Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An exploration of gender and acceptance

Nails

M. P. Johnson

 

Publisher: Lazy Fascist press

Pub. Date: September 17, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

Some books you read because they give you an view to the human spirit that you may just not have had access to in any other way. Nails is that type of book. It is one of those books that, despite its sadness, actually celebrate our individuality in a world where some forms of celebrations are frowned upon. persecuted or even expressly forbidden. In Nails, our protagonist takes a weekend vacation to Los Angeles , far from anyone she knows, so she can be herself. Danielle, the pseudonym she takes for her weekend escape, is a man who only feels comfortable as a woman and dressed in women's clothes. But even then, she is aware and self-conscious how she is viewed and of the hazards that might befall her when out in public.

Danielle is obsessed with her nails. The acrylic, long, glorious, impractical kind. They become a symbol of her life and needs, a small allowance of the coming out she is not able to thoroughly do at this time. Many of her fears are real and as she chronicles her weekend she expresses and illustrate those fears. But there is always a want for acceptance and where she goes for that acceptance in the final pages may both shock and enlighten some of the readers. It becomes a moment of tearful sadness but also a small bit of hope.

Nails is presented as fiction but if it is, it is very likely autobiographical fiction, at the very least in the emotions and longings presented by the author if not the actual events. Beautiful and revealing writing like this can not stream from just the imagination. It takes a skillful acknowledged writer to present it and that is exactly what M. P. Johnson is and does. There is a scene in the middle of this too short work where she is at The House of Blues attending a show by The Damned when a young man comes up to her. It is a moment of mixed emotions for Danielle who is not sure whether the boy is simply fooled or accepting her for what she is. His advances are subtly and ultimately refused. Whatever possibilities existed disappears due to the power of that fear and doubt this book is so much about. For me, it was the most powerful moment in the book.

Books like this do not come around often. M. P. Johnson is known mostly for her bizarro fantasy novels but this is straight down to earth reality. It speaks not only of the want for other's acceptance but one's own acceptance of what they are and the reality that gender is not as necessarily defined as we think it is. Nails is way too short. M. P. Johnson clearly has much more to say and I believe she has a autobiographical novel or even a non-fiction work in her that will amaze us even more. Until then we have this brief revelation of a novella and it is one that I would deem essential reading for 2017.

Monday, October 9, 2017

An unsuccessful merge of cyber tech and demons

The Dark Net

Benjamin Percy


Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Pubdate : August 1, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars 

 

 Let's talk about truth in advertising.

When I first looked at the title, It seemed pretty self-explanatory. The Dark Net. I am quite aware of what the Dark Net means in relation to the internet. The blurb at the back of the book didn't sway me any other way. My expectation was one of a William Gibson influenced tech thriller mixing the perils of cyber culture with the terrors of the supernatural. Now THAT would be a novel!

It was not meant to be. Whenever a disappointment like this happens, I am well aware that the expectation of the reader and the goal of the writer can misalign through no fault of the other. But this is where truth in advertising comes in. My expectation is indeed what appears to be the promise of the promotion . The Dark Net just isn't the cyber thriller it is touted to be, supernatural or otherwise.

So once we get that out of the way, what is The Dark Net? Basically it is a supernatural tale of demons, possessions and the gates of hell. Percy sets his story in Portland . How well he incorporates Portland I will leave to others more knowledgeable about the city to sort out. As for this reader, It doesn't really feel different than any other city asides from a few mentions of landmarks like Powell Books. The plot centers on the emergence of persons or devils with dark designs planning for evil around a place called The Rue that appears to be a conduit for such evil. A not-so-keen-on-computers reporter is honing in on the situation and becomes a target for the evil entourage. Add in an ex-evangelist homeless shelter manager, a mysterious woman who may have had one too many lives, and a blind girl who has gained some ability to see due to a surgical apparartus and is now seeing strange shadows and you have the basis for the action to follow.

The problem is I've seen this all before. There really isn't much that is new here for any book featuring demons, psychics, and gates of hell. The dark net gets a mention at the beginning of the book then becomes a minor player. Finally in the last 50 or so pages it goes into play but for this reader it is too late. This may have worked if there were more involving characters but except for Hannah the blind girl we just don't get enough to care much about the rest. Hannah is the most interesting character but she seems to have been borrowed from a few other known horror epics and we do not get enough originality in her character to separate her from the slew of psychically gifted adolescents which have already graced the pages of many supernatural stories. I found Hannah's aunt Lela rather annoying as an aggressive reporter who is hopelessly incompetent with anything to do with the internet or computers. Luddite journalists may have worked in the 90s but not in the 21st century.

There are some nice moments and some good ideas here but they do not come together and eventually blend into the formulaic. it appears we will still have to wait for the successful marriage of Gibson-esque tech thriller and supernatural horror epic .

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I see a full moon rising

Full Wolf Moon

Lincoln Child

 

Publisher: Doubleday

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

 

Lincoln Child, along with his partner in crime Douglas Preston, has a pretty good gig going for them. They specialize in the not-so-supernatural thriller. In most cases , and especially with the Pendergrast series, this involves a mystery of seemingly supernatural origins but ends up being something from the natural, albeit the very imaginative and slightly farfetched natural. These Scooby-doo books, as I irrelevantly like to call them, are fun to read but I tend to go more for the supernatural scare rather than the manufactured natural one. However they are great summer reads or, on the other side of the seasons, fireside reads.

When Lincoln Child is writing solo, he likes to keep a good thing going. His protagonist is Jeremy Logan who calls himself a enigmalogist which is "an investigator who specializes in analyzing unnatural phenomena with no obvious scientific or rational explanation." As one may surmise from the title of this fifth installment of the Logan series, Full Wolf Moon is centered on the theme of lycanthropy. In the Adirondack Mountains, two hikers has been found dead with their corpses ripped apart, both having happened on different full moons. Logan is attending an artist and scholar retreat when his college friend who is now a ranger in the area asks him to investigate the deaths. The official explanation is a rogue bear or wolf, but the timing of the killings suggest another explanation and the strange seclusive family that lives in the woods seem to be the town residents' favorite suspect.

While Full Wolf Moon has a good sense of suspense and scares , it is more mystery and science fiction then horror and certainly not supernatural. As with Child's other books, there will be an explanation. Getting there is where the fun is . Child brings together some interesting science into the story that I suspect carries a good mix of fact and fiction. I think I prefer Child solo as compared to the Pendergrast series Preston & Child are known for. Mostly because Jeremy Logan is more accessible . He seem to be the professor next door type while Pendergrast is fairly foreboding. The pace and formula though is pretty much the same. These are light reads. This particular book is fairly predictable and feeds you a good amount of red herrings before the final reveal. I would recommend this more for the mystery fan than the horror aficionado. It may not take you into any new territory but if you read it you probably know what to expect and won't be disappointed.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

It came from the paperback rack

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction

Grady Hendrix


Publisher: Quirk Books

Pub. Date: September 19, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


If there was a golden age for horror fiction, it was in the 70s and 80s. There were certainly great and memorable horror fiction being written and published before that but it was the 70s when the publishing companies took notice and started to hype it as its own particular, and eventually profitable, niche. Before the 70s, most horror was delegated into the gothic romance section and, surprisingly to some I will surmise, labelled as women’s fiction. As Grady Hendrix points out in his excellent and constantly entertaining Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction the onslaught of horror can thank the stunning success of three novels from the late sixties and early seventies; Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, The Other by Thomas Tryon, and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Of course, Stephen King would have a thing or two to say about all this but he was just the pinnacle in a coming horror cavalcade.

Before I start reviewing Paperbacks from Hell, I want to add my own personal recollection. I was introduced to horror via the movie Frankenstein at 6 years old thanks to a rather negligent babysitter who, unknown to my parents, allowed me to stay up way after my bed time and watch it with her. That was the beginning of my horror obsession. As a young teen the EC comics, also banned in my household, was really the only pure horror in print I could sneak out and find. My main source of scares and thrills was the paperback Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology series (35 cents a pop) which would publish and reissue some pretty good and classic horror among its usual array of mystery and suspense fiction. This was my introduction to a number of classic horror writers including Bradbury, Bloch, Beaumont and others, not to mention the short story that Hitchcock later adopted for a film titled “The Birds” by Daphne DuMaurier. It was about the time of the horror trifecta of novels mentioned above that I began to discover paperbacks with wonderfully lurid covers that promise me more terrifying thrills than I was previously led to believe existed. So I grew up during this wonderful splurge in horror novels. I am both proud and embarrassed that I read an alarmingly large amount of the novels mentioned and illustrated in Hendrix’s book when they came out. I am sorry to say I missed the Nazi leprechaun one though. Whether I am the better or worse for reading so many of these books will depend on who you ask but it certainly kick-started my imagination and I for one will say I am the better for it.

Paperbacks from Hell chronicles the rise and fall of this publishing phenomena with much wit and glee. The book itself is gorgeous with its very generous photos of covers and illustrations from many of these books. Personally, it is my idea of the perfect coffee table book simply based on appearance. However, it is what is communicated between the pages that is important and Hendrix covers both the history and excitement of the era. He writes about the good and the silly.. He knows about the literary importance of some of the novels as well as the excesses. It is all written with a childish enthusiasm and more than a little humor. For instance, when he writes about the onslaught of demon spawn stories he offers some sage advice…

“But how do I know if the man I’m dating is the devil?” I hear you ask. Here are some warning signs learned from Seeds of Evil. Does he refuse to use contractions when he speak? Does he deliver pickup lines like, “You live on the edge of darkness.”? When nude, is his body the most beautiful male form you have ever seen, but possessed of a penis that’s either monstrously enormous, double headed, has glowing yellow eyes, or all three? After intercourse does he laugh malevolently, urinate on your mattress, and then disappear? If you spot any of these behaviors, chances are you went on a date with Satan. Or an alien.


Once Hendrix gives you the background for the rise of the horror genre in the 70s and 80s, Hendrix separates his chapter into the main themes presented in the novels: Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, and four other intriguing subjects. This is where the fun really begins. He singles out the most representative of the writers and the books of that theme as well as his reaction. I was pleased with many of the authors I read during that time getting recognition, both famous and infamous, but there were plenty of writers I was not familiar with and whose books have been mainly lost in the shuffle . (Where has Brian McNaughton been all my life?) Whether being lost in the shuffle is rightly or wrongly so, Hendrix usually has an opinion on it but it does makes me want to get out there and hunt a few of these lost treasures down. One thing I really like is Hendrix doesn’t try to pretend these are all classic. Many he speaks of with befuddled amusement. He is particularly scathing when dealing with the Amityville Horror book series. Yet he does not ignore some of the real gems of this era. I am glad he mentioned three of my favorite and often recommended books by me; The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons, The Auctioneer by Joan Sampson, and Maynard’s Cabin by Herman Rauch. All three of these were one-time horror novels written by writers of other genres, But they are seminal works in the horror field and attest to the power of this golden age that these established authors were persuaded to tackle the disciplines of the horror novel and do so quite effectively.

And oh those photos! It represents the horror paperback in all its glory. Even if one does not read this book, which would be a damn shame, there are enough glorious covers complete with lurid subject matter and creepy stuff to fulfill anyone’s desire of the need for the same. The covers get as much attention as the novels themselves. Hendrix pays attention to the repeating themes and their attempt to attract certain readers. Skeletons, devils, Nazi leprechauns, scared females scantily dressed and running down a corridor. They are all there.

I can only think of one book that is even close to doing this topic justice and that is Danse Macabre by Stephen King. But King wrote it in 1981 and was too close to the material to do it justice. Hendrix uses the eyes of both a fan and a historian, pointing out the good with the bad and setting it firmly in the perspectives of other events going on during the time. The reign of the horror paperback begun to wane in the 90s and although horror boundaries are still being challenged, there has been no time since then when that the horror market was inundated with so much quantity and, arguably, quality. Many of the important horror writers that are active today first started their career during these golden years. There was Ramsey Campbell, David Schow and so many others. One can say it was essentially their apprenticeship.

This is a seminal work for a part of literature that has been unjustly ignored. The lows and highs are addressed here but it is hard to understate how much these lurid paperbacks contributed to the ongoing interest in horror today that we see in mainstream movies, TV and of course literature. You are not going to get this information in any more delightfully entertaining way so please lurk to your bookstore and order this. There are lots of demon children, killer rabbits, and splatterpunk villains in the pages ready to tempted you into a thrift store book hunting spree once you finish it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Small revelations

Mud Season

Justin Grimbol

 

Publisher: Atlatl Press

Pub Date: June 15, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

I remember reading another novel by Justin Grimbol a few years ago. i remember being impressed by his mastery of words and his deceptively casual style of writing. I also remember not being bowled over by the plot or lack of plot. The book came across as aimless and more than a little a little mundane. Perhaps I couldn't get into a character with no goals and equally goalless friends. So now i sit here having read his new book Mud Season and wondering whether in the past three years did the author mature or did I? I'm going to bet on the fact that perhaps the author, or at least his character, did since I am 66 and probably am not going to mature much more in the years I have left even if I haven't matured all that much anyways. In fact I am placing a moratorium on maturing. No more maturing!

Actually, to be a little more serious, It might be the theme . Mud Season is a novel about a year of marriage. Justin Grimbol's perennial character is named Grimboli. which pretty much says all you need to know about whether there might be a autobiographical tendency. Our perennial character Grimboli has certainly matured. He is now married. Reality has changed for him. Life is an endless cornucopia of experiences and surprises. Mud Season is a series of short chapters, rarely over a page or two and many just one paragraph, that chronicles the narrator and his wife's transition through the seasons of the year. If you are looking for a solid plot, look elsewhere. That is not the author's style. But if you are looking for an examination of life and emotions that exist in our own mundane world then you are in a gold mine. It is those in-the-moment observations that work here. Grimboli's random thoughts become connected in this work in a way that was missing in his previous book and it leads to small revelations for the reader. Grimboli's smind is all over the place but always right there with you leading to paragraphs like this...
Thank heaven for jokes. I love jokes so much. They are better than prayers, really. Better than church, often. Jokes and laughter. Jesus should have turned water into jokes. Not wine.
The characters laugh a lot in this book, especially Grimboli's wife. It is not that the laughter that is communicated so well but rather the narrator's appreciation of it. This is a book about interactions whether it is with his wife or the neighborhood children who annoy him. Our reward is to eavesdrop on his life and enjoy this different perspective.

Mud Season is a fast and easy read. I can see some readers wondering what the point is. However sensation by sensation it comes together. It is mystifying, spontaneous, but overall entertaining. Which leads me to the question, "IS there a point?". This time I think there is and our narrator may have hit upon it...

Grimboli, we are still stuck," He said

"Good point," I said. "But I'm sure we will get out eventually."

"I hope so," He said.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Horrors in the modern American west

In The Valley of the Sun

Andy Davidson


Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Pub. Date: June 6, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


It is inevitable, when one writes a dark novel about the contemporary west , he is going to be compared to Cormac McCarthy especially when the novel is steeped in literary prose. It makes sense since McCarthy is both very literary and usually quite dark. But in reviewing this particular work, I'm going to mention another name. Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show is the other modern master of the western novel. In my eyes, his novels, especially those of the contemporary west, are more sensitive to the changes in the west to the family, the decline in optimism and lifestyle, and a shrewder if cynical exploration of relationships and dreams, especially those dreams which may have missed their chance and long passed.

On reading In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson I see more McMurtry than McCarthy. Davidson's very literary horror novel may be much darker than anything McMurtry wrote but there is still the sense of the struggle and hope of people in the forgotten parts of the West. That struggle and hope rings through with the characters of this excellent novel (all but one to be precise) even if the final result is not what they or you would like it to be.

Travis Stillwell is a man haunted by his past and acting on his past in an horrific manner. In the Fall of 1980, he leaves a chain of murders which catches the attention of a Texas law officer who begins hunting for him. In a West Texas bar he meets a woman named Rue who has her own designs on him, attracted to him by sensing he has an evil past and can be as evil and corrupt as she is. When Travis wakes up the next morning he is changed, He has a hunger that regular food does not fulfill and an allergy to sunlight. He finds his camper truck in back of a restaurant and shut down motel that he does not remember pulling into. Annnabelle, the widowed proprietor of the barely surviving restaurant has pity on him and offers odd jobs to pay for his stay. Travis , Annabelle and her son Sandy start a odd and tenuous relationship that is in direct conflict with what he is becoming and the hold Rue has on him.

I might has well say it and get it over with. This is a vampire novel. But it is far from any vampire novel that you may have read before. The form of the vampire and the nature the transformation makes this fairly different but the psychological horror aspect takes center stage and we become immersed in Travis' dilemma. He is transformed at the same time he is offered something that may be his way out of his murderous addiction and senseless searching. Annabelle has similar concerns, caring for a child by herself, still grieving the death of her husband and fearful to move on. Annebelle is tied down to many social and psychological restrictions too. "Men have dreams. Women have secrets" she says. Both see a possibility through each other to break the chain but hovering over this hope is Rue who needs Travis to fulfill her own demonic goals in a symbiotic relationship with Travis that is dependent on his feeding and her enslavement of him.

So what we have is a horror novel but one that touches upon more than just vampires and visceral horror even though much of what we get of that is truly frightening. If one is looking for Salem's Lot or Interview with a Vampire, they will probably be disappointed. Setting it in the West Texas of 1980 is an inspiration, before the advent of the internet and when these small Texas towns still had a sense of isolation and the sense that their best days were behind them. I can see those readers into the modern western dramas of McMurtry and McCarthy really getting into this but those who are into horror and vampires will also like the unique take of a well-traveled horror genre. I cannot see anyone not being moved by the ending of this novel and I can only give it my highest recommendation.



Friday, September 22, 2017

A gnostic sci-fi novella

Beyond the Great, Bloody, Bruised, and Silent Veil of this World

Jordan Krall


Publisher: Journalstone (Bizarro Pulp Press)

Pub Date: April 22, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Once again, I end up with a novel that astounds me with its almost poetic style, the intricacy of characters and plot and the fine tapestry it weaves only to end up saying, "WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ?"

It isn't that I didn't understand it. Well, actually it is that I didn't understand it. However I doubt the author meant to pull it all together just to make me think I was clever enough to get it. I think Jordan Krall delights in mystifying his audience as long as he makes them think, which is exactly what happens in Beyond the Great, Bloody, Bruised and Silent Veil of this World. It starts with a man named Barry on a "train" to Mars. Here is where I start to lose it. As i read, I often wonder if Barry is one person, multiple persons, or a fiction within a fiction.. Mars itself become a intriguing mess. It seems to be a hive of outcasts, corporate stooges, drug advocates, and perhaps a messiah. There are terrorists with bombs but so do corporate entities have bombs which they may be using in their own seditious ways. I think. You think a book with Patterson-like short chapters would be easy to decipher but we get it in so many perspectives and those perspectives become so entwined with another, it just revs up the imagination even more. It makes me yearn for the relatively simple worlds of Phillip K. Dick and Valis.

The author calls it as "A gnostic SF novella epic" which is as accurate a description I can give. It also tunes into many of the thing this novella does have in common with Phillip K. Dick. That includes a rather mystical outlook and a possibly unreliable description of the world we are visiting. Part of the book involves Yesu and Galileans that will certainly provoke theological inclinations. Yet it all becomes part of the jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces that is this book.

Does it wrap up at the end? Actually it does but in a way that will send you back to read it a second or third time. I read it again. I recommend one reads it twice to get the nuances and twists that happen. But if you are looking for a book that does wrap everything in a bow, you are turning the wrong pages.

So why do I recommend it? For the same reason one may attempt to read Ulysses for the mind boggling trip it sends you on. Now mind you, I'm not comparing Beyond to Ulysses.. That would be silly. For one thing, you will actually finish Beyond. Another, you will want to read it again. I mean, how many people want to even be near the first page of Ulysses after struggling through it? Beyond is a fast and glorious read trapping the reader in its puzzles. Will you understand it? Probably not. Will you read it again to try to understand it? Absolutely. Will you love the act of a master word juggler? I'll bet positive on that one too. For all that, regardless how you decipher the plot, this book with the ridiculously long title gets four stars.