Entries Tagged 'HR Exclusives' ↓

Serpent Girl: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Gartonserpent Recently retired, Steven Benedetti is driving from Oregon to LA. En route, he passes a sign for a carnival and, out of nostalgia, stops to visit. There he attempts to revisit several boyhood pleasures but discovers that time has colored his perceptions. For a final lark, he decides to visit the Serpent Girl's tent, to watch a scantily clad doll dance with snakes. This is where he makes the acquaintance of Carmen. The dancing is forgettable, it's the girl he finds himself most interested in. After the show, while pondering just what he has seen, he discovers that the girl is in a spot of trouble. When he helps her out, the two of them hit the road together. What follows is a twisted journey south, in which the reader soon discovers that our narrator has a mysterious past and this girl he is infatuated with might have more going on in her heart than she lets on. They complement each other so well, one might go so far as to call them a killer couple.

As this novel comes in under 150 pages, it spends only a little time establishing the characters while bouncing between the conventions of no less than four genres. One part crime story, one part mystery, one part road story, and culminating in an outrageous finale and a chilling denouement of purest horror. The result is dark, nasty, and (regrettably) short.

Serpent Girl owes a lot to the Fawcett Gold Medal thrillers that have inspired quite a few writers of dark crime and horror (and are even being revisited by the Hard Case Crime line of reprints and originals). It's the kind of twisty story that feels right at home in the confines of a cheap paperback, and yet this is no simple pastiche.  It is a modern spin, a literary descendant, which features plenty of graphic sex. Some readers might say it does so in lieu of plot or characterization, but those readers are selling the story a bit short.

There is character development here, but it seems oddly circular and it is certainly subtle. The characters seemingly grow in spite of themselves, and the work is less concerned with the stuff of internal character development via thought/epiphany than it is with character as defined by action. In fact, while the book deals with some gruesome subject matter, it is ultimately interested in questions of character.  Can a person who has performed dreadful deeds for a job and a person who has performed those a similar sort of dreadful deeds for pleasure can ever truly see eye to eye? Can they ever get along? Can they ever leave their past and build something else?

It is here that the meat of the work is revealed, and in searching out these answers the book delves into some grim but fascinating places. Serpent Girl, while certainly a quick read, is one worth consideration from lovers of dark crime fiction and human based horrors.

This reader certainly hopes that a reasonably priced edition may become available down the line for those who either cannot shell out forty dollars for a lovely enough (CD makes a great book, and artist Jill Bauman's cover art is both enticing and gorgeous) though ultimately short, limited edition, hardcover book.

Serpent Girl by Ray Garton

144 pages

Cemetery Dance

May 2008

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Tower Hill: A Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Pinboroughtower The small town of Tower Hill, Maine is the site of a small university and a dark secret. Three students -- religious Liz, Detroit trailer park escapee Steve, and wild girl Angela -- have arrived at the campus to find they will be sharing student housing. The town is sleepy when they arrive, but in time it will become a very different place, a change due to the arrivals of both a new priest and professor. These two men are allies in their goal to plumb the town's mysterious past and to take possession of an ancient artifact secreted there. Horror portends their arrival and follows it. First, individual members of the town/school body fall victim to excessive, violent acts; soon, the entire town seems to be falling under the sway of religious zeal and sinister obsessions. Can our protagonists piece together the situation and find a way to challenge the darkness that is rising around them?  While the answer to this question is telegraphed rather early on, the real concern involves simply length of time and the costs of victory...

Sarah Pinborough's fourth novel treads dangerously close to familiar territory, and yet it finds ways to tell a very personal story through its familiar tropes. Though the strange little town has long been a staple of horror fiction (particularly strange little towns located, as here, in Maine), the titular town of Tower Hill has a kind of uniqueness to it. This is due in no small part to the personalities inhabiting it, characters who read less like archetypes found in other horror novels than actual, individual persons.

The supernatural evil does not appear like some speeding juggernaut out of Hell, here. It is slow and insidious, spreading through the town like oil across water, and while this leads to a steadily building tension, readers who expect a high energy wham-wham-wham-BOO! plot should be prepared for plenty of downtime before the horror springs. This offers a chance to get to know the characters, making the many gruesome things to come all the more tragic and resonant.

If only the tense buildup were moving toward anything remotely interesting. Unfortunately, Tower Hill is satisfied with taking to hand an assemblage of Good characters and squaring off against eeeevil. While this is not inherently a bad thing, this novel's heavy reliance upon those all too familiar tropes associated with religious based horror is a drawback for this reader. I do not particularly enjoy novels where characters act as agents of God/The White/general goodness, unless it is done in a manner that is fresh. Here, we find the good guys are very good. The bad guys are exceedingly eeevil, and any poor saps that even briefly fall under their sway end up equally as bad. Readers who go for this sort of schtick might find a fine read.  Unfortunately, this dichotomy is a bit too simplistic for my tastes, and the ending suffers from being exceptionally predictable.

This is a shame, since the novel offered up some delightfully rendered atmosphere, a nice assemblage of characters, and several fine moments of dread. Sarah Pinborough has a talent for writing eerie scenes. This reader was rather taken with The Hidden, some years ago. Alas, Tower Hill turns out not to be to my liking. A shame.

Tower Hill by Sarah Pinborough
368 pages
Released: July, 2008
Leisure Books

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The Woods Are Dark: A Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Laymonwoods When originally published in 1981, Richard Laymon's second novel appeared heavily altered from the author's original conception. In his memoir of the craft, the author commented that the novel would never be recoverable, due to the many rewrites and general publishing skulduggery performed during that novel's release. Several years after his death, Richard Laymon's daughter Kelly has managed to perform something of a miracle, recovering the lost manuscript from a variety of sources and surgically stitching the thing back into what it once was. Now, readers can see Richard Laymon's original intentions behind the novel.

When two groups of strangers arrive in Barlow, a small, forested town, they expect simple rest and food, a stop off on a journey to somewhere, anywhere else. They do not anticipate being taken captive by some crazy folks and brought deep into the surrounding woods, chained to trees and left for a mysterious race of savages, called Krulls. What follows is a single night and day of pursuit and horror, with fates such as murder, rape and unspeakable depravity awaiting them...

The Woods Are Dark is a curious presentation of some absolutely disgusting material, which amply demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses found in just about all of Richard Laymon's work. Plot is king here, and this plot moves along with the expected bullet speed found in Laymon's better works. A close second to plot is imagery. The novel begins with a strange and engaging image, a pair of lovely young ladies speeding along the roads are forced to a stop when they encounter a curious shape crawling across the road, who then throws a grisly offering to them.

The language is like the plot: clear of distractions and very straight ahead, tackling only what is needed and then moving on. Scenes are described with a kind of minimalist technique, and yet there is a quality of the vivid to the situations. What details are given are carefully chosen, leaving plenty of room for the imagination to fill in the blanks.

Too bad some of the more cruel moments are not handled with the same selectivity. Nope, the sexual and bodily assaults are all presented right in the middle of the mind's eye camera, little left to the imagination. The horror in this book is not of the supernatural variety, but of the awful things that human beings do to one another. For purposes of survival as well as sadism. There seems little difference in the gut wrenching qualities between the two, as they all seem to elicit some measure of joy. That these deeds are oftentimes performed by characters that were originally presented as "sympathetic," makes them still more disturbing.

Ultimately, there are very few sympathetic characters in the book. Many of them are vacuous shills, bodies whose only purpose is to be carved up or to do the carving (on a couple of special occasions, some do both). The men are a bit better drawn than the women (who often read like men with ample bosoms, alas), and as might be expected, the narrative finds nothing quite so attractive about its females but for the size of their breasts. While this reader finds beauty and delight in the plentiful other curves and shapes of the human form, these find no place in this book.

Some of the horror is intended to be found in the disintegration of the civilized mind, as one of the protagonists finds a killer (and worse) lurking inside himself. However, this character's descent into the barbarous realm feels so fast as to be unbelievable. Then again, much of what happens is a little bit fast... The novel itself is about 210 pages, all told (with 5 pages of introduction about the new edition, and a lengthy preview of the next Laymon novel due out from Leisure), so there is little real room for such niceties as character development. Instead, characters seem to almost transform from one mindset to another, with very little rational reason.

Can an educated, civilized man (who considers himself a pacifist) spontaneously transform into a murderous monster, who not only takes delight in schatenfreud, but excels at killing other human beings? Why yes. Psychologically speaking, even the most stable personality type can become unhinged, particularly in such trying circumstances as are presented in this book. However, this reader would expect such a development to come about over the course of more than one day, not (possibly) two hours. This reader just does not buy the fast fall.

The Woods Are Dark is a gruesome story, much in the flavor of the sort of "Don't Go In The Woods" slasher-type horror films that are once again en vogue in horror cinema. It's long about time that director Tobe (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper directed one of Richard Laymon's novels, they seem to stem from the same horror aesthetic and share plenty of themes and motifs. This novel in particular would make the basis of a fine Tobe Hooper picture. As a novel, however, it feels a bit light.

The Woods Are Dark by Richard Laymon

215 pages

July 2008

Leisure Books

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Leather Maiden: a Horror Reader exclusive review


Joe R. Lansdale is no stranger to the horror scene. Though his "big press" material does not often find its way to the horror fiction shelves these days (his small press stuff unashamedly does), there is a dark vein ("black as the heart of Satan," some well read Lansdale readers might opine, quoting from the opening of his novel, The Nightrunners) even in his "mainstream" works that's decidedly welcoming to horror readers.

Case in point:  the author's latest suspense novel, Leather Maiden.

The story opens with a simple and somewhat familiar, hardboiled thriller setup. Gulf War veteran turned Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter turned down-and-out drunk, Cason Statler swallows his pride and returns to Camp Rapture, Texas, where he takes the job of columnist with his hometown paper. There, he stumbles upon the six months cold case of a missing girl, gorgeous college coed Caroline Allison who seemingly vanished without a trace. Smelling a story that might get him back into the big time, he digs into the item. He soon finds himself immersed in more murder, blackmail and mystery than he had ever believed could exist in this small town.

Of course, for Lansdale's regular readers, Camp Rapture already has the echoes of mystery and the macabre, as it played principle locale for the author's 2004 novel, Sunset and Sawdust. This novel revisits the town, though about seventy years removed from that previous work's Depression era time period.

A fine line exists between suspense novels and category horror, anymore. If put to the spot and asked what "identifies" a novel as "horror," different readers will offer up a plethora of definitions. For this reader, the definition includes emotional honesty, an unflinching attention to the consequences of actions, an intrusive situation (a particularly notable crime, a supernatural presence, etc.) that irrefutably destroys "normality", and an unmistakably dark tone to the subject matter. On these fronts, Lansdale's latest novel, though marketed as a dark crime or suspense thriller, certainly fits the bill.

The author's voice is as approachable as ever. Writing with the easy style of a raconteur, Lansdale's prose is as clean, crisp and evocative as a hardboiled Hemingway, and the author is no stranger to apt and unique similes. As this reader enjoys a text with a good conversational quality, Lansdale's writing immediately captures my attention and immerses me in the tale he has to tell.

Cason Statler's first person narration makes for an intensely personal story. Sure, there are plenty of ribald laughs, but when the tale ventures down its darkest avenues -- and there is plenty of darkness to be found between this novel's covers -- the chills come undiluted.

This is due, in no small part, to the author's skill at drawing characters. Though they might not be pretty characters, these folks are all pretty interesting. Despicable or heartwarming, sociopaths or sympathetic, this novel offers a collection of exceptionally drawn characters, and the best creation of all is the protagonist.

In an intriguing choice, the relationship between Cason and his closest male ally, Booger (Yes, I said "Booger") carries strong echoes of that found between author Walter Mosley's series characters "Easy" Rawlins and the sociopath called Mouse.  Would I be reading too deeply if I found these characters to be twin aspects of a single psychology, one is civilized while the other is barely constrained barbaric?  Well, they certainly bring out the best (and worst) in each other...

At turns likable and infuriating, Cason has several dimensions. A recovering drunk, obsessed with the girl who dumped him (to creepy levels, he stalks her for a while), emotionally damaged from his time serving in Sand World (Iraq), Cason begins the novel just over the edge of spiritual and mental breakdowns, and the novel finds him slowly pulling himself back together. At least, for a while. When the darkness finds its way into Cason's life, there are plenty of opportunities for the character to backslide, and this jeopardy is only one aspect of the many levels of evoked suspense.

In a nice turn, readers will find that the mystery experience does not confine itself merely to the unfolding events of the story, it stretches past the protagonist and the fictional world.  Of course, I mean the book's title. Just what is this Leather Maiden? The novel and its events certainly center around that title, but what is it?

Initially, this reader took the Leather Maiden to be something kinky. As I've read a large number of works from Clive Barker, Edward Lee and the modern crop of hardcore horror authors, the title brought to mind some devilish, dominatrix figure, an intriguing fusion of extreme sexuality (the leather part) and innocence (the maiden aspect). In fact, the answer turns out to be rather fetishistic, but not in the way this reader first assumed. I was quite surprised, when I discovered the incredibly chilling, non-supernatural, and unforgettable answer.

Unfortunately, the quest for answers offers up the novel's few notable stumbles. Coincidence plays a powerful role in the course of events. Cason's introduction to the Caroline Allison mystery comes about through an organic coincidence (the reporter he is replacing had some notes on the disappearance), some larger revelations near the end of the work come about through what feel to be inorganic coincidences (a barely touched upon character uses google to find plenty of lucky hits). As well, an ally to the protagonist's cause shows up at a mighty convenient moment. While there is something of an understated philosophical underpinning running through much of the book, a silent war between Purpose or Chance, Significance or Insignificance, sometimes my instinctive thought of "Well, wasn't that conveeenient" interrupted the story's flow. Though the author's voice and craft brought me back into the tale, these moments were still noticeable speed bumps to mostly smooth reading.

With a novel that confidently straddles the line between suspense/thriller and horror novel, we see, yet again, that quality writing trumps genre pigeonholing every time. Joe R. Lansdale excels at crafting dark, suspenseful and humorous fiction, and Leather Maiden makes for yet another excellent addition to his already impressive body of work.

Leather Maiden by Joe R. Lansdale
287 Pages
Published August, 2008

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Coffin County: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Braunbeckcoffincounty Gary A. Braunbeck’s latest novel -- fourth in his Cedar Hill cycle from Leisure Books -- takes to task a rather challenging subject (no surprise from this author, who has made a career from fiction that asks difficult questions). The epigraph page reveals its themes, recounting passages on love, madness, God and insight from such authors as Heinrich Hein, Christopher Conlon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Kahlil Gibran, and then concludes with a quartet of names, locations that have found homes in the social consciousness because they have all been sites of mass murder shootings. In Coffin County, Braunbeck’s fictional Cedar Hill will become another of these names.

Now, regular readers of Braunbeck’s fiction know that this author’s work is not content to merely recount horrors. There is a very human quality behind all the horrible happenings, and there is no lack of this human factor in the equation to follow. The supernatural does involve itself, but the real key elements are neither Powers-Man-Was-Not-Meant-To-Know nor Horrors-Without-Meaning, but a more existential issue: Why do Americans have such an easy time killing each other and why do we perform this deed so very often?

Now, regular readers of Horror Reader’s reviews will note that I’m approaching this book from a completely different direction than my typical review. Well, that’s because this reader found this book deeply unsettling. In both aesthetically pleasing (that whole Kafkaesque “one should read only books that bite and sting”) and philosophically challenging ways. While the concept of mass shootings alone is rather horrifying, the story takes several steps deeper into the realm of the disturbing by nearly sidelining the tragedy and suggesting both that the victimized men, women, and children had to die and that the monsters responsible for these deeds are not monsters at all...

What is the book’s story?

Well, we begin with a series of disjointed pieces. Following a single sentence Chapter One, readers will discover scenes from the night that Cedar Hill’s Old Towne East section adopted its current moniker of Coffin County (a historical flashback, which builds to a somewhat surreal and literally explosive, supernatural intersession of chaos), key passages from the fictional travelogue A Visitor’s Guide to Cedar Hill (including unpublished draft pages kept in CH’s Historical Society), a return to and expansion of the first chapter’s sentence, and even a momentary flash from the “present”... The effect is a relentless outpouring of imagery and stories, much of which has already occurred, some of which is about to happen, and all of which have ramifications that are yet to be understood. In the span of 77 pages, readers will discover quite a bit of disparate material touching upon events separated by about two hundred years. However, as Chaos Theory (a mathematical modeling system integral to this book, which non-science savvy readers may recall from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park) tells us, what initially appears to be wildly disconnected information might actually be part of a very complex order. This order comes through when the story then seamlessly leaps to the present day to follow a procedural horror tale wherein the Cedar Hill police department must cope with several seemingly random acts of mass violence.

Gary A. Braunbeck’s writing is as controlled as ever, at turns evocative and beautiful and gruesome. Though this novel takes violence as its raison d’etre, it does not dwell so much in the commission of the acts as it does in the aftermath of those acts. Here, we find an eye that is unwilling to look away, a compassionate voice that delivers descriptions that are discomforting but never gratuitous.

Much as in the beginning, several viewpoints lead us through the story to come. Some of these are Cedar Hill citizenry, some are momentary glimpses into the minds of the supernatural forces at play, but the focal character for the story is Detective Ben Littlejohn, a man who understands loss (his wife was a victim of a robbery turned deadly) and yet does what he must to serve and protect Cedar Hill’s residents. While Ben is our protagonist character, however, the story is not actually told from his point of view.

The choice of voice for this work is interesting. In a technique seen in such works as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Coffin County offers us a fictional character narrating other fictional characters. In itself, this is nothing spectacularly new. However, this time around we neither find the removed narrator (ala Tom in The Great Gatsby) or the impassioned participant (ala the hard as nails protagonist of many a hardboiled fiction). Instead, “The Reverend” (a familiar face from several Cedar Hill stories) is more of a participating specter, a figure that flits through the characters, offering up deep views of plentiful headspaces. As much as we learn about the well drawn, three dimensional characters in this book, we also (inadvertently) learn about the narrator. While little concrete information is actually blatantly told, much is revealed through inference and a careful attention to both what is said as well as what is not. If this sounds like some cryptic puzzle, rest assured it is nothing of the sort. 

This narrative trickery provides a rationale for some of the quirks in the text. At first, this reader was put off by the vast number of characters who seemed well acquainted with the depths of their own misery (Don’t any of these people repress? Is no one happy in Cedar Hill?), but this reader has since come to terms with the fact that many of these people have been unaware of their own sorrows. At least until they became participants in this book and therefore directly under the eye of this narrator.

While the book works on a purely surface level as a disturbing tale of terror, this reviewer found plenty happening beneath this successful, surface layer. Not only are allusions to other CH stories present and aplenty (though not so thick as to either distract or render the text indecipherable without a Cedar Hill concordance), but readers interested in the craft of writing will find much to savor here.

And yet...

Coffin County bothers this reader. A part of this is due to religious overtones that just don’t work for me, and a part is due to the vast amount of unbroken misery on display, and a part is due to the climax dancing uncomfortably close to one of The Worst Tricks In Storytelling, but ultimately it is the core ideological summation of the book (this reviewer nearly wrote “the core message” of the book, though that would incorrectly make this work seem little better than a platform for propagandizing). This book considers its material and formulates answers I strongly disagree with.

Great fiction does not settle with satisfactory, pat solutions. It gets the mind going, and Coffin County certainly got this reader’s mind a spinning. I don’t expect a book to necessarily agree with my (admittedly cracked) world view, but the ones that present a rational argument in direct opposition... Bother me. Because I cannot debate with a book (short of writing a book of my own), I do not enjoy going on message boards, and I would rather not distract an author with a rambling, incoherent email (I’d rather read that author’s next book). Instead, this reader is forced to carry around the debate in heart and head, and that just bugs me.

Can I recommend this work?  Hesitantly, yes.

I can certainly recommend the author. Gary A. Braunbeck consistently writes some of today’s most powerful popular fiction. This work is his most effective. I cannot say if I quite like it, however. It’s got quite a few teeth, and I respect it. Respect, however, does not connote like. Any new Braunbeck novel is a cause for celebration, but Coffin County (more than anything else he has yet written) has the distinction of completely altering my outlook on what horror fiction can accomplish. I find myself unable to read the genre in quite the way I did before cracking this paperback’s spine.

The fifth (and final?) book for the author’s Cedar Hill cycle will be released by Leisure Books in 2009.

Coffin County by Gary A. Braunbeck
333 pages
Leisure Books
Released June 2008

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Bloodstone: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Kenyonbloodstone_2 A man and woman are driving through the night. Billy Smith and Angel are anything but amorous; she is his handcuffed prisoner. He is haunted by nightmares. Their path has taken them from Salt Lake City to North Carolina by the time this novel opens, but it is far from over. That path will not end until after they have reached the small town of White Falls, Maine..

Meanwhile, in WhiteFalls, another young man (Jeboriah Taylor) is going to the prison where his incarcerated father has died to retrieve the suitcase containing his dead father's possessions. There is a legacy behind him and a growing anger about him.

The town itself is a haunted place, home to a legacy of darkness dating back to the 1700s. As these three characters pursue their own mysteries, they will discover that legacy to play a profound part in their Fates. The dead do not rest easy in this small town. However, the inhabitants of this town are complicit because of their actions, their desires, their day to day casual cruelties. Something stirs, here, something bound to an ancient artifact called the Bloodstone, and should that dark presence fully rouse, all Hell will break loose.

As with painting and music, first novels often run the risk of hearkening too closely to the style and themes and technique of those who have come before them. Imitation is the oldest way to learn an artistic craft, and the sincerest flattery can be had in being the Master those budding artists imitate. With enough time, a writer's own voice should shine through. For an example in the field of horror fiction, we need look no further than Ramsey Campbell, whose first collection (released by Arkham House as Inhabitant of the Lake, later titled Cold Print) offers up a plethora of tales told very much in the H. P. Lovecraft vein. By Campbell's second collection, Demons by Daylight, his individual voice found its way free.

Here we find Nate Kenyon, first time novelist, spinning a story that veers quite close to familiar territory. Bloodstone, like hundreds of novels in the last thirty years or so, is very much in keeping with the style, the interests, the tone, and the technique of Stephen King. This is the novel's single, leading shortcoming, and a mighty one it is.

While the town itself feels more like Derry (from It) than Salem's Lot, the townsfolk themselves and the scenes they are involved in are straight out of King's second published novel. In one scene, we find a cuckhold wielding a shotgun on the adulterous spouse and lover. In another, we find evil taking a life in the junkyard (though without rats, this time around). Geographically speaking, we find the creepy old mansion acting as source of the town's dark legacy and a beacon to its current situation. The comparisons go on and on...

I have read and loved King's Salem's Lot. It was revolutionary when it came out over thirty years ago. It is still a delightfully eerie read nowadays (this reader just revisited that peculiar, doomed little town, only a few months ago). However, do we horror readers need yet another attempt to retell this same story? I offer an emphatic no.

However, this is not to say that there is nothing of interest about Bloodstone. If all it had to say was "It's Salem's Lot, but with [INSERT DIFFERENT MONSTER HERE]!", then I would be completely panning this book; it would be an absolute waste of time. I am not, however, because Bloodstone does have something going for it. What might that be? Why it offers an interesting structure pertaining to the journey taken by its three main characters.

From the description above, which is how they are introduced, certain roles are established, and a formulaic genre weary reader will find ways to pigeon hole those characters into expected slots: one character will side with evil, one character will find inner strength to combat evil, and one character will be the helper/guide (in Joseph Campbell speak) to inner strength.

With the exception of the prediction for helper/guide character (who really gets little to do in this book), the other two follow very different, nonlinear paths. This reader found his expectations turned, if not completely around than certainly enough to continue reading. I was curious to see how things played out. Ultimately, the ending comes as no surprise, the plot (like its cast of secondary characters) prefers to stay within the realm of the familiar, but the players roles in the end sequence of events were a surprise from my initial expectations.

Nate Kenyon's language is certainly readable. Dialogue sounds natural, the descriptions are just enough to paint a good picture and propel the events. The language is that of a storyteller, and this author tells his tale of small town evil with quite a bit of energy and emotion. Along with the nice characterization and twists (at least around the three leads), he shows he has the talent to spin a really good horror yarn.

Upon closing the covers of this book and considering what I had read, I was reminded of Roger Ebert's comments in his review of director Quentin Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs.  The film critic said something to the effect of: Now that you've shown you can make a movie of this sort, show us that you can do something different with it. Well, Mr. Kenyon, now that you've shown us that you can tell a classic horror story (providing that "classic horror" only dates back to 1974), I strongly urge you to break from the familiar.

I understand that Bloodstone (a reprint of Kenyon's hardcover novel from 2006, published by Five Star) is the first of a multibook deal with Leisure. This copy contains an excerpt from his forthcoming novel (The Reach) due out in 2009. Though the name is also, coincidentally or not, also that of another Stephen King story, the chapter excerpt shows plenty of promise. I am certainly curious to see what this author does and where he goes. For his next couple of books, at least.

Bloodstone by Nate Kenyon
352 page
Leisure Books
May 2008

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The Grin of the Dark: A Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Campbellgrin Simon Lester is a film minded fellow with some of the worst luck imaginable. When the magazine he writes for gets hit with libel suits, his career as a film writer takes a nose dive; he finds himself working at a gas station, living in college student housing (though he is not a student any longer), and on the serious outs with his girlfriend's parents... Good fortune finally comes his way when a former professor offers him the chance to expand his thesis on forgotten film actors into a full book length work. During his exploration of the elusive history behind one of these figures, silent comedian Tubby Thackery, Simon embarks on a journey that will take him beyond the comforts of his London haunts. Manchester, Amsterdam, California and more places await him, each offering another kernel of information that will equally enlighten and disturb.

Ramsey Campbell is no stranger to the macabre. His unique brand of psychological horror has long been one of this reader's preferred pleasures. Though he has taken some time away from out and out horror to pen dark thrillers for a time, no matter what publishing niche they might fall under, this reader has a special place in his heart for Campbell’s fiction.

The Grin of the Dark finds the author once more visiting the subtle, eerie world straddling the line between psychological breakdown and supernatural terror, a realm he has charted quite well through his short fiction and previous novels. As well, The Grin of the Dark presents a return (of sorts) to the world of forgotten film. While 1989's Ancient Images previously ventured into this territory, telling a chilling tale set around the pursuit of a lost Karloff/Lugosi film, this story is no regurgitation of that novel’s constituent parts.  Both books might make for a delightful double feature in the Cineplex of the mind’s eye, but their essential interest and storylines are rather different.  Differences range from the topical (the technology level is certainly different:  DVDs, old videotape, and the Internet all play quite a role as help/hindrance to protagonist Simon's search), to the nuts and bolts of thematic semantics (The Grin of the Dark takes interest less in the trappings of horror pictures, than it does in the secret history of those who involve themselves in the horrific behind the scenes).  As well as the divide between psychology and supernatural based frights, this novel makes a go at blurring the line between humor and fear.

There are quite a few laughs to be found in these pages. Much of these are of the black humor variety, but there are several moments that are genuinely funny. That these typically lead into disturbing situations should surprise no one. While a familiar definition suggests "Tragedy is when I cut my thumb, comedy is when you fall down a manhole," this novel dwells somewhere between the two extremes, at the horrible juncture that might be defined as “when I fall down after you because someone has moved the hole.”

Many of the problems Simon faces are not themselves out of the ordinary. The Grin of the Dark is replete with family disappointments, misunderstandings, bank problems, anonymously posting twits on the internet, fears of inadequacy, and other mundane issues. All of these, however, contribute to the pervasive, eerie atmosphere.

Campbell’s horror often finds its way into even the most innocuous sequence, dialogues veer into bizarre territory merely because of inflection or word choice or curious moments to pause; settings become disquieting because of a paranoid’s attention to details; quiet moments of speculation turn disconcerting because of a simple misstep, a subtle revelation, or a hop of logic (not so far as a full leap).

This makes for a quiet sensibility, a slowly wrought chill, an atmosphere evoked deliberately and slowly through a keen attention to description and dialogue and internal monologue. Quiet as it is, there is nothing gentle about this book, and yet the more brutal aspects might be obfuscated by this slow build. For readers who liken “a good horror story” to qualities such as breakneck speed, relentless to the point of mind numbing plots, and none too subtle scares, such a carefully evoked work could seem rather slow. The Grin of the Dark is not a book to be gulped down on a beach. It takes its time, it asks for a moment and constructs a powerful tale well worth the time investment.

The spirit of the work is decidedly British and yet speaks to the themes found in Japanese authors such as Koji Suzuki. The Grin of the Dark thematically tackles such topics as the odd interplay between the technological and the spiritual, the inescapable resonance of history, the anarchic role of the Outsider in society, the shortage of nature and the lack of emotional equilibrium to be found in non-urban settings, and more. Not riffs, homages or ripoffs of another author’s book, these are lines of communication between The Grin of the Dark, Ringu, and a host of other works, intriguing dialogues between books that well read readers can appreciate.

One of Grin’s more interesting stylistic choices is to present the story as first person, present tense. This offers a you-are-there feeling, and makes the reader complicit with Simon’s perspectives and decisions. Therefore, as the protagonist experiences moments of confusion about the sequence of events he has already participated in, the effect is experienced by the reader as well. Similar to the effect famously demonstrated in the film Rashomon (where four stories are presented, each conflicting with details offered by the others, and in which no Truth is made evident), the novel breaks a contract with the reader, what is shown to us may not necessarily be the truth. From this arise a plethora of questions: Are Simon’s (and the reader’s) recollections correct? Is the world somehow changing, the past altering? The effect adds a quality of the unreliable to our narrator, which this reader found delightfully disorienting.

Another interesting stylistic choice is found in the use of reverses. The novel does not often directly present its more unreal/supernatural/otherworldly elements. Instead, it alludes to them by defining what they are not. Moist white objects (and there are plenty of these to be found, from floating faces to snowmen to lumpy, other things) that cannot be present, cannot be moving, and certainly cannot be all that threatening ultimately end up doing one or more of those three things. The effect adds to the disorienting quality of the work, and serves as the classic springboard, allowing the reader's imagination and experience to fill in the blanks making for an even more unsettling scene.

Grin of the Dark really got under this reader's skin in all the right ways, and I already long to reread it.

Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
404 pages
Virgin Books
Release: May 2008

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The Unblemished by Conrad Williams

Williamsunblemished Something strange is happening around London, and while no one person has a real sense of the extent of these events, several individuals have inklings, clues to the larger picture. Bo Mulvey is a photographer who, as something of a lark, agrees to become possessor of a map he cannot see, to a location (called the House of Flies) that cannot be real; he soon comes to learn that there is more to the world that what he perceives, and more to appetite that he has previously experienced. Sarah is on the run from the man responsible for the death of her husband; however far she goes, she soon comes to discover that death has a way of finding her. Sarah’s daughter Claire has had an encounter that resulted in both a psychological breakdown and apparent physical illness; is the cancerous growth appearing on her body something from inhuman origins? Manser is a man drawn to darkness, with a pastime that involves dismemberment and a mysterious mentor that requires blood sacrifices; has he, in fact, been playing a role in a monstrous plan even larger than he might have imagined? Over the course of the work, the city itself seems to be changing around these characters, becoming something unfamiliar and incredibly disturbing.  Its citizens are either vanishing or undergoing a bizarre transformation into something other than human…

On the surface, Conrad Williams' novel, The Unblemished, seems to be yet another addition to the varied offerings of apocalyptic horror. However, The Unblemished offers discerning readers the distinction of being more impressive than the typical tales currently filling this subgenre. This is due to top notch writing skill. Williams possesses a poet’s appreciation for language, a talent for painting Boschian nightmares with generous dabs of prose as beautiful as anything by Keats. This prose is at turns stark and hallucinogenic, building surrealistic and sadistic imagery upon the mundane and familiar.  The effect of such a conglomeration of sequences is disorienting in all the right ways. At turns witty, shocking, and (yes) actually horrifying, The Unblemished is a triumph of the macabre. This novel is nothing less than truly epic, though still nasty and thoughtful and meaty. In short, it's full of the things that actually made this reader a fan of the horror genre, and has revitalized my somewhat waning interest in apocalyptic fiction by offering up creative horrors of many splendors.

And yet... With so many things going for it, the book is rather slow to get moving. A bit distancing. Oh, the Prologue is certainly eerie, and the opening chapters read well enough. Yet they are delivered in such a fashion as to woo the reader. They did not grab this reader by the ears and race merrily off. As such, I found the book a little too easy to set down for about the first third, but shortly after this it becomes nothing less than compulsive reading.

If the book has a flaw, it may very well be found in the sheer number of nightmarish sequences. A few of these feel a tad extraneous, perhaps unnecessary. However, as a longtime fan of novels that include moments of what others might deem authorial self-indulgence, this reader certainly did not mind the imaginative bombardment of darkness.

This novel received quite a bit of acclaim (and the International Horror Guild Award for best novel) upon its original, small press release. With luck, this new edition from Virgin Books will garner even wider attention. I, for one, am stunned by all this work accomplishes in its 300 pages.

The Unblemished by Conrad Williams
288 pages
Virgin Books
April 2008

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Devil’s Cape: a Horror Reader Exclusive Review


The title of Rob Roger’s novel, Devil’s Cape, refers to a fictional city in Louisiana, a neighbor to New Orleans. Devil's Cape has earned its moniker of "Pirate Town" by a long history of crime, violence and corruption dating from its founding (by dread pirate St. Diable) to the present day. The story recounted is a complex one. The first quarter of the novel is dedicated to presenting the character of the city as well as some of its colorful characters, including the latest crime lord, the masked businessman who calls himself the Robber Baron. In addition, we meet a carnival of murderers and several other people bearing supernatural abilities. Did I say supernatural? Perhaps superhuman is the more appropriate word: these folks are budding superheroes and villains.

All of the many years of build-up lead through “Today” and the days following. “Today” is marked by an event of enormous magnitude, a series of deaths that just about rock the entire world. Afterwards, only a handful of people seem capable of finding justice for this momentous act. A woman whose father was murdered many years ago finds herself with a yearning for revenge and enough knowledge of superscience and technology to make her impossible goal a reality. A pair of twins, blessed or cursed with strange abilities, find themselves at odds over their extended Greek family member's business, which of course involve dealings with the infamous Robber Baron.

A street tough turned psychiatrist discovers that his whole world is not quite as orderly and logical as it seems, when an old hallucination is revealed to have very real roots. These disparate characters soon unite (in proper superhero fashion) to wage a sort of war against the darkest elements of Devil's Cape. However, this world is no four colored place where people cannot die, but tries to evoke the more gritty qualities of works by such comic book/graphic novel luminaries as Alan Moore (Watchmen), Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns), J. Michael Straczynski (Rising Stars), et. al.

The writing is quite good. The characters are layered and intriguing, the setting is well defined, the supernatural and the paranormal powers and their uses are imaginative, and the language is of that "invisible" style, which communicates without calling attention to itself.  Rogers is a gifted storyteller, and the tale he weaves is one that probes the darker corners of its subject matter as well as the hopeful, inspirational ones.

However, it does not delve quite so deeply into the darkness as this reader might have hoped. This work does not fully explore the questions it raises. Yes, the novel plays with darkness, yet it draws the classic hard line delineation between good and evil, right and wrong. It does not present many shades of gray, but hearkens back to the golden age of comics where the "good guys" always act in a certain way. Why? Because they are heroic.

This resonates most clearly in the choice for the novel's alternate universe to exclude the impact of Katrina. While this reviewer tries to remain impartial to real world details while reading, the lack of even a single reference to that hurricane and its profound effects on both the area and its people made things seem a little... off.

Certainly there is madness to be found in these pages, and pain is no stranger here, but the story is ultimately a reassuring one. By the end of the book, a few of the major questions are resolved, but there are enough loose threads to feed another book or two (this reader suspects... wait for it... trilogy!). While those books, if they are given half the care of this, will undoubtedly be fine reads, thrilling stories of paranormal powered people trying to find justice in an essentially corrupt city, they have yet to venture down the darkest roads to which they aspire (see those authors above).

Have I been jaded by reading too much Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Frank Miller, Michael Millar, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, etc. etc.? This is a viable question. However, to review a book for a site like Horror Reader, I have to look at the material through a certain kind of lens.

Make no mistake:  Devil's Cape is a well told tale, a fine dark fantasy. But horror, alas, it is not. It shies away from consequences, and this reader found its emotional resonance limited.

This is not to say I'm less than eager to see What Happens Next (which, of course, is the driving question behind much of genre fiction). Fans of intriguing takes on superheroes will find much to savor in this work. Sure, it's not quite up to the aforementioned seminal works by Moore, Miller, &cetera, but the author is still growing. Give him a few more books, and we'll see where he takes us.

Devil's Cape by Rob Rogers
243 pages
Wizards of the Coast Discoveries
Release: April 2008

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No Quarter: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Bellnoquarter A bank robbery goes terribly wrong. While the police mass outside, three crooks hole up inside a tattoo parlor: Juice is recently escaped from the pokey, a philosophical killer who abides by the old adage of Pavillion Nomme Sansquartier (roughly translated as the title of this work); Cuz is a maniac with two submachine guns and no fear of death; Ace is out of his league, relying on Cuz to call the plays. They have hostages, and they have demands. Outside, the police are champing at the bit to take these crooks down. Only the negotiator, James, is holding them in line. He is willing to work with the criminals to a degree, in order to guarantee the hostages' safety. However, before this tense standoff situation is done, plenty of blood will be spilled.

With No Quarter, Everette Bell has penned a page turner of a novella. That it pays homage to the best of Hong Kong action cinema is probably no surprise. This is a story of mood and nerve, with tough characters growling and blasting their way through the bleakest situations this side of Hell. In the world of fiction, this novella aspires to offer the same sort of gutwrenching thrills and nail biting suspense as found in the solidly constructed, hard edged works of writers like Stephen Hunter (e.g. the novel Dirty White Boys) or David J. Schow (e.g. the short story "Bad Guy Hats"). While this aspiration is nice, the writing unfortunately falls short.

The errs in this novella are rather grave. Poor verb choice is augmented by unnecessary modifiers (those dreaded Swifties, he winced painfully) and odd choices for hyphenation (mother-fucker?) are only two of the more obvious lackluster writing examples. These alone would be enough to cause me to set the book down, if it were not so short.

That these characters are rather flat and familiar is not at all surprising, since they are drawn from the same archetypes found in the aforementioned Hong Kong cinema (think John Woo, circa his The Killer/Hard Boiled days).

No Quarter is a gory, dark crime story from a young writer still learning his craft. While there are certainly more lessons to be had, there is undeniable energy to the prose. This novella has a brutal story to share, and while it does not get the words quite right, it tries to make up for its shortcomings with enthusiasm. Alas, for this reader, enthusiasm does not make up for the language. Those with a higher tolerance for such things (or those in the mood for a quick and dirty B-movie for your mind) may well enjoy this tale of ultraviolence and the men who perform it.

No Quarter by Everette Bell

52 pages

Creative Guy Publishing

Released 2006

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The Man on the Ceiling: a Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Temmanonceiling The names Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem should not be unfamiliar to readers of dark fiction. For those few for whom these names are strangers, this Horror Reader certainly recommends immediate correction. Though I've long been more a fan of the Tems' short fiction than their longer works, this latest book (an expansion upon their multiple award winning, collaborative novella The Man on the Ceiling) has quickly rocketed to the top of my list of  Tem pieces. It is a marvel to read, insightful and informative. However, one enormous question lingers for this reviewer after finishing the work:  just what the hell is it?

The authors themselves dub it a biography of the imagination, and this acts as a pretty good encapsulation. However, while evocative, it does not really allow a beleaguered reviewer such as myself to find the proper box to check, the proper category to file this under.  Pity the uninformed reader relying on this reviewer's words (I suppose there might be one such being in the world; leave me my dreams, will you?), who might remain clueless as to the many faceted treasure that lays between this work's covers. Let me flounder for a spell, and perhaps my fellow Horror Readers might understand my difficulty.

While The Man on the Ceiling features its titular character "in the flesh" so to speak, and while he is something ghastly, this is not a horror novel. And while the book attempts to capture both the "authors" (for the narrators of this particular story are Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem, but are these the real deal or fictional creations-- ala J.G. Ballard? While the phrase "Everything we tell you is true" is repeated quite often here, this is by no means the literal truth.  It's a truth of a completely different sort, that of delicious verisimilitude) as individuals and as components of a "nontraditional" family, the book is not quite a memoir (fact and fantasy interweave without mercy, dropping the reader into a world far too wonderful, far too awful, and far too honest to be the everyday real world). While there are plenty of snippets of short fiction, this is no collection. These short stories do not really stand as well on their own as they do amongst the details in the rest of the work; less short stories than parasitic anecdotes, perhaps. While advice to prospective writers abounds, this is no mere "How To Git (sic) Published" volume. Where the narrators offer plentiful meditations upon the value and importance of story (again, as a vessel of truth), this is by no means the sole of wit and thought on display.  As with Whitman, this sucker is vast.  It contains multitudes...

Has this reviewer made plain the difficulty? Just what am I supposed to file this under?

Why nothing and everything, of course, and that's what makes a work like The Man on the Ceiling truly excel. It is actually sui generis. It is beyond genre and yet built from genre. A curious puzzle, engaging in its emotional honesty and clear voices. Indeed, there are two distinct voices to be found here. Alternating passages are written from Melanie and Steve's perspectives and each manages to share levels of intimacy often reserved for good poetry.

Through the manifold aspects, we find several recurring themes.  The importance of accepting responsibility, enduring the worst hardships, and attempts to define what a family actually means.  In this book, the family is composed of the Tems and their several adopted children (as well as parents and, eventually, grandchildren). While many joys have visited this family, so has tragedy. One of their sons committed suicide (Or did he? Was it some kind of convoluted accident? Could it have been prevented? These and other, deeper questions haunt the narrators, particularly since those narrators have the sort of minds that come up with those worst case scenarios called horror fiction). From this starting place, the novel then explores truly fascinating avenues, plumbing the depths of all those subjects I indicated above (and quite a few more) in a sometimes surreal, often hypnotic fashion (and bonus points for invoking that quirky mathematical term asymptotic!), but always, always returning to the concept of family. If this sounds suddenly unappealing, let this reader assure you:  The Man on the Ceiling deals with this topic in a classy fashion, deftly avoiding the clichéd, saccharine idealizations dominating our culture. Perhaps you are familiar with the sticky sweet model found somewhere between the Hallmark Card aisle and the latest Hollywood/Lifetime Channel tearjerker. My family shares little similarity to the type those tearjerkers champion, and while my family is certainly not like the one presented in this book, there are more elements from the Tems' account that I empathize with. As writer, as thinker, as son, as grandson, as husband.

Yet there is real horror to be found here. Not the safely removed sort, but the kind that crawls down your throat and sets to breeding inside your belly. The sort that all the best dark fiction authors regularly strive to evoke. These successes come not from producing simple entertainment, but from tapping into something far deeper in the subconscious, those uncomfortable levels of unflinching emotional honesty. In the murky depths of this honest place, fiction can become truly disturbing, striking a chord in the reader and transforming empathy into something altogether undesirable. There are several moments of purest nightmare in The Man on the Ceiling, more than I expected to find from the rather casual tone, in fact. Much to my delighted (and disturbed) surprise.  Open this book if you dare, and find something truly unique.

The Man on the Ceiling by Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem
384 pages
Wizards of the Coast Discoveries
Release: March 2008

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Infernal Device: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Ruhlinginfernal_device The full title for this nonfiction volume reveals much of its intent. With Infernal Device: the machinery of torture and execution, we have a volume dedicated to depicting something of a history of man's cruelty to man. There is little more horrifying than the lengths one human being is willing to go to do harm to another, except perhaps the tools devised to perform this harm.

Between these covers readers will discover thirty such items ranging in levels of lethality from merely torturous (e.g. the maddening Bell Collar, worn about the neck of a bound human being the bell, which hangs overhead, chimes with every motion) to the body and soul crushing (e.g. the Scavenger's Daughter, the portable version of the rack -- that devices "sister" after a fashion), to the mutilating (e.g. Mouth Opener and Tongue Tearer, which certainly need little additional definition from this reviewer) to the life ending (e.g. the Brass Bull, into which a human being was squeezed and then cooked). In addition to a thorough description of the device's use, origin, and alternate names, each of the tools features a rather sterile photograph (the device placed against a neutral colored background; similar to the images presented in a catalog, oddly enough), which certainly brought shivers to this reader.

The prose is quite approachable and informative, if minimal.  Plenty of quotations from literary sources fill out the text, along with a scattering of diverse, fascinating historical details about tangential topics (such as the origin of the phrase sacre bleu, found in the section on the Mouth Opener and Tongue Tearer).

While a book of this nature is bound to garner quite a few detrimental declarations of its material as "depraved" or similar (mostly from people who have not even bothered to crack its spine), this reader certainly found himself both enthralled and repulsed by the devices it displayed. If horror readers are ready for a brush with fearsomeness born of the real world, they need look no further than this slender, eloquent text.  A compact bibliography offers additional avenues for those whose curiosity is stoked for more.

Infernal Device: the machinery of torture and execution by Erik Rühling
92 pages
Disinformation Press
Released 2007

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Last Dragon: a Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Mcdermottlast_dragon Zhan Immur left home to begin the arduous training to become an elite warrior dedicated to battling their people's cannibal enemies. However, this is not to be her fate. A horrifying situation prematurely removes her from this training: her grandfather has fled accusations of murdering a village. Uncle Seth is to pursue him, and Zhan is to accompany him; their goal is to kill this murderer. Their journey will take them far from their snowy and isolated homes, immersing them in wholly different cultures rife with xenophobic hatreds but also delivering them a company of unforgettable allies, including Adel (a paladin who served at the side of the last dragon), Fest (a mercenary looking to somehow redeem the damnation of a life of slavery), and Korinyes (a gypsy woman who houses many secrets).

Oftentimes, fiction approaches memory in a linear fashion: one sequence of events follows another, as though the act of recollection were an act of following a timeline, reciting historical events. Last Dragon is not at all satisfied with this approach. Instead, it pushes the boundaries of the familiar, giving us a much more nonlinear approach. Under the guise of Zhan's letters, written as meditations upon events from the past (taking to heart the advice proposed by William Wordsworth), we get sixteen chapters comprised of dozens of what initially appear to be disjointed sequences (running in length from a sentence to several pages). While the narrator recalls whole scenes with clarity and emotion delivered in a lyrical fashion reminiscent of the Romantic era authors, these sequences are not placed chronologically but in the manner of a wandering mind's recollections. While ultimately they dovetail into a singular story, this comes about only after a mix of tangents, poignant repetitions, and the occasional dead stop of a complete non-sequiteur. The effect is nothing less than kaleidoscopic.  Several different story lines are related in only a few short pages; however, the author here demonstrates a talent by handling this gimmick in such a fashion as to minimize reader's confusion. Initially, of course, it is disorienting (particularly since quotation marks are absent; the author uses italics instead), but a close reading reveals the delicate threads between what might initially appear to be disparate topics.

The imagery is quite moving and poignant, reveling equally in both the light and dark. In this regard, a high fantasy novel like Last Dragon is of more than passing interest to this reader, and I recommend it to my fellow Horror Readers. There is a dirty quality to things as well as events. From the grand, to the small, the darkness is evident. From the cities visited (not pristine jewels shining across a bright world but older dirtier places strewn about a land with a bloody history) to the human body (this horror reader has not seen such a poetic and terrifying use for ants outside of a Clive Barker fantasy) to the difficult situations and choices forced upon our protagonist and her band, there is much to recommend to fans of the dark. Best of all, the novel is not afraid to take chances with its cast of characters, and through a sensitive attention to language, the painful situations these characters endure make for affecting reading.

Unfortunately, these gifted qualities do not carry the novel through the more lackluster moments. While Last Dragon features a strong opening and first two thirds, the story eventually spirals back into far too familiar territory:  epic conflict must somehow be averted by our protagonist and her ragtag band of allies. Not even the creative evocation of nonlinear memory saves the story from this reader's "been there, read that" response. This ultimate descent into predictability is disappointing after such a strong, original opening.

Readers might also be surprised to discover that the choice of perspective character is as unstable as the method of narration. Instead of giving the reader a reliable unreliable narrator (or at least a singular one), sometime after the halfway point of the book, the protagonist we have grown accustomed to steps out, allowing another to take over (if only temporarily). This steers a little too far beyond the line between an innovative twist on a unique narrative tool and a frustrating one. For approximately two chapters, this reader found himself wondering which of the two possible characters (as all of these passages are first person) was speaking. While contextual clues often offer definitive answers, a couple of occasions I was left floundering for what seemed inordinately long before a definitive answer was given (and sometimes this answer was: well, both characters were speaking). While this reader is not averse to difficult, challenging prose, I do like to have a sporting chance...

Yet, when I finally closed the covers and set the book aside, I found myself longing to revisit this strange world and its characters. Passages linger in the imagination, burbling up in my own nonlinear memory tract, bringing with them a shudder or a smirk or a frown or a longing sigh.

In Last Dragon, J.M. McDermott successfully accomplishes what many first time authors only aspire to: he reveals himself to be an incredibly gifted writer.  This reader is curious to see what literary avenues this author will travel in the future.

Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott
400 pages
Wizards of the Coast Discoveries
Published February 2008

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Crazy Little Things: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Knavecrazylittlethings An unexpected presence disrupts a beauty pageant, a teddy bear comes to realize (and hate) that his boy has grown up and apart, the dead walk several times (first to march against a clerk and his store, then again to take over the West, and once more to shamble into a modern representation of a classic love story), a faerie assassin takes on the job that just might kill him, and the four fuzzy hosts of a children's television show prove to be truly nightmarish... These and more await readers in the pages of Adam P. Knave's first collection of short fiction, Crazy Little Things.

The preface (from Laszlo Xalieri) starts the collection off with the tongue planted firmly in cheek, and this is continued through the Travis Ingram Introduction (which wittily ventures from a manufactured 'Nam recollection to The A-Team on acid). This double dose of edgy humor should prove no surprise to those familiar with this author's writing, which works best when it evokes a sense of playful lunacy.

Adam P. Knave has made regular appearances in the small press, including such anthologies as Bad Ass Faeries, Dark Furies (also from Die Monster Die), and Cthulhu Sex magazine (unfortunately, now deceased). Here readers will discover some of his highlights from his many appearances as well as a trio of previously unpublished pieces. Essentially, this collection offers is a sort of photo album of the "young" writer in development, with all the ambitions, successes and shortcomings on display.

Reading straight through reveals quite a few of the author's literary obsessions as the fiction continually returns to themes of objectification, sanity, the sin of selfishness, and the virtue of loyalty, without sacrificing an entertaining story.  For example, while "Pretty Little Dead Girls" is, ostensibly a ghost story set in the cutthroat world of young girl beauty pageants, the real horror comes not from the supernatural presence (which is presented, to the contrary, as something quite poignant and beautiful), but through the activities of the parental figures and the adults involved. Every decision made by the figures of authority are as damning as the best of Tales From the Crypt.   Events build to a truly savage climax and disturbing denouement, which are made palatable through the author's use of understatement. This theme of the mishandling of authority by adults is then revisited in "After These Messages..."  While certainly effective as a satiric jab at children's entertainment, this tale also presents a different side to the view of children as tools/victims of our consumer culture, this time in the form of both corporate interests and the monstrous beings serving those interests (and their own depraved appetites).

This reader found himself responding quite positively to the levels of ambition in this collection. Even the tales revolving around (that inescapable horror staple) the living dead ("Meat," "High Noon of the Living Dead," "Flesh Wounds" and "Dead Side Story") are not content to tell simple gut chomping anecdotes. They pose questions about friendship, identity, love, and other topics. Two of these combine the classic form of the horror tale with another genre altogether (western/tall tales for one, and tragic romance/Shakespearian drama for the other). Reading the stories, one cannot help but notice the author attempting to shove his literary elbows out of the "traditional horror yarn" box. While this is accomplished with varying degrees of success, the ambition is nice to behold in a genre that suffers from the criticism of relative stasis over the last ninety years.

This is not to suggest that each of these stories is a gem for the ages. The author is developing his craft, and that improvement can be witnessed over the course of these stories. However, the literary warts (so the speak) are still on display. Dialogue sometimes suffers from either a clunky quality or from an overuse of vulgarity. Not to suggest that this reader is somehow beyond profanity in either life or writing. However, the short story needs to make every word count. Therefore, should an author use (in one story) levels of profanity comparable to about half a season of Deadwood, then that author should do so in a way that contributes to character, theme, story, etc. This seemed not always to be the case. In fact, that observation leads to the most often recurring mistake perpetrated in this collection: there is an overabundance of fat amongst these tales. A few of the tales start early, offering unnecessary exposition, while others seem overly burdened in the middle stretches. A more judicious use of word sanding would serve to tighten this prose.

That said, the stories in Crazy Little Things find budding author Adam P. Knave at his best, offering readers a taste of literary cyanide served with a grin, much in keeping with the spirit of the late, great Robert Bloch. This reader is curious to see what the author will offer up next.

Crazy Little Things by Adam P. Knave
265 pages
Die Monster Die Books
Projected Released Date:  March 2008

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Cuts: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Laymoncuts Albert is a young man who likes women, particularly watching them bleed. Ian is a teacher and a novelist, who is recovering from loss. Helen and Lester are a married couple whose relationship has dulled to cold company; each seeks the heat of passion via alternative avenues. Emily Jean is a lonely, single mom; her daughter, Mary Beth, is an actress looking for an out. Janet is a young substitute teacher, who only recently discovered her pregnancy and wants to get away from her boyfriend. Dave, the father of Janet's child, is an abusive guy who does not want to be shut out of Janet's life. Meg is Janet's supporting, single girlfriend, with a curious fixation on Dave... Over the course of this novel's 300+ pages, the lives of all of these characters (and more) will intersect on a path of bloodshed and misery.

In some ways, Richard Laymon's fiction is really ahead of the horror culture curve. Much of his output maintains that same gleeful energy and adherence to seventies horror flicks as the current crop of horror filmmakers. In fact, filmmakers like Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, etc. could probably make quite the entertaining film out of Laymon's novels. Possibly even from the ensemble piece that is Cuts, the latest Laymon re-release from Leisure Books. Until now, this book has only seen wide publication in the UK and a hardcover limited edition release from Cemetery Dance Books in the US.

While several of his books demonstrate Laymon's mastery of challenging, gruesome and horrifying subject matter, while making entertaining thrill rides of the material, unfortunately, this reader found the novel Cuts impossible to enjoy. Some might ascribe this reluctance to the relentlessly grim subject matter -- reading this novel makes me glad I do not live in its world, as simple decency, happiness and human compassion seem to be devoid in such a place -- the actual problem lies in a rapidly escalating number of novelistic stumbles.

Often, the characters sound too much alike; telling them apart is for the most part a chore, a riddle that only context clues and patience allowed this reader to muddle through. I did not believe in the female characters for a second; because of the way they "sound" or the topics they talk about, they come across to this reader no different than the men in the book (well, men with ample bosoms, to be sure). These are only a few of the many nitpick worthy bits, which also include  generally unbelievable dialogue, a plot of clichés which mount to an unlikely climax and more...

Certainly, there are quite a few fine examples of Laymon's brand of gruesome horror set pieces. The Albert character, who is the main villain of the piece, is a truly despicable creation -- though not quite as loathsome as the child rapist character from The Cellar -- and the fact that he gets the most screen time is rather disturbing (which, I suppose, is to the novel's credit; this is horror, after all). His misogynistic, homophobic, homicidal lunacy is so far over the top, that this reader felt ill spending so much time in his head. Since every other character in this work is prone to casual cruelty, this reader found none of them to be all that sympathetic. There is no island from the cavalcade of awful events. By attempting to maintain a constantly intensifying atmosphere of horror and suspense but failing to give even one likable character, the novel falls prey to that worst of all possible outcomes: it becomes laughable (at best) and insulting (at worst).

While Cuts might please Laymon's less demanding fan base (apparently, a category that does not include me), I doubt it will win any new converts to the author's works.

Cuts by Richard Laymon
320 pages
Leisure Books
Published March 2008

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