Tag Archives: Thunderstorm Books

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.

In Lock-down with Nate Southard’s Lights Out

I’ve reviewed three Nate Southard titles in past installments of this blog — He Stepped Through, Scavengers, and This Little Light of Mine — with mostly very positive things to say. I thus approached his latest novel, Lights Out from Thunderstorm Books, with no small amount of anticipation.

Similar to Tim Curran’s Fear Me, which I also reviewed earlier, Lights Out features a federal prison setting, a locale that is absolutely rife with possibilities for horror. In Southard’s take on the theme, the venue is Burnham State Maximum Security Penitentiary, home to murderers, rapists and other violent felons, and the story is related primarily from the viewpoints of Warden Ronald Timms, Father Darren Albright, and a handful of guards and prisoners, most notably the leaders of four prison factions — the Italians, the Mexicans, the African-Americans, and the White Supremacists.

Not surprisingly, most of the characters are portrayed in a less than sympathetic fashion, Father Albright being the lone exception, a fact that detracts somewhat from the reader’s emotional involvement in the novel. When the characters begin to die at the hands of supernatural creatures that originate from a cavern beneath the prison, it’s difficult to manufacture much empathy or concern.

One obvious aspect of a prison setting that just begs to be exploited in a horror novel is the sense of being trapped, and Southard leverages this feature to the fullest, frequently creating a sense of desperate confinement and claustrophobia, as in the following passage, from the viewpoint of a prisoner trapped in his cell:

“The creature let out a slow hiss, and the reek of its breath grew stronger. Something squealed over the metal, a sound like a braking train. Hall tried to turn his head away, but the muscles of his neck and shoulders refused to obey. He tried to close his eyes, but the lids refused to drop, leaving him helpless to do anything but stare as the thing in the tiny window peered in at him, smiling its horrific smile.”

The exact nature of the supernatural menace in Lights Out is not revealed until more than halfway through the story (although there are certainly hints), so I’m not going to spoil that element of the plot by disclosing it here, but suffice to say that the creatures in question are rendered in a convincing and sometimes chilling fashion.

Even when the creatures begin to venture further from their dark holes, threatening to overrun the prison, Lights Out, like most every supernatural horror novel, has its requisite disbeliever — a characters who refuse to acknowledge the existence of something beyond human ken. Warden Timms fills the role of the primary doubter, as expressed here:

“Darren would blow a gasket, something about lying and prisoners’ rights as human beings. And Ray and Albright both would accuse him of trying to bury the real problem. They were telling him monsters had come to Burnham, though, and no matter how grisly the recent murders had been, he refused to believe that kind of bullshit. He had to live in the real world, one where people were killed on a daily basis by means that were anything but supernatural, and he had neither the time nor the will to even entertain such ridiculous notions.”

Lights Out is fast-paced, engaging, and filled with action. What it lacks, to some degree, is a sense of genuineness, a grounding in prison trappings that would better enable a suspension of disbelief. It’s not surprising that this sense of realism is lacking at times, because it’s difficult to pull off this kind of setting effectively, particularly in the area of dialog. Even though I (like most readers) may not know what prison slang and chatter really sounds like, I know what sounds realistic to my ears. That sense of realism is something that Tom Fontana achieved magnificently for the HBO series Oz, and that David Simon similarly accomplished for the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore in the HBO series The Wire. Southard makes an admirable attempt here, but seems to falter at times.

Despite the misgivings outlined above, Lights Out is still a book with a hook, a novel that will lock up many readers and not release them until they’ve completed the last sentence.

Mucho Malfi – Ronald Malfi’s FLOATING STAIRCASE and SKULLBELLY

A few months back, I picked up a copy of Ronald Malfi’s novel Passenger, with no real expectations, and was very pleasantly surprised by the suspenseful tale I found within. I’ve been planning to try more Malfi ever since then, and two recent titles gave me that opportunity — the novel Floating Staircase from Thunderstorm Books and the novella Skullbelly from Delirium Books.

Floating Staircase tells the story of horror novelist Travis Glasgow, who’s recently moved with his wife Jodie to a small town in Maryland, to a house just down the street from his older brother, Adam. But not just any house, as Travis soon discovers. He gradually pieces together his new home’s backstory, starting with a creepy, hidden bedroom in the basement and culminating in the discovery that the house’s previous family included a boy, Elijah, who apparently drowned in the lake behind the house, although his body was never found.

Travis’ curiosity about Elijah rapidly spirals into an all-out obsession, spurred in part by similarities between Elijah’s death and that of Travis’ younger brother Kyle, who was killed in a diving accident at age 13. It becomes apparent that Kyle’s death has affected Travis far more deeply than he’s ever been able to admit, a fact made abundantly clear when brother Adam points out that all of Travis’ novels feature a character who drowns or almost drowns, or an apparition rising from a lake, a revelation that leads Travis to further realize that the titles of his four books — The Ocean Serene, Silent River, Drowning Pool, and Water View — also reflect a certain preoccupation with water.

A series of strange sights and sounds, including repeated occurrences of wet footprints, serve to fuel Travis’ fixation and lead the reader to question whether there’s something supernatural afoot or Travis is a classically unreliable narrator. Observations from Malfi such as the following serve to further add to the mystery:

“…nature does not know extinction. In effect, it knows only change: nothing ever truly disappears, for there is always something—some part, some particle, some formidable semblance— left behind.”
My biggest concern while reading this fine novel was whether there was really enough plot to support the book’s 330-page length. To Malfi’s credit, he easily meets that challenge, delivering a taut thriller with strong character development and nary a bit of padding.And if Floating Staircase is taut, then Skullbelly
is downright skintight, weighing in at a lean, mean 135 pages. Seattle-based private investigator John Jeffers has been hired to determine what happened to three teenagers who disappeared while on a camping trip in Oregon, and why only a single surviving member of the party, Tommy Downing, came staggering out of the woods, wounded and catatonic. Jeffers finds that the local police investigation was perfunctory at best, and perhaps purposely superficial.

Jeffers’ detective work leads to an encounter with a local artist, who relates the legend of the eponymous creature:

 

“They say it looks sort of like a man, if you don’t look too closely at it, only bigger than a man. It’s hair- less, too, and with skin like rubber. It’s got large claws on its hands and a dagger-like spike on each foot, which it uses to pierce the thick trunks of the redwoods so it can climb. Legend says it lives among the redwoods and eats bad children who don’t listen to their parents… it had this large, bulbous belly, and when it would eat a lot of children and get real fat, the skin of its belly would pull so taut that it would become transparent and you could see the partially-digested bodies of the children in there, sizzlin’ in its stomach acids.”
A subsequent trip to the edge of the dark, unforgiving forest where the kids disappeared results in a close encounter with…something unseen, leaving Jeffers a bit shaken and not quite so skeptical about local folklore.Jeffers is an offbeat protagonist, a 52-year-old loner and jazz aficionado; a former cop who was forced to leave the force after being wounded in a shooting. He’s cynical, self-deprecating, and occasionally bemused about where life has led him — in short, he seems like a real person, not just another fictional PI.

If there’s fault to be found with Skullbelly, it’s that the ending is a bit abrupt, and the whole thing feels like the first section of a longer work, not a complete story in and of itself. I’d like to read the longer version of the story if one should ever come to pass, but in the meantime Skullbelly is a fast, intriguing read.

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.