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The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

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The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.

Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.

“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?

“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.

When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran

August 20, 2014 1 comment

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Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins with a fairly robust defence of the subgenre which, for better or worse, seems to have become essential to modern culture through The Walking Dead and other television series.

“The Afflicted” by Matthew Johnson takes us on an emotional journey as a nurse tours the camps where the infected wait to turn. She does her best to keep them healthy and, on her way back to the Ranger’s camp, she rescues a young girl from three who have changed. This is going to slow her down, particularly when the girl’s grandmother also joins them. At some level, we always do our best to care for those we love. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn (reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow) is one of these delightfully ambiguous stories which leaves us guessing where the musicologists “found” the music they recorded. “Iphigenia in Aulis” by Mike Carey is a wonderful story that arises because the Religious Right insists on an amendment to the Constitution marking the start of life as the moment of conception. That means the innocent babies have to be rescued whenever their zombie mothers are killed. Well, surprisingly, some of them are and this is what happens when one of the rescued bonds with one of her jailers. “Pollution” by Don Webb may be set in Japan but it’s actually a universal story about the quality of life those more marginalised members of any society can expect. The zombie element is pretty cool as well with the virus and subsequent use of those infected having a macabre commercial logic.

“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin is short and to the point. It may be predictable, but it still manages to pack a bit of a punch with the last line. “The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh (collected in After the Apocalypse) gives us a prisoner who survives to learn a little about zombies and their lifestyle (tinfoil figures in this). In fact, they prove a lot more interesting than the other inmates and he can make them useful in his study of the zombies. “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)” by Alex Dally MacFarlane brings us news of an old outbreak and hope for a defence against the undead. Which brings us to “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss and the terrible contortions the guilty must go through to stave off the possibility of discovery. This has a surprising sense of humour as Maisie finally finds the right person to talk to.

“Rocket Man” by Stephen Graham Jones answers a question that’s been bothering baseball fans for years. If a ball hits a zombie and doesn’t fall to ground, is that a good catch and is the batter out? “The Day the Music Died” by Joe McKinney explores the old truism that the best thing that can ever happen to a rock star is that he or she dies. Record sales go ballistic as everyone remembers how good he or she was. Well, this is only a little different if slightly more entertainingly manic. “The Children’s Hour” by Marge Simon is a short poem to celebrate mother coming home. “Delice” by Holly Newstein is a traditional voodoo zombie tale of justice claimed when society had turned its eyes away. It’s good to see the old ideas stand up so well against the new. “Trail of Dead” by Joanne Anderton gives us the chance to consider why someone would want to raise the dead, and what qualities a person would have to have to kill both the undead and those who raised them. In entertaining stories like this, sometimes, you get a match.

“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky is an outstanding story of office life in which the religious zealot is confronted by evidence incompatible with her faith. When bell, book and candle fail to do the trick, perhaps she should resort to more extreme measures. At the very least, this should provide a better rug for the survivors to admire. “Stemming the Tide” by Simon Strantzas gives us the chance to consider where the dead might come from. Of course, it could be from the past. But suppose, just suppose, it was from our future. Would that make any difference to the result? “Those Beneath the Bog” by Jacques L. Condor (Maka Tai Meh) transfers the threat to North America in which the old Indian ways give the chance of salvation, but the young have been corrupted by the White Man’s ways and so they will go to their doom. It’s surprising how much the change of culture and locale invigorates the plot. “What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan takes us into Anglo Saxon times with one of these annoying bodies that just will not stay in the ground. “Jack and Jill” by Jonathan Maberry is a remarkably effective piece of atmospheric writing as the family on the not remote enough farm gets caught between a storm threatening to bring down the levee and a crowd of dead neighbours. “In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” by Caitlín R. Kiernan nicely captures Gothic romance as the ever-inquisitive scientist seeks first death and then reanimation. Except there’s one small possibility he neglected to consider: that she may not have come back alone. “Rigormarole” by Michael A. Arnzen offers a slightly different way of spreading the infection. “Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn has a gatecrasher at a party in Denver give Kitty a different way of starting the New Year. The most pleasing feature of this story is the tone of normality. Hey, perhaps, it’s a zombie. Let’s see what Google has to say.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genvieve Valentine shows a practical community way off the beaten track in the far north, recognising the value of good work and the need for people who can fit in. This produces a delightful story as the new gravedigger, a perfectionist, finds himself challenged. “Chew” by Tamsyn Muir is an effective tale of revenge best served cold with a dish of gum. “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Shaun Jeffrey deals with the perennial problem faced by husbands who have buried their wives only to find them coming home again. Locking them in a cupboard is somewhat undignified, but when they are dead, who’s going to complain? “There Is No “E” in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay gives us the perfect answer to the age-old question: what must a woman do when every fibre of her body wants to possess just that one man? “What Once We Feared” by Carrie Ryan challenges us to decide how long we would want to live if we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the undead. What would be the point of surviving?

“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory takes us into a world of fortified cities surrounded by a wilderness of zombie bears, wolves and humans. Here one man suddenly sees the chance to have a real life outside the walls. All he has to do is die according to city records. “Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti sees a parallel between past and current events as a medical student dissecting a body finds himself at the centre of what may be a zombie outbreak. Perhaps his research can show how best to respond. “I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart sees a B-movie scriptwriter with an impeccable record get the inside dope on how to complete a movie when your star lead has died. Except his eyewitness account is just not quite up to the minute and he’s pre-empted by the real news. This is great fun. “Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill is thoughtfully brilliant. If time and space permitted, I would write a lot about it. “A Shepherd of the Valley” by Maggie Slater gives us a different way of reinventing the undead so they have some degree of social utility even though, as the title suggests, they have no more intelligence than sheep. “The Day the Saucers Came” by Neil Gaiman is the day you sit waiting for that call.

“Love, Resurrected” by Cat Rambo is very elegant high fantasy in which a sorcerer reanimates a great general to serve him for as long as he desires (which might be a very long time). “Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace makes a nice point about the tense authors use to tell their stories and then fast-forwards to the moment of sacrifice. “The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath” by Joe R. Lansdale changes the biter-bit trope into the shooter-shoot trope as a couple try to work out their marital problems. And then comes the payoff. At least he might have thought it worth waiting for. “Bit Rot” by Charles Stross has us on a starship with the crew in slowtime when the power fails. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, particularly because the crew have just been exposed to a big burst of radiation. When it comes to triage, the dead are the last in line for treatment. They are not going to get any worse. But if any were to wake up, they would be hungry.

I admit to being overwhelmed by this evidence of my own ignorance. Here was I thinking the zombie story was dead and buried, only to find this anthology full of stories of such range and quality. And most of these stories are only a few years old. There’s still good work being done on old and trusted tropes. So thank you Paula Guran. The pennies have fallen from my eyes and I can now shamble forward to seek out more stories such as this for intellectual nourishment. Zombies: More Recent Dead is great value for money.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar

August 15, 2014 3 comments

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Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications, 2014) is an anthology of stories running from science fiction, to fantasy, to horror. Some are translations from Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Swedish, and the rest were written in English. It’s appropriate for me to climb on to my pulpit for a moment because books like this are desirable. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to find people who had never left their small community to travel the few miles to the nearest city. They were the epitome of physical parochialism, choosing to live their lives in the same place. Even then, this was strange to me because, from an early age, I’d been travelling outside the parish, even if only to see what was to be seen.

Today, there’s a literary parochialism which seems just as strong. Readers find themselves most comfortable with the familiar. This may be always looking for work by authors they have enjoyed in the past, or buying from publishers whose editorial taste most closely matches their own. As a result, many have never read books from different genres or written by people who are not cultural matches. In this, there’s often an element of prejudice at work. Such readers prefer to avoid exposure to books which might threaten their worldview or give them information which might induce uncomfortable emotions.

It’s therefore appropriate to herald this third in a series of anthologies featuring short fiction from different cultures. It should be on everyone’s reading list, if only so they can be satisfied there’s nothing frightening or overly challenging about these stories. They are, as most of the best British or American short fiction, well-written (even in translated form) and thoughtfully provocative. What’s particularly fascinating is the degree to which the stories written in English show significant differences in vocabulary choices, syntax and attitude from North American norms. That’s as it should be. Language reveals much about the authors and differences are to be celebrated. As we enter the second decade of a new century, we should be dismantling the borders between different types of fiction and focusing on reading good fiction, regardless of its source.

“Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew was the first story she published back in 2012. Through rather beautiful prose, she introduces us to a first contact situation where locals are visited by people who, out of a sense of altruism, feel they should conquer the locals for their own good. Needless to say, this does not go down well and produces a robust response albeit not one without losses. Not only is the language itself fascinating, the approach to the alien invasion trope rather blurs the line between science fiction, fantasy and romance (which is not the conventional two-gendered monogamous norm of our culture). “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia (translated from Chinese) challenges preconceptions about what a ghost story should be and how such stories relate to science fiction as we try to define what “real people” are, particularly when the metal spiders come along.

“Act of Faith” by Fadzlishah Johanabas is a rather pleasing variation on the robot trope in which we are encouraged to ask whether we would accept a machine as a fellow worshipper. The answer here is wise, but not necessarily realistic, as you would expect in a science fiction story, carefully avoiding the sentimentality that would have taken the edge off the quality of the ideas. “The Foreigner” by Uko Bendi Udo is a delightful story of inheritance denied under Nigerian law. In default of evidence, the obvious heir takes on intestacy. Just think how embarrassing it would be if another claimant appeared with the technology to extract the evidence of dishonesty. “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (translated from Chinese) describes the life of a human cog in the internet world of the State. He functions properly even when he has a headache, and lives within the framework approved for him by the State until he’s accepted as a member of a forum. The story then segues nicely into a form of revolutionary semiotics in which our hero explores the extent to which language can enable him to be free. “Planetfall” by Athena Andreadis gives us a generational overview of what happens to a group of human settlers who modify themselves to be compatible with their new world. The problem is that it takes time for a genetic change to become socially integrated and for positive patterns of behaviour to emerge. “Jungle Fever” by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar (first publication) is a simple, linear horror story in which a slightly different form of zombie emerges after a chance encounter with some local vegetation.

“To Follow the Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar is a delightful insight into the mind of an artist who has developed the skill of catching a dream in a stone or crystal. All is developing well until she catches sight of a woman who, for some unknown reason, inspires her. This is high class fantasy. “Ahuizotl” by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (translated from Spanish) takes us in a Lovecraftian direction with a sister in search of her brother’s body. The report of his death was quite specific about the condition of the body. This leaves her unsure what conclusion to draw but, when she arrives, things become less unclear. “The Rare Earth” by Biram Mboob offers a very different view of how a possible second coming might put God’s representative on the Earth and what such a person might do. “Spider’s Nest” by Myra Çakan (translated from German) is a form of fantasy horror story set in a post-apocalypse world. The few who survived the collapse find some solace in a drug-induced retreat from reality. The question, of course, is what happens when the drugs run out?

“Waiting with Mortals” by Crystal Koo takes us into the world of ghosts who have yet to cross over. Some ride the mortals as passengers, displacing the living whether by force or consent — there are different deals available. In each case, it’s for the ghost to work out what holds him or her on the mortal side of the equation. “Three Little Children” by Ange (pseudonym of Anne and Gérard Guèro) (translated from French) is a terrific revisionary fairy story. Here we get the truth behind one of the rhymes told to the young in which the titular children find themselves in the lair of the ogre and wonder whether their lives will be forfeit. “Brita’s Holiday Village” by Karin Tidbeck (translated from Swedish) plays with the idea that memories of family and friends can sometimes be triggered by events. When our narrator who’s staying at the holiday village to get some writing done, begins to flesh out two of her possible plots, the presence of the strange hanging pupas somehow inspire her to take the stories in a completely different direction. The results are pleasingly affective.

“Regressions” by Swapna Kishore is an outstanding story which uses the time travel trope to explore the dynamics of gender relations. We could, of course, take the sterotypes as somehow set in stone, but suppose it was possible to build a more equal basis for interaction between the sexes. No, such would be the stuff of mythology. Mars and Venus, and their parallels in all the different religions and cultures, have always tended to be antagonistic. No matter what was tried in the past, the result would always be the same. . . “Dancing on the Red Planet” by Berit Ellingsen is a delightful way to bring this anthology to a successful conclusion. The moon may just have been one small step for mankind. How many steps could they do when emerging from the Mars lander at one-hundred-and-twenty beats per minute? This is a moment of sly humour on which to end.

Taken overall, a couple of the stories tend to run a little long, but the quality of the ideas is undeniable and the language in which they are explored is fascinating. Lavie Tidhar is to be congratulated on pulling together so many excellent stories, and all credit to Apex for publishing the Apex Book of World SF Volume 3. It’s an outstanding anthology.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Last Mile by Tim Waggoner

August 12, 2014 2 comments

The Last Mile by Tim Waggoner

The Last Mile by Tim Waggoner (Dark Fuse, 2014), 2014) is a novella-length story about the World After. Yes, aliens have invaded Earth and, despite Hollywood’s pious hopes for gung-ho marines to save the day, they have subdued the survivors. Those selected as Thralls do the will of the invaders or face punishment. This time, Dan is on his way to deliver a “package” to his Master. This involves him driving his ancient Oldsmobile along what’s left of Interstate 75, watching as the thorn-stalks part to allow him along the Way, helping to keep him safe from the predators living in the wilderness alongside the road. As always, his task is simple. He has found an unmarked survivor and has her trussed up on the back seat. Once he has delivered her to his Master, all will be well (until the next time the summons comes).

Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner

So in the space of a few sentences, I’ve described a science fiction/horror crossover novella in which the rump of humanity survives under the jackboots of the few Thralls (the story is less than forthcoming about exactly how many of the population have survived nor how they are being farmed for sacrifice — I suppose an explanation of this forward planning is not really required for the purposes of this story). The plot is a simple device. We have the set-up to describe the invasion (if that’s the right way to describe it — perhaps arrival might be more appropriate) and then the backstories of Dan the Thrall and Alice, the sacrificial victim on the back seat. As is always required in stories like this, our protagonist is making good progress until he gets close to his destination. Then, as authors will it, the wheel falls off and we’re down to the last mile before death and destruction befall them both.

There’s some interesting imagery on display and some of the ideas will be considered moderately extreme by some readers. This is not a story for people who faint at the sight of blood. The plot moves along quickly and, despite the lack of any clear explanation of how the aliens arrived, how they manipulated the flora and fauna so quickly to produce these rather weird new forms, and how they are managing the food in their larder so it will not run out any time soon, this is a take-no-prisoners race to the finish line. So long as you’re not looking for any deep thinking, The Last Mile is very good of its type.

For a review of a novel by Tim Waggoner, see Night Terrors.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

August 6, 2014 3 comments

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

A few years ago, I was standing in the bookshop section of one of these large stores that sells everything including books, music, videos, stationery, and so on, wondering how long it was going to take my wife to decide which diary to buy. By one of these strange mischances, my eye fell on a copy of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer and, having heard it was making waves, I read the first few pages. Deciding that anything more would make me ill, I swore never to try another book featuring a romance between a vampire and a werewolf. Yet, through the quirk of fate, I find myself picking up By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan (Knopf, 2014) the third in The Last Werewolf series. With a heavy heart I note the words, “. . .a stunningly erotic love story” on the jacket flap. There are vampires and werewolves involved. I begin to read.

In the red corner, we have Remshi, the male vampire who seems to have been on the prowl for three-times the number of years the Creationists say the world has been around. In the blue corner there’s Tallula, the female werewolf (and mother of twins) who may be the reincarnated Vali — the female Remshi loved and lost in prehistoric times. Not surprisingly, once people start talking about life before the Universe was created by God, the Catholic Church gets all militant and decides it has to exterminate all nonconformist life, i.e. all the werewolves and vampires. The cynics among you may say the Catholics are only doing this as a ploy to distract the world’s attention from the paedophile scandal. But with the GOP and fundamental Christians in America getting in on the act, there may be a more general movement to protect humanity from this dangerous group of predators that has been culling our population ever since Eve made the wrong choice with the apple.

Anyway, to prove there’s nothing going on between the vampires and the werewolves, the book opens with Tallula “married” (the validity of same species marriage still has to be decided by the Supreme Court) with twins, while Remshi is living in sin with Justine Cavell (these vampires have no shame). The book then hits its stride with am extermination squad from the Catholic Church turning up to kill Remshi. Naturally, he survives with difficulty, but she’s seriously injured so he “turns” her (their love must be sufficiently strong he wants to keep her around). However, she then takes off on a revenge quest and he has to choose whether to pursue her, or find Tallula and resolve the puzzle of this dream he keeps having. Meanwhile, Tallula and family are snacking on some random humans in an isolated farmhouse when they are attacked by another of these God-squads. She and Zoe end up captured, while hubby and the son escape.

Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan

The ending is both semantically exact and emotionally affecting. As readers we always try to second-guess how the author will resolve matters. This seems particularly effective and avoids much of the mawkish sentimentality that so offends in the young adult efforts in this market. Even though the majority of the key characters are driven by love (even the Catholics are inspired by their love of Jesus), there’s a deep sense of realism pervading the development of the plot. Both vampires and werewolves need to feed on human flesh and blood if they are to survive. So both species must live with the guilt of having to kill. Indeed, at one point, Tallula as a mother confronts the possibility of eating a human baby. Fortunately, she does not have to put herself to the test, but you have the sense she would decide not to. Even though the wolf side of her personality would not have scruples, she retains an essential humanity in her capacity for compassion and love. She’s not quite the monster she sometimes believes herself to be. Similarly, Remshi finds himself increasingly overpowered by the lives of those he eats. It’s as he’s losing his capacity for absorbing their personalities, signalling a time for ending or achieving some kind of rebirth. He loves a human who becomes a vampire. But he’s distracted by a love through time. He’s been waiting centuries for Vali to return. Now he believes she has reappeared, he hopes they can be together again. Indeed, some centuries ago, there was a prophesy promising something spectacular when they got back together. This provides the dynamic as fate conspires to force a meeting and then to reproduce that dream he keeps having.

Taken overall this is a bold and quite literate example of vampire/werewolf Gothic. It’s more than apparent there’s a brain at work and this represents a fairly detailed exploration of the human/monster hybrid (both vampires and werewolves start off as humans and are then “contaminated”). Despite the drive for food as the mechanism for preserving existence, these creatures retain something of their human hearts. They and their victims share a form of existential horror at being predator and prey respectively. Although Duncan somewhat wryly points out the commercial and political opportunities for Church and governments to convince their followers that these predators exist: great reality television shows can show extermination squads at work, while politicians can sell the religious message that belief in God will keep the people safe. So although I think the reliance on Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is slightly overdone as a mechanism for providing a unifying mythology, this remains a very impressive and intelligent supernatural horror novel. It’s naturally violent, as it should be, with many scenes of conflict dotted throughout the book. So one thing is clear. Those who enjoyed the Twilight series, whether as books or films, will probably be shocked and appalled by By Blood We Live. This will help them understand just how vapid and wishy-washy the work of Stephenie Meyer is, and what a horror novel for adults should be like.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson

August 2, 2014 1 comment

The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson

The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson (Severn House, 2014) starts off with a well-tried ploy. In 1981, three boys of fourteen summers have an experience (in the woods of Oregon) which shapes them. Then with the flick of the author’s pen, thirty years pass and we find one of the victims, Tommy Devereaux, has contrived to become a bestselling author of thrillers. This would have been a good place for him to sit quietly, but he decides he should exorcise the ghosts of his past by writing fact as fiction. Yes, he’s decided to blow the whistle on what happened when he was fourteen-years old and witnessed a murder. This would have been a great idea if he’d taken the time and trouble to conceal vital details, but the girl who committed the murder finds the sample chapter published as a teaser all too clear and lets our author know it. Now our “happily” married man has to contend with a psychopathic serial killer who has a story to tell. Needless to say, the events of the past were not quite as clear cut as the prefatory description suggested. Tommy with Mark Singletary and Jason Covington were more thoroughly involved than it first appears. This creates the irony of Tommy being in the position of many of the “victims” in his own books. It also helps to explain a little of Tommy’s psychology because all his books have featured female villains. In a way, he’s been using his books as a form of therapy to accommodate his feeling of horror over what happened.

As a protagonist, Tommy is the perfect victim for blackmail. He’s already in trouble in his marriage because he had an affair and then told his wife about it (but not the identity of the woman involved—she still works for him). Because of that confession, he’s on probation and continues to feel guilty. That he’s keeping an older and darker secret adds to the pressure since he does not want to lose his wife and family. His professional reputation as an author could also evaporate if it was suggested he’d participated in a murder thirty years ago. Similarly, Mark Singletary has gone on to great things as Republican State Senator in South Carolina. The only one who appears safe is Jason Covington. He’s reported as having committed suicide twenty years ago. That would make Jason the weak and cowardly one. Mark was excited by the experience and Tommy. . . Well, he was defiant and, perhaps by some standards, the strong one.

Carter Wilson

Carter Wilson

So what does this killer want? Well apart from having a little fun at Tommy’s expense and adding a few more deaths to keep up her batting average, she wants Tommy to understand the mind of a killer. Although she thinks his books to date have been reasonably good, he’s never really communicated a clear understanding of how and why people kill. Now he’s started to write her story, she wants it told right. This means Tommy’s about to get a crash course in how to commit a murder and get away with it. No wait, he’s already done that! Thirty years ago, he could have told his own parents, or the parents of the dead boy, or the police what happened. But he became complicit through his silence. The book then describes the game between Tommy and Elizabeth (or perhaps that should be the other way round since she’s the one who thinks she’s in control).

The story is told in a taut and economical style with short chapters maintaining a good pace as the plot unwinds. As a plot, this has a rather pleasing surprise towards the end. If nothing else, it shows how little young boys know of the world around them. This gives the book the best possible chance to succeed as a thriller with a faint horror edge (the initial murder is of a young boy and there’s an element dealing with child abuse). But the book lacks a certain edge because our protagonist Tommy is not wholly likeable. Although the character is reasonably plausible, reacting to events in ways which are moderately credible, it’s difficult to get behind him as a classic thriller victim and root for him to emerge the winner at the end. This is not to say the psychopathic Elizabeth is anything but a monster. But when a “hero” turns out to have more than just feet of clay, my reaction as a reader is to observe dispassionately to see whether I think the author’s resolution gives the interested parties their just deserts. In this case, only one character gets anything approximating justice, albeit many years delayed. Thus, The Boy is the Woods is good of its type with something of an antihero reacting to threats and struggling to keep his lifestyle together, but it will not be to everyone’s taste.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi

June 18, 2014 3 comments

Black Wings III jacket

Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi (PS Publishing, 2014) “Houdini Fish” by Jonathan Thomas is a wonderful way to start a Lovecraftian anthology with an obsessive archaeologist and some of his students digging up an old machine of unknown purpose. Curiously, it gives off a glow despite being left in pieces. Having satisfied himself the parts are not radioactive, he begins to assemble them and fails to connect this activity with the rather strange appearances and disappearances about town. Academics never seem to see beyond their noses even when rubbed in it. “Dimply Dolly Doofy” by Donald R Burleson uses an original trigger for the arrival of this particular threat. This is a particularly interesting idea, but it then falls into very predictable territory. Similarly “The Hag Stone” by Richard Gavin is a story built around an impressive central image that it doesn’t quite sustain interest over its length. “Underneath an Arkham Moon” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W H Pugmire is a very traditional story you read for the quality of the prose which is pleasingly poetic without being excessive. So often, stories like this wander off into detail. This avoids redundancy, cuts quickly to the meat, and then deals with the consequences. “Spiderwebs in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer is delightfully wry as it charts the growing friendship between a bookseller and a customer who randomly comes and goes. It seems this interloper has looked back in time to discover these two men are to become fast friends so, of course, he popped over and made it so.

“One Tree Hill (The World as Catalysm)” Caitlin R Kiernan (also appears in The Ape’s Wife) is another story that delights in the ambiguities and inexactitudes of language as we meet the science journalist who fears the lake and adjacent cemetery. but won’t be deterred from walking up the hill. Put it down to perversity or destiny as you will. He’s going to climb that hill no matter what. The result is elegantly inconsequential. “The Man with the Horn” by Jason V Brock is a story with an uneasy balance between Erich Zann or comparable musicians, and other deities or mythological creatures who play horns. Although it builds a good initial atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty, what we see from the halfway point on is not sufficiently Lovecraftian. Similarly, “Hotel del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson is one of these single experience stories that fails to resonate when the man finds an unexpected hotel as he crosses a desert landscape.

 S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

“Waller” by Donald Tyson is an outstanding story which perfectly captures the essence of the Mythos and then goes somewhere interesting with it. The title refers to people who literally fall through alley walls and find themselves in a different world where one part of their bodies is prized. Our hero contrives to avoid initial capture and then shows remarkable toughness when put to the test. “The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb is equally fascinating as history poses a question. Way back when, humanity was into megaliths and stone circles. Then all-of-a-sudden, we stopped. Putting aside the question of the benefits of stopping (like ten thousand years of wars and pestilence, and a few years of peace), what would happen if we started building these henges again? At the end, we’re left to decide whether the outcome is an improvement. “Down Black Staircases” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr takes a man with a mission on an unexpected detour into Kingsport where he’s forced on the run. Barely managing to escape, he’s then pursued by natural paranoia until he can run no more. This has a frenetic pace and energy about it that commands attention and nicely captures the fear of the pursued.

“China Holiday” by Peter Cannon continues the theme of paranoia as an American couple go on a holiday to China and he discovers, to his amazement, that the beings who may once have lived in the waters off Innsmouth, may have taken up residence in the newly created waters now controlled by the Three Gorges Dam. Or perhaps he’s just dreaming more vividly and worries to much about using the primitive Chinese plumbing. Either way, the story takes slightly too long to get going. “Necrotic Cove” by Lois Gresh asks the always pertinent question about two best friends, one a man-trap who acquires wealth through marriage, the other physically deformed and alone until her friend comes back from the latest marriage. Their relationship endures but, as the one who’s deformed develops cancer and is approaching death, they make one last trip together and discover a new aspect to their relationship. Ignoring the Lovecraftian overlay, this is an impressively insightful story about the two women. “The Turn of the Tide” by Mark Howard Jones is a rather affecting story in which a young woman struggles to decide whether she wants to share her life or to find a different place in which to seek happiness. Again, this says something potentially profound about young people and the choices they must make about family and relationships, particularly when it affects where they might decide to live. “Weltschmerz” by Sam Gafford shows a man whose daily routine commuting to work in a bank where he works as an accountant, defines his world-weariness. Then one day, a new “runner” who delivers internal mail, breaks into his bubble of routine and exposes him to a different view of reality. Needless to say, things are never the same again. “Thistle’s Find” by Simon Strantzas is one of these “tooth and claw” stories in which a young man who’s down on his luck and needs somewhere to hide, remembers the kindness shown him by a neighbour when he was young. However, this memory proves to have unexpectedly dangerous consequences but, as they say, “any port in a storm”. Which leaves us with “Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford. This nicely matches the opening story with a machine enabling people within its sphere of influence to see more than they were expecting. It’s a very good way to bring a superior anthology to a successful conclusion. That there are a couple of duds is to be expected. A perfect set of stories is a rarity, particularly in the Lovercraftian universe where most ideas have been worked and reworked. On balance, Black Wings III maintains the excellent overall standard of the series and is recommended.

For a review of the two anthologies in this series, see:
Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro

June 17, 2014 3 comments

Her Husband'a Hands

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro (Prime Books, 2014) is a top class collection from one of the best prose stylists around. “Arvies” starts the ball rolling with a story presented as though it was an article in a periodical of some kind. The text is divided into sections with headings to act as signposts. It predicates a world in which money, power and control has been seized by the unborn foetuses. They are the living. If anyone has the misfortune to be born, they are considered dead and worth nothing unless a foetus buys the body. They see the dead as nothing more than convenient containers in which they can reside. But the foetus who is the protagonist of this story decides to do something wholly perverse. She decides to engineer the pregnancy of her current body so she can experience giving birth. Such notoriety! Such extraordinary abuse of convention! And then, of course, there’s the problem of what to do with the dead bodies. “Her Husband’s Hands” deals with a future in which we still fight wars and the technology has advanced to the point where, no matter how little survives of the body, it can be kept alive and wedded to the backed-up personality. Now all the spouses have to do is adjust to their new lives with the various body parts shipped back from the front (a confusing image, but you get what I mean). “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” is a nicely allegorical piece that offers an alternative to the dry tedium of modern life. At its best, fulfilling the routine produces the money necessary to support the lifestyle we’ve come to prefer. At its worst, the comforts of life disappear in moments of horrific madness. Perhaps it’s a single homicide or society rebels against the pacific boredom by engaging in acts of terrorism or a war. But suppose you could take a “place” and structure it so the inhabitants could enjoy nine days of abandon with the tenth giving the experience of mayhem and death. Would people opt for nine days of Paradise for the price of one day in Hell?

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

“Our Human” sees us back in the same universe inhabited by the redoubtable Andrea Cort with a story of a group of four outlaws who set off into the jungle on a nameless world to track down a human monster for whom there is a big reward. It elegantly forces the reader to consider what constitutes such a severe social sin to justify expulsion from their own race, and what might tempt other races to accept this criminal into their midst. For example, what might be rape to one race, might be normal biological activity to another. So is it easier for one race to overlook a sin because both the being and its behaviour is alien to them, or is there something more essentially forgiving about some races that they are prepared to see good even in the worst of beings and to offer the prospect of redemption? “Cherub” continues to challenge the reader by asking us to consider what a world would be like if every baby was born with a visual representation of their character riding on their backs. At first glance, the parents could see which sins their child would embrace. In a way, child and rider become a form of self-fulfilling prophesy, i.e. the rapist rapes, the murderer kills, and so on. This family produces a son with a cherub on his back. This proves to be something of an affront to the village which relentlessly takes advantage of what they see as weakness. Yet, over time, his constant turning of the other cheek wears down the hatred. When he marries, the village rallies round him and feels good about the moment. There’s just one potential fly in the ointment. What we take to be childhood innocence can be lost as the adult gains experience of the world. In the case of such a young man, that would indeed be a tragic loss.

“The Shallow End of the Pool” is also about the nature of relationships and the mechanisms we humans create to resolve our differences. If we’re lucky, we settle things without involving others, but there are times when we fight vicariously, finding and training champions to enter the lists on our behalf to joust unto the death. This story takes one of the champions as the POV and wonders what would happen if the other champion was a brother and those “fighting” were their parents. Don’t you just wish those parents could just kiss and make up? “Pieces of Ethan” is, quite simply, wonderful. It’s not just the precise meaning of the title which only becomes apparent about two-thirds of the way through. It’s the final pages in which the source of the affliction is revealed that has the biggest impact. By any standards, this is a remarkable story. And finally, “The Boy and the Box” invites us to consider what would go on in the mind of a boy who suddenly discovered how to put the world in a box. He could, of course, take individuals or things out of the box to play with whenever he wanted. But, after a time, that would all get rather boring. So what would he do then? The answer is rather fascinating, but not completely satisfying. Put all this together and Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories is the best collection so far this year.

For reviews of other books by Adam-Tryo Castro, see:
Emissaries From the Dead
The Third Claw of God

Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas

June 15, 2014 10 comments

worship_the_night_by_jeffrey_thomas__92518.1383025044.800.600worship-the-night-limited-1

Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013) sees yet another example of the prose that makes this author so readable. All the stories in this collection have the trademark crisp clarity and directness, with efficient plots that deliver the goods with the least effort. As an aside since this is a personal rather than a general observation, I lashed out and bought the limited edition. It proves to be a handsome production. Although I find the internal illustrations by Erin Wells not quite to my taste, I applaud the principle of publishing illustrations to illuminate and enhance the written word. I wish more publishers would follow this example.

The first two stories see us back in Hades and Punktown respectively. When an author has great high concepts on the run, it’s as well to plunge back periodically to renew interest. “The Lost Family” sees us with the “fallen” angel making her way out of what’s left of Hell. We met her and her bone gun in The Fall of Hades, and this free-standing story fits into the story of her climb through the Construct in the hope of reaching Freetown. While trying to work her way around rather larger demons, she finds the titular family and there’s a bonding moment as smaller demons try to crash the party. “Counterclockwise” has a simple and elegant story about a man who finds the Church, if that’s what it is, operating opposite his apartment block deeply annoying. When the local police show a complete lack of interest in dealing with prickly interspecies disputes, it’s left to our “hero” to decide what to do. “The Holy Bowl” takes us into the realm of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that most revered symbol of rationalism as it floats through the air, meatballs as eyes, balls, and anything else designed to be round. “Do you believe?” I exhort. Well, if not, this could be the fate awaiting you. “In Limbo” asks a different question. When everything’s going to shit around you, what’re you gonna do? Naturally, you hunker down for a few moments. Then you might cautiously explore the hallway only to run back into your apartment when the darkness seems to be closing in. The important thing is not to panic, or at least not to panic too much.

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

“About the Author” is nicely metafictional as we read the product description of the first book in a new zombie series followed by a few well-chosen words giving the author’s biography. Naturally, the scathing review by Jeffrey Thomas is only to be expected. Such books are usually a crapfest and, as in this case, their authors should be housed in the nearest loony bins, if only for their own safety — the rest can all go to Hell. “The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo” sees us firmly in Lovecraftian territory with a story of a gangster who thinks the Necronomicon can be a useful weapon in the right hands. With ambitions to become a senior figure in the ranks of the Mafia, he sets about killing a few of the smaller fish (human variety). But, like all good things, there must come an ending. “Children of the Dragon” sees us in Vietnam for a little research into cryptozoology except, at least in the early stages, this is more like the usual sex tourism trip. Then there comes that rather awkward moment when the precise nature of the word becomes important. “Is that Dragon or Dagon?” You never know. That r could be significant.

“The Sea of Flesh” is novella length and a rather beautiful, tender story in which a couple seeking escape from loveless marriages find each other and negotiate whether they might be able to find happiness together. One is an archetypical white guy who puts in the hours at a new bio company which grows human tissue. His wife has already found a new partner although she continues to live in the same house as him (sometimes openly visited by her lover). The other is Vietnamese with a violent husband who has long stopped loving her. In a sense, both have ties. His mother is in a private nursing home waiting to die. She has a daughter who left home to escape her father but has yet to find herself a place in the world outside. They meet because she’s a nurse in the home where his mother is dying. Overlaid this touching human story is a supernatural dream world. As the story progresses, we come to recognise four people interact in this world. At first, it seems to be just the man and his mother. But his potential partner’s daughter is also involved. The point of the story is to observe the way in which the dream world overlaps the human world, perhaps partly contaminating it or driven by it. If you think of the cycles of the moon and the way its unseen influence moves the tides that crash waves upon the shore, remember human bodies are largely made up of water. So there’s always the possibility the moon or other planets may move the tides of men and women. The result is an outstanding story to finish the collection. Put all this together and Worship the Night is a terrific collection of stories and well worth the money whether you buy the trade or the limited edition.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

June 14, 2014 6 comments

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Press, 2014) explores the social and psychological dynamics of group therapy sessions. I remember the first I attended. We few met briefly outside the room and exchanged anxious nods. When we entered and met the convener, no-one wanted to talk. To talk in a university tutorial session is to admit lack of preparation, and no-one wanted to do that. So long as we stayed silent, we need never reveal how addicted we were to our own ignorance. But over time, we grew more confident and actually dared ask for explanations. It was a slow journey, but some of us graduated. Most swore never to repeat the experience. We would all pretend to be wise without fear of contradiction. Naturally, a few years later, I became a university lecturer and organised therapy sessions on a daily basis. During all these sessions, seeing how little the students had understood of what I had said in lecturers, I was completely fine. Particularly during the therapy sessions in the nearby pub, we lecturers could lick the wounds to our egos as we exchanged experiences on the resistance of the young to learning. We helped each other get through it.

This rather elegant novella sees a therapist bringing five people together to talk about their experiences. These are not routine PTSD clients. Yes, they have all suffered trauma of one sort or another, but the source was either horrific activity by a human or some potentially supernatural event. The conventional view of such patients is that they are wholly or partly delusional and that they must be disabused of any elements of delusion before they can move on to the cognitive part of the therapy to deal with their reaction to whatever the real events prove to be. Except, of course, the experiences of these individuals is instantly more credible. One was captured by a group of cannibals who systematically removed the limbs of their captives for their mother’s evening meals. Fortunately, he was rescued in a police raid before they had gone too far. His case was notorious. Survival made him a short-lived celebrity and a long-term reclusive figure, embittered and defensive. Another was the victim of a man who pealed back her flesh and carved messages on to her bones. Obviously, the flesh was replaced after each operation, leaving only scars. But she lives with the temptation of discovering what messages he wrote. And so on.

Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory

There’s a revolving point of view as the first session triggers enough interest for the five to begin meeting on a regular basis. Slowly, they talk about their experiences. Well, it’s hard to shut up the cannibal’s dinner who seems to want to recount every discrimination and abuse he’s suffered since the rescue. Only one seems reluctant to say anything. She’s a bit mysterious but prepared to go for a drink with another of the group after the session has ended. When a third session member follows them, he’s attacked and ends up in hospital. That changes the dynamic of the story as we begin to see what might be happening. As the opening paragraph to this review indicates, we all have some experience of group dynamics. When people come together for the first time, they tend to talk at each other. Later they may begin to talk with each other and share personal information or experiences. But the group only becomes useful when the members decide to help each other. In this case, the people invited to the group all believe they are somewhat unique and have no peers capable of helping or supporting them. As the story progresses, this view slowly changes. They come to recognise they share a common bond of some kind and, perhaps, just perhaps, if they work together, they may be able to save themselves. Except, of course, it doesn’t quite work out like it does in fiction. In this world of bitter reality, the best they can hope for is survival. Except, no-one can say how long that state may persist.

Taken as a whole, We Are All Completely Fine is a remarkably seductive piece of supernatural horror, drawing the innocent reader into the web by dealing with a familiar situation. As we learn more about each person in the group, we can begin to see eddies of emotion shift as the members slowly admit the possibility of change. This may not be a change that improves their lot in life but, for the majority, any variation from the present reality is viewed as an improvement. The result is fascinating and engrossing, and there’s one promise I can make. If you read it, you’ll be completely fine too, at least for a time.

For reviews of other novels by Daryl Gregory, see:
Afterparty
The Devil’s Alphabet
Raising Stony Mayhall
Unpossible.