Tag Archives: werewolf

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.

Tyree’s Terrible Tirades, pt. 1

The eagle-eyed among you will have noted that, although I’ve written the vast majority of the content for this site, I did run one review by someone else — namely Mark Tyree, who reviewed Ryan Thomas’ Born to Bleed a while back.  I told Mark I was interested in running more reviews by him, but… Mark has a tendency to go off on tangents now and then — and not just minor deviations, either.  We’re talking about forks in the road that can wind up leaving the reader somewhere east of Timbuktu, with no map, compass, or clue.  That’s all part of his charm as a writer, though.  At least I think so.

Anyway, the point is: if I try to edit out those tangents, what you’re left with is … just not authentic Tyree any more.  It’s the editorial equivalent of emasculating a bull.  So I didn’t want to hack away at what he produced, but given that the goal for reviews on this site is to keep them in the ballpark of 500-750 words, well, Mark strays far off of that reservation.  All things considered, it seemed to me that the best option was to give him a column, with free reign to foam at the keyboard, rather than try and shoehorn his output into a standard review form.

So…without further ado, I present to you the first installment of what will be an irregular column from Mr. T.

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PrimevalPrimeval: Werewolf Apocalypse Book II
William D. Carl
Permuted Press

First off, for this review (OK, column), I’ve started, stopped, deleted, monkey’d with, dumped in a fit of headshakes, disgust and giggles five times or so. Screw it. Lets let fly and see what sticks.

First, a huge apology to my well-respected host for the usual tardiness. No excuses, really. Just gotta realize, in these troubled times, my life’s not the only one that seems to be spinning on a never-ending patch of black ice. While spinning, things of leisure like reading are always on the back burner; chances of kicking back for a nice, relaxing read being sucked away into the hood vent, and the fact I’ve always been a painfully slow reader does not help matters, either. There was no earthly reason for me to be invited into the Twilight Ridge chateau, or for me to smear wet, dog-shit-laced leaves into his beige carpet, drink all the top-shelf booze, scratch his V-Roys CD, insist on a crappy “This is AWESOME!” Asian dvd pulled from a back pocket, pee on the water heater and pass out leaving a soppy, mashed-up puddle of single malt, juniper-and-vomit-reeking drool on the sofa cushion… and you’re all going, “Wow that’s some …fairly specific shit right there …”

Wink. But I mean, really folks. What Robert has put up with this past month shows a patience and understanding (“Where’s that f*****g werewolf book review, damn lazy bastard!”) that would rival that of Job. (Editor’s note: For what I’m paying Mr. Tyree, I can afford to be patient.)

Also, you guys ‘n’ gals come to this site for Robert’s knowledge, taste and recommendations in small press tales of horror (saves weeding through fungible titles spending hard-earned money, am I right ?), not some semi-retired plumber’s ramblings regarding a friend’s book. Yes, a friend’s book. Dumb move. Never EVER will I again open my yap to say “Hey buddy! Send me your book, I’ll read it and give my thoughts on Twilight Ridge. Deal?”

Nope. Dumbest thing ever, reviewing a good friend’s work they poured sweat and oozed blood into creating.  Why?  You need to ask?

If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t trust someone who was stupid enough to review a buddy’s work in the first place. In particular, if said review was positive, would I trust the review from the writer’s friend? Hell to the no!

Fingers crossed. Only way out of this jam, for me, is one door: the fact the book really is good and worth picking up. And you’re gonna need to trust me.

Primeval is the second book in a series, the first being the well-received Bestial. In fact, I’m told that around 2011 Simon & Schuster swung a deal to re-publish several Permuted Press under the S&S imprint… and one of those titles was Bestial, which says something about the book’s quality. Now we have Primeval.

And let me tell ya, the book takes off out of the gate faster than a Bugatti Veyron with the sure-footed self-confidence of a Bowler Wildcat. In Bestial, the writer ripped apart his hometown of Cincinnati with the airborne Lycan Virus. That book had fantastic characters and I was pleased to see them return in this second gore-filled outing; it’s always a pleasure to encounter interesting characters tossed into a blood-soaked horror show.

Primeval initially takes us into the story using one of my favorite tricks for providing backstory: newspaper articles, this time from a rag called World Weekly News under the byline James Creed. Right off, we know Creed will be a major player in the events to come. His articles all concern the Lycan Virus and the fact is that it’s still very much in the here and now. According to Creed, there is no longer a need for a full moon to get things rolling, and the population afflicted now consider it an alternative lifestyle. I love that — “alternative lifestyle.” I could go on about that but, I won’t…

Creed also writes about New York City rats…large, aggressive muthas that look wildly different, besides the fact that they’re the size of cats…(Bowie anyone?) Creed hooks up with a homeless underground dweller named Michael Keene, who promises Creed a helluva story — not just Keene’s personal tale of woe, but a whole lot more. To show Creed first-hand what’s been going on, Keene and his dog lead Creed from the 42nd Street Subway station, down into the darkness…

Meanwhile, expert sniper Nicole Truitt, recovering from the earlier events in Cinci, is on on a wind-down vacation with her partner Sandy in New York when she’s suddenly tossed back into action. Sandy’s there to visit the 9/11 site, where she lost a loved one; to be alone with his spirit and to “Have my moment with Timmy. See what they’re putting up as a monument.” Nicole’s boss, General Taylor Burns, just happens to be in the same hotel, and gives her some b.s. story about why he’s there, too. Burns is Carl’s best character — sad, lonely, ruthless and mean when needed, and the best at what he does. He also considers Nicole to be his own flesh and blood; the love he carries for her is that deep and to the bone. The scene where Nicole tells him she and Sandy are lovers is very, very funny — Burns is, like, “What, do I look stupid?”

Sandy is riding the subway back from her visit to the hotel when the train grinds to a halt, lights flickering… She’s stuck there in the car with a wonderfully rendered, racially diverse group of New Yorkers and, of course, her Blackberry isn’t worth a damn as she tries to contact Nicole who’s watching things go down alongside Burns. The virus is sweeping through at an unstoppable rate, Manhattan being chewed from the inside out via swarms of highly contagious vermin, hungry vermin where a mere scratch changes a human into a beast that would bite the head off their own children…which one does in a graphically filthy theater scene.

Here’s where I hit the pause button for a sec. One of the first horror books I read was James Herbert’s The Fog. What had me ripping through that genre classic was the way Herbert would veer away from the main characters to toss-away characters simply because, (as I read years later in an interview) he was bored, and wanted to kill a bunch of folks in the most fun and ghastly of ways. So he did!

When reading Primeval, I was immediately taken back to the joys of The Fog and yeah, yeah, I know, you’re thinking — why not The Rats, doofus! Because what Herbert did was, to me, simply for fun. Whereas Carl takes us to the hows/wheres and, more importantly, the whens of New Yorkers being attacked, changing, then rip-shit-tear-assing– we’re talking blood-and-guts-a-go-go, here people! He’s letting readers see the progression of the virus. It’s a hoot, too, especially when you recognize a lot of the names involved, including yours truly… Another book I was reminded of was Brian Keene’s ground-breaking The Rising but you’ll have to read Primeval to see exactly what I’m referring to. Sorry.

Anyway, while our two men and a dog grapple with their own horrors underground, Sandy remains trapped, and General Burns and Nicole stand stunned in front of their TV and window, watching one horror after another. It soon becomes apparent that the only way to contain the virus is to cut off Manhattan from the rest of the world. Jets are dispatched, missiles fly. Fun starts. Think road trip underground.

Non-sequitur: another thing I love about reading is, when you’re in good hands, deeply involved with the plot out of the blue, a writer will toss in something along the lines of:

“By the time the smoke cleared, the bridge Walt Whitman had once called ‘The best medicine his soul had ever experienced,’ the world’s first steel suspension bridge, a mile of brilliant design and architecture, was little more than rubble in the churning water.”

First, I’m learning an interesting fact and, second, any writer who can make me feel as saddened by the loss of a freaking bridge as much as the loss of a character is one to keep an eye out for.

I urge you to pick up Bestial before you read Primeval. Sure, you can start Primeval as a stand-alone novel but it’s always more rewarding when investing time in a series to start at the beginning and that rather-obvious remark could not be more true than as with the case of Bill Carl’s werewolf saga. I have to tell you, good folks, in this age of zombies, zombies and more zombies, and silly, sissy, romantic, metrosexual vampires saturating pop culture, well-written, good, old-fashioned werewolf novels, with a brilliant twist, are a breath of fresh air… even if said air is exhaled through monstrous, drool-covered fangs, smelling of chewed meat and fresh, raw blood.

 

Tracking the beast with J.L. Benet’s Wolf Hunter

WolfHunter

I’m typically a big fan of war/horror hybrid novels (there’ve been more published than you might think), and I’m also often a big fan of werewolf novels… so when I heard that author J.L. Benet had made his novel-length debut with Wolf Hunter (published by Belfire Press), a book that combines WWII, Nazis, and werewolves, I was all, “where do I sign up?”  And when it turned out that Benet was, like me, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and that much of the story was set in Ann Arbor, I felt like Wolf Hunter and I were a match made in heaven.  But, as college football pundit Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.”

I don’t want to imply that the book was a complete disappointment, as it does have some things going for it, beyond just the alluring (to me) subject matter…but there are definitely some rough edges as well.  More than anything, Wolf Hunt feels like a modern pulp novel, with an upside of audacious ideas and pell-mell pacing, and a downside of occasional hokey melodrama and awkward dialog.

The book opens with a brief section set during the latter stages of World War II, where Viktor Huelen is one of several subjects of an experiment conducted by a desperate Third Reich.  Under the direction of Himmler, they’re attempting to turn the tide in the war by developing super-soldiers in the form of werewolves, using a device bearing the rather clumsy moniker of “Feraliminal Lyncanthropizer.”  Despite the fact that the scientists are able to induce the transformations, the experiment fails due to a not-surprising inability to control the creatures post-transformation.

From there, the tale jumps to the present day, where the plot centers on two characters, the first of whom, Jack, is an Ojibwa Indian — and a shapeshifter — residing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  His tribe’s shaman elder statesmen have sent him on a mission to dispose of one Albrecht Nachtwandler, another survivor of the Nazi werewolf experiments.  The other primary character is Steve Williams, a frustrated, misanthropic loner, seemingly the type of maladjusted kid who might bring a gun to school one day to settle some scores, but in Steve’s case he chooses to immerse himself in werewolf lore:

Always an outcast and he was beginning to come to terms with always being one. His skin was only the outward marking of his difference; he knew it really went much deeper, into his very soul.

Perhaps that’s what drew him to study werewolves. He was already torn between two worlds, why not make the most of it? … The werewolf was not afraid of becoming an outcast, of losing touch with his humanity.

Through his research, Williams learns of Huelen and blackmails him into helping to reconstruct the experiments.  In turn, Jack receives further instructions from his elders, this time to kill Williams and Huelen, and prevent the revival of the European-style werewolves (more on that below).

Along the way, Benet offers some interesting variances on traditional werewolf mythos, although sometimes the twists seem to add little, or even border on plot contrivance.  Here are a couple examples of the liberties he takes with lycanthropy:

“…if we kill while we are shifted, we would be doomed to walk the North woods forever as an evil wendigo… You will be protected from the evil spirit because of your white man’s blood but you still cannot let the spirit of the shift take control of your soul.”

and

“A bearwalker is a type of American Indian werewolf. They are evil shaman who put curses on people so they die… The European-style werewolf is much stronger. They can only be harmed by silver bullets, fire, or other werewolves. A bearwalker can be hurt by anything that can harm a man.”

Despite some interesting touches, and a plot filled with forward momentum, I can’t truly recommend Wolf Hunt unless you’re a hard-core fan of werewolf fiction.

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.