Shades of Lovecraft in Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth

WEIRDERCoverFront_-_Copy_largeThe story behind the anthology Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth is almost more interesting than the stories in the book itself.  It’s the third in a series edited by Stephen Jones, all inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 tale “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” featuring the mutated denizens of Innsmouth and following in the damp, amphibious footprints of Shadows Over Innsmouth (1994) and Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005).  Both of the prior volumes were published by Fedogan & Bremer, a press that specialized in handsome hardcovers in the vein of Arkham House until ceasing operations after the death of co-founder Phil Rahman.  After several years of dormancy, F&B was revived in 2012 by co-founder Dennis Weiler, with Weirder Shadows being the second volume issued since the press’ return from the dead.

As with the prior volumes, editor Jones has assembled an impressive list of contributors, with authors such as Caitlin Kiernan, Conrad Williams, and Ramsey Campbell headlining the line-up of seven original stories and ten reprints. So, to start… since I cherry-picked those three author names, let’s start by taking a look at their contributions.

Kiernan actually has three stories included here, all reprinted from her subscription-based online periodical, Sirenia Digest, and two are excellent.  “Fish Bride” is related via the post-coital bedroom conversation between one of the blasphemous fish-people and her human lover.  Between the dialog and the human’s internal monologue, the tale perfectly captures the tensions of the cross-species relationship. “The Transition of Elizabeth Haskings,” meanwhile, begins as a story of a lonely, repressed female librarian and her relationship with her gay male coworker, but is gradually revealed to be something much more.

Conrad Williams offers up “The Hag Stone,” a lengthy tale of a recent widower who decides to get away to a remote inn in the Channel Islands, but soon finds the locale less than idyllic, plagued as it is by invaders from the nighttime seas. I’m a huge fan of Williams’ work, and this unfortunately isn’t as good as he’s capable of, but it’s still an engaging piece. Finally, Ramsey Campbell’s “The Winner” is likewise set far from the original Innsmouth stomping grounds, but the chosen locale — a bizarre pub, where a man and his family find themselves stranded after their ferry to Dublin is canceled — is suitably damp and disturbing.

The danger with any tribute anthology like this — and especially with an anthology series that stretches to three volumes — is that the stories will start to seem too familiar, too rote, and that is occasionally an issue here, but for the most part, contributing authors manage to put an interesting twist on their events.

Take, for example, Reggie Olive’s “The Archbishop’s Well,” which successfully merges Lovecraftian horrors with an antiquarian ghost milieu of the sort that Oliver frequently employs.  Or Brian Hodge’s “The Same Deep Waters as You,” which marries the Innsmouth basics with recent political events, resulting in a fast-paced and intriguing story of Innsmouth residents forcibly relocated to a Gitmo-style prison, where they exert a strange influence on the female protagonist, who was recruited by the government based on the work she’d done on her Discovery Channel show, The Animal Whisperer.

Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Chain” is another tale that transports the Lovecraftian terrors far from their origin, to the unlikely destination of Carmel, California, a picturesque coastal town that’s strangely devoid of any homeless population. Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “Into the Water” is perhaps my favorite story here, a quiet chiller in which global warming and dramatically rising waters afford the Innsmouth amphibians the opportunity to expand their territory.

Of course, as is almost often the case with a sizable anthology, there were other tales that didn’t work so well for me, such as those by John Glasby, Kim Newman, and Adrian Cole, to name a few.  Nonetheless, Weirder Shadows is overall a strong gathering of admirably diverse stories, nicely buttressed by a wonderful Les Edwards dustjacket painting and interior B&W illustrations by Randy Broecker.  Fedogan & Bremer has another anthology, as well as a collection by Scott Nicolay, scheduled for the coming months, and I recommend you put this reemergent press back on your radar.

Anatomy Lessons with Stephen Volk’s Monsters in the Heart

volkMonstersI’ve reviewed a couple titles by Stephen Volk in the past (here and here), and really enjoyed those books, as well as his regular column in Black Static magazine.  His latest collection, Monsters in the Heart, from Gray Friar Press, is a substantial one, reprinting 13 tales originally published between 2006 and 2012, plus two originals.

The book certainly leads from strength, as the top-of-the-order story, “After the Ape” is a true standout, putting an interesting spin on the story of King Kong and his “human mistress,” Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray in the original 1933 version of the film). The story is narrated from Darrow’s perspective, grieving over the tragic loss of her misunderstood guardian.

Other standouts include the following:

  • “Who Dies Best,” which starts with the arresting line “I watched my mother die again today,” and is set in an alternate reality where widespread economic collapse leads to a legitimization and broadening of the “snuff film” concept, with the financially unfortunate becoming “one-off” actors and dying on screen, in exchange for a payout for their survivors.
  • “In the Colosseum,” wherein a relatively innocent film editor is insidiously drawn into a beyond-decadent clique of film crew and hangers-on, led by a particularly perverse producer.
  • “White Butterflies, a tragic tale concerning two young Kazakhstanian brothers whose quest to scavenge scrap metal from an area where spacecraft debris falls leads them to an unfortunate meeting with what Volks calls “monsters…of the predatory human kind.”
  • “Pied a Terre,” in which a woman viewing a potential work-week apartment for her husband encounters something strange in the apartment, and is forced in turn to face certain facts in her own life.
  • “Appeal For Witnesses,” a longer story involving a cop’s investigation of a crime, which leads to an unsettling discovery about the true nature of some apparent Russian gangsters.

The only negative I found in this collection is the *extremely* varied nature of its contents — so much so that it’s somewhat distracting.  Although Volk claims in his Afterword that the collection has a unifying theme that’s expressed in its title, I can’t say that I agree with what  the author says:

The title of this collection, Monsters in the Heart, refers partly to the deep fondness we horror aficionados have for the famous monsters and fright night fiends created by other writers before us…

Some of the stories herein are about human monsters. Individuals with an evil streak or deeply aberrant nature, or those who are simply physically wrong. Others are about, or riffs on, certain myths and legends, or our modern myths and legends from novels or the big screen. Some are about both.

With stories written for the Sherlock Holmes and Hellboy universes — plus other tales such as a surreal bit about a boy with a giant head that grows to fill an entire room, and a sociological SF story set in a near future where genetic screening has become illegal, to name just a couple — there’s an extremely wide range of fiction here. Normally, I’m all in favor of that, but in this case, as I said, it just seemed a little…off-putting, in what is for the most part a very good collection.  As always, your mileage may vary.

Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

Trouble in Paradise: Kristin Dearborn’s Sacrifice Island

sacrifice_islandThe blurb for Kristin Dearborn’s novella Sacrifice Island (DarkFuse, 2013) grabbed my attention, leading me to add the book to my reviewing queue:

Jemma and Alex are paranormal investigators, writing a book on hauntings around the world. When Jemma begins researching a cryptic diary written by a young woman who committed suicide on a supposedly haunted island in the Philippines years earlier, they think they’ve found their next chapter.

It doesn’t take long for the pair to learn that the island harbors long-buried secrets, while savagely mutilated bodies turn its cerulean seas bloodred around them.

An ancient legend…

For the spirits here are demanding, and Jemma must confront her own demons while attempting to save herself and Alex from taking a permanent vacation to Sacrifice Island.

Intriguing, no?  It’s not revealing too much to say that the creature of Sacrifice Island is an aswang, a mythical vampire-like creature from Filipino folklore. I have a couple movies in my collection that feature as aswang, but have never gotten around to watching them, so I was looking forward to my, er, aswang introduction on Sacrifice Island.

As mentioned in the blurb above, Jemma and Alex travel to the Philippines to investigate the legends involving Sakripisiyuhin Island, or Sacrifice Island, as it’s called. It quickly becomes apparent that Jemma has some unusual quirks — fervently avoiding the touch of others, burying herself in layers of clothing — and that the two of them have a relationship with some undisclosed backstory… in particular, Alex seems to have feelings for Jemma that go well beyond their business relationship.  Jemma also has an unusual psychic skill, but I’m going to refrain from going into detail on that in order to avoid a spoiler.

Arriving in the town of El Nido, they’re greeted by Terry Brenton, a UK expat and widower who owns a local hotel and figures prominently in the plot. Nearby Sacrifice Island was once a tourist attraction, but after a string of suicides, it’s become abandoned, and shunned by the locals…although it’s not completely deserted, acting as home to something that demands sacrifices, as the island’s name implies.  Once Jemma and Alex visit the island, events begin inexorably leading toward a confrontation with the aswang.

There is some awkward dialog at times, and a few minor continuity problems, as seen here:

She started to walk back, but then realized it was too hot. She had to flag a trike down after all.

None of them stopped and she started to cry. Finally one did stop. It took three tries to spit out the name of the place.

“You okay, lady?” the driver asked, his English broken.

“Fine, thank you.” She turned away. She knew she’d overpaid, but she didn’t care.

Relief washed over her as she retreated to her cabin, shut the door behind her, locked it. She drew all the curtains, and only then did she step out of her layers of clothes.

But those weak spots are somewhat balanced out by strong pacing and some nice descriptive passages, as seen here:

The afternoon sun baked through Terry’s light cotton shirt and linen trousers. Sweat pooled at the small of his back and inside his trousers … He’d had to wait a day, to make sure Mr. Lucky fed her, to make sure she wasn’t hungry when he came. He arrived at noon, when the sun shone strongest and the creatures of the night were at their weakest.

Sacrifice Island is also aided by the “fresh” nature of some key aspects: the off-the-beaten-path locale, the unusual creature, and the offbeat nature of Jemma’s psychic ability.

The aforementioned relationship between Jemma and Alex is the most intriguing aspect of the novella but it’s frustrating as well — the reader tends to tire quickly of his simpering behavior and her rather icy and controlling actions.  All in all, Sacrifice Island is an entertaining way to spend a couple hours, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges.

Twilight Ridge’s Top Five Books for 2013

Top-FiveLOGO3

Here it is, the obligatory “best of 2013″ post.  It is, of course, limited to the books that I actually read during 2013, a group that — in a clear sign of my dedication to Twilight Ridge — almost exactly equates to the books that I reviewed here on this site.  I read only a small handful of additional titles beyond those that I reviewed.  Without further hand-waving, here’s the top five:

  1. Carl Shuker, Anti Lebanon
  2. Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters
  3. Michael Marshall Smith, Everything You Need
  4. David Nickle, The ‘Geisters
  5. John Langan, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky

Runner-up: Michael McBride, The Coyote.

Q4 2013 Publisher Update

It’s been almost exactly six months since our last publisher update, so we’re a bit overdue.  This time around, I’m not just adding new and newly discovered presses, I’m also removing several publishers who have either closed their doors or have been moribund for an extended period.

Publishers Added to the List

1313Horror.com - An exercise in pretension and hokiness, 13Horror trumpets their Thirteen anthology series as “The scariest books ever published” and “…the most important contribution to the horror genre in living memory.  Steeped in controversy and banned in certain parts of Europe…” Volume one in the series features no less than 113 stories, and with that many stories I’m sure there isn’t a clunker in the bunch.  Ahem.  Press founder Andrew Hannon supposedly disappeared in 2010, with his estate “assuming responsiblity [sic] for publishing the horror legacy compiled and edited by Hannon.”  Yeesh.

 

BigTime_HellBig Time Books - Founded by indy-film veteran Eric Miller, BTB’s debut title, the anthology Hell Comes To Hollywood, certainly reflects Miller’s background both in theme and the contributor list, which is filled with screenwriters and others with film backgrounds. The anthology is available in both trade paperback and ebook formats.  No additional titles have yet been announced.

 

 

 

DarkOpus_PoeDark Opus Press - An offshoot of Bête Noire magazine, Dark Opus has published a couple of interestingly themed anthologies — For All Eternity, based on the seven deadly sins, and In Poe’s Shadow, wherein the stories are inspired by Poe — with a third (Tell Me a Fable, stories based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales) on the way.  Unfortunately, some of the text on their website is pretty poorly written, which is never a good sign.

 

 

DarkRen_RichardsDark Renaissance Books - After turning over control of the long-standing Dark Regions Press to his son Chris, Joe Morey has now gone on to found  Dark Renaissance Books, a press that “… will specialize in publishing literary horror, dark fantasy, and fantasy short story collections, and poetry collections” (with the occasional anthology thrown into the mix, apparently).  Dark Renaissance has published three titles so far — highlighted by Jeffrey Thomas’ collection, Worship the Night — and announced three more, including Tony Richards’ The Universal and Other Terrors. Titles are published in numbered and lettered hardcover editions.

 

Dreadful_AgonyDreadful Cafe - A publisher of the “strange and mysterious,” DC looks to be an ebook-only publisher and so far has just one title to their credit — Rick Wayne’s Agony in Violet — but have also announced two anthologies, Membrane and Thresholds. Their place on the list is tentative, due to both their nascent state and the question of whether they will turn out to be primarily a horror publisher.

 

 

 

Fox_ShadowsFox Spirit Books - UK-based cross-genre publisher, with nine of their eleven titles (two novels, four novellas, four anthologies and one non-fiction title) involving horror.  Their books are available in paperback and ebook formats, and representative titles include Jo Thomas’ 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf and Joan De La Haye’s Shadows.

 

 

 

GreyM_DarkVisGrey Matter Press - Promoted from the “Pending” list now that they’ve published their first couple of books, this Chicago-based publisher is specializing, perhaps exclusively, in anthologies, with their first five announced titles all falling into that category.  Of those five, one has has so far been published — Dark Visions: Volume One, featuring the likes of Ray Garton, Jonathan Maberry, David Riley, and John F.D. Taff.  Grey Matter books are available in both trade paperback and ebook formats.

 

GreyhartGreyhart Press - An ebook-only publisher of roughly equal amounts of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  In the realm of horror, they’ve published five novels and a novella, all by either Mark West or Paul Melhuish.

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery_UndeadMystery and Horror, LLC - This company was originally launched as a writing partnership between Gwen Mayo and Sarah Glenn, because they were going to the same conventions and events to promote their books, but the two decided in 2013 to expand into publishing, and have already published four anthologies (and apparently will continue to focus exclusively on that format).  M&H has a strong secondary focus on humor, with half of their books to date featuring a horror/humor hybrid approach – Strangely Funny and the unfortunately titled Ha-Ha Horror.  Formats: trade paperback and ebook.

 

Sirens_MentalSiren’s Call Publications - Self-described as “an edgy/dark Fiction Publisher interested in stories of Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery and Suspense,” Siren’s Call — which is owned and operated by three women — also seems to have a pretty strongy emphasis on romance, with four of their nine titles to date either primarily or secondarily focused on that genre.  As you can gather from those numbers, Siren’s Call just barely qualifies for inclusion on our list, with five of their titles falling into the horror /thriller category.  Representative titles include The Undying Love by Greg McCabe and Days With the Undead by Julianne Snow, both post-zombie-apocalypse tales, and Siren’s Call books are available in the usual trade paperback and ebook formats.

StrangeH_vomitStrange House Books - Named after its founder, Kevin Strange, the moniker also describes the press’ purpose, which — as described on their website — is to “showcase the most bizarre, horrific, weird, and downright Strange fiction the genre has to offer.”  In business for just over a year at this point, Strange House has already published fourteen titles, including nine novels, four anthologies, and one collection.  Somewhat disconcertingly, five of the nine novels are by Strange himself (never a good sign when a founder is so fixated on publishing their own work).  Strange House is clearly treading the same bizarro ground as Eraserhead Press and LegumeMan Books, as evidenced by some of their book titles: Alien Smut Peddlers From the Future; Dinner at the Vomitropolis; and Vampire Guts in Nuke Town.

StrangeW_TwistedStrange, Weird, and Wonderful Publishing - Cross-genre publisher of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, with five titles to their credit so far — three anthologies, all edited by D.L. Russell and Sharon Black; a novel; and a collection.  SW&W employs an extremely bare-bones website, and while their submissions page talks about acquiring electronic rights as well as print rights, their books seems to so far be available only in trade paperback format.

 

 

 

Stumar_SpareStumar Press - A UK-based ebook-only publisher launched in 2011, the press’ name is a combination of the founders’ names (Stuart Hughes and Mark West).  Stumar debuted with an anthology and has since published collections by Stuart Young, Sara Jayne Townsend, and Hughes, with another anthology and a collection of collaborative stories, by Tim Lebbon and D.F. Lewis, having been announced.  In the “not-so-good news” department, their website looks to not have been updated since 2012, so they’re going to immediately sport an asterisk next to their name on the list.

 

Vamp2_WalkingVampires2 Publishing Company- Sigh.  It pains me to include publishers like this on the list, but…based on my criteria, they qualify.  Featuring a website straight out of 1995, Vampires2 has published 24 titles — some really only short stories in length, all in ebook format, and all with horrendously amateurish covers. Enough said.

 

 

 

 

Villipede_AbsenceVillipede Publications - Featuring a stylish website (bordering on style over substance, actually, with some annoying display and user experience issues), Villipede debuted in 2011 with a science fiction anthology, but has since followed up with the horror novel The Absence of Light by J. Daniel Stone and the horror anthology Darkness Ad Infinitum, and have announced a collection.  Paperback and ebook formats.

 

 

Publishers Removed From The List

I’ve been allowing a lot of questionable publishers (questionable in terms of whether they’re truly still active)  to cling to the list for far too long.  A culling of the herd is way overdue, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do here.

I considered removing all of the presses listed below… some I wound up moving to the “Defunct” list, some I declared dormant and moved to the “Excluded Publishers” list, and some I kept on the Active Publisher list, with an asterisk to denote their borderline status.  See the comments for each publisher for details:

  • Alter Ego Books – Dormant; published one title (a chapbook) in 2011, with nothing announced on their website since then.
  • Annihilation Press – Although they’re putting out some comics, Roger Dale Trexler’s press has been dormant as a book publisher since 2009.
  • Babbage Press – Dormant; website was last updated in January 2011, and when I tried to email Babbage to query their status, my message got bounced back because their mailbox was full.  Seems like no one’s minding the store.  Press owner Lydia Marano is a friend from long ago, but… I’m declaring this press dormant.
  • Bandersnatch Books – Defunct; website has been taken over by Asian squatters; Bandersnatch is deader than dead.
  • BlackSails Press – Defunct before they started; no updates to website since 2011; no titles ever published.
  • Blade Red Press – Dormant; no posts on their site since April 2011.
  • Bloodletting Press – Defunct; the lease expired on the website name registration, and the name been taken over by another party. However, former Bloodletting Press owner Larry Roberts is still publishing other imprints (see Arcane Wisdom).
  • Coscom Entertainment – Dormant; no posts to site since April 2011.
  • Dark Prints Press – Announced minimum 1-year hiatus 7/13/13, so I’m keeping them on the list, but giving them an asterisk.
  • Dark Scribe Press – Defunct; no posts since 2010; apparently no books published since 2009.
  • Darkwood Press – Defunct; although the primary imprint Fairwood Press (which is non-horror) continues to publish, sub-imprint Darkwood appears to have gone dark.
  • Dead Letter Press – Nothing published in a long time, but press owner indicates they’re not dead yet, so they’ll stay on the list with an asterisk.
  • DHG Press – Defunct; lease expired on website name registration.
  • Elder Signs Press – No new titles published since Fall of 2011, but they did post in May 2013 that one of their titles will be translated and published in Spain, so I’ll keep them on the list and give them an asterisk.
  • E-volve Books – Defunct; website has been down for more than three months. That’s more than enough cause to declare them dead.
  • Haunted Computer Books – Dormant; no posts since March 2011.
  • Hersham Horror Books – No posts on their site since 2011, but they did publish a book in May 2012, so they’ll continue to stay on the list, with an asterisk, for now.
  • Library of the Living Dead Press – Defunct; no posts on website since 2011; no activity on Facebook page since 2010.
  • Mythos Books – Dormant; no new titles since May 2010.
  • Necessary Evil Press – Dormant; no books released or posts made to site since April 2011.
  • Necropolitan Press – Dormant; no titles released since 2009.
  • Pill Hill Press – Defunct; closed their doors January 2013.
  • Sideshow Press – Dormant; no posts (or titles published) since April 2011.  (Update: as per comments below, I’ve added Sideshow back to the list.)
  • Spectre Library – Dormant; no posts (or titles published) since Spring 2011.
  • Strange Publications – Dormant; no posts (or titles published) since March 2011.
  • Triskaideka books – Defunct; website down; no posts on Facebook page since September 2011, when they announced that they were suspending an anthology.
  • War of the Words Press – Defunct before they started; never published the Weird War anthology that they announced, and showed off a very cool cover for (which can still be seen on their dormant Facebook page).

In sum: I’ve added 15 new presses to the Active Publisher list, and removed 23, for a net reduction of eight, and a new total of 183 publishers on the list.

What Happens in Skillute… with S.P. Miskowski’s Astoria

Astoria CoverS.P. Miskowski is a newer writer who’s quickly built a significant reputation in the genre, via her interconnected books Knock Knock and Delphine Dodd.  Both have received many plaudits, with the latter short-listed for a Shirley Jackson award.  The following review quotation is particularly notable to me because I frequently share Peter Tennant’s *tastes*:

“I rate Delphine Dodd as the best novella I read in 2012, and Knock Knock as the best book I read in any category.” —Peter Tennant, Black Static

Impressive words, indeed.

Coming off of those two earlier successes, Miskowski has again gone from strength to strength with her follow-up, the novella Astoria (Omnium Gatherum Books, 2013). As with her earlier two books, Miskowski’s latest is again set (at least partially) in the small town of Skillute, Washington, a fictional town with a boatload of baggage, both natural and supernatural.

At the eye of the storm in Astoria is Ethel Sanders, a character who figured in Knock Knock.  The victim of an abusive childhood that she’s never been able to escape, Ethel is now a middle-aged wife and mom who’s plagued by the actions of her daughter, the cruel and seemingly psychopathic Connie Sara.  Ethel’s existence has become a bottomless pit of misery, as she lives in fear of Connie Sara’s latest crimes while barely enduring her forever-in-denial husband, Burt.  When a local boy, Winston, disappears, Ethel strongly believes that Connie Sara has moved beyond animal abuse to human targets:

Ethel and Burt had agreed to so many deals just to get through each day, compromising, making allowances. Finally they allowed the girl to take over in a way that would be inexcusable if they’d had any self-respect. Their friends had stopped calling. Their neighbors had stayed away. Their house grew dark and they kept their voices down, while the thing they had brought into the world wandered the countryside at night. Restless and filled with hatred, it had killed animals for pleasure. It had killed that little boy, Winston, and who could say how much more damage it was responsible for?

Everything changes when Connie Sara dies unexpectedly, leaving Ethel guilt-ridden for feeling more relieved than sad over her daughter’s passing. At the funeral, Ethel is struck by hallucinations that serve to illuminate just how unreliable of a narrator she is:

In the light, Connie Sara stretched her arms out, reaching for Ethel. Dirt stained her clothes. Blood dripped from her hands. Something was wrong with her eyes. They were blue-gray but smeared with a dark substance like charcoal.

Ethel watched. Convulsive waves of panic ran through her.

Connie Sara’s bruised lips drew taut, smiling or mocking, she couldn’t tell. When the girl lifted one hand and placed a bloody index finger over her lips, Ethel turned away and began to walk as quickly as she could.

After dreaming for years of running away and leaving everything behind her, Ethel’s cemetery visions finally drive her to do just that. She speeds away from the graveyard, unsure of where she’s headed but determined to flee, until she finally gets the idea to hide out for a while in nearby Astoria.

Entering Astoria, Ethel is struck by the image of another driver, leaving town, a scene that foreshadows the ramped-up strangeness that’s soon to come:

…she saw that the driver of the other Tercel was a woman, probably at least fifty, wearing sunglasses and a scarf. In every respect the woman was the exact image of Ethel herself, and as they passed one another the woman looked out her window, so that they held one another’s gaze for a second. The similarity between them gave Ethel a chill. In another instant it was over.

Finding an ad for a house-sitter, Ethel believes she’s struck upon the perfect way to lay low, even though the identity and backstory that she concocts for herself is ridiculously flimsy.  Her meeting with the homeowner, James Bevin, goes well — too well, it seems — and Ethel gets the job, convinced that she and Bevin have connected on some instinctual level.

After he departs, Bevin’s influence continues to resonate with Ethel, and a young boy claiming to be Bevin’s son comes knocking on her door, although it gradually dawns on Ethel that the boy might actually be someone else entirely.  In view of all the stress Ethel has endured, it seems unsurprising that her loss of touch with reality begins to accelerate. When it happens, there’s a tendency for the reader to empathize with her, even as the surreal events continue to pile up.

Through it all, the narrative stays tightly focused on Ethel’s perspective, and the reader is forced to witness, with some dismay and discomfort, the bizarre associations, rationalizations, and thoughts of persecution running through Ethel’s mind.

There is much that is strange and unsettling in Astoria.  In fact, in the latter stages of the story, there is almost nothing that isn’t strange and unsettling.  Miskowski crafts her tale with a confident, assured hand, resulting in a heart-wrenching portrait of a desperate woman’s slide into insanity.

Tyree’s Tirades of Terror #2

Today we have the second installment of Mark Tyree’s irregular (in more ways than one) review column.  Enjoy!

========

Breedlove_HowDieHow To Die Well, by Bill Breedlove
Bad Moon Books, 2013; 333 pages

Hey, all! Hope this finds you hugging all of life’s turns and sudden surprises, and balancing well enough to make “The Stig” weep.

First off, big thanks to Roy at Bad Moon Books. We go back a ways. Years ago, I used to offer my review comments on titles for various publications until, well, life got to be akin to rafting down a raging Tennessee river without the hillbilly enjoyment. Work was overwhelmingly busy. Eight to twelve hours a day, seven days a week were common and I had to tell Roy, and others in the small press field, sorry man, I can no longer do this. Which, in the case of Bad Moon, was particularly rough, as it seemed every single book Roy sent was a gem. The man had an eye for talent. Seriously, I do not recall an average novel — they all were great reads.

Present day.

I told Roy I was back in the saddle… sort of, with an irregular column. He said thanks for the warning. Said he’d send me a collection called How To Die Well by Bill Breedlove to review via my Kindle.

Huh? Kindle? Collection? Bill Breedlove?

Long story short, I grabbed the Kindle app for my crank-start PC.  As much as I loathe reading off the wide screen, being the cool, bend-over-backwards kinda guy that I am, I made an exception and told Roy, “let ‘er rip.” But maybe Roy could sense my reluctance because he says, “these Kindles are pretty nifty, Tyree, but would it be easier if I just sent the actual book to you?”

I replied, “Oh all right, if you insist, Roy, ol’ buddy.”

I know, what an asshole I am, right? So, again, thank you, Roy wherever ya be, laddy…

Now.

If I remember correctly, the way I worked an anthology was to touch on every tale between the covers. I figured the writers worked hard on their stories, so it’s only right I take a bite out of each and comment. There seemed to be more note-taking and rereading required for anthologies before I started to bang out my thoughts.

But…I have checked…And this is the very first collection I’ve ever reviewed, you lucky devils, and hell no, I’m not going over every story in this thing. That would be insane, borderline redundant and, well, pointless and beyond boring.

So. How To Die Well. Stories by Mr. Bill Breedlove. Since the name was totally unfamiliar, I went through the covers, bit of recon scouting: picture, good-looking fella, looks like he’d play guitar for the pigeon on his shoulder, rather impressive gigs including Chicago Tribune, Playboy.com, The Fortune News, Stoker-nominated editor of Candy in the Dumpster, and When the Night Comes Down among others…

Also, quite a few top-drawer blurbs, including one from a Mr. Gahan Wilson.

What I’m going to do, first off, see if I can grab him, is to have Mr. Breedlove speak first and…crap…hey Mr. Breedlove, any chance you can say something to these kind folks, let them know what goes on in your head, let ‘em see if it’s worth spending hard earned money on your collection? Thanks!

“I felt his balls begin to contract and the tube on the bottom of his cock start to pulse and I pulled my face away, still tugging on his member. He was moaning and making noises and I honestly do not even think he noticed when, with one smooth swipe of the Urban Skinner, I separated his cock from him entirely. Quick as I could, I brought it up to him, where his puzzled eyes were trying to deduce what exactly was happening. ‘Just like in the porn videos, motherfucker!’ I yelled and his still convulsing penis responded exactly as I had hoped it would, and shot a hot jet of cum directly into his right eye.”

Ahem. Now, sure, that was most certainly a goof. And I did not start this review with that quotation to create the impression that you’re going to be hit with a turd storm from page one. On the contrary. And yes, I’m being sincere. This tale, “For the Happiness of Pigeons,” features a literary device that I have always admired when I see it from male writers: putting on a dress and writing a first-person female POV. I’ve typically found that to be the sign of some real talent and confidence, and those trait were certainly on display in the early stages of this story — an incredibly realistic high-end restaurant seduction scene. It’s well written, I could visualize the room, the patrons; hear the quiet murmurs, the comforting clink of silverware. Could smell our femme fatale’s perfume, her sexuality radiating off the pages. Breedlove slipped me inside her devious mind with equally devious, portentous writing. Then it all, to put it bluntly, shit the bed and “Pigeons” turned into just a graphically filthy Tales From The Crypt-like revenge tale of little impact.

Getting to the section of the collection where this story appears, about midway through, wasn’t easy, either. The stories along the way, well…they’re not exactly duck-fat fries offered from a new, talented provocateur like, say, in Barker’s classic Books of Blood. Breedlove’s tales, for the most part, are more like rice cakes.

However, as with most collections, a few well-cooked noodles wind up sticking, and How To Die Well , thankfully, is no exception. The charming coming-of-age story “It Ain’t Much to Brag About, But It’s All Mine,” about a child and a new found f(r)iend dug up and kept fed — a little too well fed — is a keeper and a nice find. The ending is predictable but once again, Mr. Breedlove shows he works best in a first-person narrative situation.

The fact that I tended to admire Breedlove’s lengthier stories far more than the shorter works leads me to believe I would enjoy a Breedlove novel more than another collection. Case in point: the final story. This zombie tale, about an elderly man and his wife on their farm would fit perfectly into one of the Skipp/Spector zombie anthologies and there is nary a bit of gut munching to be found, just a sublimely-written gem. In fact, I could very well see this story, “Hospeace,” sitting comfortably alongside Mort Castle’s “The Old Man and the Dead.”

A couple other good stories in How To Die Well are worth mentioning but I’ve, as usual, ran on way past my word count and poor Morrish is probably banging his head on a door right about now. Suffice to say, How To Die Well is not a bad collection of stories, especially when the author isn’t trying to slip in some cutting humor, because, frankly, his attempts didn’t work for this reader.

Would I try more work from Breedlove?

Sure, provided that it’s over one page in length (there are a few stories here that would fit in the ol’ flash fiction category, which I never much cared for) and provided that Mr. Breedlove employs the first-person style that best showcases his skills…

So…next up for me? Netherworld, in which Stoker-winner Lisa Morton introduces her readers to one “Lady Diana,” little lady with demon-blasting six-shooters.

A babe with twin cannons?  How’s she gonna make me a sammich and get me a beer with those pistols in her hands!?

(ducks)

Stay tuned!

- Mark Tyree

Carving Out New Territory with Carl Shuker’s Anti Lebanon

imagesWhen a writer known for their success in the literary world goes slumming in the genre ghetto, one never knows what might result.  For example, you may find solid work that’s more than offset by stunningly pompous and condescending attitudes, as in the case of Susan Hill.  You may be the recipient of impressive imaginings, accented by blindly ignorant denials, as with Margaret Atwood.  You may get stellar, albeit demanding and peculiar, tales accompanied by acceptance — even grudging embrace — of genre influences, as in the case of Cormac McCarthy.

I have no idea how New Zealand writer Carl Shuker —  recipient of the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters for his debut novel, and a frequent critical darling — feels about genre fiction, but his latest novel, Anti Lebanon, certainly utilizes genre constructs to great advantage, resulting in a novel that mixes its ingredients almost seamlessly, and borders on brilliance before retreating a bit.

As its title implies, the book is set in Lebanon, where Arab Spring has brought even more uncertainty than usual to the lives of the Christians there, virtually ostracized by a Hezbollah-dominated government and caught in the crossfire between other warring religious factions.  Against this backdrop, we meet thirty-year-old Leon Elias, college-educated as a hydrogeologist (and Lebanon’s water resources are a recurring theme here) but underemployed as a security guard. His father, Didi, a former military hero, is likewise working below his expected station, because he backed the wrong horse during one epoch of the unending jockeying between Lebanon’s many factions, while Leon’s sister, Keiko, was murdered for posing a political threat via her growing prominence. The complications in Leon’s personal life are like a microcosmic version of the various relationships and intrigues that entangle the entire nation.  As Leon’s father says at one point:

“Politics in this country is one long and very dangerous soap opera full of lies and repetitions and clichés. Every episode’s climax leads to no resolution. We are in season fifty-eight at least, and few of the original cast remain. Apart from those grizzled old men— like me— who are typecast and cannot get another job.”

One drunken night, everything changes for Leon, as the following passage foreshadows:

It was that time of a night when a certain drunken sweet spot hit. People began to say what they really thought, in the generous context of what they’d said that they didn’t really think before and had gotten away with. When the smart and bored began to push the limits of what others would tolerate, and when abrupt furies and half-felt passions turned into speeches; whims turned accusations.

It’s abrupt fury that leads a friend of Leon to accidentally kill a fellow reveler with a punch, leading to Leon taking a late-night trip to dump the body, the corpse balanced precariously behind him on his scooter. It’s towards the end of that journey, when the body suddenly stirs and bites Leon on the neck, that things really take a turn for the strange.

Meanwhile, in a flashback that is gradually revealed, we learn that Leon had created an experimental film and submitted it to a local competition, an act that eventually leads him to a presentation that purports to tell of the history of the vampire in Lebanon. Rarely seen and only half understood, the vampires of Anti Lebanon have relatively little in common with the familiar western version, leaning more toward the pyr, fallen angels in Persian mythology.

…pyr have slept in the Lebanon for long, long before this, the lecturer said. He was perhaps picked up— like a germ— by Godfrey de Bouillon and Peter the Hermit somewhere in the Serbian forests between Belgrade and Nish on the First Crusade, accidentally recruited on the march toward Jerusalem. Suspicion and the pogrom revive the pyr and give it vivid life. Any troop of soldiers with cynical leadership, a sacred cause, and little in the way of qualms is the pyr’s natural habitat. The pyr is lost in time; he haunts the present, and lost in the labyrinth, haunts all times.

There is never a traditional “conversion” of the bitten victim to vampire, in the sense that readers of western vampire fiction will be familiar with. In fact, there remains significant uncertainty as to what, if anything will happen to Leon after his bite.  Mystery, as well as some occasionally mystifying events, ensue, interspersed with some truly memorable descriptive passages such as:

The unfinished bridge over the intersection hulked in shade, just an archway now, the on-ramps never built, all graffitied, weeds growing from its stump, flags and faded banners drooping from its parapets. Here everything temporary is permanent.

and:

Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of.

Halfway through Anti Lebanon, I thought it was the best novel that I’d read this year, and potentially the best I’d read in several years.  Unfortunately, Shuker loses control of his narrative a bit in the latter stages of the book, coincident with Leon’s meanderings beyond Lebanon’s borders. Despite its somewhat disappointing conclusion, Anti Lebanon remains a truly impressive melding of genre elements with mainstream sensibilities.  I hope Shuker’s dabblings in the dark are not a one-time experiment; return visits would be most welcome.

Doing Time with Simon Bestwick’s The Condemned

cat_condemnedI’ve long been a fan of the novella format.  Much longer than a short story, appreciably shorter than a novel, it’s the perfect length for many plots.  (If you subscribe to the notion of novelettes being an additional category — 7,500 to 17,500 words, by most definitions — that’s a nice size, too… but I digress.)  The Gray Friar collection, The Condemned, gathers six novellas by Simon Bestwick, a UK author whose first title, A Hazy Shade of Winter, appeared in 2004 and who’s been coming on like gangbusters lately.  The Condemned is a consistently impressive collection that serves to continue that streak.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these novellas is the variety of voices used and themes covered. There are few commonalities to be found here, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Take, for example, “Dark Earth,” in which a World War I soldier who’s been imprisoned for being a deserter, tells his interrogator the true story what happened to him out there in the trenches.  Suffice to say that it involves a new type of creature that burrows in the battlefield mud and seems capable of using humans as hosts.  And, incidentally, the creatures’ ability to occupy and direct their hosts is referenced (in a darkly satirical way) as a possible explanation for some of the incompetence shown by commanding officers.

“The Narrows” is a fast-forward to the near future, where a teacher helps guide a group of schoolchildren in search of a safe haven after a nuclear attack.  But their quest for a less-dangerous location leads them into a maze of underground canals that had once been used for coal transport. There, they find mystery and terror, to say nothing of a loss of their humanity:

Oh, God. All the things happening to me that I can’t bear. Is this the price of survival? How much of myself will I have to give up to stay alive, of what I was?

In “A Kiss of Old Thorns,” a group of bank robbers who’ve bungled the job and become murderers are in need of a place to hide out for a while but they make an unfortunate choice when they invade the small coastal home of the elderly Hobbes.  The old man has been performing an important ritual there, using his painfully hand-made wreaths of thorns to keep an unseen something at bay, and the violent interlopers disrupt his routine sufficiently to unleash the previously interred threat. The ending features a twist that’s not entirely unexpected but nonetheless seem perfectly appropriate.

Set in 1981, “The Model” tells the tale of Ella, a cash-strapped student who responds to an ad for a portrait model, ventures to a decrepit, seemingly abandoned building, and finds the painter to be a huge, bulky shape bathed in shadowy darkness. On her way out from the unsettling appointment, she discovers even more strangeness:

Coming down the staircase, I wasn’t alone. The dimness was a tunnel. Shapes swam up towards me. Thin, etiolated shapes with hands like wilted flowers, faces that were vastnesses of eyes and yearning mouths and not much else besides. Dried, colourless hair wafting like weeds in ocean depths. Hands reaching out to pluck at me.

Despite her misgivings, Ella is unable to say no to repeat engagements, drawn back by her financial situation and…perhaps something more. As time goes on, it soon becomes apparent that the sessions are having a withering effect on her, sort of like Dorian Gray in reverse. And though she manages to escape her situation before it becomes fatal, her victory is a somewhat hollow one:

Some things can never be undone. We’re all still lost, still sundered from the best part of [our]selves. The living and the  dead and the ones in between. Weeping in the dark for a loss that can never be made good, praying for a way home we’ll never find.

“The School House” is an impressively unpredictable piece set in a psychiatric home, where low-level worker Danny is enlisted to assist with a patient who happens to be an old acquaintance of his, committed for burning down their former school. As Danny is drawn deeper into the case, he begins to experience nightmares, and to recall more of the memories that he’d blocked regarding his time in school. The ending is a true shocker, yet not, in retrospect, too outlandish.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that the final story, “Sleep Now in the Fire” (which also happens to be the one written earliest in Bestwick’s career) is the weakest, layering a slightly heavy-handed political message onto a story about werewolves (more or less) in lower-income London.

Despite ending a note that’s less than its best, The Condemned is a consistently strong collection, and a real bargain at a price of $16. No less an authority than Ramsey Campbell has referred to Bestwick as, “among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.”  Based on my limited sample, I’d have to agree.