Tag Archives: novella

Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

What Happens in Skillute… with S.P. Miskowski’s Astoria

Astoria CoverS.P. Miskowski is a newer writer who’s quickly built a significant reputation in the genre, via her interconnected books Knock Knock and Delphine Dodd.  Both have received many plaudits, with the latter short-listed for a Shirley Jackson award.  The following review quotation is particularly notable to me because I frequently share Peter Tennant’s *tastes*:

“I rate Delphine Dodd as the best novella I read in 2012, and Knock Knock as the best book I read in any category.” —Peter Tennant, Black Static

Impressive words, indeed.

Coming off of those two earlier successes, Miskowski has again gone from strength to strength with her follow-up, the novella Astoria (Omnium Gatherum Books, 2013). As with her earlier two books, Miskowski’s latest is again set (at least partially) in the small town of Skillute, Washington, a fictional town with a boatload of baggage, both natural and supernatural.

At the eye of the storm in Astoria is Ethel Sanders, a character who figured in Knock Knock.  The victim of an abusive childhood that she’s never been able to escape, Ethel is now a middle-aged wife and mom who’s plagued by the actions of her daughter, the cruel and seemingly psychopathic Connie Sara.  Ethel’s existence has become a bottomless pit of misery, as she lives in fear of Connie Sara’s latest crimes while barely enduring her forever-in-denial husband, Burt.  When a local boy, Winston, disappears, Ethel strongly believes that Connie Sara has moved beyond animal abuse to human targets:

Ethel and Burt had agreed to so many deals just to get through each day, compromising, making allowances. Finally they allowed the girl to take over in a way that would be inexcusable if they’d had any self-respect. Their friends had stopped calling. Their neighbors had stayed away. Their house grew dark and they kept their voices down, while the thing they had brought into the world wandered the countryside at night. Restless and filled with hatred, it had killed animals for pleasure. It had killed that little boy, Winston, and who could say how much more damage it was responsible for?

Everything changes when Connie Sara dies unexpectedly, leaving Ethel guilt-ridden for feeling more relieved than sad over her daughter’s passing. At the funeral, Ethel is struck by hallucinations that serve to illuminate just how unreliable of a narrator she is:

In the light, Connie Sara stretched her arms out, reaching for Ethel. Dirt stained her clothes. Blood dripped from her hands. Something was wrong with her eyes. They were blue-gray but smeared with a dark substance like charcoal.

Ethel watched. Convulsive waves of panic ran through her.

Connie Sara’s bruised lips drew taut, smiling or mocking, she couldn’t tell. When the girl lifted one hand and placed a bloody index finger over her lips, Ethel turned away and began to walk as quickly as she could.

After dreaming for years of running away and leaving everything behind her, Ethel’s cemetery visions finally drive her to do just that. She speeds away from the graveyard, unsure of where she’s headed but determined to flee, until she finally gets the idea to hide out for a while in nearby Astoria.

Entering Astoria, Ethel is struck by the image of another driver, leaving town, a scene that foreshadows the ramped-up strangeness that’s soon to come:

…she saw that the driver of the other Tercel was a woman, probably at least fifty, wearing sunglasses and a scarf. In every respect the woman was the exact image of Ethel herself, and as they passed one another the woman looked out her window, so that they held one another’s gaze for a second. The similarity between them gave Ethel a chill. In another instant it was over.

Finding an ad for a house-sitter, Ethel believes she’s struck upon the perfect way to lay low, even though the identity and backstory that she concocts for herself is ridiculously flimsy.  Her meeting with the homeowner, James Bevin, goes well — too well, it seems — and Ethel gets the job, convinced that she and Bevin have connected on some instinctual level.

After he departs, Bevin’s influence continues to resonate with Ethel, and a young boy claiming to be Bevin’s son comes knocking on her door, although it gradually dawns on Ethel that the boy might actually be someone else entirely.  In view of all the stress Ethel has endured, it seems unsurprising that her loss of touch with reality begins to accelerate. When it happens, there’s a tendency for the reader to empathize with her, even as the surreal events continue to pile up.

Through it all, the narrative stays tightly focused on Ethel’s perspective, and the reader is forced to witness, with some dismay and discomfort, the bizarre associations, rationalizations, and thoughts of persecution running through Ethel’s mind.

There is much that is strange and unsettling in Astoria.  In fact, in the latter stages of the story, there is almost nothing that isn’t strange and unsettling.  Miskowski crafts her tale with a confident, assured hand, resulting in a heart-wrenching portrait of a desperate woman’s slide into insanity.

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.

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.

 

A double dose of Ian Rogers

A while back, I reviewed Ian Rogers’ trio of chapbooks from Burning Effigy PressTemporary Monsters, Ash Angels, and Black-Eyed Kids — all of which feature wisecracking Private Investigator Felix Renn and are set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands.

As I said in the review:

It should come as no great surprise that I love horror, and I also happen to love comedy. However, I’m usually not a fan of horror/comedy mash-ups. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I do enjoy horror-comedy when it’s done well, but more often than not I find attempts to combine the two genres fall flat. So when I say that I really enjoyed Ian Rogers’ three darkly humorous Felix Renn novelettes, understand that I’m a tough critic when it comes to these types of tales.

imagesNow Burning Effigy has followed up with a Renn-based collection, the awkwardly-but aptly-titled Supernoirtural Tales, which features the three Ren stories from the chapbooks, plus two other Renn reprints and a new 50,000-word novella.  Since I’ve already reviewed the novellas from the three chapbooks, I’m not going to say any more about them, but I do want to comment on the other tales gathered here.

Let’s start with by far the most substantial of them, the new novella “The Brick.”  As with the three earlier chapbook tales, the higher word count allows Rogers to really stretch his wings and fully develop his fictional world, and it’s the details of this alternate reality, along with the distinctive voice of Renn, that makes these tales something special.  “The Brick” starts with the seed of a simple missing-person case — a teen-aged girl, in this case — and grows into something much more substantial.

The missing girl, Aubrey Wood, turns out to be a runaway, and as Felix undertakes a quest to find her, his friend Jerry Baldwin, a realtor specializing in haunted real estate, contacts Felix out of the blue and lends him the eponymous brick.  The brick is special because it comes from the ruins of what many believe to be the deadliest house to ever exist — Rosedale Cottage.  And Felix soon finds that Aubrey’s grandmother was once an occupant of Rosedale, an experience that marked her forever, as she alludes to in a letter that she wrote for Aubrey:

I remembered something one of my teachers had said. She was quoting someone, but I can’t remember who it was. She said the eyes are the windows of the soul. That phrase came back to me time and time again that summer. I remembered staring up at that alien moon and thinking, If the eyes really are windows, what happens when they’re open? What happens if you let something inside?

Felix comes to understand that something from Rosedale Cottage pursued Aubrey’s grandmother for years, due to certain abilities she had, and with the grandmother now dead, that same creature is now pursuing Aubrey.  Felix sums it up nicely in the following passage:

There were two entities at Rosedale Cottage. One dwelled within the building itself, while the other stalked the grounds on which it stood. One tried to save the people who lived there, while the other stalked and murdered them. Only now, the cottage was gone and the Whyver had left to hunt abroad.

“The Brick” alternates between moments of dread and bits of dark humor, and it does so very adroitly.

The other two works, “My Body” and “The History of the Black Lands,” are much more slight, in terms of length and (somewhat) impact. The former is the first Renn story ever written by Rogers, and it’s a somber tale that possesses none of the wit present in later tales. Nonetheless, it’s well-written, relating Felix’s discovery of a little girl standing alone on a roadside, but goes pretty much just where you’d expect. “The History of the Black Lands” is exactly what it says it is, a faux reference work on the Black Lands, providing some interesting background info on the milieu, but nothing more.

Available as both a trade paperback and ebook, Supernoirtural Tales is a highly entertaining collection, showcasing a character and setting that are decidedly worthy of repeat engagements. If you’ve never encountered Renn through the prior chapbooks, this is the perfect opportunity to get a full dose of Felix, in one convenient package.

* * *

everyHouse_coverIan Rogers’ other recent title is the collection Every House is Haunted from Chizine Publications, and after my prior experiences with Rogers & Renn, my expectations for this book were very high…too high, perhaps, as I came away a tad bit disappointed.

I think a major reason for that disappointment is that, as alluded to above,  Rogers seems much more comfortable when afforded the opportunity to work at greater lengths. As evidence to support that argument, I present “The Dark and the Young” and “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the two longest tales included here and, not accidentally, two of the best.  The former involves a linguistics specialist recruited by a shadowy government agency to help translate a very dark and dangerous book, while the latter (which happens to be a nominee for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette) centers on two operatives from a clandestine organization, who visit a very dangerous haunted house — the “architectural equivalent of a great white shark” — after two deaths occur there, in order to try and find the source of the evil.

Overall, the collection gathers 22 stories, seven of which appear here for the first time.  When confined to shorter lengths (assumedly, many of the 15 stories that are reprinted here originally appeared in markets with word counts that held Rogers far below the length of the Renn novellas), the author sometimes struggles with developing characters and crafting satisfying finales.  What I’m trying to impart via the latter comment is that Rogers relies too often on ambiguous or unresolved endings (at least for my tastes, and I generally don’t have issues with ambiguity).  Witness “Leaves Brown,” wherein an elderly man, who’s recently reintroduced himself to his daughter’s life after a long absence, seeks to counsel his grandson on their shared ability to see ghosts.  It’s a very intriguing premise, but the story just…ends, almost randomly, as if it’s an excerpt from a longer work.  Another strong tale lessened by an “open-ended ending” is “The Candle,” a chilling little ditty centering on a man rising from bed to see why it’s taken his wife so long to go check on a candle that may have been left burning, only to find his wife in an altered state, with hints of similar happenings perhaps occurring in nearby houses.

But enough about unsatisfying finales… Let’s switch focus back to the best tales collected here, starting with “The Rifts Between Us,” a fascinating work with science fictional underpinnings, as summarized perfectly by the following excerpt:

“We’re exploring the borderlands. We found a frequency that the brain gives off before it dies. We can ride that signal into the rifts, the veritable waiting room of death, and explore it.”

But the scientific expeditions to the land of the nearly dead are trespasses into a realm where man was not meant to be, as they soon find out.

Quick summaries of other standouts here:  Like the aforementioned “The Dark and the Young,” “A Night in the Library with the Gods” revolves around a dangerous book — in the case, a tome that can overwhelm the thoughts of its readers. And like the aforementioned “The House on Ashley Avenue,” “Cabin D” also has an operative from a shadowy government agency seeking to neutralize a dangerous dwelling, although in this case a major sacrifice may be necessary to achieve the goal. “The Nanny” also focuses on interlopers in a haunted house, although in this case it’s a real estate agent and a ghost-hunter conducting the investigation.

In “Relaxed Best,” a private investigator follows a wayward husband into a private club that at first evokes humor — “It looks like a Philip Marlowe novel exploded in here, he thought” — but then takes a dark turn. “The Inheritor” is a story that I originally purchased for Cemetery Dance while I was editing the magazine, and this tale of a son whose inheritance from his father includes an unpleasant task that dear ol’ dad just couldn’t bring himself to do remains just as creepy now as when initially published.

While there are some very good stories gathered here, there’s also more inconsistency than I’d like to see, with the lesser works clumped almost exclusively amongst the shortest stories, as mentioned earlier.  Lest I sound too harsh, I should note that, if I’d come to this collection sans expectations, my reaction would likely be pretty darned positive.  Even with my high expectations, I have to say that Every House is Haunted is largely a success, even if a few rooms could use remodeling.

Mark Morris’ It Sustains Has True Staying Power

it-sustains-signed-jhc-by-mark-morris-1707-pBritish author Mark Morris has been at it now for longer than I care to think (a comment on my age, not his talent), with nearly 20 titles published since his debut, Toady, appeared in 1989.  His latest, It Sustains, from Earthling Publications, sports an Introduction by Sarah Pinborough and a gorgeous cover illustration by Edward Miller; more importantly, it’s a taut, coming-of-age novella that winds up going places you probably won’t expect.

Fifteen-year-old Adam is living a fairly normal, happy life in the small village of Stretton Mere, where his father and mother own and operate the Maypole pub. That idyllic existence is destroyed when a group of drunks, angry over their expulsion from the pub, return to the scene looking to cause some damage but wind up killing Adam’s mother.

The meaning of the book’s title is revealed in the following passage, describing a half-hearted, or even mocking, message from one of Adam’s mother’s killers.

Just before the funeral we got a card from Danny Thorpe, white with a silver dove on the front — In Deepest Sympathy.  Inside the card he had written: ‘So sorry to hear about what happened. A terrible loss.  But ultimately it is love, not grief, that sustains.’

Seeking a new start, or at least fewer painful memories, Adam’s father moves the two of them several hours away, to operate another pub.  But placing many miles between them and their tragedy not surprisingly fails to blunt the emotions of their recent tragedy. In the following scene, Adam hears his father, who’s been pretty hard on Adam, while seemingly staying strong himself in the face of the tragedy, unburdening himself of his pain in private.

…I hear sobbing.

It’s not much, little more than a whimpery hitching of breath, but it is this very thing — this stifled, exhausted quality — that makes it seem so desolate.  It is sobbing without hope, without release; it is sobbing in the knowledge that it won’t make you feel even the slightest bit better afterwards — and it is that that makes it scary.

Haunted by memories and regret, Adam begins to be plagued by unsettling dreams and visions… and the irretrievable loss of innocence, as captured here:

…what he has now been reminded of, in the cruelest way possible, is that life is temporary and fragile, that each day we step out onto thin ice that will eventually, inevitably, splinter beneath us, and that, contrary to what we are told as children, there are no happy endings.

At the same time, he faces far more commonplace complications for someone his age — a growing attraction to schoolmate Adele, and confrontations with bullies, followed by initiation into their “gang,” and brushes with the law.

It Sustains is a powerful tale, full of sadness, despair and unexpected plot developments…but the final plot development may be just a little too unexpected.  Meaning that there’s no justification or rationale presented for a twist that seems decidedly different from what’s come before.  Not that I want or expect rationalization for everything — I have plenty of appreciation for ambiguity and the unexplained — but in this case, the change was sufficiently out of left field to leave me feeling off balance.  Nonetheless, the surprising finale of It Sustains serves to detract only a bit from the substantial strengths of this fine novella.

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.

Riding the Nightmare with Rio Youers’ Dark Dreams, Pale Horses

Rio Youers is a highly regarded newer writer, although not quite as new as I’d thought — some quick research showed that Dark Dreams, Pale Horses, his recent collection from PS Publishing, is his fifth book, preceded by three novels and a novella. Dark Dreams acts as a fine introduction to Youers’ work, gathering six stories, half of them on the long-ish side, and allowing him to employ a variety of styles and attack a number of different subjects.

Youers flexes his auctorial muscles most impressively when trying his hand at post-apocalyptic tales, three of which are collected here. First up is “Pure,” which is set largely in the teeming slums of Rio de Janeiro in 2064. The protagonist is part of an underclass whose ancestors were infected by a vampiric plague, and who are now marked with facial tattoos to help identify them and keep them quarantined. Youers expertly evokes the misery of the milieu:

“These streets, as crowded as a child’s imagination, once filled with color and vibrancy, but now made gray by clouds of fear; thunderhead of disease. The locals—the cariocas—pressed to get out of the rain, heads down, bodies wet. They did not look at him.”

“Pure” is perhaps the best story here, a gripping work that’s further enhanced by the unexpected turns it takes.

In “Alice Bleeding,” the catastrophic near-extinction event is a huge meteor strike in Australia.  A group of survivors elect to stay behind in the Outback when the other residents of their small town head for more populous areas in hopes of finding aid.  Their decision proves to be even more disastrous, as supplies dwindle and no rescuers come:

“In the semi-desert west of Yulara, across the ruptured highway, the letters SOS had been spelled with the detritus of aftermath: furniture and timbers, siding and appliances, carpets and vehicles, towels and bedding, tiles and panels. The letters were forty feet long—the industry of the remaining townspeople, those too foolhardy or stubborn to evacuate. They pillaged the ruin for any morsel of hope. They dragged their findings across the highway and anchored them to saviour. SOS.”

The final tale of cataclysm is “Chrysalis,” a dark fantasy detailing the stubborn observance of religion in a despair-filled world where the sun no longer shines, and a seeming miracle that perhaps rewards the enduring faith. Youers’ prose is again worthy of quotation:

“Imagine the world as a diseased heart. A pale shape hanging in the substance of time, tumbling on its axis: a distorted sphere, like a swollen eye. The grey flesh of the ocean rages, unimaginable depths swirling with muscular movement. Contaminated waves break against the earth’s skeleton, delivering scores of the dead. The forests are broken toys. They lie in pieces, slick with rainfall.”

Among the trio of non-apocalyptic tales, “This is the Summer of Love” certainly merits mention, a bittersweet tale of young lovers Billy and Terri in a relationship that’s headed for disaster as surely as a train with no brakes. Even though the story meanders at times  and ends somewhat arbitrarily, Youers’ descriptions again show his flair:

“Home is five rooms held together by tattered boards and siding. The structure leans to the east and has bowed on that side. It has swollen, like an infected limb. The windows are smeared with neglect. They let little light in, and no darkness out. They hide the loss of hope, the creaking floorboards, and the shadows that crowd the seam of light under the doors.”

“The Ghost of Lillian Bliss” revolves around an aging Alzheimers’ patient’s wistful recollections of a ghost she knew as a girl. The only somewhat disappointing story here is “Promised Land Blues,” in which an obsessed Elvis Presley fan gets far more than he bargained for when he arranges to drive a vintage pink Cadillac across the country.

Dark Dreams, Pale Horses is the tenth volume in PS Publishing’s Showcase series, and it’s a perfect fit for that series descriptor, given that the collection serves as an ideal showcase for Youers’ substantial skills.

Ants, Cops, and Criminals — Joe McKinney’s The Red Empire

Joe McKinney is an author whose name I’ve been familiar with for quite some time, but who I haven’t had a chance to read until now. His collection The Red Empire and Other Stories, from relatively new but rapidly expanding publisher Redrum Horror, provided me with an opportunity to rectify that.

Even though the collection includes only a modest total of eight stories (the title story is a long novella, taking up more than 40% of the book), including three originals, there is a fairly wide array of styles and genres on display here, with the contents touching upon everything from a ghost story to cosmic horror to SF to police procedural to non-fiction.

The aforementioned eponymous novella “The Red Empire,” which leads off the book, is probably the highlight here, a taut page-turner that’s not ashamed to take a B-movie plot and make the best of it.  A military truck transporting a dangerous payload, in the form of genetically-engineered fire ants, crashes during a storm in rural Texas, unleashing the ants.  The military and their nefarious scientists attempt to capture the ants, enlisting the help of local police and a local doctor who happens to be something of an expert on fire ants.  Complicating matters are an escaped killer who’s invaded the home of a single mother and her daughter, who’s recovering from a serious eye operation.  On the heels of the killer’s arrival comes a wave of the deadly ants, trapping the unlikely trio in the house.  It’s all expertly-paced and a lot of fun.

The second tale, “Blemish,” is the other standout, as a former cop turned private investigator is haunted by his past, via both the ghost of a former lover and his still-living ex-girlfriend.  It’s a melancholy tale of wrong turns and missed opportunities, and the ending will likely haunt you as much as the two women have haunted the main character, Scott.

The collection is unfortunately a bit front-loaded, as the remaining contents for the most part can’t live up to the high standards set by the first two stories. “Eyes Open” comes closest, as a seemingly schizophrenic homeless man picked up by the police turns out to be the bearer of a sanity-threatening message with Lovecraftian overtones.   “Burning Finger Man” is also worth noting, a fairly straightforward drama about a sexual predator plaguing a housing project.  The story features an interesting array of characters and manages to wring a lot of emotion from its depiction of vigilante justice.

Showing the influence of McKinney’s day job as a Sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, four of the eight entries feature cops in primary roles, and his first-hand knowledge certainly helps lend a strong sense of realism to those stories.  McKinney has largely been known for his zombie-oriented fiction, and this collection gives him the chance to show his chops in some different areas, and he largely does a fine job of doing just that.