Review: ‘Piercing the Darkness’ edited by Craig Cook

PTDCOverDuring his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Craig Cook took part in a service project working with some underprivileged students. While helping the kids work on their own short stories, he discovered in them a real thirst for the kind of knowledge that can only come through reading. In himself, he discovered an intense desire to help them, and others like them, have access to the knowledge they craved.

This desire led him to put together Piercing the Darkness, a fully loaded anthology benefiting the Children’s Literacy Initiative. With the weight of such a worthy cause behind him, Cook has assembled a stunning lineup of talent, with many of them contributing brand-new stories. 400 pages from the cream of the horror crop for less than twenty bucks, with all proceeds going to help create a new generation of readers? That’s what we call a”no-brainer” in these parts, my friends.

Still, it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t talk about a few of the stories. The difficulty here was in picking the ones to rave about. Do I talk about “Husband of Kellie” by T.T. Zuma, a zombie story with a wicked punch of an ending? Do I mention Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Haven,” a quietly devastating tale of a man who returns to his childhood home to be reunited with the part of him that never left? I definetely can’t leave out “Searching” by Monica J. O’Rourke, a short piece about a young girl convinced that her real dad is a prince coming to rescue her, not the uninterested jerk that she lives with. (And do I tell how that one nearly brought me to tears?) How much do I say about the stories by Brian Keene and Joe Lansdale and Christopher Golden and Gary Braunbeck and Jonathan Maberry and Jack Ketchum – or do I need to say anything at all, since (for me, at least) their names alone are all that needs to be said?

I think the best way to approach this review, probably, is to keep it short and sweet. So, I’ll just say this: I believe in the cause Craig Cook is trying to help, and I believe in the gift these writers have in telling compelling, thought-provoking, and at times out-right terrifying stories. So yes, I believe Piercing the Darkness is a book that’s well worth your time and your money.

Review: ‘Deep Like the River’ by Tim Waggoner

DeepRiverAs Deep Like the River opens, a woman named Alie is marking a particularly tough anniversary. Alie’s sister, Carin, thought a day canoeing down Little Clearwater River might provide some
peace of mind – or, at the very least, a distraction from the unpleasant memories they’re both dealing with. Unfortunately, Alie has a much longer journey she needs to complete, and Carin is quickly drawn into an escalating series of horrifying events, beginning with a shocking discovery on a sandbar.

Tim Waggoner‘s new novella, out now from Dark Regions Press, details the surreal path Alie follows as she tries to come to grips with her own dangerously fractured psyche. How and why she came to be in this state is best left for the author to reveal in his own time and his own way, and he does so in typically elegant fashion. While the broad points of the story are nothing groundbreaking, Deep Like the River is more about the journey than the destination.

Along their way down the river, Alie and Carin encounter many things – serpents, great winged beasts, and a frighteningly empty-eyed mother-son duo among them – that may or may not be real. Waggoner is not interested in doling out easy answers – not for Alie, not for Carin, and certainly not for the reader. The result is an evocative, thought provoking story that, like the Little Clearwater itself, will surprise you greatly with its depth.

Review: ‘The Ninth Configuration’ by William Peter Blatty

The-NinthA grotesque, isolated Gothic mansion hidden deep in the woods may not seem like the best place to house a group of mentally unstable military inmates, but that’s precisely the role it serves in William Peter Blatty’s 1978 novel The Ninth Configuration, released this past April in a new paperback edition by Tor. That setting, coupled with the fact that Blatty is also the author of The Exorcist, might lead readers to suspect this is a horror novel, but that’s not the direction the author chose. Instead, what he produced is a compact, visceral examination of the nature of faith and the existence of God.

“Center Eighteen,” as the camp is called, is home to more than 20 military officers (and one astronaut), all of whom were brought down by sudden bouts of mental incapacity. We get a glimpse of their delusions throughout the book, but Blatty centers the tale around two men: Cutshaw, an astronaut who broke down just hours before he was scheduled to go to the moon, and Kane, a psychiatrist whose unorthodox methods may be the key to determining if the men are truly sick or just trying to dodge their duty. Problem is, Kane is not a well man himself. He’s experiencing vivid dreams that may actually be flashbacks, and as he struggles to help the men he finds himself spiraling deeper into his own pit of self-doubt and depression.

Big chunks of The Ninth Configuration consist of conversations between Cutshaw and Kane. This is not a case of two characters spouting exposition in order to move the story forward; it’s two intelligent men stating their views on, among other things, the necessity and reality of God, each trying to make the other one blink. It may feel like wheel-spinning to some readers, but I found it refreshing and engaging to spend the time in these characters’ heads.

If I have any complaints, it’s that I would have liked the setting and isolation to play more of a role in the story, if only to get more passages like this:

It crouched beneath the stars under clustered spires like something enormous and deformed, unable to hide, wanting to sin. Its gargoyles grinned at the forest pressing in on it thickly all around.

Good stuff. Also good is the twist Blatty throws in near the end, as well as the gut-punch of a conclusion.

The Ninth Configuration is a reworking of an earlier novel by Blatty, Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane!, and is also the basis of the 1980 film directed by Blatty himself.

Review: ‘The River of Souls’ by Robert McCammon

RiverSoulsWith The River of SoulsRobert McCammon‘s historical thriller series rolls into its fifth volume with a full head of steam. Matthew Corbett, the problem-solving star of the series, is still recovering from the events of the previous book, The Providence Rider, in which he encountered his arch nemesis, the nefarious Professor Fell. The encounter left Corbett reeling, and his employers urge him to take a cupcake assignment in nearby Charles Town as a way to further his recuperation.

The assignment – the escorting of a young woman to a ritzy ball – proves to be the opposite of restful. Corbett’s date with Pandora Prisskitt puts him in the crosshairs of Prisskitt’s hopeful suitor, a mountain of a man named Magnus Muldoon. Muldoon has already buried a couple of young gentlemen in pursuit of Prisskitt’s hand, and he promptly crashes the ball and challenges Corbett to a duel. Muldoon has an expansive physical advantage, but Corbett lives largely on his wits, and quickly hits on an unlikely solution to his predicament.

This encounter results in an uneasy partnership between Corbett and Muldoon, and the duo soon find themselves swept up in events far more serious than the pursuit of a vapid debutante. A 16-year-old girl from a nearby plantation has been murdered, and three slaves accused of involvement in her killing have gone on the run. A large mob, spurred by the promise of a plentiful reward, has set out in pursuit of the three men, but Corbett learns a few facts about the crime that lead him to believe the real murderer may be hiding among them in plain sight. Determined to see that true justice is served, Corbett and Muldoon join the search, a frantic journey that carries them down a treacherous river known locally as “The River of Souls.”

Being this deep into the series means McCammon can spend less time establishing the world and era the Corbett books are set in, and that freedom results in the leanest Corbett novel yet. The novel is basically one long chase, anchored by a dangerous run down the river that is one of the tensest, bloodiest, most action-packed sequences McCammon has ever pulled off. Alligators, Indians, deranged tribesmen painted like glowing skeletons – the search for the three runaways is as dark and dangerous as anything Corbett has ever faced, and McCammon takes some real chances with the character’s ultimate fate. While the main story is resolved, The River of Souls ends on a cliffhanger that’s going to make the wait for the next book interminable at best.

Although each of the Corbett books is richer for having read the ones before it, McCammon is careful to make them accessible on their own, and The River of Souls is no exception. Even with several callbacks to Speaks the Nightbird, the first Corbett book, this latest entry is accessible enough for first-time fans to get a taste of what the series is all about without being completely lost.

Review: ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King

MrmercedesWith Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King continues to show that his greatest strength as a writer is his character work. For proof, look no further than the opening section of the novel, in which we become acquainted with three people among the hundreds standing in line waiting for a job fair to open. In a handful of pages King makes us care about a man, a single mom and her baby; care enough, in fact, that there’s a real sense of loss when the three fall victim to a lunatic in a car.

But he’s not done making you care; in fact, King is just getting started. What follows this shocking opening scene is a tightly-woven chess match between retired detective Bill Hodges and the car’s driver, Brady Hartfield, an all-too-real monster whose human mask is beginning to slip. Taunting Hodges, who spends much of his retirement pondering the ones that got away, is the first sign that Hartfield is growing tired of his anonymous existence. He says he doesn’t plan to attempt another massacre, but a basement full of homemade plastic explosives indicates otherwise.

Hartfield’s taunt serves as a wake-up call for Hodges, who puts aside thoughts of suicide to begin looking into the case again. It’s wonderful watching Hodges transition from merely existing to actually living again. Even better is that Hodges, who was a very good cop but not infallible, doesn’t suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Like every other human he has his blind spots, and those return to him as readily as his instincts. His new (secret and barely legal) investigation into the Mercedes killing is fraught with the same kind of assumptions and questionable decisions he made during his initial active investigation, and while he manages to overcome most of them they do often lead him – and those around him – into dangerous territory.

As Hodges digs in, he accumulates an unlikely support crew that includes Janey, an attractive younger woman with tragic ties to the job fair massacre; Jerome, the Ivy League bound teen who does yard work for Hodges; and Holly, an emotionally unstable woman who latches on to Hodges because he’s kinder to her than her own family ever managed to be. King brings this crew together in ways that is totally organic and believable, creating a strange sort of family that we can all root for.

Hartfield, on the other hand, is totally irredeemable as a human being. Kings gives his killer a backstory that might elicit some sympathy along the way, but make no mistake: this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Brady Hartfield feels no remorse and no regret, and when he does suppress his impulses its strictly for his own survival. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and completely barking mad.

The bulk of Mr. Mercedes is peaks and valleys; moments of discovery and excitement followed by periods of consideration and reconsideration. Hodges and Hartfield poke and prod each other along, each hoping the other will slip and open the door for their respective endgames. The tension is there but it’s manageable – until the last 80 or so pages when King stomps the pedal to the floor. Just try and put the book down at that point…

I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, and it’s no secret that crime writers love a good series. As I neared the end of Mr. Mercedes I realized I’d grown quite fond of the central trio of Hodges, Jerome and Holly, and I wondered if King would consider revisiting them somewhere down the line – perhaps, I dared to think, Mr. Mercedes could be the beginning of a series of King’s own. As if hearing my thoughts, King took to Twitter right around that time to announce that said trio would be back next year in Finders Keepers, the second book in a proposed trilogy.

“Well then,” I thought, “that’s all right, isn’t it?”

Review: ‘Borderline’ by Lawrence Block

Borderline

Lawrence Block’s Borderline is over 50 years old, but it’s as raw and visceral as anything you’ll find in bookstores today. It’s a lean, straightforward tale of four people, each wallowing in their own kind of desperation, most of whom are bound for an unhappy ending.

Truth be told, you’re not likely to feel sorry for any of them. Block has assembled a group of interesting but unlikeable characters: there’s Marty, a self-centered gambler; Meg, a young, recently divorced woman on the prowl for some – any – kind of excitement; Lily, a 17-year-old runaway willing to use whoever crosses her path to get her to a more comfortable life; and Weaver, a psycopathic rapist and murderer. The four meet and mingle at the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, with almost universally disastrous results.

Block was in his early 20s when he wrote Borderline, and it’s full of the kind of unrestrained energy you’d expect from a talented writer just beginning to explore the depths of his ability. He holds nothing back – the violence is graphic and the sex is explicit, and Block isn’t afraid to mix these elements together when the story deems it necessary. The result is a short novel that fulfills all the lurid promise of its Michael Koelsch cover, and then some.

Hard Case Crime unearthed the book (originally published as Border Lust under Block’s pen name “Don Holliday”) and published it this month as its 115th title. They’ve also included two early Block short stories and a longer, almost novella-length tale to round out the package.

Review: ‘A Place For Sinners’ by Aaron Dries

SinnersCoverSummer is upon us, which means a lot of you are in the midst of planning a vacation. If you’re anything like me, your packing list is going to include a book or three. Let me offer you a word of advice: leave A Place For Sinners off your list. Not because I don’t think you should read it – you absolutely should – but because it will have you second-guessing your decision to leave the comforts of home behind.

The book opens with a frantic search for seven-year-old Amity Collins. She’s wandered away from the family campsite, and much of the tight-knit Australian community of Evans Head is looking for her. She’s eventually found, but the night ends with a double helping of tragedy that alters Amity and her family forever.

We pick up 13 years later as Amity and her older brother Caleb are preparing for a trip to Thailand. Both siblings bear the scars of that long-ago night, and the trip is a chance to finally put some distance between themselves and the shared pain of the past.

Elsewhere, Robert Mann is preparing for his own trip to Thailand. Mann is a deeply troubled soul looking for escape from an unsatisfying life. He’s in the grip of some serious psychological issues, but his problems are nothing compared to those of Susan Sycamore. Sycamore is already overseas, and author Aaron Dries positions her like a poisonous spider hiding deep in the shadows, waiting for someone to blunder into her path.

Sycamore is one of the most demented characters I’ve read in a while, a human predator whose mask of civility is sliding further and further out of her grip. She’s managed to live among us for a long time – long enough to get married and have kids – but she knows she’s on the threshold of losing control, so she dashes to an under-developed part of the world where she can loosen the reigns a bit. She’s dangerous enough to warrant a novel of her own, but she’s far from being the biggest threat Dries has created. That title belongs to the tiny island of Ko Mai Phaaw, a tourist trap that uses crystal clear water and performing monkeys to hide its true, vicious nature.

Each of the characters that boards the boat for a quick day trip to Ko Mai Phaaw has something inside of them they need to confront. This little island gives them the opportunity to do just that, immediately and savagely. How they fare is something I’ll leave for you to discover.

A Place For Sinners reminds me in many ways of the early works of Stephen King. It’s written with the same raw, ferocious energy that books like Cujo and Night Shift struggle to contain. You get the feeling that Dries didn’t want to write the book, but that he had to, like someone trying to cleanse their body of a raging infection. That energy, coupled with the author’s considerable skill, makes this the proverbial “couldn’t put it down” read we all crave.

Review: ‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen

QuickCover

Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, is an ambitious attempt at something that’s been done countless times before – the Gothic vampire novel. While there is much promise in its pages, the end result is a decidedly mixed bag.

The story starts out small, concentrating on two young siblings, James and Charlotte, growing up on a decaying country estate. Their mother is dead and their father stays away on business for large chunks of time. When he finally returns for an extended stay it is only because he is dying. Upon his death we skip ahead several years – Charlotte remains at home while James, fresh out of college, is moving to London to begin a writing career. James is a serious, socially awkward young man; his flatmate, Christopher Paige, is the anti-James. Opposites attract, as they say, and the two begin to grow very close.

Owen spends a hundred or so pages establishing a very specific tone and direction for the book, and then gleefully rips it apart with one shocking stroke. It’s as jolting a change for the reader as it is for the characters, as the book suddenly plunges into
London’s darkest side, a place of supernatural terrors that had barely been hinted at before.

If the book’s tone and energy made the same violent transition as the plot, I would be less ambivalent about it as a whole. However, there’s never a true sense of urgency to the story. There is plenty that should inspire urgency in readers and characters alike, as there appears to be a war brewing between London’s upper-class vampires (represented by The Aegolius Club) and their wrong-side-of-the-tracks brethren (the Alia). But while there is plenty going on, it all seems to take place in the same unhurried manner.

Owen expands the cast with a number of humans who find themselves (some willingly, some not so much) caught in the middle of the two groups. Unfortunately, Owen does little to distinguish these characters from one another, making it difficult to find anyone to invest in emotionally.

Despite these issues, I still found The Quick enjoyable overall. Owen has a smooth, graceful style that is a pleasure to read even if it isn’t the best fit for this particular subject matter. I think there is a lot here she can improve on, but there’s also proof that she’s got a solid career ahead of her.

The Quick by Lauren Owen will be available on June 17, 2014 from Random House.

Review: ‘King of the Weeds’ by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

KingWeedsShortly before his death in 2006, author Mickey Spillane left instructions for his friend and literary executor, Max Allan Collins, to complete the various unfinished manuscripts he anticipated he’d be leaving behind. Among them were six novels in various stages of completion featuring Mike Hammer, Spillane’s famous private investigator character. Eight years later Collins has completed that portion of his task with the publication of King of the Weeds, the book Spillane conceived as the last Mike Hammer novel.

King of the Weeds is a sequel to Black Alley, the last Hammer novel Spillane finished and published in his lifetime. Collins assures readers in his opening note that a familiarity with Black Alley is not necessary, and as someone who has not read Black Alley, I can attest that this is true. Spillane and Collins do a good job of filling in the important details so that this novel stands on its own just fine.

At this point in his career, Hammer has made a lot of enemies, so he’s not exactly surprised when someone takes a couple of shots at him as the story opens. It seems as though there’s about $90 billion (yes, billion) in mob money that’s been hidden away, and a few people have an idea that Hammer might know its whereabouts. As Hammer tries to fend off interest from a variety of groups, including the U.S. Government, he begins to suspect that his current troubles have roots going all the way back to a series of murders from 40 years ago – murders that have suddenly been thrust back into the spotlight. Topping things off is a series of accidental deaths involving police officers, each of which looks less and less accidental as the body count begins to climb. These disparate threads could become a convoluted mess in less sure hands, but with Spillane and Collins at the helm what you get is a tightly wound page-turner that continues to build steam chapter by chapter.

Confession: this is my first time reading a Mike Hammer novel. As such, I can’t really comment on how true to the series – and to Spillane’s voice – Collins’ contributions are. Other reviews I’ve read are largely complimentary in that regard. I can say that this does not feel like a novel written by two people; if there are seams, I can’t see them. I can also say that this has been a good enough introduction to the character that I’m eager to go back and read the rest of his adventures. If the tough and resourceful guy I read about here is in the twilight of his career, then I can’t wait to see what he was like when he was just starting out.

King of the Weeds is out now from Titan Books.

This Kickstarter is a real ‘Nightmare’

NightmareI’m not sure if this one is going to make it. With less than two weeks left to make a goal that’s only been about one-fourth pledged at this point, the Kickstarter for the book Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy – The Making of Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ has quite an uphill battle in front of it. This makes me sad.

For fans like myself who came of age during the dominance of the unholy trinity of Jason, Michael and Freddy, it’s a no-brainer to back something like this. We’ve already got the definitive making-of book on the Jason films in Crystal Lake Memories. There was a similar effort for the Halloween series in the works, but author Justin Beahm recently announced that the project has sadly fallen through. And now we’re about to blow our chance at a giant coffee table tome covering the original, classic Freddy film.

Take a look at the Kickstarter page (linked above). Check out the video there featuring the book’s author, Thommy Hutson, and Nightmare‘s own Heather “Nancy” Langenkamp. Read through this interview Hutson did for Ain’t It Cool News. The book’s been written and designed already (and it’s designed by Peter Bracke, who did a phenomenal job on Crystal Lake Memories). I know $65,000 seems like a lot to self-publish a book, but when you’re talking an oversized, high quality, full color effort like this one, that price tag is dead on.

If you want to know more about the kind of passion and knowledge Hutson is leveraging for this product, check out the amazing FOUR HOUR Nightmare documentary he wrote and co-produced. Then go on over and back the book version. If this one fails, I’m afraid we all may lose a little sleep over it…