Tag Archives: vampire

Carving Out New Territory with Carl Shuker’s Anti Lebanon

imagesWhen a writer known for their success in the literary world goes slumming in the genre ghetto, one never knows what might result.  For example, you may find solid work that’s more than offset by stunningly pompous and condescending attitudes, as in the case of Susan Hill.  You may be the recipient of impressive imaginings, accented by blindly ignorant denials, as with Margaret Atwood.  You may get stellar, albeit demanding and peculiar, tales accompanied by acceptance — even grudging embrace — of genre influences, as in the case of Cormac McCarthy.

I have no idea how New Zealand writer Carl Shuker —  recipient of the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters for his debut novel, and a frequent critical darling — feels about genre fiction, but his latest novel, Anti Lebanon, certainly utilizes genre constructs to great advantage, resulting in a novel that mixes its ingredients almost seamlessly, and borders on brilliance before retreating a bit.

As its title implies, the book is set in Lebanon, where Arab Spring has brought even more uncertainty than usual to the lives of the Christians there, virtually ostracized by a Hezbollah-dominated government and caught in the crossfire between other warring religious factions.  Against this backdrop, we meet thirty-year-old Leon Elias, college-educated as a hydrogeologist (and Lebanon’s water resources are a recurring theme here) but underemployed as a security guard. His father, Didi, a former military hero, is likewise working below his expected station, because he backed the wrong horse during one epoch of the unending jockeying between Lebanon’s many factions, while Leon’s sister, Keiko, was murdered for posing a political threat via her growing prominence. The complications in Leon’s personal life are like a microcosmic version of the various relationships and intrigues that entangle the entire nation.  As Leon’s father says at one point:

“Politics in this country is one long and very dangerous soap opera full of lies and repetitions and clichés. Every episode’s climax leads to no resolution. We are in season fifty-eight at least, and few of the original cast remain. Apart from those grizzled old men— like me— who are typecast and cannot get another job.”

One drunken night, everything changes for Leon, as the following passage foreshadows:

It was that time of a night when a certain drunken sweet spot hit. People began to say what they really thought, in the generous context of what they’d said that they didn’t really think before and had gotten away with. When the smart and bored began to push the limits of what others would tolerate, and when abrupt furies and half-felt passions turned into speeches; whims turned accusations.

It’s abrupt fury that leads a friend of Leon to accidentally kill a fellow reveler with a punch, leading to Leon taking a late-night trip to dump the body, the corpse balanced precariously behind him on his scooter. It’s towards the end of that journey, when the body suddenly stirs and bites Leon on the neck, that things really take a turn for the strange.

Meanwhile, in a flashback that is gradually revealed, we learn that Leon had created an experimental film and submitted it to a local competition, an act that eventually leads him to a presentation that purports to tell of the history of the vampire in Lebanon. Rarely seen and only half understood, the vampires of Anti Lebanon have relatively little in common with the familiar western version, leaning more toward the pyr, fallen angels in Persian mythology.

…pyr have slept in the Lebanon for long, long before this, the lecturer said. He was perhaps picked up— like a germ— by Godfrey de Bouillon and Peter the Hermit somewhere in the Serbian forests between Belgrade and Nish on the First Crusade, accidentally recruited on the march toward Jerusalem. Suspicion and the pogrom revive the pyr and give it vivid life. Any troop of soldiers with cynical leadership, a sacred cause, and little in the way of qualms is the pyr’s natural habitat. The pyr is lost in time; he haunts the present, and lost in the labyrinth, haunts all times.

There is never a traditional “conversion” of the bitten victim to vampire, in the sense that readers of western vampire fiction will be familiar with. In fact, there remains significant uncertainty as to what, if anything will happen to Leon after his bite.  Mystery, as well as some occasionally mystifying events, ensue, interspersed with some truly memorable descriptive passages such as:

The unfinished bridge over the intersection hulked in shade, just an archway now, the on-ramps never built, all graffitied, weeds growing from its stump, flags and faded banners drooping from its parapets. Here everything temporary is permanent.

and:

Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of.

Halfway through Anti Lebanon, I thought it was the best novel that I’d read this year, and potentially the best I’d read in several years.  Unfortunately, Shuker loses control of his narrative a bit in the latter stages of the book, coincident with Leon’s meanderings beyond Lebanon’s borders. Despite its somewhat disappointing conclusion, Anti Lebanon remains a truly impressive melding of genre elements with mainstream sensibilities.  I hope Shuker’s dabblings in the dark are not a one-time experiment; return visits would be most welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Paranormal Hijinks – Ian Rogers’ Trio of Felix Renn chapbooks

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.

Published by Burning Effigy Press, the series features wisecracking Private Investigator Renn and is set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands. The first volume, Temporary Monsters, appeared in 2009 and starts things off with a bang as Felix’s lunch with his ex-wife Sandra is interrupted by a vampire ravaging a fellow diner. Renn’s reaction to the vampire provides a good sense of the wry humor on display here:

“I reached instinctively for my gun, then remembered I wasn’t wearing it. One shouldn’t come armed to lunch with one’s ex-wife. I think Confucius said that.”

Although appearances by vampires and other creatures are not necessarily uncommon, the fact that the vampire’s attack comes in broad daylight is unusual, and Felix becomes enmeshed in the ensuing investigation, which takes an interesting turn when it’s learned that the vampire is not some nameless creature from the Dark Lands, but actually a famous actor. Felix’s sleuthing takes him to a local movie set, where one of the stars suddenly transforms into a rampaging werewolf. Although Felix’s non-silver bullets should not harm the werewolf, they do, making two creatures in a row whose behavior does not match their established reputation. Digging deeper, Felix finds that the creatures have essentially been manufactured — “temporary monsters,” in a sense.

By the time we reach the second book in the series, 2010’s The Ash Angels, Felix’s ex-wife Sandra has become his assistant but not much else has changed for Felix, who on Christmas Eve is feeling maudlin and missing the more intimate relationship he formerly enjoyed with Sandra. And like any decent, self-respecting PI, he spends a fair amount of his time drinking, as described here:

“I came to the conclusion that while drinking straight whisky shots could be viewed as unhealthy, this could be alleviated if I had a mixer. A holiday mixer, in fact. Then I wouldn’t be pounding drinks straight from the bottle, I would be indulging in the sort of festive drinking that is permitted, practically encouraged, at everything from office Christmas parties to family get-togethers.

That was how I went out in search of eggnog and almost got myself and several other people killed.”

Felix’s quest for nog leads him into another supernatural encounter, although this one is more of a grim ghost story than the monster mash found in the first volume. This episode starts when Felix chances upon a possible crime scene — centering on a “snow angel” that’s actually made of ash — and has an impromptu meeting with members of the Paranormal Intelligence Agency, a governmental group that exists to try and keep natives of the Black Lands from intersecting too frequently, or too violently, with our world. Before all is said and done, a villain from Temporary Monsters resurfaces and several characters in this story, including Felix, are supernaturally influenced to attempt suicide. It’s probably not the feel-good Christmas story of the year, but it is a lot of fun.

Black-Eyed Kids, the most recent chapbook in the series, appeared in 2011 and it’s Rogers’ most accomplished work so far, featuring not only the familiar and welcome comedic touches but also the darkest and most chilling threat yet, in the form of the children referenced in the title. This time around, Felix is hired by a jealous husband to tail his wife, who he suspects of cheating. But while Felix is sitting outside the woman’s apartment, she’s murdered, half of her body goes missing…and the supposed husband is nowhere to be found, all of which leads to Felix’s failings being pointed out by a PIA member:

“‘I think the most unusual part of your story,’ Kovac said, ‘is that you were hired by a man named Barry to keep an eye on a woman named Mandy, and you never figured out he was using false names.’

‘That fact has been firmly established,’ I said curtly. ‘Moving on.’

Kovac remained silent for a long time. His face was impassive. I couldn’t tell if he was deep in thought or if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open.”

It turns out that the Black-Eyed Kids are seldom-seen, mostly-rumored denizens of the Black Lands, with a very special purpose — they come to our world for revenge, to hunt and kill humans who have made it a point to do the same to Black Lands creatures. Much to Felix’s chagrin, he’s now in their cross-hairs, and spends the remainder of the story trying to survive.

Ian Rogers tells three very entertaining stories here, especially so in the case of Black-Eyed Kids, which I heartily recommend.