In Lock-down with Nate Southard’s Lights Out

I’ve reviewed three Nate Southard titles in past installments of this blog — He Stepped Through, Scavengers, and This Little Light of Mine — with mostly very positive things to say. I thus approached his latest novel, Lights Out from Thunderstorm Books, with no small amount of anticipation.

Similar to Tim Curran’s Fear Me, which I also reviewed earlier, Lights Out features a federal prison setting, a locale that is absolutely rife with possibilities for horror. In Southard’s take on the theme, the venue is Burnham State Maximum Security Penitentiary, home to murderers, rapists and other violent felons, and the story is related primarily from the viewpoints of Warden Ronald Timms, Father Darren Albright, and a handful of guards and prisoners, most notably the leaders of four prison factions — the Italians, the Mexicans, the African-Americans, and the White Supremacists.

Not surprisingly, most of the characters are portrayed in a less than sympathetic fashion, Father Albright being the lone exception, a fact that detracts somewhat from the reader’s emotional involvement in the novel. When the characters begin to die at the hands of supernatural creatures that originate from a cavern beneath the prison, it’s difficult to manufacture much empathy or concern.

One obvious aspect of a prison setting that just begs to be exploited in a horror novel is the sense of being trapped, and Southard leverages this feature to the fullest, frequently creating a sense of desperate confinement and claustrophobia, as in the following passage, from the viewpoint of a prisoner trapped in his cell:

“The creature let out a slow hiss, and the reek of its breath grew stronger. Something squealed over the metal, a sound like a braking train. Hall tried to turn his head away, but the muscles of his neck and shoulders refused to obey. He tried to close his eyes, but the lids refused to drop, leaving him helpless to do anything but stare as the thing in the tiny window peered in at him, smiling its horrific smile.”

The exact nature of the supernatural menace in Lights Out is not revealed until more than halfway through the story (although there are certainly hints), so I’m not going to spoil that element of the plot by disclosing it here, but suffice to say that the creatures in question are rendered in a convincing and sometimes chilling fashion.

Even when the creatures begin to venture further from their dark holes, threatening to overrun the prison, Lights Out, like most every supernatural horror novel, has its requisite disbeliever — a characters who refuse to acknowledge the existence of something beyond human ken. Warden Timms fills the role of the primary doubter, as expressed here:

“Darren would blow a gasket, something about lying and prisoners’ rights as human beings. And Ray and Albright both would accuse him of trying to bury the real problem. They were telling him monsters had come to Burnham, though, and no matter how grisly the recent murders had been, he refused to believe that kind of bullshit. He had to live in the real world, one where people were killed on a daily basis by means that were anything but supernatural, and he had neither the time nor the will to even entertain such ridiculous notions.”

Lights Out is fast-paced, engaging, and filled with action. What it lacks, to some degree, is a sense of genuineness, a grounding in prison trappings that would better enable a suspension of disbelief. It’s not surprising that this sense of realism is lacking at times, because it’s difficult to pull off this kind of setting effectively, particularly in the area of dialog. Even though I (like most readers) may not know what prison slang and chatter really sounds like, I know what sounds realistic to my ears. That sense of realism is something that Tom Fontana achieved magnificently for the HBO series Oz, and that David Simon similarly accomplished for the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore in the HBO series The Wire. Southard makes an admirable attempt here, but seems to falter at times.

Despite the misgivings outlined above, Lights Out is still a book with a hook, a novel that will lock up many readers and not release them until they’ve completed the last sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apologies for Brief Site Outage

My sincere apologies to anyone and everyone who over the last couple days discovered that Twilight Ridge had gone AWOL, without even leaving “croatoan” scrawled on a nearby tree.  The explanation, for those who care: my hosting provider moved the site to new hardware, and a new IP address, which is all well and good, but it happened while I was traveling and I didn’t see the notice…and thus didn’t update the IP address used by the service that caches my content in order to make it faster-loading and more secure.  Fortunately, once I discovered the problem, I was able to correct it pretty quickly.  Both the hosting company and caching service were very helpful, so I’m happy to identify, and recommend them both: JustHost for hosting and CloudFlare for caching.

As for me… I’ll be back in this space soon with more reviews — of books by Robert Hood, Nate Southard, and Peter Bell, for starters — as well as another round-up of newly-launced small presses.  As always, thanks for daring to tread on Twilight Ridge.