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.

Creatures of a Different Sort in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters

lakemonsterscover1Nathan Ballingrud is an author who I’ve been reading about for a long time — largely via reviews of his stories in various anthologies — but who I had not, up until now, actually read.  Small Beer Press has helped to correct that oversight by publishing the Ballingrud collection, North American Lake Monsters (ebook $9.95; trade paperback $16; hardcover $24).

The book gathers nine stories, one of which appears for the first time here. There are a wide variety of themes and styles represented, but every tale is smart and stylish, and the stories are often more about the wider repercussions of a supernatural situation — like the ripples emanating from a rock dropped in water — than directly dealing with an attack or an encounter.

“You Go Where It Takes You” is the first story in the book and it’s one helluva leadoff hitter, starting as a somewhat folksy tale about Toni, a waitress and single mother, who winds up taking home an offbeat customer named Alex. The story takes a turn for the strange when Alex confesses that he’s driving a stolen car, and insists on showing Toni what he’s found in the trunk, which is some surreal cargo indeed. Convinced that he’s being pursued, Alex soon moves on, but his impact on Toni continues to resonate, leading to a devastatingly sad ending.

In “Wild Acre” a construction site for spec homes, bordering on wilderness, is marked by repeated acts vandalism.  In response, the owner of the construction company, Jeremy, and a couple of his employees spend a (drunken) night at the site in order to guard it. The violent attack — from what may be a werewolf — that ensues leaves one of them dead, but it’s not so much the attack that is the the focal point of the story as it is the fallout from that night. Ravaged by the memories of his inaction on that fateful night, his company forced out of business, Jeremy is a haunted man, dreading even his wife’s holiday party:

“Jeremy supposed that a Christmas party full of elementary school professionals might be the worst place in the world. He would drift among them helplessly, like a grizzly bear in a roomful of children, expected not to eat anyone.”

Blue-collar protagonists are a staple of Ballingrud’s work, and in “S.S.” that role is filled by Nick, a high school dropout working as a restaurant dishwasher. Stumbling towards acceptance in a white supremacist gang, Nick’s dismal existence is complicated by the bizarre yearnings of his elderly, infirm mother. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this particular tale, but it’s dark and disturbing nonetheless.

“The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, expertly utilizes its Antarctic setting, as a scientific expedition stumbles upon something vast and Lovecraftian beneath the ice, although some members of the group are unwilling to admit what they’ve seen.  In “The Monsters of Heaven,” the sudden appearance of strange creatures that are referred to as angels — and of one such creature in particular — helps to fill the gap left in one couple’s life by the disappearance of their son. But this is no feel-good story — the specifics of just how the “angel” fills that gap are…disturbing (there’s that word again).

Ballingrud turns his eyes to vampires in “Sunbleached,” and, fortunately, it’s a refreshingly offbeat take.  Joshua lives in a hurricane-damaged house with his mother and younger brother…and, lately, with a sunburnt vampire hiding in the crawlspace beneath the house. Joshua tries to manipulate the weakened vampire into doing his wishes, but he soon finds he has underestimated the danger lurking below.

A hurricane also figures in “The Way Station,” wherein progatonist Beltrane is aging, homeless, and more lost than ever after Hurricane Katrina. This story is something of a departure from the other tales here, a surreal saga of a haunting, by the ghost of New Orleans itself.

“The hole in his chest reaches right through him. Gas lamps shine blearily through rain. Deep water runs down the street and spills out onto his skin. New Orleans has put a finger through his heart.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, and raises his eyes to his own face. His face is a wide street, garbage-blown, with a dead streetlight and rats scrabbling along the walls. A spray of rain mists the air in front of him, pebbling the mirror.”

“The Good Husband” is a heart-wrenching story of a husband who, weary of his wife’s suicide attempts and convinced that she will never know happiness, chooses to let her succeed with her latest attempt.  But his decision comes back to haunt him when she comes back from the dead, although it’s a temporary return, as she is slowly, inexorably pulled toward the soft whisper of the grave.

North American Lake Monsters is a diverse, highly-engaging collection from a grossly under-appreciated author.  Hopefully this collection is the first step towards rectifying that.

Digging up skeletons in the basement with Gary McMahon’s The Bones of You

thebonesofyou_lgGary McMahon is a UK author whose career I’ve watched progress with interest over the last few years. (I earlier reviewed the chapbook Thin Men With Yellow Faces, which he co-authored with Simon Bestwick.)  McMahon here offers the latest installment in Earthling Publications’ series of annual Halloween books, the short novel The Bones of You (500 signed, numbered hardcovers; $45).

Adam Morris is a recently divorced forklift driver who’s just moved into a house that he hopes will be a warm and welcoming home for his daughter Jess when he has custody of her. At his core, Adam is a good, decent man, but life’s rough edges and  hard knocks have left him with a cynical, world-weary perspective:

“Didn’t I deserve a normal life; one like other people enjoyed? Wasn’t I good enough for that? …Life was hard, people were often harsh, and everybody had their own problems. These problems were mine — I had created them. Nobody had forced me to take up with an addict and have a child with her. I had made my own decisions, followed the paths I had chosen…”

Adam’s jaded yet still occasionally hopeful outlook, backed by McMahon’s trenchant observations and adroit phrasing, make for some memorable passages, several of which I’ll be quoting here.

Not long after moving into his new rental, Adam discovers that the house next door has a decidedly sordid history, being the former residence of Katherine Moffat, a serial killer of children who committed her crimes in the basement of that now-abandoned house. Boarded up and cloaked in darkness, the house lurks on the periphery like a shadowy character:

“I glanced again at the house next door, wondering what might be hiding in its dark interior. Could badness be stored, like preserves in glass jars? Perhaps if I went in there, I’d find row upon row of containers, each one containing a small sin.”

Adam’s focus is on giving Jess as normal and happy a childhood as he can, but various complications enter his life, such as the goth girl who he finds one night loitering around the old Moffat house, or his coworker Carole, with who he become intimate, against his better judgment.

It’s also worth noting that, roughly halfway through the book, there are hints of a devastating past episode, involving Adam and his ex-wife, that threatens to undermine everything we think we’ve learned about Adam. To say more would be to risk a spoiler, so I’ll just note that the revelation — or is it a red herring? — is given a gradual and very effective reveal.

Meanwhile, something supernatural seems to be stirring next door. And through it all, Adam’s point of view doesn’t exactly brighten:

“Bad news usually comes to us in the times when we least expect it, when we start to think that things might turn out okay. These are the most dangerous times, when we start to glimpse the light of a new dawn, when we allow that light to warm us and make us think that good times are just around the corner.”

and:

“I knew there was more tragedy to come. All I had to do — all I ever had to do — was stand and wait for it to find me. I sensed the dark movement around me; just one of a myriad dark movements, all working in unison. The machinery of night was moving up a gear. If I didn’t act, I would be crushed by the darkness.”

All these well-turned passages that I’ve quoted serve as building blocks for a novel that’s richly atmospheric without sacrificing pace…but despite all that, there are a couple cracks in the foundation. If I had to guess they’re the result of rushing to finish the book and meet a deadline, and they certainly aren’t fatal flaws, but I couldn’t help but notice them.

First, there are two descriptions of how Halloween is viewed in the UK, both from Adam’s perspective, some 40 pages apart, which seem very much at odds with each other:

“…Halloween was a growth industry these days: there was a whole Americanization of the day happening, to the extent that it was even called a holiday. When I was a child, it was a low-key affair… It was all different now: decorations in windows, pumpkins on sale in all the shops, expensive costumes, and the call of Trick or Treat drifting through the towns and villages of the country.”

vs.

“Halloween wasn’t a date I’d ever given much thought… This wasn’t America: despite increasingly desperate attempts by the supermarket chains and toy companies, on a cultural level Halloween was still a relatively low-key celebration. We simply didn’t make that big a deal out of Halloween in England.”

Given that this is, after all, a novel in a series of books about Halloween, such an inconsistency jumped out at me.

Second — and this one is harder to describe without having to declare “spoiler!”, but here goes — a reference is made to the car of a character who later…disappears, but then no further mention is made of that car, which would very much need to have been disposed of, to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities. Failing to at least mention how the car was dealt with stood out like a sore thumb.

But these problems are minor in the overall scheme of things. The Bones of You is compulsively readable, and every bit as dark as you’d want a Halloween horror novel to be.

Up All Night With Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s)

sleeper(s)  smaller versionThe publicity materials for Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s) (Crystal Lake Publishing; 184 pgs.; $9.99) compares this short novel to work by John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, two highly-regarded authors of classic UK-based disaster fiction.  And the allusions don’t stop there — Kane name-checks both Wyndham and Kneale in the text, and events take place in the village of Middletown, which certainly seems to be a play on Wyndham’s Midwich (from The Midwich Cuckoos).

All of this tends to raise one’s expectations a bit — it did for me, at least — and although Sleeper(s) is certainly lean and fast-paced, it ultimately feels a little too formulaic for me to pronounce it to be up to the standards of Messrs. Kneale and Wyndham.  Following the Prologue, the story begins with an ominous first line:

“The disorder presented itself as a mild form of fatigue at first.”

From fatigue, the fast-spreading illness quickly escalates to a sort of sudden-onset narcolepsy, to put it mildly. Before you can say “sweet dreams,” the entire town of Middletown has fallen into apparent comas. The town is quickly quarantined and Dr. Andrew Strauss, a brilliant scientist, is called in by the government to lead the investigation into the affliction.  Strauss is an eccentric character who, it turns out, has been dreaming for years of a specific woman, who’s suddenly telling him (in his dreams) that “it’s time…come quickly!”  The good doctor is quickly convinced that the woman of his dreams awaits him somewhere among the sleepers. Strauss is accompanied by his assistant, Bridget Clarke, who has an obsession of her own — namely Strauss himself.

Attempting to direct Strauss is a cadre of American and British military brass, with UK Major Radford acting as the strung-too-tight wildcard, although his fellow high-ranking officers General Fitzpatrick and Colonel Huxley (the latter being leader of the U.S. forces) are no day at the beach, either.

But all is not as it seems with the dozing villagers of Middletown.  When the expedition team ventures into the land of Nod, they discover that the sleepers, who are now covered with a cobwebby substance, are capable of waking. But when they awake, they show no signs of the individuals they were previously, instead moving like mindless meat puppets controlled by a hive mind.

That sense of a “by-the-numbers” approach that I mentioned earlier applies at times to both plot and character development, as virtually every event is designed to drive the plot forward, with little to no time for subplots, red herrings or the like; and several of the characters seeming rather flimsy and stereotyped — like the aforementioned Major Radford, whose general theatrics and love of war seem over-the-top, and British soldier Timms, whose hatred of the U.S. in general, and one American soldier in particular, likewise feels forced.

Sleeper(s) features wonderful cover art by Ben Baldwin and a nicely-crafted Introduction by David Moody, who closes with this:

“Read Sleeper(s), then ask yourself, do I have as much control over my life as I think I do? Are you really your own master, or are you just a pawn.”

Personally, I’ve read other work by Kane that I’ve enjoyed more than Sleeper(s), but if you’re a fan of fast-paced disaster fiction, this novel may well be a good choice for you. It’s not a winner in the way of Wyndham, but you could call it a near-miss kneeling at the altar of Kneale.

 

European Nightmares — A Close-up on Foreign Fright Flicks

european-nightmares-horror-cinema-in-europe-since-1945-patricia-allmer-paperback-cover-artFor a detailed and insightful look at the highlights of horror movies on the European Continent (and a bit beyond), one need look no further than European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945 (Wallflower, 276 pages, $26) edited by Patricia Allmer, Emily Brick, and David Huxley.  This is not a broad reference work, but rather a targeted collection of 26 essays with a strongly academic slant and a focus on individual films rather than broad movements; within that narrowly-defined context, it’s an admirable piece of work.

The contents are organized in seven sections — “Reception and Perception of European Horror Cinemas,” and six country- or region-specific sections, focusing on Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Northern Europe, and Eastern Europe — with each section featuring an Introduction and between two and four essays.  As the book’s promotional material states, the essays “employ a variety of current critical methods of analysis, ranging from psychoanalysis and Deleuzean film theory to reception theory and historical analysis.”  The first few examples of critical methods can certainly be found in these pages, but I didn’t find nearly enough historical analysis for my liking.

In fact, my biggest complaint with European Nightmares is what I’ll call the lack of breadth of coverage, meaning that many articles — notable examples include “Subjectivity Unleashed: Haute Tension” and “Taxidermia: A Taster for Hungarian Horror” — are so tightly focused that they offer little if anything in the way of a bigger-picture view of trends or development in European horror, or even country-specific horror.  Far more interesting (to me, at least) are the essays that are wider-ranging in coverage  — from “Alejandro Amenabar and Contemporary Spanish Horror,” which covers the Spanish director’s progression through three short films and five feature films (still too narrow in focus for my money, but better than other essays here), to (a prime example) “A Gaze From Hell: Eastern European Horror Cinema Revisited.”  The latter article touches upon films from several countries — with a focus on the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Russia — and from across several decades.  I would loved to have seen more coverage of this type, but European Nightmares instead prides itself on in-depth coverage of a relatively small number of films.

Without even looking at the authors’ backgrounds, one can easily discern that this is a book written by academics and primarily for academics. More than a few sentences are extremely… labyrinthine.  But while the arguments may rarely be concise, they are at least usually insightful.  For example, try this explosion of syllables, from Matthis Hurt’s essay on the film Haute Tension:

With the loss of religious faith, traditional values and philosophical reassurance in the modern age, one can also sense a  growing threat of destabilisation of both the conditions of individual human lives and social order in general… The realisation that objectivity is more often than not a mere social or cultural construction and that subjective perception and subjective convictions shape and dominate our sense of reality has made the world a more ambiguous place and our lives, our personal agendas and our self-perception a more unsettling endeavour.

That’s…more than a mouthful.  Still, despite my complaints, this is nonetheless a worthwhile book for scholars and instructors, even if its appeal is unlikely to extend beyond that audience.  With the exception of a few Asia-targeted titles, there have been relatively few books focusing on horror films outside of the U.S.  As such, European Nightmares is a welcome addition to that particular shelf.

Michael Marshall Smith’s Everything You Need… and Some Things You Won’t Forget

everything_lg

I’ve been singing the praises of Michael Marshall Smith’s short fiction for longer than I care to remember and, given how relatively little work he does at shorter lengths, the appearance of a collection of his work is reason to celebrate.  Everything You Need (Earthling Publications; 280 pages; 1,000 signed copies; $45), his first collection since 2003, is one of those infrequent reasons.  The book gathers 17 stories, with six published here for the first time.

Smith has a knack for taking relatively simple situations and casting them as symbolic of more macroscopic issues, and representative of situations that most, if not all, of us will face. Take, for example, “This is Now,” wherein a group of men, longtime small-town friends just beginning to grow a little long in the tooth, reminisce about a night in their youth, when they forced their way into a secured area (the nature of which is both fascinating and frightening) and barely escaped with their lives. Not surprisingly, they’re moved to try and breach that barrier again in an attempt to recapture their youth. In one character’s simple reflection, Smith manages to capture a universal sentiment for everyone over a certain age:

“As I looked now through the fence at the other forest I was thinking how long a decade had seemed back then, and how you could learn that it was no time at all.”

In a way, both “Walking Wounded” and “Different Now” are about definitive moments in relationships.  In the former, a past experience begins to physically haunt protagonist Richard, leading him back to a former residence that was the site of said experience, while the latter centers on a couple’s argument that spirals out of control, leading one to walk out and leaving the other to try and pick up the pieces in a world that has literally been broken by their break-up.

There are a couple zombie stories (nearly requisite these days) to be found in these pages, but you wouldn’t expect Smith’s takes on the sub-genre to be perfunctory, and these certainly are not.  “The Last Barbeque” is related as a description and transcription of a video that  records two men preparing for a barbecue at a strangely-deserted lakeside location, while “The Things He Said” concerns a solitary man in a remote cabin, reminiscing about his father while detailing his rigid daily schedule.  Both are stories are unveiled in layers, with their true nature not revealed until the innermost levels are reached.

It’s possible that one of the reasons I like “Unnoticed” so much is because of its locale, just a few miles from me, but there’s much more to like in this tale of a man who suddenly notices a building in his neighborhood, with a strange automobile from yesteryear (but…not quite) that’s somehow been shoehorned into the building lobby.  Sometimes, when we tend not to see things…it’s safer that way.  The setting for “Sad, Dark Thing” is even closer to my house, and the story is even better, involving a man on a Sunday drive in the Santa Cruz mountains, who stumbles upon what seems to be an extremely low-rent, and half-assed tourist attraction, but which turns out to house an extraordinary, if very dark, find.

Melancholy would be the word I’d use to describe much of “The Good Listener,” although this story of a son tracing his deceased father’s final steps, which include a mysterious missing period of time, is ultimately redemptive.  The son’s thoughts about the gap in his father’s history represents one of Smith’s best passages:

“I’m happy for the hole to remain. I no longer feel the need to fill it. There have always been silences in the world, and that’s the way it should be. There should be gaps. Sometimes it’s in those moments of silence, of dead air, that the meaningful things happen. It’s good we have things listening to all our stories now, keeping track of everything we have been and done.

It’s even better if, like the best listeners, they turn a deaf ear from time to time.”

Speaking of exceptional passages, although “The Woodcutter” is not one of my favorite stories in the collection, it does contain another prime example of Smith capturing a universal truth in a few sentences:

“He knew himself well enough to know that this was a bad idea, however. It was this kind of impulse that had gotten him here in the first place, a tendency to grow tired of one kind of life, of its hierarchies and constraints and rituals, and to think he could flip tracks. It didn’t work… Sometimes when Spike spent afternoons killing time in bookstores he wanted to go up and tap the shoulders of the people earnestly browsing the Self-Help section and tell them this fact, that they should give up on the idea of change and try to make friends with who they were before they did something dumb and fucked up what they had.”

The last story I want to call out is “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night,” a deliciously dark (literally) tale, in which a family of three wakes up in the middle of the night to find themselves trapped in an unfamiliar, pitch-black room, with no exits.

In the publicity notes for this collection, Earthling Press publisher Paul Miller says:

“A decade ago, my press was privileged to publish Mike’s last collection, which was hailed as ‘stellar’ by Publishers Weekly and a ‘major publishing event’ by Ellen Datlow… As strong as that collection was, I believe this one is even better.”

My first thought was that, no, this is not a better collection than that previous collection, More Tomorrow and Other Stories… not even close, really, because Smith was still in his short fiction heyday ten years ago, and has mostly concentrated on novels since then, and the lack of focus on short fiction would have to be evident in this collection.

But.

But.

As I skimmed back through these stories and reviewed my notes in order to write this review, I had no choice but to acknowledge that this is in fact one helluva collection. I still don’t think that I can declare it better than More Tomorrow, but it’s definitely in the same league.

In short, Michael Marshall Smith is one of our very best authors of short dark speculative fiction, period. It’s a shame that he doesn’t write more at shorter lengths.  Bracketed with fantastic art by Vincent Chong and capped by Smith’s highly engaging story notes, Everything You Need is definitely something you need.

Carrying a Dark Passenger – David Nickle’s The ’Geisters

Boy EatingIn the recent horror film, The Conjuring, character Ed Warren says,  “Sometimes when you get haunted, it’s like stepping on gum. It sticks with you.”

That’s actually a pretty apt description of Ann LeSage’s situation in David Nickle’s novel The ’Geisters (Chizine Publications; 300 pages $16.95). As the story opens, Ann seems to be a somewhat troubled young woman — although the reasons for this are not immediately clear — who’s about to get married to attorney Michael Voors. As plot developments unfold and more of her background is revealed, we find that Ann is quite literally haunted by a poltergeist that’s not specific to a physical location, as is the traditional portrayal, but rather has become her own version of a “dark passenger,” always with her, threatening to escape the sort of psychic cage that she’s constructed to keep it at bay.  She’s managed to keep the entity — which Ann refers to as the Insect, a reflection of how she visualizes its presence — locked away, for the most part, ever since it caused an accident that killed her parents and left her brother paralyzed.

But another break-out occurs on her honeymoon, resulting in a structure fire, and then the poltergeist again makes its presence known on the couple’s flight home from their honeymoon, resulting in a near-catastrophic crash, and the death of Michael.

As traumatic as that experience is, what’s even more troubling to Ann is her last image of Michael, in the plane’s lavatory…apparently in the midst of a sexual encounter with the Insect!  She soon comes to realize that there is a sort of secret society of men who are obsessed with exactly that — sex with poltergeists.  It sounds somewhat silly as I type those words here, but it’s to Nickle’s credit that he makes the idea both repugnant and plausible.

The author describes the approach in his own words in an article he wrote for John Scalzi’s Whatever site:

“So it was that I set out to write The ‘Geisters: a horror novel about perversion,” about “…a group of men who have a twisted and erotic obsession with poltergeists. They are long past chat rooms and dungeon play. They are powerful and wealthy and determined to use those advantages to court the real thing.”

Ann’s discovery of the equivalent of NAMPLA (er, that would be the North American Man-Poltergeist Love Association) sends her underground, fleeing the men who want to enslave her poltergeist and subject it to their dark desires while at the same time seeking to rescue her brother, who’s apparently been taken in by the organization as a pawn.

I’ve long been a fan of Nickle’s work — as evidenced by my earlier review of Monstrous Affections — and The ’Geisters does nothing to diminish that appreciation.  It’s a disturbing book — and I mean that in the best possible way — and one that will likely stick with you for long after you’ve finished the last page.

I will say, however, that while The ’Geisters features a gradual, brewing sense of tension, and an inescapable feel of menace lurking just beneath the surface… when the novel does reach its climax, the power of that scene is lessened somewhat by a style that seems detached and terse, almost passive in a way.  I think it’s likely a realistic reflection of Ann’s state by that point — stunned and desensitized — but it does serve to detract just a bit from what is otherwise a very powerful novel.

XXL-Sized Eco-Horror with John Leahy’s CROGIAN

CROGIAN_shopify_largeAfter nearly closing their doors a couple years ago, Necro Press and founder David Barnett have rebounded nicely, with 11 titles published by my count since their rebirth.  One of those new titles is the debut novel from John Leahy, the somewhat-awkwardly titled CROGIAN.

In the spirit of Stephen King’s “The Mist” and countless other tales, CROGIAN is based on an ever-reliable source of horror — namely, a military experiment gone very, very wrong.  The story begins with a very engaging premise — the discovery of an alien artifact by a reclusive loner living outside the small town of Goodman, Alaska.  The top of the artifact turns out to almost literally be the tip of the iceberg, and soon word of the bizarre find reaches the military, who move in to take ownership.  A short bit of aggressive experimentation later, it turns out that the artifact is a portal to another dimension…  A few more years later, and an automated expedition is dispatched, ultimately returning with video of a strange planet of gigantic flora and fauna, and soil samples containing molecules that could revolutionize the agriculture and food industries.  But of course the military is far more interested in weaponizing the discovery, so that an enemy’s own environment could be turned against it.

The remainder of the tales is set in 2017, where the military has relocated the project to an abandoned chemical facility in Texas.  (CROGIAN is actually the code name for the military’s experiment, standing for CReator Of GIANts.)  Rancher Ken Forde and his family live adjacent to the facility, which turns out to be a very bad zip code to be in when a disaster causes the CROGIAN formula to leak out into the local environment, resulting in exactly the sort of massive growth spurts the military had hoped for — but in their own backyard, rather than in some foreign “axis of evil” country.

Early on, the mutations seem relatively harmless, in some cases just freaks to be abused by the cruel and the clueless:

Ken had seen some of the clips. They had ranged from the disgusting to the psychotic: two smiling men holding up a section of an earthworm so thick that their hands couldn’t close around its body; a woman standing by an enormous spider-web who, when she touched it with a long stick, brought a huge black and yellow spider scampering from under a shed eave; two teenage boys kicking a soccer-ball as hard as possible against the shell of a colossal snail ascending a wall, the ball bouncing back each time from the shell the size of a bass-drum, the boys deciding to change to baseball, one of them throwing the ball to his buddy holding a bat, the buddy connecting perfectly with it, sending the ball smashing through the snail’s shell, both kids throwing their hands in the air and cheering.

But as time goes on, the mutations keep growing… and growing… and growing, leading to a “nature run amok” tale that’s something like an updated and more hardcore version of The Land of the Giants — for those who remember that late ‘60s TV show — although the mutations in CROGIAN are localized to a large swath of Texas and seem to be limited to plants, insects, reptiles, and fish, and (thankfully) not mammals or birds, for unknown reasons.

The remainder of the novel is taken up by the struggles of Ken and his family — and others they encounter along the way — to escape the contaminated zone and reach a safe harbor.  Their journey begins with tense, suspenseful scenes but unfortunately the repeated close encounters and narrow escapes soon start to feel repetitious.  Additionally, the interesting characters found in the early stages of CROGIAN are replaced in latter sections by far more stereotypical characters, especially some of the military villains portrayed, and there are some awkwardly-written passages to further weigh things down.

In sum, CROGIAN has a great germ of a plot, and is nicely-paced for the most part, but I ultimately wanted to like it a lot more than I did.  The novel does, however, qualify as a good summer “beach read” — meaning that, as long as you don’t focus too closely on the details, or think too much about the science or logic, it’ll keep you entertained as the tide rolls in.

Tracking Televamps with Brad Middleton’s Un-Dead TV

utv-400Billed as “The Ultimate Guide to Vampire Television,” Brad Middleton’s Un-Dead TV (published by By Light Unseen Media; 512 page trade paperback; $21.00) is a sizable tome, providing a broad, 30,000-foot view of vampires on TV, covering everything from the first appearance of a vampire on TV — in the form of Bela Lugosi appearing as Dracula on The Texaco Star Theater in September 1949 — right up through recent bloodsucker appearances in 2013.

In his Foreword, J. Gordon Melton provides a succinct, high-level view of the subject matter, noting that “Dark Shadows set the stage for the vampire to become a fixture in the nation’s living rooms,” before going on to decry how little research or scholarship there has been on vampires on the small screen…with one particularly notable exception:

“There is…one exception to the general lack of interest in the television vampire — Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, it is the inconvenient truth for vampire scholars that over half of all the scholarly comment on the broad subject of vampires penned through the last century have been directed at Buffy…”

Middleton certainly tries to do his part to increase vampire scholarship with Un-Dead TV, which is broken into the following sections:

  • Single Episodes
  • The Series
  • Telefilms and Pilots
  • Animation
  • Documentaries and Reality TV
  • Variety Programming and TV Specials
  • Non-Traditional Vampires
  • No Vampires Here!  (stories thought to feature vampires, but which do not)
  • The Forthcoming and the Forgotten (projects in development, and abandoned projects)
  • Non-English Programming
  • A Trivial Pursuit (miscellanous facts and statistics compiled during writing of the book)

Each entry in each section includes production details and a synopsis, and many also include a review and some trivia.  The reviews feature both brief qualitative analysis and star ratings on a scale of Bomb to 4 stars (well, actually from a stake to 4 vampire bats, but you get the idea).

The sections seem well-researched and borderline exhaustive.  The “Single Episodes” section, for example, chronicles shows as varied as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CSI, The Drew Carey Show, The Love Boat, and Night Gallery, to name but a few. In addition to that impressive variety, there are some intriguing episodes rated four stars, such as installments of Quantum Leap, Reaper, and Sledge Hammer!  The categories used serve as a strong organizational aid, making it easy to navigate the book, and a thorough index helps even further.

In terms of drawbacks… the book suffers from a distinct lack of graphics, resulting in page after page filled with paragraph after paragraph of unbroken text, while countless intriguing entries cry out for illustration.  (But I have to admit that adding a large number of graphics would have likely upped the page count significantly, resulting in higher production costs and likely a higher cover price.)  Also, I am somewhat mystified by the relative amounts of coverage afforded to various shows.  As a random but prime example, HBO’s influential True Blood gets a five-line entry, while Italian network Rai Uno’s obscure two-part mini-series Dracula gets nearly four times as much analysis.

All in all, however, Un-Dead TV fills a previously empty research niche, and provides lots of browsing entertainment.  Vampire lovers and scholars should find much to like in these pages.

 

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