Quick Take: Ronald Malfi’s Via Dolorosa

Having read and enjoyed several earlier titles by the prolific Ronald Malfi  — namely The Passenger, Floating Staircase, and Skullbelly — I was quick to request a review copy of Via Dolorosa when I saw it listed among the first batch of titles from new publisher Abattoir Press.  The book’s title sounded familiar to me, and I soon found out why: the Abattoir edition is a reprint, as the book was originally published by Raw Dog Screaming in 2007.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Via Dolorosa largely reads like exactly what it is — a book written earlier in the author’s career, before he developed some of the skills he has today.

Set entirely in and around the gently decaying Paradis d’Hotel on Hilton Head island, Via Dolorosa does manage to achieve a strange, dreamy sense of timelessness — if not for the references made by protagonist Lieutenant Nick D’Nofrio to the war in Irqa, from which he has recently returned,I could have easily believed that the novel was set in any of several earlier decades.

D’Nofrio is the heart and soul of the novel, a man bothered by the serious hand injury he received in the war, but outright tortured by the memories of what happened there, and by one memory in particular.  The recently-discharged D’Nofrio and his new wife Emma are at the Hotel so that he can paint a mural, an opportunity for him to exercise his artistic talent, his wounded hand permitting.  Nick is increasingly haunted by a ghost from the war, his new marriage begins to fray at the edges, and his restlessness leads him into ambiguous, multi-layered relationships with a beautiful but manipulative Spanish woman, a bartender who’s also haunted by a death from his past, and the hotel’s bell captain, who happens to be the father of a soldier who served under Nick in Iraq.  Nick’s psychological trauma influences his behavior and surfaces in his mural, which starts to take on dark, morbid tones, without his even realizing it.

The main problem with Via Dolorosa is that, given the book’s length, precious little actually happens.  A great deal of time and effort is invested in trying to create atmosphere and mood, and the book is somewhat successful in that regard, but the overwhelming impression I got is that this is a book that’s trying very hard to be a literary novel, not a genre work…and the author doesn’t have the chops — at least at this particular juncture in his career — to pull it off.  The end result is slowly paced, relatively uneventful, and headlined by a moody protagonist who’s difficult to sympathize with.

I can recommend Via Dolorosa for Malfi fans who missed the earlier Raw Dog Screaming edition, but for those still awaiting their first exposure to the author, he has many other works that better showcase his abilities.

Two Men With Scary Words: Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick’s Thin Men with Yellow Faces

Thin MenIntroductions first: Publisher This Is Horror recently expanded their purview beyond simply being a horror-focused website, adding chapbook publisher to their CV. Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick are two of the very best from the current generation of British horror writers, with both recently graduating from the small press to mass-market publishers.   Thin Men with Yellow Faces is the result of their collaboration, a slight story (36 pages total in the chapbook) with heavy impact.

The tale begins with Child Protection Services worker Gabby Holmes attempting to visit Heather Mayhew, who told her teacher that she’s seen “thin men with yellow faces” in her bedroom at night, and who Gabby suspects may be an abuse victim, but she’s rebuffed by Heather’s father.  Embarrassment over a past misconception in a similar circumstance prevents her from pursuing her suspicions as forcefully as she might.  Later, one of her past clients happens to tell her about some research he’s been doing into a match factory that formerly existed on the grounds where Heather now lives, and the horrible condition that befell those who worked there:

“Phossy jaw’s what they used to call it. Used to make the matches with white phosphorous. Used kids to dip the matches into it. You got phossy-jaw from breathing the fumes too long… First you got toothache, then swelling, abscesses and a –” Alex scrolled down a bit further to quote from one of his sources “– ‘putrid discharge caused by your jaw bone actually rotting inside your head.’ Then your jaw would start to glow a greenish yellowy colour. It fucking glowed. All they could do was amputate your jaw before you died of organ failure.”

Returning home, Gabby sees a news report that Heather’s teacher has been murdered, and from there her reality enters full-on free-fall.  Soon there are strange…elongated men approaching her house:

She locks eyes with one of the men and a thin black smile appears on his gaunt yellow face like a knife cut slowly forming in diseased flesh. Then he starts walking up the drive.

From there, things really started to get weird.  Along the way, the authors offer some pointed observations on the balance of power in Great Britain, and the nature of those in power.

Thin Men With Yellow Faces is the sort of phantasmagoric nightmare that, if one were to take a step back and ponder it objectively, probably wouldn’t really hold up to scrutiny, but fortunately Bestwick and McMahon keep the reader so breathlessly immersed in the nightmare that it’s not possible to take a step back.  I suggest you read it for yourself, and then keep an eye out for yellow-faced men in your bedroom.

Revisiting the past with Ryan Thomas’ Born to Bleed

Born to Bleed cover

Reviewed by Mark Tyree

Several years ago, around 2006, having not yet become the cynical bastard I soon would be regarding the majority of small press offerings, I reviewed titles for an independent horror fiction “magazine.” Quotations necessary because my editor, while being a great guy, reproduced the magazine after-hours at work on a copy machine that probably came over on the Mayflower. And the mag was about as consistent in its publication schedule as the quality of hydrocodone purchased  from Canadian Internet pharmacies.  It was a black-and-white stapled little thing that looked cheesy as hell but was made with a fair amount of heart and soul and, dare I say, pride, even…

Anyway, my editor at one point sent me a box of review titles by a bunch of authors I had never read.  For the most part, they were horrible…with one notable exception: The Summer I Died by some cat named Ryan C. Thomas. It was the last title in the box, I was pissed, grouchy and assuming it was going to suck as bad as the four previous titles had. Fortunately, it turned out to be very, very good, with Thomas creating some of the most believable characters and realistic dialogue this side of early King. The novel was a rippin’ fast horrific ride, sometimes over-the-top grisly but never delving into, say, Ed Lee territory. I was made to care deeply for the characters locked in “Skinny Man’s” cellar and the ending was a shocker, with supernatural undertones that nearly left tears running down my cheek.

So, here we are five years later, and wouldn’t you know it, Thomas has written a sequel called Born To Bleed, published by Coscom EntertainmentOur hero, Roger Huntington, is one messed-up dude, living in San Diego and just trying to make a living as an artist. He keeps seeing “Skinny Man” (all in his head) and sees a shrink to try and cure said head. And Roger still keeps in touch with Sheriff Teddy, another real and terrific character, who was involved with the prior novel’s horrors.

Picking up the plotline…Roger’s agent, Barry, needs more product to sell, so Roger heads out to a favorite spot, a lake where he’s previously painted some landscapes. Any hope for solitude is soon eliminated when he gets a call from Victoria, who works for Barry and wants to come pick up some of Roger’s paintings. It just so happens that Roger likes Victoria a lot, but Skinny Man shows up in his rear-view, so to speak, and his voice in Roger’s head says “Hey, you don’t have such luck with women, just cut her fucking head off and be done with it.”

When Victoria shows up, she unfortunately brings along her boyfriend, who initially seems incredibly obnoxious and worthy of a bitch-slap into next week, but Roger mellows and starts to warm to Gabe as they have a lot in common. But then a white SUV slowly drives by, checking out Victoria, and macho Gabe starts hollering at the guys in the SUV.

This turns out to be a particularly bad move, as the guys in the SUV come back while Roger is off painting on the other side of the lake and they kidnap Victoria and Gabe. Roger manages to track and find them, but is forced to watch through a window as Victoria is brutally raped, with no holes barred, so to speak. It’s an incredibly intense and well-written scene, but mos’ def’ not for the faint of heart.  I’m not going to reveal any more about the plot, but I will say that one particular plot device feels like a desperate attempt at a twist, but doesn’t really make sense.

Even though Born to Bleed does not hold up as well as The Summer I Died, I still recommend it – and I think the author is capable of bringing back Roger in full-on vigilante form in another sequel. Give this one a B-.

Seeking a little bone bling with Scott Nicholson’s Skull Ring

skull ringIt seems like just a few years ago that Scott Nicholson was one of the hotter new writers in the horror genre…but in an example of how time flies, he now has fifteen novels to his name.  Along the way, Nicholson has made the Appalachians (a frequent setting for his work) seem like a very scary place, indeed, and I’ve personally been impressed by some his work, such as The Harvest and The Red Church.  His latest, The Skull Ring, comes in a trade and two limited editions from King’s Way Press, a relatively new publisher that emerged from the ashes of Full Moon Press.

The novel focuses on Julia Stone, a newspaper reporter who’s recently left her fiancee and her old life behind, moved to a small town, and acquired a new therapist, all in the hopes of overcoming some sublimated psychological trauma from her childhood.  The new therapist, Dr. Pamela Forrest, hopes to heal Julia by forcing her to recall those buried memories, which seem to emanate from one night when a four-year-old Julia was traumatized by a group of hooded figures, seemingly Satan worshippers. That same night, her father disappeared, orphaning Julia.

The partial re-emergence of these memories has led Julia to fear there is another “creep,” as she calls them, around every corner and hidden in every closet.  And the closer she gets to fully remembering that night, the further she’s driven towards the edge of sanity.  When she finds the eponymous skull ring — the same type of ring worn by one of the hooded creeps on that night twenty-three years ago — she fears that more than just memories are emerging from her past.  Throw in the unwelcome advances of her almost-ex-fiancee, a nosy local handyman who may or may not be trustworthy, and a cop who seems to have followed her from the big city to the small town, and you have a recipe for an unreliable narrator who’s questioning her sanity.

Despite sporting a nicely-developed character in Julia and some appropriately mysterious layers of ambiguity, The Skull Ring does not rank as one of Nicholson’s better efforts.  Much of the plot has a perfunctory feel to it, and certain elements made me question whether this is a trunk novel from earlier in his career, dusted off for publication, but not truly updated.  For example, Julia uses a VCR to record her beloved St. Louis Cardinals’ games (even though the majority of homes now have DVRs) and complains about how “The Cardinals were about twenty games out, as usual” (even though the Cardinals have actually won the World Series twice in the last six seasons, and only finished under. 500 once during that time).  Additionally, the novel’s finale features some overly melodramatic moments.

If you’re a fan of Nicholson, it might be worth picking up a copy of The Skull Ring, but if you’re looking for your first taste of his work, I’d recommend trying one of his other books, such as the titles mentioned earlier.

It’s also worth noting that the book includes some nice Alan Clark work, both on the cover and in the interior, although I can’t comment on the book’s physical production values since I reviewed a PDF copy.

Michael McBride On The Rebound With Snowblind

I may well have read more of Michael McBride‘s work than any other author over the last two or three years.  During that time, I’ve sung the praises of titles such as Remains and Quiet, Keeps to Himself, and also expressed some disappointment with his more recent works Blindspot and Predatory Instinct.  I’m happy to say that his latest, Snowblind, from Delirium Books, is a strong return to form.

The novella focuses on four long-time friends on their annual November hunting trip in the Colorado Rockies, where they encounter a powerful, unexpected blizzard…and something more.  After a  suspenseful prolog, we jump directly into the midst of an action-packed first chapter, as one of the group, Joel, suffers a badly broken leg and his friends struggle to get him to shelter before the worst of the blizzard descends.  Disoriented and lost, they manage to make their way to an abandoned, half-collapsed homestead and start a fire just as the storm truly begins to howl:

The shadow of Mt. Isolation fell heavily upon the clouds as the sun abandoned them to the dusk. The blizzard intensified its efforts in response, filling the air with thick flakes the size of dimes. The wind screamed in delight and buried them faster and faster, first one way and then the other. The accumulation swept up the side of the house and spilled over the windowsill, where it melted into a muddy puddle by the fire.

The three ambulatory members of the party venture out to gather more wood, but they hear screams and when they return, Joel is gone, leaving nothing but massive bloodstains in his wake.  Following the path of his blood through the snow, the others find his body…hanging upside down from a tree, something no bear or other animal could or would do.  Unsure just who or what is hunting them, the survivors retreat to their shelter.

From there, the story ratchets up the tension, capturing the growing fear of the trapped, isolated men as whatever is out there in the blizzard begins to toy with them.  It’s a classic set-up, and Snowblind is the perfect length to wring every bit of terror out of the scenario without stretching out the story beyond what the plot will support.  Along the way, McBride does a good job of gradually developing his characters, with the primary protagonist role going to Will Coburn, a physician back in the civilized world, who does a better job of keeping his wits about him than do his companions Todd and Blaine.  And, as you might expect, the number of survivors continues to dwindle.

Snowblind is a tightly-plotted and fast-paced yarn that clearly illustrates that McBride has shaken off his brief slump. Definitely recommended.

Shedding a little light on H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary

You know you’re getting old when you don’t remember that you’ve already reviewed a book. That’s exactly what happened to me recently, when I requested a review copy of H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary from Dancing Tuatara Press, an imprint of Ramble House. Fortunately, as soon as I started reading the novel, I realized I’d already read, and reviewed, it. After a little sleuthing work, I was able to dig up my review of the earlier Midnight House edition of the book, which had appeared in Cemetery Dance #36. Whereas the Midnight House edition was a limited edition $40 hardcover, the Dancing Tuatara version is available as a $20 print-on-demand trade paperback, a $35 hardcover, or a $6 ebook.  Dancing Tuatara specializes in reprints from the pulp era, and has now published more than forty titles, so if you’re a fan of pulp fiction, you owe it to yourself to check out the Tuatara titles.  Now, without further ado, I present to you a reprint of my review of Dark Sanctuary–

 

No review of Dark Sanctuary would be complete without relating its storied history with a certain crowd of book dealers and collectors. As Dwayne Olson relates in his entertaining introduction, this book was included on Karl Wagner’s famous (infamous?) lists of “Best Supernatural Books” which appeared in Twilight Zone magazine in the early ‘80s. As Olson says, Wagner’s lists comprised about one-third readily available titles, one-third mildly-hard-to-obtain titles, and one-third fabulous rarities. Dark Sanctuary falls in the latter category, or at least it has until now. (Note: the Dancing Tuatara edition adds a second introduction, by John Pelan, that is also very interesting.)

But outside of its scarcity, what of Dark Sanctuary? About three-quarters of the way through, author Gregory provides a nice synopsis of the book, via the following monologue from protagonist Tony Lovell:

“My life was empty, meaningless,” he said; “I realized that when my father died. And the awful responsibility of Kestrel was more than I could bear alone. I turned to Nicholas Gaunt, and he offered me knowledge and power whereby I could rid the world of that horrid thing forever. More than that, he offered me a new philosophy which would show me the meaning of everything, and give me something definite to live for.”

Lovell is a 1930s version of the bored rich kid, and he has recently inherited the desolate castle of Kestrel, located on a barren, foreboding island off the cold, rocky shores of Cornwall. The “horrid thing” he refers to above is an ancient family curse that has plagued the family for generations, but apparently only when each generation’s male heir approaches the end of their life. Lovell’s father, Anthony, Sr., has recently died from a stroke arising from a horrible fright. Tony meanwhile has previously avoided the island like the plague, preferring the pleasures of London, but once his father dies, he finds himself strangely drawn to life on the island.

Seeking to first aid his ailing father before his death, and later to rid the family of the curse, Tony enlists the aid of a “psychotherapist,” Dr. Gaunt, who ventures to Kestrel and begins wielding his influence over the island’s inhabitants. Concerned about his friend’s state of being, Tony’s London-based friend John Hamilton also joins the party, and Valerie Bennett, a rector’s daughter from the coastal town of Pentock, is intertwined in the plot as well.

Given that it was first published more than 75 years ago, Dark Sanctuary holds up very well. Events unfold a bit slowly at first, but there’s a palpable sense of evil in the island setting, and Gregory builds the tension nicely. Collectors and fans of pre-war fiction alike should rejoice that this book is at last available to a wider audience.