Tag Archives: Michael McBride

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.

 

Michael McBride throws a curve with The Coyote

I’ve reviewed several Michael McBride titles in the past, enjoying the vast majority of them.  His latest book (or one of his latest, I should say, since his prolificity — yes, it’s a word — continues to astonish me), The Coyote, published by Thunderstorm Books, marks a fairly significant departure in some ways for McBride.  Gone are the unusual creatures or perils that often populate his stories; gone are the scientist-type protagonists and somewhat science-fictional underpinnings that he frequently employs.  Instead, we have an FBI agent tracking a very human serial killer.  But while some of the trappings may be different, McBride’s strengths remain: superb pacing, engaging plot developments, and strong, non-stereotyped characters.  The resulting novel is one of McBride’s very best works.

The protagonist is half-Native-American FBI agent Lukas Walker, whose cynical, world-weary view helps lend the tale a noir-ish tone, despite its setting in the wide-open sun-baked desert, as succinctly captured in the following passage:

I shivered despite the warmth of the night and stared out over the valley to the east.  The Amnesty Trail.  An endless stream of victims. Infinite places to hide. The American Dream. The Valley of Death.

Walker has been called to the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona, a hot spot for illegal immigrants crossings into the U.S. due to its thirty-six miles of unfenced border.  Walker has come to investigate a murder that left no corpse, but a great deal of blood, purposely painted on a canyon wall.  He forms a somewhat uneasy alliance with the strangely impassive tribal police Chief Ray Antone, who keeps his personal history and certain other details to himself while at the same time seeking to educate Walker on tribal history and legends.  Enduring the Chief’s machinations and the scorching heat, Walker maintains a grim, wry sense of humor, as evidenced here:

The chief’s squad car was like a sauna. He smirked every time I toggled the AC switch. I was starting to think of it as a stick I used to poke the midget who lived under the hood, prompting him to blow his rank breath through a straw and into the vents.  This kind of heat does strange things to your brain, as I was starting learn. I saw lakes on the horizon, but we never seemed to reach them as they poured off the edge of the earth.

As Walker’s investigation proceeds, more killings occur, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s dealing with a serial killer, one who’s seemingly intent on playing a cat-and-mouse game with him.  In the course of events, Walker — who had believed his personal connection to the Tohono O’odham nation was tenuous at best — learns some surprising facts about his past…and present.

McBride clearly performed a great deal of research in putting together this novel, and it shows — not in the form of massive info-dumps, as you’d find many writers resorting to, but rather via a gradual unveiling of details.  The fascinating background info, the unique desert setting, and the compelling plot all combined to keep me deeply engrossed in the story. It’s also worth mentioning that the Thunderstorm hardcover is a beautiful artifact, with great overall design and production values, including four-color pages kicking off each chapter.  All in all, The Coyote is a significant book, and comes highly recommended.

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.

Nobody bats .1000 — Michael McBride’s Blindspot and Tim Curran’s The Underdwelling

In previous reviews, I’ve frequently sung the praises of both Michael McBride and Tim Curran, two prolific authors who’ve carved out deservedly strong reputations in the horror specialty press world — witness my reviews of McBride’s Quiet, Keeps to Himself, and Curran’s The Spawning and Bone Marrow Stew.

But a potential danger of being so prolific is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the increased likelihood that quality may suffer due to to quantity… and I’m afraid I have to say that may be the case, at least to some degree, with both of their new novellas: McBride’s Blindspot and Curran’s The Underdwelling.

Published by Dark Regions Press, Blindspot is the tale of biomedical research scientist Dr. Parker Ramsey, who under the sponsorship of the U.S. Army has been developing a device to capture from the optic nerves of the recently-deceased the last image they saw before dying. Shortly after the story opens, Ramsey is spirited away to a remote area of North Korea, the apparent site of a recent nuclear accident. Escorted by a small group of elite special forces soldiers, Ramsey is there to field-test his prototype, which has to date been successfully tested only on laboratory mice.

Ramsey is kept in the dark about much of the mission, and spends a lot of time during the lengthy trek to the site wondering just why the hell he’s been clandestinely transported halfway around the globe. When the group finally arrives at its destination, there are no shortage of bodies from which to potentially harvest final “images of death,” but the condition of the corpses gives Ramsey pause because… well, suffice to say that the cause of death does not appear to have been from the effects of a nuclear explosion or subsequent radiation exposure.

Things only get stranger once Ramsey is able to test his device on the corpses. He’s thrilled to find that the device works just as expected, but the results unfortunately don’t shed any light on exactly what happened to the dead, due to a particular optical effect, cited in the book’s title:

“‘It’s the blindspot,’ Ramsey said… ‘Every eye has one. There are no photoreceptor cells at the point where the optic nerve enters the retina. No rods. No cones. No nothing.’”

On all the victims Ramsey surveys, their blindspot unfortunately blocks a portion of their final image in such a way as to block the view of their cause of death. I’ll refrain from offering any further details so as to avoid spoilers.

Blindspot features McBride’s usual great plotting and pacing, but his characters unfortunately border on stereotype. At least that’s my takeaway when you’ve got a gruff, cigar-chomping General, a group of stoic, macho soldiers, and a brilliant but insecure and somewhat socially awkward scientist. Of course, stereotypes often exist for a reason, and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in some of McBride’s characterizations…but the bottom line is that several of his characters here *do* seem superficial in terms of their traits, and that serves to detract from what is otherwise a captivating tale.

It’s worth noting that when one of the aforementioned characters — the lead soldier, Rockwell — steps out of his stereotype, it’s a jarring departure, as he suddenly launches into a detailed explanation of backstory, using some very unexpected language, such as:

“‘We were, however, able to able to conclusively determine from samples of the nearby soil, air, and water that there were no traces of nuclear byproducts. What we did find were a multitude of toxins, alkalyzing agents, and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.’”

A more gradual and nuanced reveal of Rockwell’s character would likely have been beneficial.

As a big McBride fan, it’s a little concerning that this is the second consecutive book of his I’ve read (Predatory Instinct, which I read but didn’t review, was the first) where the stories have seemed very “cinematic” — meaning that they’re action-packed, well-paced, and would likely translate well to the big screen, but feature somewhat cliched characters and at times seem formulaic.

Even when operating on less than all cylinders, though,  McBride is still better than an awful lot of other writers out there. This is an entertaining novella, and many readers will likely be very enamored of it, but I think the author has done significantly better.

*  *  *

Turning to Curran, his novella The Underdwelling, published by Delirium Books, features an underground setting, which I’m usually a sucker for, generally strong character development, a taut storyline, and has no really significant flaws, but… I can’t escape the feeling that there’s a large amount of unrealized potential here, as there’s unfortunately little true frisson generated from what should be a chilling scenario.

The story is related from the perspective of Boyd, a recent hire at a the Hobart iron ore mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s about to go underground for the first time after a couple months of working up top, but is beset by vague premonitions of something *bad* about to happen. Despite his ill forebodings, Boyd figures he’s a miner at heart, just like his father, and he desperately needs the money, and so he rides the trolley down, into mine that stretches 2500 feet beneath the surface, with a mix of stubbornness and trepidation.

The characters he interacts with are an interesting mix, including Breed, a big man whose partial-American-Indian heritage is apparently reflected in his nickname; Maki, the requisite know-it-all jerk; the seasoned and confident shift boss Corey; and brainy but respectful mining engineer Jurgens. There’s some sharp-edged and realistic repartee between the parties, often involving the acerbic Breed.

Boyd is a quicker study than most of the others, and as a result Jurgens takes the time to explain to him the strangeness of the rock formations they’re seeing.

“See, Boyd, the ore is here, we just have to get through this goddamn limestone first.” He led Boyd over to the wall and knocked on the striated rock there. “This is all limestone laid down during the Permian.”
“Sure,” Boyd said. “Sedimentary rock. Layers of mud and sediment.”

Jurgens nodded. “That’s right. Thing is, it just doesn’t belong here. I mean, from a geologic standpoint, this is the first Permian rock ever found in Michigan. So that’s something, but there’s no goddamn ore in it. See, this part of Michigan is all old, very old Precambrian rock. Anywhere from 500 million to three or four billion years old. And this Permian strata is fairly new, roughly 250 million years old. It just doesn’t belong here.”

Given that this is a horror novella we’re talking about, it’s probably no surprise that the interlopers find that it’s not just the limestone that doesn’t belong there. They stumble upon, and almost into, a 400-foot deep hole that, according to Jurgens, was formed by glacial meltwater, but looks strangely artificial. Exploring the abyss is a must, to determine if it’s a threat to the mine’s overall stability, but Boyd is none too thrilled to be venturing even further into the abyss.

Upon plumbing the depths of the hole, they discover that there’s something alive down there, something that’s been trapped there for a very long time, and is very lonely…and very hungry. There *are* a few tense moments,and the well-drawn characters help to hold the reader’s interest, but as mentioned, the story never becomes truly frightening, and there are a lot of questions left unanswered. As a result I found The Underdwellinga bit underwhelming although, as always, your mileage may vary.

Loud and Proud — Michael McBride’s collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself

I purchased a story from Michael McBride for Cemetery Dance, I wrote a very positive review of his novel Remains, and I’ve enjoyed several other works of his, most notably Bloodletting. So it’s probably no great surprise to learn that I found much to like in his collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself, from Thunderstorm Books.

mcbride collection

The book gathers eight stories, including three novellas, two ultra-short pieces, and three works of “intermediate” length. The first of the novellas, “Xibalba,” appears for the first time here, and it’s a dynamite page-turner focusing, as many of McBride’s works do, on a scientific expedition. The group is investigating a phenomenon known as “blue holes” — a geologic formation caused by long-term erosion and resulting in underwater caves or sinkholes, named for the dramatic contrast between the dark blue, deep waters of their depths and the lighter blue of the shallows around them. The expedition is composed of an interesting cast of characters, with a simmering back-ground romance, is situated in a suitably remote jungle area on the Yucatan Peninsula, and begins to get very creepy when a scuba diver exploring the cave system starts seeing furtive movements in the shadows from the corner of his eye. From there, the plot rapidly accelerates into full-on terror territory.

“The Calm Before the Swarm” is another original novella, and it’s a grim view of terrorists developing a deadly mutant wasp species. Narrated from the perspective of a doctor at the Center for Disease Control, the tale is impressively dark, utterly bleak, and to McBride’s credit he makes the threat seem chillingly plausible. The third novella, “Zero,” was previously published in a stand-alone limited edition by Necessary Evil Publications, and it’s another horrific tale with a strong science-fiction overtones, focusing on Brian Niemand, a recent graduate who’s initially thrilled to garner a coveted spot on a bioengineering research team, but later gets caught in the middle of a darkly twisted misuse of the technology.

McBride’s story from Cemetery Dance, “It Rips,” is included here, and it’s a taut little exercise in ratcheting tension, even if it provides far more questions than answers. As the author says in his story notes: “I’m still not quite sure what it really is, but I had a blast writing all around it.” “Postpartum” and “The Generosity of Strangers” are likewise very strong stories; on the other hand, I seldom have an appreciation for flash fiction, and the two examples included here do nothing to change that general impression. But those two micro-works are the only disappointments I found in these pages.

The collection comes complete with an introduction by Gene O’Neill, informative story notes from McBride, and typically excellent artwork by Steve Gilberts, all of which serve to make this an even more attractive package. Definitely recommended.