Quick Takes: Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man and Michael McBride’s F9

Today we’re taking a peek at two novellas from the Delirium/DarkFuse collective. First up is Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man (which, serendipitously enough, is actually dedicated to our other author, Michael McBride).  Prentiss has previously published two well-received novellas through Cemetery Dance Publications, and seems comfortable working at this length.

fleshless_manThis particular novella concerns two adult sons: Glen, who’s stayed home and spent his life caring for his mother, and Curtis who long ago moved far away to California, and rarely visited since… but has now returned to the nest to visit his dying mother. The brothers’ reunion is somewhat awkward, with old wounds easily reopened. In particular, Curtis’ penchant for making fun of Glen’s obesity during their teen years is still a sore point, even though Glen has dropped the weight and seems to have replaced his fixation on food with an obsession on exercise. Curtis’ history of strained relationships doesn’t end with his brother, although his long-uneasy association with his mother seems surprisingly improved, even if he doesn’t trust it will last.  In the following passage he muses on past conversations with dear old mom, centering on his wife, Lauren:

She needed prompting. You deserve better, he could say for her. Someone prettier, more intelligent. How easy it would be for his mother to slip back into these earlier pronouncements—ones that pretended to flatter her son, puff him up with importance, when they really served only to wound Lauren. The frail, sweet version of his mother couldn’t last. If he stayed here and kept talking with her, the illusion would inevitably crumble. It would be best to end things now.

Against this backdrop (with an eccentric nurse-caregiver thrown in for good measure), Prentiss creates an at-times surreal tale of a house that’s haunted by memories, guilt, and perhaps more.

The eponymous character is a strange creature of gristle and bone who may be an embodiment of all the bad feelings present in the house or may just be a figment of imagination:

Behind her, the Fleshless Man stands tall and more horrible than Curtis could have imagined. The creature is a skeleton coated in dried muscle. Polyps hang all over him like gray drippings off a cheap hamburger patty. His yellowed fingernails curl in long impossible spirals, scraping against the walls as he tries to maintain balance. The creature’s legs skitter awkwardly, like legs pulled off a spider, each movement near death yet twitching with the full energy of life.

The Fleshless Man is somewhat leisurely paced but effectively atmospheric and likely to linger in your mind well after you’ve read the last word.

* * *

F9Moving on to F9… McBride’s latest revolves around a brain function test being conducted by neurologist Ellis Harding on convicted mass murderer Niall Davenport, aka Patient F0, who in 1968 killed nine people in a senseless outburst of violence. Harding has received hard-won permission to perform his tests — using medical imaging to track blood flow and electrical impulses in conjunction with conscious and unconscious thought — on the now-comatose Davenport in order to try and prove a theory of his.

Coined “Mile High Syndrome,” the theory seeks to explain the increased incidence of mass murder in Colorado, which is three times higher than any other state since that 1968 killing kicked off the trend, with all of those Colorado murders occurring in a relatively small area along the slope of the Rockies, known as the Front Range.

Harding’s interest in the topic stems from his own personal experience as a survivor of one of those mass murders — committed in Boulder in 1994 — and the stories of “patients” F1 through F8  are interspersed with updates on Harding’s experiment.

The following passage describes the attack Harding survived in 1994:

She slid up against the splintered railing. Her blood expanded around her, reflecting the overhead lights. She reached for one of the railings, as though to pull herself up or simply to drag herself over. I don’t know what thoughts went through her head before the second shot did.

Besides being a nice turn of phrase, there’s a blast of raw emotion in that final sentence, and that’s something that F9 could use some more of.  Too much of the story is narrated in a manner that feels cold, clinical, and detached.  I suspect that’s actually purposeful on McBride’s part, because it does fit the personality of Harding, but I’m not sure it was a wise decision overall. A little more emotion and a little less intellect would have benefitted the story and lent it more impact. It’s also worth noting that I saw the ending coming before it arrived, but hopefully it will catch you off-guard.  🙂

As is the case with The Fleshless Man, F9 is not the best work I’ve seen from the book’s author, but it’s nonetheless worthy of your time and money.

 

Stephen Volk’s Whitstable — A Bouquet To Hammer’s Hero

I’ve reviewed Spectral Press chapbook titles in the past, but Stephen Volk’s novella Whitstable is the first longer work the press has published.  Volk — who’s known for everything from the early ‘90s BBC chiller Ghostwatch to the co-written screenplay for the excellent film The Awakening to the engaging recent novella Vardoger (reviewed here) to his ongoing column in Black Static magazine — here delivers a tale that’s a loving tribute to famed horror actor Peter Cushing.

The story is set in 1971, when Cushing, staggered by the recent death of his much-loved wife, Helen, has become a depressed recluse. While on a rare, melancholy walk, he encounters a boy, Carl, who recognizes Cushing from his role as Dr. Van Helsing, conqueror of Dracula, and beseeches him for help in defeating a real-life monster in Carl’s own house: his mother’s boyfriend, one Les Gledhill.  The following passage summarizes Carl’s desperate plea:

“What’s movies got to do with it?” The abruptness was nothing short of accusatory. “I’m talking about here and now and you’re the vampire hunter and you need to help me.”

Although Cushing initially believes the boy is simply demonizing a man who can never measure up to his real father, he soon begins to suspect there’s something real, and dark, at the root of Carl’s fears.  As he comes to know more about Les Gledhill, a definite picture begins to form, as Cushing reflects here:

He knew many films where the house outside town harboured inconceivable evil, and had starred in quite a few where the villagers marched up to it demanding justice or revenge, but in this picture fear has the upper hand. The family is powerful. The hero, weak. The community knows how old Mr Olderberry “can’t keep his eyes off children”, but the townsfolk choose to keep their heads firmly in the sand. Even the police think it must be the girl’s own fault.

The child’s own fault.

Once the true nature of the situation becomes apparent to Cushing, he resolves to do something about it, somehow, even though he is a frail, damaged man who by his own admission looks easily ten years older than his age of 57.  Gledhill, meanwhile, is gradually revealed to be a truly nasty piece of work, more vile than any of the creatures Cushing has faced in films.

As one of Cushing’s directors says to him, rather pompously:

“You see, Peter, real evil is not so easy to spot in real life … In real life, evil people look like you and me. We pass them in the street.”

Although the crimes at the heart of Whitstable are decidedly ugly, this novella is, as horror fiction goes, quiet and gentle.  It’s a beautiful melding of fact and fiction, clearly told from the heart, but it does move at a leisurely pace, and is likely to be of most interest to fans of Hammer and aficionados of quiet horror, as epitomized back in the day by Charles Grant’s Shadows series.

The 100-copy hardcover edition of Whitstable is already sold out, but the paperback and e-book versions are still available.

 

Gazing Upward into the Abyss with John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky

langan-the_wide_carnivorous_sky-home

First things first: I’d argue that we all bring certain expectations and/or biases when opening the pages of a new book.  Those feelings can be based on prior reading of the author, reviews, blurbs, feelings about the genre or trope involved, etc. … one way or another, such preconceptions are usually present.  For me, contemplating John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, I couldn’t help but recall that I’d read his debut novel House of Windows, which arrived with some hoopla, and had wound up disappointed.

I thus cracked open The Wide, Carnivorous Sky with moderate expectations at best.  I might have passed altogether on reviewing the book if not for the fact that publisher Hippocampus Press had sent me a few titles previously that I had  not had the chance to review, so I felt I owed them some attention, be it good or bad.

My take-away?  Not only should one never judge a book by its cover, but one shouldn’t judge a book based on preconceptions, either.  I say this because Langan’s collection proved to be more than just a pleasant surprise; the skill and fresh approaches displayed throughout were a real eye-opener.

The collection contains nine stories, with eight reprints capped by an original novella. One thing that’s clear is that Langan likes to start his stories by setting the reader off-balance, if not outright on edge.  Consider the following lead-ins:

  • A man ventures outside to carefully pick vegetables from his mutated garden, all while carrying on a one-sided conversation with his pet crab.

  • A group of military types calmly discuss a vampire that lives in a space capsule in between visits to Earth for replenishment.

  • A meta-theatrical stage manager narrates a story of zombies overtaking a small town, addressing an audience of humans intermixed with said zombies.

  • An omniscient narrator coldly describes the personal history and impending fate of a man running desperately for his life from a pursuing werewolf.

  • A teenager thinks back to his father warning him never to hitchhike, as he lays bound in the trunk of a car.

The first story listed above is “The Shallows,” and as Langan says in his story notes, it’s a view of “a man maintaining his daily routines  in the face  of a radically fractured world.” And while the story start out weird, as described above, it only gets stranger, as tendrils of that fractured world continue to insinuate themselves.

Also worth calling out, despite a few rough spots in its dialog, is the title story, represented by the second bullet in the list above. The combination of battlefields — where the vampire often hunts — with horror elements results in an atmosphere of action and tension, an ongoing chess match between the soldiers and the creature, while Langan seeks to subvert many aspects of popular vampire lore, such as bloodsuckers’ fear of sunlight and affinity for the dark.

The greatest highlight here, however, is “Technicolor,” in which a college professor lecturing his class on Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” takes a detour in order to detail the existence of a mysterious character named Prosper Vauglais, a former soldier in Bonaparte’s army, whose experiences after the war in a strange Russian abbey are later detailed in a book — a book that Poe supposedly reads, leading him to make some dark discoveries of his own.

Before the story veers into exquisitely disturbing territory, the professor describes a vision of Poe’s dead wife Virginia that he believes Poe saw in his last days, a passage that nicely captures Langan’s skill:

For an instant, she’s there, holding out her hand to him with that simple grace she’s displayed as long as he’s known her — and then she’s gone, replaced by a figure whose black eyes have seen the silent halls of the dead, whose ruined mouth has tasted delicacies unknown on this side of the grave.

Other notable tales include “The City of the Dog,” wherein a simple act of attempted kindness — a man seeking to help what he thinks is an injured dog — leads to a spiraling descent into the dark urban underbelly, and “June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris,” in which a kidnapper’s ravings about the creatures he serves unexpectedly prove true.

As Langan says in his Story Notes:

…it’s been my ongoing desire to make my way through the tropes and traditions of the horror field — as well as a desire to see what happens when you bring those tropes into contact with narrative techniques drawn from the length and breadth of literary history.

More often than not, his marriage of literary technique to genre fiction is highly successful. In a couple cases, however, the attempts to be on the stylistic cutting edge lead to some self-inflicted wounds in the form of awkward passages. Specifically, I’m referring to “The Revel” and “Mother of Stone,” both of which utilize a 2nd-person POV, that results in some tortured turns of phrase.

These small missteps aside, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky is a strong and refreshingly distinctive collection, and I have to say that the laudatory Introduction and Afterword by Jeffrey Ford and Laird Barron, respectively, are well deserved.