Friday, November 17, 2017

Smack in the middle of The Pine Barrens

Savage Woods

Mary SanGiovanni

Publisher: Lyrical Ynderground

Pub date: September 25, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

New Jersey's Pine Barrens sounds like the kind of place I would want to visit. Being a West Coaster I find it hard to think of New Jersey having forests but I guess they do. The Pines Barrens is a place of legends known mostly as a perennial burial ground for mafia type clean-ups and the stomping ground for The Jersey Devil. In Savage Woods, Mary SanGiovanni by the stroke of a pen visits the Pine Barrens, particularly a fictional (I presume) seven hundred acres part of it called the Nilhollow. Instead of the usual devil, the author brings forth a more interesting terror that speaks of ancient forces in nature and it works to some extent.

Julia Russo is running from her abusive ex-boyfriend and her path takes her into the Nilhollow. State trooper Peter Grainger is an officer that had contact with Julia and her boyfriend and has helped her out often. It appears he has taken a liking to her and when her car and the car of her boyfriend are found in the Pines Barren, he expects the worst and goes looking for her. But her homicidal boyfriend is the least of the dangers she and the trooper are about to meet.

We are given a prologue regarding two brothers that introduce us to the horrors of the Nilhollow which leads into Julia's misfortune and the subsequent search. From there on it is pretty much action. Lots of body parts are strewn around and there is a sufficient sense of awe and terror in the creatures of the Nilhollow. Yet the story never really takes off as far as the characters go . It is mainly because Julia isn't really that interesting a protagonist. She comes across as the perennial victim and when she is thrown into the supernatural, I guess we are to believe the heroine appears from within her. it just doesn't gel. Peter is still Prince Lancelot and the transforming I expect of Julia to an independent character never quite takes place.

But the novel is saved by the spirits. Her pantheistic forest spirits are quite interesting and among them is a suitably evil devil. There's a little Machen hiding in these malevolent sprites. Overall, it is a good idea with some very nice plotting but the main characters are just not interesting enough to carry it. As a quick horror read, I do recommend it. I'm just not sure how long you will remember it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

An island I wouldn't want to visit

Return to Q Island

Russell James


Publisher: MLG Publishing

Pub Date:  September 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Return to Q Island is the sequel to Russell James' excellent horror/disaster novel Q Island. I was surprised to find a sequel was written because the first book was fairly tight and conclusive in the story it told. Yet here we are and it's quite a good sequel, in many ways better than the first. But more importantly, you do not need to read the first to enjoy the second. Once the setting is rehashed we begin with anew protagonist and a new setting. Return to Q Island can be easily read as a stand-alone book.

So what is the setting? A ancient and vicious virus has ravaged Long Island, New York turning people into violent creatures . Their bite, and the spores that explode from their corpses once they are killed, can infect others. The government has quarantined the entire island, hence the nickname Q Island, leaving even the uninfected to survive on their own. Barely recovering addict Kim Mitchell, along with her alcoholic mother Nicole and her selfish uncle are one such family huddling in a shell of a town trying to survive. Kim is pregnant and about to give birth to her child not knowing if it will be normal or, as they call the infected, Paleo. Kim's brother Patrick is in Connecticut and has not had contact with his sister and mother for months. He decides he will return to Long Island and attempt to find his family even if it means he too will be stranded with no way to get back to the mainland

Return to Q Island is horror of the post-apocalyptic science fiction type. But mostly I see it as an adventure novel. The excitement of the read is in Patrick's attempt to rescue his family which leads to plenty of harrowing incidents and terrifying discoveries. There is also the clear hint that the Paleos may be changing and Kim's new child may have something to do with it.

As seen with Q Island and the recent Cavern of the Damned. Russell James' forte is the horror adventure novel. This book is a pretty damn good example of it. There is the tense feel of an epidemic/apocalyptic novel and it never really lets up on the horror of the situation. Patrick starts out naive but weathers through some nightmare occurrences and comes out as the unexpected heroic type. Kim does not start out promising but motherhood seems to agree with her and she become an essential character as the plot develops. There are also the expected villains, some of them maybe being a bit too stereotypical. The book's main strength is its creativity once we get past our strong heroes and cookie-cutter villains. What may sound like a zombie novel by any other name takes a few turns here and there and stays original and interesting

Overall, Return to Q Island is a nice addition to the apocalyptic and...dare I say it?... zombie sub-genre. Highly recommended to those who like daring deeds and post-apocalyptic style adventure.

Monday, November 6, 2017

A masterful Lovecraftian novella

Agents of Dreamland

 Caitlin R. Kiernan


Pub. Date: February 23, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

"You are who you are, until you aren’t anymore. This is the First Law."

Let's just start with a definite but hyperbolic statement. Agents of Dreamland may be the best Lovecraftian tale written since Lovecraft. And that is a big statement.

Agents of Dreamland begin with a bang and ends with a bigger bang. A man called The Signalman meets a woman in Winslow, Arizona ("standin' on a corner in...", That Winslow.) There is a dangerous tension in the air and I expected one or the other would end up dead in the beginning pages. But it isn't that simple a story. There was an incident a few days earlier happening at the edge of the Salton Sea in California that has seriously unnerved The Signalman. In separate vignettes, we get the parts of the puzzle from a cult in California, to a woman that transcends time, to an odd phenomena in space near Neptune astronomers are following . It doesn't come together as much as floods us with imagery. It doesn't resolve as much as leave us with a sense of foreboding. While the themes and events are clearly of Cthulhu Mythos quality, I also kept going back to the feelings I had while watching Twin Peaks: The Return . There are bits of similarity here at least in atmosphere. Come to think of it, Twin Peaks may be more Lovecraftian than people realize. But I digress...

To repeat my first hyperbolic declaration, Agents of Dreamland may be the best Lovecraftian tale after Lovecraft. I have always been impressed with Caitlin R. Kiernan but in this novella she has outdone herself. It is sad that it is so brief since there is enough in the book for a series of books. But that density of plot is what makes it a masterpiece for its genre. Must reading for all horror readers.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Sins of the father

Mapping the Interior

Stephen Graham Jones

Publisher: MacMillan/Tor

Pub. date: June 20, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Stephen Graham Jones may be writing the most thoughtful fiction available in any genre. While he has a reputation mainly as a horror writer, this novella and the superb Mongrels, are socio-psychological mirrors into parts of our American culture we tend to ignore. Mapping the Interior may specifically be touching these themes on a more personal level as it is set in the Native American culture with a family that can be called marginally on the edges of the mainstream socially and economically. But if you want to accept that outlook or not, Mapping the Interior remains a powerful if somewhat introverted horror tale.

A twelve year old boy sees his father walk through the kitchen doorway of their house to the utility room early in the morning. His father has been dead for years, but the boy is sure he is back from the dead and becoming more alive and strong with each visit. He discovers that the way his father is becoming strong may destroy his younger brother. He is placed in the position of protecting his mother and younger brother from a supernatural threat and it is his burden alone to bear.

For a novella, there is so much going on here it is hard to give a thorough review especially when it is best to experience the reveals and turns on their own. So I will try to not reveal the plot and its twists and discuss the themes and the delivery of those themes which i believe are the true meat of the story. This is firstly a rather introspective novel. While there are certainly the action segments and impressive scares of a horror tale, it is really about the mind and conflicts of a young boy who has grown up without really knowing his father. The stories he has heard may not be reliable, a parallel theme we have seen in the above-mentioned Mongrels. His first emotions seeing his father, even being that of a spirit, is jubilation but it soon becomes one of dread when he discovers what the price might be. We are talking loss, regrets, and the price of that loss. We are also talking about the reliability and importance of memory. And we are examining all of those in the framework of an unique culture and one whose members are often economically and socially on the boundaries of the mainstream. Our young protagonist may be a boy but the situation he finds himself in forces him to take a man's role. This could be called a coming-of-age story, which it is, but it is a sad and uncomfortable one.

It is always dangerous to attempt to claim how much of a tale is auto-biographical but there is surely a sense that the emotions of the story come from the real and intimate world of the author. I suspect those who like their horrors direct and fast may become frustrated with the pace and the inward reflection of this book. That would be unfortunate because that is where the power is. There are several thrills and moments of horror within the pages but there is so much more. This novella did not grab me so thoroughly like Mongrels which has the advantage of more pages to expand its message and its hold on the reader but Mapping the Interior is still a worthy addition to Stephen Graham Jones' repertoire of horror with an humanist touch..

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The perils of remodeling

The Garrison Project

David J. Thirteen

Publisher: Bad Luck Books

Pub. Date: June 23, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Garrison Project is an interesting literary slant on a cinematic gimmick called the Found Footage Film. The most famous example of that is, of course, The Blair Witch Project. Actually the closest thing to found footage in novels would be the epistolary novel where the narrative is given by documents, usually letters. David J. Thirteen's take is to follow a researcher of urban legends who comes upon a series of videos that chronicles the remodeling of a house and points to something more sinister.

Molly is looking for the point where a true-life incident makes the leap to horror folk tale. She believes she may have found it in a online video where the family is tearing down a wall for remodeling and discovers a strange shrine. The research comes to a dead end until an unknown person sends her more tapes chronicling the continuing remodeling of the house. We not only follow the video's narration of what took place but also Molly's as she senses something in the videos may be taking a hold on her.

That is where the analogy to found footage ends. We see the viewer's own perceptions and reaction as well as the narration on the videos. The chapters go back and fought, sometimes a little awkwardly, but it does rev up the tension of the story. You not only have a unreliable narrator but perhaps an unreliable video. It's a nice gimmick and one that works most of the way through. The idea communicates the changes in Molly's perceptions rather well which is really the meat of the story.

Overall a brief but entertaining read from a new writer who took some chances and made it work.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Four short novels by Joe Hill

Strange Weather

Joe Hill

Publisher: William Morrow

Pub Date: October 24, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

I believe I have read all the novels that Joe Hill has written and published. So I feel fairly secure in saying that he has a certain weakness that he shares with a particular relative. he is subject to long novels that tend to have too much filler.It is no coincidence that his best novel, Heart Shaped Box is also his first and shortest. In my opinion, last novel The Fireman was impressive but way too long for the plot. On the other hand, NOS4A2, was just as long and fantastic so what the hell do I know?

Here in Strange Weather we have four short novels. Novellas. I do not believe any goes over 200 pages. From the strength of this book, I would say novellas are something he might want to focus on more. Each one has the right length, stays on track and, for the most part, rocks and rolls. All of them has elements of horror although at least two are not technically a horror story and one has no supernatural elements. This would be a good book for the Joe Hill novice to wade in to see what he can do.

Let's go over all four.

Snapshots is a very clever supernatural thriller that involves a boy who meets a strange man with a strange camera. Without giving it away, it's a clever gimmick and Hill makes it works partially because the teenage boy is so believable in his vulnerabilities. It is the closest to a straight horror tale in this collection and is the closest to the type of story that the other relative made so famous. For those who remember the old Polaroid cameras, it will make you wonder a bit. Five stars.

Loaded is by far the best novella here. It is not so much a horror story as much as a topical suspense thriller. There is definitely a sociopolitical message here. It starts with the murder of an innocent boy by a policeman then moves some years into 2013 to pick up another situation is unnerving and unfortunately way too possible today. There is some really good development of characters for such a short novel and the ending is explosive. It makes me hope that the author writes some more non-supernatural suspense in the future. He certainly has the skills. Five Stars

Aloft is fantasy where a skydiver lands on a strange cloud and is held prisoner. It felt a little Lovecraftian to me although it really isn't. It has a nice imagery while describing this strange trans-formative cloud. Four stars.

Rain is the only one that lost me. It has a great starting idea for a world wide catastrophe but it simply didn't hold me. The usual well-define characters didn't make it here to this party. There appears to be a social allegory in this one too but I don't think it took hold as nearly well as the allegory took place in Loaded. But Hill can't write a bad story so three stars.

So seventeen stars altogether averages to 4.1 stars. But the first two stories are so good I'm going to say 4.5 stars easily. What is really important is that Joe Hill has delivered 4 quite different short novels and hit it out of the ball park twice, gave a solid effort on the third and...well most people loved that one so let just say I am in the minority. As I stated, this is a good beginning read to learn what the author can do. But if you, like me , just happen to love novellas then it is pretty much essential reading.

Friday, October 20, 2017

It's all about THAT neighbor

Kill Your Neighbor

Andersen Prunty


Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Pub Date: October 20, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


This Kindle exclusive piece of short fiction may be considered a bit of a fantasy. it's about dealing with THAT neighbor. You all know who THAT neighbor is. You've been there. Emma and Kip Dupree are on the track to the American dream. It may not be in the best neighborhood or exactly the house they wanted but it is a significant step up. But there is THAT neighbor with her two little yapping dogs (that is why I'm a cat person) who may be crazy and dangerous. Their dream quickly turns into a nightmare and their options are limited to none...legally.

Andersen Prunty's Kill Your Neighbor may be short but it packs a punch. We follow the Dupree's solution and learn about what led to that solution. There should be a "don't do this at home" sticker on this tale since it is both horrific and, for some who have been there, possibly cathartic. Either way, it is a tight and riveting example of the short story. There isn't much else I can say about this without giving it away so just spend that 99 cents and enjoy.