Tag Archives: collection

Checking in on Cemetery Dance Alumni – Steve Vernon’s Sudden Death Overtime and Keith Minnion’s It’s For You

In this post, we’ll examine recent books by two long-time Cemetery Dance contributors — Steve Vernon, who authored the “New Voices” series of interviews with newer writers (and has also had multiple stories published in the mag), and Keith Minnion, whose illustrations for the magazine preceded my stint as editor of the mag and have continued after my departure.

Let’s start with Vernon’s Sudden Death Overtime, a novella that serves as the Canadian author’s love letter to the game of hockey, couched in a story that features both horror and humor, with the balance perhaps tilting more towards the latter. At its heart, the story is a simple one, as a bus full of vampires pays a dead-of-winter visit to the small town of Hope’s End in northern Newfoundland. Where they’ve come from is never explained, nor why they’ve come to this particular town, but all that’s really important is that they’re there… and their presence may cause Hope’s End to live up to its name.

“That long black bus parked and idling on the road that crossed in front of his fence. Rufus sized it up. You just didn’t see a bus of any kind in this old town. There wasn’t bodies enough to fill one, and where would they go once they filled it?”

Throughout, Vernon’s voice and tone are notably singular, and his facility with language can be seen in passages such as the following:

“Her hands weighed heavy on the scarred pine tabletop. Her knuckles were cracked and leathered like old alligator skin, tattooed with nicotine and age. Her eyes had grown dull and nothing that hinted of girlhood was left to her save a shotgun blast of freckles playing hide-and-seek within the wrinkles and worry-lines that troughed down her cheeks like a memory of tears.”

The character in the preceding excerpt is secondary to the story, but Vernon’s protagonists are similarly elderly, and more than a tad bit eccentric, resulting in a group of primary characters that are far from the norm, and quite memorable as a result.

Not surprisingly, the trio of protagonists are all hockey players, even at their advanced age. They’ve never been afraid to drop their gloves for a scrap on the ice, and they’re likewise not afraid to take on a bus full of vampires. Their nominal leader is one Sprague Deacon, who’s fighting a losing battle against incontinence, and who has a rink he’s built behind his house, where he and his friends clear the snow for a community game every Saturday night. Sprague’s best friend Fergus McTavish is a loner who spends too much time watching John Wayne movies, while the third musketeer, Rufus Timmerman, is losing a battle of his own, against cancer. Together, they’re three of the most offbeat protagonists you’re likely to find.

Although Sudden Death Overtime is saddled with some amateurish cover art, the fact that the novella is only available as an ebook should minimize any PR damage caused by that unfortunate illustration. Outside of the art, my only real complaint is with the tone Vernon ultimately settles on — in the early stages of the book, the author is quite successful at creating an atmosphere of tension and fear, and it’s somewhat disappointing to see him turn decisively towards humor in later stages of the book. The following passage is a good example of the frisson generated early on:

“And then the figure smiled, only its expression went way beyond what you’d call a smile. Its jaw dislocated and its gums seemed to peel back and its teeth grew icicle-long, winter-sharp and hungry until it looked like nothing more than a set of those wind-up walking false teeth.”

All in all, Sudden Death Overtime is fast, frenetic and fun…not unlike the overtime periods referenced in the book’s title.

Turning to Keith Minnion… his collection It’s For You gathers nineteen stories, five of which are published here for the first time, spanning a broad spectrum from horror to SF to fantasy to historical fiction and more. As I mentioned earlier, Minnion is better known for his work as an artist, but this collection clearly illustrates that he’s skilled with words as well. There are several impressive blurbs included on the book cover and press release, and perhaps the one that resonates the most is the following from Gary McMahon:

“Keith Minnion writes clear and lucid prose, not unlike a less verbose Stephen King. And, also like King, his stories tell us of a strange shadowy Americana that exists just off-center of the real world.”

A good example of the prose that McMahon is referring to can be found in the title story, “It’s For You”:

“American Street was a short block of narrow, tired bungalows, with postage-stamp front lawns and sidewalks that were cracked and tiled from trees long-since cut down. Every one of the houses needed paint; three were boarded up; one was burned out. It was a sad, lost little street in a section of the city that had last seen prosperity when people wore ‘I Like Ike’ buttons and parked Studebakers and Ramblers at the curb, one to a family.”

Told from the perspective of Detective Frank Graham, the tale concerns a series of phone calls, each of which results in the death of the call recipient, and is a real highlight of the collection. Also impressive is “On the Midwatch,” wherein a Navy Lieutenant experiencing his first opportunity to be Officer of the Deck unfortunately find that his big opportunity occurs in the Bermuda Triangle and culminates in an encounter with a UFO. In “Dead End,” a bit of inner-city vigilante justice goes seriously awry. “Up in the Boneyard,” meanwhile, is a mysterious and sometimes chilling tale about an elderly man, still sporting scars from his encounter with something in the clouds when he was a young daredevil pilot, and his quest to find and destroy his attackers.

Halfway through this collection, I was ready to declare it my most pleasant reading surprise of 2012, and to express my amazement that I had been so remiss in appreciating Minion’s writing talents — the stories in the first half of the book are that good. Unfortunately, there are a few less-stellar tales in the early stages of the book’s second half, before the author rights the ship and ends on the same high note on which he began.

Highlights in the latter half of the book include the post-flood-apocalypse tale “Empire State,” a Waterworld-style story (although predating the Costner flick) about a ship’s journey to a submerged New York City. “The Can Man” is another tale of the future, involving a couple of bored and inquisitive children who discover some long-neglected cryogenic freezers and release their occupants with an unfeeling curiosity not unlike pulling the wings off a fly. The collection closes with the excellent “Island Funeral,” in which a young widower visiting  the coast of Maine for his wife’s funeral discovers some highly unusual and unsettling family traditions.

It’s For You is a very strong collection overall, providing ample evidence that Minnion is versatile and multi-talented…and fans of Minnion’s art will be happy to know that the book includes several of his illustrations.

Peter Bell’s Strange Epiphanies — A Serendipitous Discovery

From relatively modest beginnings in 2003, Brian Showers’  Swan River Press has gradually grown from small chapbooks to full-blown hardcover books. Recent titles of interest (most of which are sold out) include Rosalie Parker’s The Old Knowledge, Lucy Boston’s Curfew & Other Eerie Tales, R.B. Russell’s Ghosts, and the Peter Bell collection that we’ll be considering here in this post.

Like Swan River’s previous hardcovers, Strange Epiphanies is a beautifully-produced book, offered at a very reasonable price (€30.00 including shipping).

There are some consistent themes to be found across all seven stories (two of which are published here for the first time) included in this collection. For starters, virtually all of Bell’s protagonists are middle-aged, lonely (often widowed or otherwise left on their own) and melancholic — four of the stories feature solo female protagonists, and three utilize solo males. Furthermore, virtually all are on holidays or journeys — they are restless, wandering, and searching for something, usually something they’ve lost, whether they realize it or not. The sense of gloominess is impressively omnipresent, sometimes crossing over into dread in the stories’ darker moments.

Because it’s so apt, I feel compelled to quote a posting from a fellow member of the All Hallows mailing list, who said: “I might add that Bell is the absolute master of Weltschmerz…for depressive melancholics such as myself, this book is an extra special treat.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

As an example, the following passage perfectly captures the undercurrent of dark shadows and the general sense of melancholy that infuses virtually all of Bell’s tollings:

“The incident had enveloped him in a mist of grim foreboding; of precisely what, he could not put a name to, but it was no less menacing for being vague. One thing for sure, it had sabotaged any vestige of hope that this trip to the wild north country might resurrect him from the deep depression of the soul that had of late become his daily consort.”

And when Bell’s characters finally arrive at their destination, it should come as no surprise that it is neither peace nor fulfilment that greets them:

“She had felt uneasy ever since her arrival… the dwelling was unquiet, possessed… the things she had heard, sensed, imagined, glimpsed on the edge of sight… the feeling of being watched… the strange thoughts, the harrowing despair…”

Highlight stories include “An American Writer’s Cottage,” wherein the lone visitor to a remote Hebrides Island grows gradually more intrigued about the eponymous dwelling and the works of the writer who once resided there…but ultimately what she learns is nothing that she wants to know. The aptly-titled “Nostalgia, Death, and Melancholy” follows the footsteps of Sinclair, who has returned to a remote island he hasn’t visited since his youth, in order to attend his Aunt’s funeral and see to her estate. While going through her things, he finds an old, dimly-remembered photograph, which prompts him, in a fit of nostalgia, to visit a nearly-forgotten cove, where he discovers that even though it might be possible to go home again, sometimes you absolutely shouldn’t.

In “The Light of the World,” a forlorn widower, unable to move on from his wife’s death, visits a small village in the Cumberland mountains in search of some peace and quiet, but instead repeatedly encounters an unusual, unsettling older couple, whose appearance turns out to be the harbinger of an undesirable outcome. In “Inheritance,” Isobel’s visit to a friend in the German countryside prompts memories of her dead sister and a strange doll, and the tangled web that ensues is filled with both mystery and revelation.

Not every tale here is a resounding success — for example, “Resurrection,” cut from Wicker Man cloth, is a tad too predictable — but for the most part Bell delivers the goods on a highly consistent basis.

Strange Epiphanies is a truly dark and dreary collection, but I mean that in only the best way. For fans of quiet, subtly supernatural fiction, it doesn’t get much better than this. Although still in print as of this writing, Strange Epiphanies is limited to 350 copies and Swan River titles tend to sell out quickly, so if this collection is of interest — which it should be to the majority of readers of this blog — I’d suggest you move quickly to obtain a copy.

Getting Under Your Skin with Robert Hood’s Creeping In Reptile Flesh

Robert Hood has long been a well-known name in the realm of Australian horror. A two-time winner of the Ditmar award and finalist many times over for the Aurealis award (both Australia-specific awards), he has penned numerous novels, countless short stories, and weighed in as an expert commentator in several non-fiction pieces on various aspects of the horror genre (he’s a particular expert on Japanese kaiju, or giant monsters) — he even co-authored an article on Australian horror fiction for The Scream Factory, a magazine I co-edited back in the day.

Hood’s sizable fiction collection, Creeping in Reptile Flesh, has a true international flair — originally published in Australia in 2008, it was re-published in late 2011 by Sweden’s Morrigan Publications. I finally got a chance to crack the Hood, so to speak, and found this collection to be a little more of mixed bag than I expected. The primary issue I had with the collection was the extremely varied nature of its contents, which is so diverse as to seem a bit off-putting at times (although others may find that variety to be refreshing).

The title novella, which leads off the book, is probably the strongest tale here and, like the majority of the contents, has a strong, distinctive Australian flavor. The protagonist, a political reporter and confidante, is commissioned to investigate the recently-elected and somewhat mysterious Independent Member John Cowling, who represents the nascent “Feral Party.” Leonard’s investigation leads him into some strange territory indeed, including an assignation with a “tall, cadaverous woman” named Kyla Fauxair, who may not actually be among the living, and a trip to Cowling’s perhaps-chimerical home town deep in the Outback.

A strong understanding of Australian politics would no doubt aid in appreciating some of the details, but even those unfamiliar with government down under will still get likely get caught up in the intrigue and muckraking. It’s definitely a tale with an edge, and it’s unusual enough to keep the reader off-kilter and engaged. The tale is lessened somewhat, however, by several flashbacks and dream sequences that are interspersed almost at random, with no italics or other stylistic variation to distinguish them, making them somewhat confusing and jarring until the reader realizes what’s going on.

Another standout is “Groundswell,” a noirish bit about two Constables whose investigation of a series of possibly-related murders lead them to a remote, abandoned desert town. Effectively set in a near-future Australia,  where climate disaster has left much of the continent a literally unlivable place during the scorching heat of the day, there’s a sense of both otherworldliness and constance menace underlying everything, and the characters of the two Constables are well developed. When they spy a lone woman leaving the town, the Constables follow and discover the true cause behind the murders.

“Dreams of Death” starts with female Private Investigator Andy Wolfe meeting an amnesiac client who says he’s been having “dreams of murder”, and possesses intimate details of several recent deaths, all of which appeared to be accidents or suicides. Andy soon begins to suspect her client may well be guilty of murder, and focuses her investigation on him, leading the story into unexpected territory.

In “Lo Que No Asusta,” two old friends who attended university together 25 years previously have an awkward meeting, with the formerly charismatic Anthony now seeming haunted, preoccupied by a heavy fog enveloping the area surrounding their meeting place. Anthony proceeds to remind Alex of all the details he has forgotten about the night they graduated, when their fascination with the eponymous book of philosophy (which, translated, means “That Which Scares Us”) culminated. It turns out that technological advances of the following two decades have allowed Anthony to take their college experiments further, with dangerous consequences…  As with several other stories here, there’s a dramatic, unexpected revelation about a primary character at the conclusion.

Also worth mentioning are “Rotting Eggplant…” and “Unravelling,” both of which look at “macro” world-changing events through a micro focus on a handful of characters. The latter is more successful, but both are offbeat enough to stand out.

As described above, there are some definite high points to be found in Creeping in Reptile Flesh,but there are a few too many blemishes in the collection for me to be able to highly recommend it, unless you’re a reader who deeply appreciates a broad variety of tales under one hat.

Know-it-all: J.R. Hamantaschen’s You Shall Never Know Security


Among other laudatory remarks, the cover copy for J.R. Hamantaschen’s collection You Shall Never Know Security states, “These are stories that, in the finest tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Dennis Etchison, and T.E.D. Klein, articulate what you’ve always suspected: that life is a losing proposition.”  As any reader of this blog should know, the authors cited are some of horror’s most accomplished short-fiction practitioners, making for a quite a lofty comparison to a writer whose biggest publishing credit to date is probably The Harrow online magazine. So, is Hamantaschen equal to the association?  Well, there are undeniable signs of significant talent to be found in these stories, but more often than not they’re hamstrung by some unfortunate failings, which I will elaborate on below.

Issued by new publisher West Pigeon Press, You Shall Never Know Security contains 13 stories, including five originals. The lead story, “A Lower Power,” provides good examples of both the positives and negatives to be found in Hamantaschen’s work. The plot is engaging — focusing on the narrator’s significant other, who has a rather dark secret that he unintentionally reveals during a middle-of-the-night transformation — there is some genuine frisson generated, and there are some memorable phrasings, such as: “First thing you’d notice about him: his hair is like a choreographed fight scene.” On the other hand, there are a few self-indulgent passages that fairly shout “Look Ma, don’t I write pretty?” and this is just the first of many stories to show how the author struggles to craft solid endings.

In “Come in, Distraction,” the mundane tale of a blasé pick-up artists and his latest conquest reveals a far more interesting story through casual comments and background details — namely, an unexplained wave of mass madness and murder that swept through England before the country was essentially vaporized to prevent the contagion from potentially spreading. In addition to the rage and insanity, the infected were also marked by a bizarre lengthening of their arms, as the protagonist reflects:

“He extended his arm, wondered what it would be like if it extended another thirty-feet, coiled up and folding upon itself like fancy drapes, claws dancing over her face.”

“Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” utilizes an interesting narrative technique, relating the story of a murder by way of a district court’s written response to a legal motion, although the approach falters when attempts are made to inject some drama into the drabness of the legalese. Hamantaschen frequently employs a theme of strangeness and horror just beneath the surface, and that features strongly in “There is a Family of Gnomes Behind My Walls, And I Swear I Won’t Disappoint Them Any Longer,” wherein the protagonist’s new roommate reveals that a book of arcane wisdom has led him to determine that behind the wall of their loft apartment lies a trigger of sorts, a means to elicit a reaction from forces beyond our world. The story’s painfully verbose title brings to mind the fact that, in many cases, the titles seem to be odd choices at best.

The closing novella “There Must Be Lights Burning Brighter, Somewhere” truly captures both the highs and lows of Hamantaschen. Related in a sophisticated style with interwoven flashbacks, it features an engaging premise, with main character Alex haunted by memories of an incident three years earlier, when a sudden invasion of a bar by otherworldly creatures forced him and two others to cower in a backroom closet in hopes of surviving the onslaught. Alex and Gabriel indeed survived the incident, but their closet companion Victoria did not, and it’s the details of her demise the plague Alex still. The story is unfortunately too drawn-out in places — like many tales here, it would have benefited from some judicious editing — and there’s some strangely laid-back dialog between the characters trapped in the closet that serves to sever the suspension of disbelief.

All in all, there’s too much of a sense of self-indulgence and seeming pretentiousness running throughout this collection for me to feel comfortable recommending it. Perhaps I’m being too mindful of the cover-copy author comparisons I mentioned earlier, and perhaps I’m being too hard on Hamantaschen, but I can’t shake the feeling that he won’t begin to approach his substantial potential as an author without a strong editor and some badly-needed maturity.

Give me That Old-Time Feeling — Michael Reynier’s Five Degrees of Latitude and Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel

Five Degrees of Latitude, the debut collection from Michael Reynier is, in many ways, a thing of beauty — from the simple but elegantly designed physical book produced by Tartarus Press to the five intricate and highy-polished tales contained within, there is much to admire here.

All of the stories have a European (or British) antiquarian slant and display a predisposition for nested stories and male narrators with male companions, starting with “Le Loup-Garou,” wherein a string of disappearances in a secluded French village are investigated by the esteemed Professor Hortholary, whose deductive powers unravel  the mystery, leading to a dark denouement.  “Sika Tarn” likewise features a remote locale, as two hikers make their way through an overgrown forest to reach a deserted lake, where they find some unexpected abandoned machinery and hear some inexplicable sounds. The tale, which reminded me of Sarban’s work in some indefinable way, features an unexpected and unique supernatural entity.

The British countryside is the setting for “No. 3 Hobbes Lane,” wherein an occasional passenger on a train is intrigued by the sight of one house on a bluff that is seemingly facing the wrong direction, with no windows on the side of the house with the wonderful views. As with most of the stories, there is a strong sense of mystery here, and an (ultimately successful) investigation of the mystery — involving, in this case, tracking down the story of the architect who built the house and the supernatural causation for the way the house is situated.

“The Rumour Mill” is to my mind the weakest story here, although an ingenious idea lies at its heart, concerning some rather unusual experiments on the nature of rumors, the documentation of which is discovered by a Victorian academic rummaging through the papers of his vanished predecessor.

Much stronger is the final story, “The Visions of Lazaro,” which is particularly interesting for the way in which its true setting is effectively masked, with the initial appearance being that of sixteenth century Spain, while later events reveal a second narrative in a very different place — and time.

Nestled in “The Visions of Lazaro” and other stories are countless examples of simple yet elegant writing, replete with keen observations, such as the following:

“Vider sat down and placed his bag carefully on the table between us. He had lost the top joint of his finger in a mining accident; we had all lost something, I suppose.”

In spite of all the preceding praise, I have to offer a caveat — in my reviews, I’m known to frequently offer the qualifier that a particular book “is not for everyone,” and that observation is particularly true here.  The same thing that distinguishes the stories — the leisurely yet effective and stylistic recreation of other places and times — is the same thing that may limits appeal somewhat, as readers more enamored of contemporary milieus and styles may well find this collection to not be their cup of tea.

*  *  *

“A curtain of gnarled skeleton oak and pine hides it from the rest of the world. The hotel is not well-lit, there is no sign, and night comes early here. The main highway bypassed its access road nearly half a century ago. From the air…the hotel appears to follow the jumbled lines of a train wreck, cars thrown out at all angles and yet still attached in sequence.”

Excerpted from the opening paragraph of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel, the preceding is an apt and vivid description of the establishment that lies at the heart, literally and figuratively, of this fine novel from Centipede Press.

The novel’s jacket copy bills the book as “reminiscent of Ray Bradbury  and combining the atmosphere of Edward Gorey with the phantasmagoric richness of setting found in Mervyn Peake.” Personally, I see much more Gorey and Peake than I do Bradbury, with a strong helping of Charlie Grant, to whom Tem dedicates the book. But you can make up your own mind, since I will be quoting Tem extensively in this review.

Deadfall Hotel is ostensibly the story of Richard Carter and his daughter Serena, who are still trying to regain their equilibrium following the relatively recent death of wife and mother Abby, whose ghost has accompanied them to the Hotel.  But the real star here is the Hotel itself, which via Tem’s lush descriptions comes to halting, shambling life:

“Richard wasn’t listening to him. There were other sounds to hear. There was the soft inner breath that drifted through the Deadfall, higher pitched in the halls, dropping lower in the stairs and secret passages. There was the light tapping of guests who never left their rooms, their frenetic thoughts in tune with that breath. There was the distant crying of a white wolf with dying eyes. And there was the nearly inaudible laughter of his wife, his beautiful wife Abby, growing madder with every passing day of her death.”

Richard and Serena’s tale is interspersed with pithy observations from the journal of Jacob Ascher, the prior manager of the Deadfall, who recruited and hired Richard as his replacement, and has stayed on to provide prolonged training for Richard. An example from Jacob’s journal:

“We cannot escape our fears. Ultimately we must deal with them. We are but momentary blips of consciousness on the sea of time — we have but a limited time to do those things we are willing to do, to say those things we are willing to say. Our greatest challenge may be to face the sadness that knowledge entails. I’m afraid it is a test most of us will fail.”

And:

“I never imagined that training a replacement would prove to be so difficult.  I find I have increased respect for what my own predecessors must have gone through.  It is a delicate balance managing a new member of our family — we want him to be able to act independently, and yet we also want him to do what we want.  Prospective managers are selected from a pool of the traumatized, the wounded and damaged. And yet we expect them to be brave…

“When I look at Richard Carter, I see a frozen man, stilled by grief and impossible dilemma.  How can he protect his daughter?  How can he leave his wife behind a second time?  …. Perhaps we expect too much.”

If there’s a complaint to be had with Deadfall Hotel, it’s that, at the end of the day, precious little actually happens.  The book is more a character study — of Richard, Serena, Jacob and, of course, the Hotel — than anything else, and while the events that do occur help to shape the trajectory of Richard and Serena’s lives post-Abby, those events are somewhat few and far between.  The major plot points involve Serena’s adoption of a stray kitten, which turns out to be far more than just a cat; the arrival of a shape-shifting guest who, in the twilight days of his life has lost the fine-grained control he formerly held over his nature; and the annual foray by a large religious-revival group, the head of whom has some rather dire personal problems that he refuses to face.  Each of these makes for an interesting sub-plot, although at least one seems drawn out beyond comfortably-sustainable levels.

The book is rounded out by the novelette “Blood Wolf,” the original, stand-alone version of one section of the novel, and the short story “Skullbees,” also set in the Deadfall universe. All in all, I can heartily recommend an extended stay in the dark and distinctive confines of the Deadfall Hotel.

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.

A Taste of England — Charlotte Bond’s Hunter’s Moon and Paul Kane’s Pain Cages

UK writer Charlotte Bond has shown promise with some of her short stories, in markets such as Dark Horizons and Spinetinglers. Hunter’s Moon, a 114-page novella from Screaming Dreams, is her first longer work and it unfortunately does not build on the promise shown in her short fiction. Hunter’s Moon focuses on four twentysomethings, two male and two female, who were friends in college, have since stayed in touch, and are now embarking on a vacation to a remote rental cottage in the French countryside. Faster than you can say “that sounds like a standard set-up for a horror movie,” unsettling warning signs begin to emerge, including strange sounds from the attic, vivid shared dreams, and waking “hallucinations.”

The nearby ruins of a castle, once owned by the cruel torturer Lord Moreau, who “worked his serfs to the grave and commanded them with fear,” seems to be the nexus, although only Jenny and Reece, two members of the group who possess some varying degrees of psychic abilities, seem to realize the connection — and the very mortal danger that threatens the foursome. Speaking of said group… it’s their characterizations and annoyingly repetitive interactions that largely serve to detract from the story’s strengths. The aforementioned Jenny and Reece are nominally the heroes, and their unspoken attraction to one another initially simmers just beneath the surface before eventually turning lukewarm and then stone cold (from the standpoint of the reader’s interest). The other two members are Eleanor, notable both for her self-centered, manipulative ways in general and in particular for her desire to get Reece’s attentions and affection; and Steve, whose desire to bed anything that moves is matched only by his frequent and inane attempts at humor. Not that Steve has a license on ill-timed and awkward humor…late in the story, a stripped and bound Reece says to Jenny:

“I always hoped you [sic] see me n-naked, but n-never like this,” he joked.
“We’ve no time for idiotic remarks, Reece.”

Indeed.

There is some real tension built in the latter stages of the story, as Moreau seeks to fully return from beyond the grave, but the deadline for his would-be re-emergence seems strangely contrived, and the dialog in the climactic scene is painfully melodramatic. All in all, Hunter’s Moon is occluded by some rather unfortunate clouds.

*  *  *

Like some other authors I’ve reviewed recently, Paul Kane has proven impressively prolific during his career, with 16 titles produced in the last 10 years, to say nothing of a couple non-fiction titles and several anthologies he’s edited. His name is not as well known to US readers as some of the other fecund folks I’ve covered — such as Tim Lebbon, Michael McBride, and Ronald Malfi — no doubt largely due to the fact he’s British and many of his titles have appeared only from UK-based publishers.

Kane’s new collection, Pain Cages, is an exception to that, appearing courtesy of US publisher Books of the Dead Press. Pain Cages focuses on longer works, gathering four novellas, two of which are original to this collection. In his Introduction, Stephen Volk says that after reading this book “…you’ll realize ultimately that though the rough path through Paul Kane’s world involves a lot of pain and anguish, the pain isn’t what the journeys are about. Not really.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Volk says, because although the path through Kane’s work is indeed sometimes rough (in terms of both the characters’ journeys and, occasionally, the writing), and certainly describes no small amount of pain, the stories are fundamentally far more than mere exercises in sadism or vicarious shivers.

Take, for example, the eponymous title story, which appears here for the first time and leads off the collection. The protagonist, Chris, awakes in darkness, trapped in a cage with no memory of how he got there, nor the other unfortunate souls in adjacent cages, one of whom is being tortured and killed. As time slowly passes in his small prison, Chris finds out precious little about his captors or how he arrived in these circumstances, and his fellow captives are similarly clueless, but the reader gradually learns of Chris’s backstory via interspersed flashbacks. When Chris finally escapes his cage, the sights that await him as he seeks a way out of the facility initially seem a little over-the top metaphysically, but the denouement is unexpected yet perfectly appropriate

The other original novella, “Halflife,” is not nearly as accomplished, chronicling the fates of a former pack of teen werewolves, who’re reuniting due to the realization that someone may now, all these years later, be stalking them one by one. Reprint “Signs of Life” is sort of the dark literary equivalent of the mosaic approach that has proven so popular in films of the last decade or so, including the likes of Magnolia, Crash, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, and oh-so-many more. In Kane’s take on the approach, the perspective switches between several strangers on a train, each with a distinct and interesting backstory, and the focus is naturally on how their destinies ultimately intertwine and collide. It’s a well-done story, but I found the numerous astrological interludes, clearly intended to be a key aspect, to be distracting and failing to add anything to the work.

The collection closes with a very strong reprint, “The Lazarus Condition,” which begins with something of a “Monkey’s Paw” feel to it, as Matthew Daley suddenly shows up on his mother’s doorstep, despite the fact he’s been dead for seven years. Mrs. Daley and the police refuse to believe the interloper is truly Matthew, and his “ex-widow” joins that camp as well, leaving Matthew friendless and alone until he finally convinces a a nurse, who has first-hand knowledge of his case, to help him. Along the way Matthew’s story becomes even stranger, as he displays first a supernatural knowledge of others’ backgrounds (and, especially, sources of guilt) and later further extraordinary abilities, leading up to a confrontation with the man who killed him. It’s an engaging tale, and despite the presence of reanimated corpses, it’s about as far from a traditional zombie story as one can get.

There’s an impressive array of laudatory quotations fronting Pain Cages, from the likes of Clive Barker, Christopher Golden, Graham Joyce, and Sarah Langan, and while I can’t wholeheartedly agree with the most adulatory of those remarks, I can certainly concur that Kane’s insights into the human condition shine through the often cruel and harsh world that he depicts.

No One Can Hear You Scream – Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Quiet Houses

A few months back I read Simon Kurt Unsworth’s collection Lost Places from Ash-Tree Press and found several highlights contained within, but also a couple…less-exceptional pieces. Unsworth’s new mini-collection from Dark Continents Press, Quiet Houses displays no such problems with inconsistency, instead presenting a uniformly excellent line-up. As the title implies, the horror found within these pages is of the “quiet” variety, as perhaps best exemplified by the work of the late Charles L. Grant — no gore or in-your-face creatures, but nonetheless very, very chilling.

Quiet Houses is a portmanteau collection of seven linked stories, five original to this volume, all revolving around paranormal researcher Richard Nakata, who — we eventually discover — has been hired by the attorney Tidyman to locate people who’ve had genuine experiences with the supernatural and document their encounters, so they can be used as reference material in a trial. In some of the stories, Nakata winds up being the protagonist, while others relate the experiences of his interview subjects. Throughout the first few entries, there are numerous allusions to an incident at the Glasshouse Estates involving Nakata’s former girlfriend Amy, although much is left unexplained.

The stories are simply named,  reflecting their locales (which, by the way, are extremely well-rendered), as with “The Merry House, Scale Hall,” which is related via a letter sent from the adult son (since disappeared) of one of Nakata’s subjects. While helping to search for a missing little girl, the son discovers the eponymous house, and the ultimate darkness within. “There is another world below this one,” the son says in his letter, “a world inhabited by ghost and demons and all the things that we have lost that we should not find again.”

The chilling “Beyond St. Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham Head” is a pitch-perfect tale in which Nakata visits a cemetery and finds several invisible beings, their presence betrayed only by the trail they leave across the grass, following him and then “herding” him into a cul-de-sac before he manages a narrow escape.

“The Temple of Relief and Ease” concerns the haunting of a most unlikely locale — a public men’s room — by the ghost of a wounded WWI veteran, whose injuries relegated him to the role of washroom attendant for more than four decades, a sentence that imprinted his frustration as a palpable presence in the now-abandoned room. Encountering that presence, Nakata wonders: “Forty three years, he thought. Forty three years here… How had the war affected Tulketh, he wondered?  Was he missing an arm… Or was it something less obvious, damage written on the inside of his skin rather than the outside.”

When Tidyman finally forces Nakata to face his own memories, we find out why Nakata refers to Amy in the past tense, and why he has avoided thinking about the incident. As he muses: “Since Amy…he sometimes felt like the things he investigated: only half there, less than real.” The collection closes with the story of the trial for which Nakata has been gathering data, and a nighttime field trip by the jury to the scene of the crime, complete with a barn full of homicidal ghost-cows (it’s much more frightening than it sounds!).

Quiet Houses is a darkly brilliant collection, a dusky jewel that deserves your attention as well as consideration from award judges.

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.



Mortality Monopoly — Joel Lane’s collection DO NOT PASS GO

UK author Joel Lane has produced some extremely impressive work in the last few years, most notably his novella The Witnesses Are Gone, which I reviewed for Cemetery Dance, and his collection The Terrible Changes. Lane’s new chapbook mini-collection, Do Not Pass Go (Nine Arches Press) is interesting because it collects urban crime fiction, as opposed to the surreal and haunting nature of the works I mention above.

The five stories in Do Not Pass Go include four reprints dating from approximately 2002-2007, and one original tale, and they’re all shot through with darkness — it’s no accident that the titles of three of the stories feature the words, “black,” “blue,” and “blues.” Speaking of titles, let’s start with the wonderfully-named “This Night Last Woman,” wherein a regular at a pub’s karaoke night meets a woman he hasn’t seen before and goes home with her, with the expected results…up to a point. When the man later finds that he was seemingly the one one among a string of the woman’s dates to *not* be victimized, he can’t rest until he knows why he was spared…and the reason she gives him is enough to send him straight to the pub, for a very long time.

“Black Dog” draws its title from a heap of asphalt that “looked like a huge  sleeping dog”, and which turns out to be a tarry blanket over the body of a murdered woman who was beaten and then suffocated beneath the paving material. There are more twists and turns to be found in this tale than in the others, and they’re nicely torqued. “Blue Mirror” and “No More the Blues,” meanwhile, are strongly focused on music — one on a failing band and the other on a hard-core fan — and while they both feature well-wrought atmospheres, they strike me as the two slightest tales in the booklet.

Conversely, the last (and most recently-written) story, “Rituals,” is probably the best, detailing the repercussions when a gang looking to use an abandoned building as the venue for a beat-down winds up stumbling on a gay porn filmset in flagrante delicto, and protagonist Finlay accidentally shoots and kills one of the actors.

Sadness, remorse, regret, lost chances and missed opportunities… these are the overriding emotions to be found in Do Not Pass Go. It’s probably a good thing that this is a mini-collection, because a book-length gathering of tales such as these might be enough to spur suicide…but I mean that in a good way. This is truly modern noir, with a distinctly British feel.