seventh Picture” is sort of a fiction equivalent of the found-footage films that have proven so enduringly popular in the wake of The Blair Witch Project.  A film crew making a documentary about deceased producer/director Arnold Zenda and his mysterious, lost final film The King in Yellow stumbles upon much more than they bargained for while shooting in Zenda’s abandoned, fire-damaged mansion.  I’m a sucker for stories about lost films (e.g., Joel Lane’s The Witnesses Are Gone and Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images) and this taut piece of terror was the highlight of the collection for me.  “Count Brass” features an engaging 2nd-person narrative style, with the protagonist revealing that his jazz-musician grandfather made a deal with the devil (the eponymous “Count Brass”), an arrangement that has repercussions far beyond what the elder anticipated.

Novella “The Mysterious Flame, which closes out the collection, is by far the longest story here, and Grey struggles at times working with the larger canvas.  In the end, though, this tale of a golem who clings to the shadows and the strange, seemingly revived-from-the-dead figure who pursues him inexorably pulls in the reader.

I love it when collections include author’s notes for each story, and Never Bet the Devil does so, affording Grey the chance to add some insight into the stories’ genesis and publishing history.

All in all, this debut collection turned out to be one of those all-too-rare serendipitous discoveries of a fresh new talent.  There’s nary a dud to be found in these pages, and I heartily recommend that you take a chance on Never Bet the Devil.

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