Tag Archives: underground

Aquatic Views — Alison Littlewood’s Eyes of Water

Spectral Press issues short-run chapbooks on a quarterly schedule, and their latest offering comes courtesy of Alison Littlewood, whose debut novel A Cold Season garnered quite a bit of attention when it appeared earlier this year. Her chapbook, entitled Eyes of Water, is likewise worthy of acclaim — but it’s already sold out from the publisher, so you’ll have to check with a specialty dealer or explore the secondary market if you hope to snag a copy.

Like Michael McBride’s creepy novella “Xibalba” from his collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself (reviewed here), Littlewood’s story is situated on the Yucatan peninsula and features cenotés — deep natural pits or sinkholes that expose the groundwater below — and vast underwater cave systems.

Protagonist Alex receives a tearful call from Kath, the sister of his friend Rick, a diver extraordinaire and general thrill-seeker who has apparently pushed his luck too far and is lying dead in a Mexican morgue. Alex arrives and finds Rick’s body impossibly to identify, due to extreme facial injuries, which the authorities say were caused by strong tides pulling him against the cave walls… but the rest of his body is strangely unblemished. When Alex thinks he sees Rick one night, just beyond the reaches of the campfire light, things start to get really interesting.

Alex is unable to resist the temptation to explore the caves where Rick died, although once he’s entered their depths, he has some second thoughts, to say the least, reflecting on the many people who died there in order to fulfill Mayan superstitions:

“For a moment I thought of sacrifices thrown into the cave, the way they must have watched that same circle of light until they could no longer tread water and sank into the dark. This time, when I caught my breath, it came with a gasp. No. Soon I could swim back to the chair and they would lift me out. I would feel the sun on my face.”

As with McBride’s story, the caves prove to be a suitably creepy setting, especially when Alex re-enters the caves on his own and goes far deeper into the system, leading to an unexpected confrontation and to more thoughts about sacrifices:

“I thought about how we offered ourselves, wondered if, after all, it was some need we had, to throw ourselves before some idea or thing. Maybe, sooner or later, all of us had something or someone waiting to collect. If so, maybe it wasn’t so bad; better than being trapped in the endless dark, unable to go forward, unable to go back.”

Through it all, Littlewood does an excellent job of developing both atmosphere and characters, making Eyes of Water a fast and highly-engaging read. Track down a copy if you can.

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.

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.

Going Southard

I reviewed Nate Southard’s He Went Through a while ago, and my very favorable impressions of that chapbook led me to search out more Southard, which brings me to two recent titles — Scavengers and This Little Light of Mine.

Let’s start with Scavengers, one of the first wave of titles from the zombie-focused Print Is Dead, an imprint of Creeping Hemlock Press. Scavengers is an expansion of a graphic novel, A Trip to Rundberg, which Southard earlier scripted. In his Acknowledgments, Southard states “The first two drafts of this novel were written in just over a week.” It wouldn’t be fair to say that the pace at which the book was written is evident in the finished product, but it is fair to say, I think, that expanding the story to novel length may be stretching it a bit beyond the plot’s comfortable limits.

Scavengers starts out seeming like your standard-issue “survival in a post-zombie-apocalypse world” story, with the only question being who, if anyone, will survive. The plot focuses on the plight of the small midwestern town of Millwood, which is a relatively safe outpost, but one that’s rapidly running out of food. Faced with the prospect of slow starvation, the town elects to send a scavenger party of five — three of whom are selected via lottery — to a supermarket in the neighboring town of Rundberg, which is believed to be overrun by zombies. Not surprisingly, the ragtag group is ill-prepared for the ghoulish gauntlet that awaits them.

Featured foremost among the quintet are Blake Ellis, an honorable young man forced to leave behind the woman he’s come to love, and Chris Stevenson, who, to be blunt, is an asshole of world-class proportions. In fact, it’s borderline unbelievable just what a jerk Stevenson is, even in light of what we eventually learn about his past. His behavior, and the other characters’ reactions, at times grows tedious, as there are only so many times that one can read variations on passages like the following:

“[Blake] breathed deep and swallowed the urge to jerk an elbow into the bridge of Stevenson’s nose. The smug prick was really beginning to work his last nerve.”

I feel ya, Blake, I feel ya. Similarly, the characters’ numerous narrow escapes from the hordes of zombies roaming Rundberg start to feel a bit repetitive, with the scenes becoming less tense and almost tiresome.

I’m afraid I’m sounding a bit too harsh, though — it’s not as if Scavengers doesn’t have some redeeming features. For example, the first two-thirds of the story, before the repetition creeps in, features some strong drama and ever-ratcheting tension. And it’s worth noting that, even though flashbacks can often detract from the pace of an action-oriented story like this one, Southard does a great job keeping his backward glances brief, making them informative without being unwelcome interruptions. Finally, there’s a chillingly inventive death scene crafted for one of the characters, and a grimly downbeat ending shortly after that — an upbeat ending would have seemed more than a little incongruous, so kudos to Southard for embracing his dark side.

All in all, Scavengers was a bit of a mixed bag for me, but zombie zealots will likely find much to appreciate.

Much more impressive is Southard’s This Little Light of Mine, a novella from Burning Effigy Press that benefits from wicked pacing sans padding, and features a refreshingly different type of menace. Set entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a parking garage that collapses in the opening scene, the plot focuses on two survivors trapped in the ruins of the garage. Protagonist Brandon is determinedly optimistic and intent on escaping and seeing his wife again, while insurance executive Clair is a bitch on her best days (Southard seems to have a penchant for deploying highly unlikable characters); not surprisingly, the overwhelming fear and stress of the situation brings out her worst.

Literally cloaked in darkness, choked by dust and ringed by rubble, Brandon and Clair struggle to stay calm and keep hope alive. Buried in the underground garage, there’s of course no cell phone signal available, but Brandon finds a hide-a-key on one of the nearby cars, and using the car’s radio is able to tune in a signal from what seems to be the only radio station on the air.

The radio announcer describes nationwide earthquakes and mass devastation, and then Southard twists the knife a little further by having the announcer add:

“Looks like the peanut gallery has decided to join in on the fun, guys and gals,” the man said. “Got reports from all over the damn place now. Ghouls and goblins or whatever coming out of the ground. Just ignore the bullshit, folks. Take care of yourselves and each other. I’ll stay on until they shut me down.”

There’s initially a third, unconscious victim trapped in the garage — Joe, a friend of Clair’s — but as they try to sleep at the end of their first day in the garage, Brandon shuts off the car’s headlights in order to save the battery…and later awakes to the sound of Clair’s screams and the sight of Joe’s eviscerated corpse. It seems the stories of creatures coming out of the underground are not just stories, and that Brandon and Clair’s predicament has gotten even worse.

Weighing in at 52 shuddering, skittering pages, This Little Light of Mine is a riveting read.