Review: ‘American Monsters’ by Linda S. Godfrey

AmericanMonstersSubtitled “A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America,” American Monsters is a reference manual packed with coast-to-coast examples of creatures both familiar and obscure. Inside you’ll find reports on gator men in Florida, gargoyles in Wisconsin, frogfolk in Connecticut and pterosaurs in Texas. These accounts are bolstered by eyewitness accounts that are, for the most part, more cogent than the average National Inquirer article, but not quite substantial enough to hold up in a court of law. Still, they do make for entertaining reading, and the sheer number of such accounts Godfrey has tracked down is actually quite staggering.

Godfrey is no stranger to this type of material. She’s written more than a dozen books covering ghosts, werewolves and all manner of mystical happenings and strange events. She’s a recognized expert in the field and is often called upon to appear on television shows when the topic of spooks and strange beasties is on the docket. It would be easy for her to take a cynical slant on the subject at this point; after all, she only claims one sighting herself, an ambiguous encounter that she describes at the end of American Monsters. But her writing remains refreshingly agenda-free – she’s not shouting at you to believe, and she’s not chuckling at you behind her hand if you do. She’s simply presenting the evidence, thin as it may be, with a “hey, why not?” approach that leaves plenty of room for wonder and optimism.

October is the time of year when people immerse themselves in the fantastic, giddy with the knowledge that it’s all make-believe, and Godfrey’s book fits right in the season. Here’s my one knock on the book: Godfrey is obviously an excellent and thorough researcher, and I mentioned above that I like the fact she writes from an objective point of view. However, I have to admit I would love a little more spice in the storytelling. American Monsters can be a bit on the dry side at times. The subject matter here practically demands more in the way of atmosphere. I understand Godfrey is writing from a reporter’s perspective, but I’d love to see someone like Rick Bragg get hold of this material, find a way to tell it with both accuracy and flair.

That’s usually the kind of quibble that would kill a book for me, but it’s not the case this time. Despite the somewhat encyclopedic approach, American Monsters is a fun addition to the shelves, something different to take down from time-to-time and skip your way through. If even a quarter of the creatures Godfrey reports on actually exist, it will put your next walk in the woods or trip to the lake in an entirely new perspective.

Book Review: ‘Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece’ by Jason Bailey

PulpFictionPulp Fiction hit me like a sucker punch when I sat down for my first viewing back in 1994. Up to that point my cinematic tastes were fairly mainstream, with a heavy lean towards big budget Hollywood fare. I still love that kind of stuff, by the way, and won’t apologize for it; but, back then, I wasn’t a very adventurous moviegoer. If it tells you anything, the main reason I wanted to see Pulp Fiction was because Bruce Willis was in it.

By the time Quentin Tarantino’s movie was over, my taste in movies had transformed. I was stunned, excited, and curious. What the hell had I just seen? Were there other movies out there like this one?

In the 20 (!) years since that first viewing, I’ve watched Pulp Fiction too many times to count, and I’ve quoted Pulp Fiction too many times to count. I’ve anticipated – and, so far, enjoyed – each of Tarantino’s subsequent releases. And I’ve read everything I could get my hands on regarding the director’s work (and on Pulp Fiction in particular).  In Jason Bailey’s Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece I think we have – short of a making-of book penned by Tarantino himself – the definitive word on this highly influential film.

Bailey wraps a serious, thoughtful examination of the movie in a brightly colored, beautifully designed package. Don’t let any of those phrases fool you – this is neither a dry, academic paper nor is it a picture-laden puff piece. Bailey covers all the bases: essays that delve deeply into the movie’s characters, themes and influences; chapters on writing the film, casting it, and the nuts-and-bolts of shooting it; and sidebars on the minutiae that fans love, like a chart listing the events of the movie in chronological order, a look at the recurring use of diners and cafes in Tarantino’s movies, and charts of the many homages and cinematic references in the movie. Also – and this is one of my favorite things about the book – Bailey peppers the book with artwork inspired by the film.

Like the movie it covers, Bailey’s book has a ton of layers, and repeat visits will be rewarded. I don’t typically read books like this straight through, but I couldn’t put this one down until I’d read every article and pored over every picture. It’s available right now, and I can’t put a high enough recommendation on it.

Oh, and here – just for fun – is what Pulp Fiction would look like as an old video game. If only it were real….

Short Story Review: “Barrels Ready?” by Norman Corwin

“Barrels Ready?” by Norman Corwin
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

Coattails“Barrels Ready?” is a short essay in which Norman Corwin (a respected essayist, journalist, and radio drama scriptwriter and director) reminisces about a colorful character from his past, a man determined to bring attention to a new sport he invented, a cumbersome-sounding affair in which men would race wheelbarrows loaded with cans full of ashes. The winner of said event would be the man who completed the course without spilling his ashes. Corwin, who was working at the time as a reporter for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, covered the story, only to discover much later that the “sport” may not have been as unique as its “inventor” believed.

This one’s a real head-scratcher. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a well-written, enjoyable read; a nice little slice of nostalgia, the likes of which used to run in newspaper columns all the time (back when newspapers really were interested in covering the entirety of the community, not just the bloodiest, most sensational aspects of it). But its inclusion here, in this collection of horror fiction and other dark writings, is a little puzzling to me. Perhaps there’s some reason, some connection that’s going over my head, but I confess that as of now I don’t see it.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails.

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*

Interview: Nanci Kalanta

It came to my attention a month or so ago that February was officially “Women in Horror Recognition Month.” I thought that was a great idea, as horror has always, to me at least, given the impression of being a completely male-dominated genre despite the invaluable contributions of ladies such as Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Daphne du Maurier and, more recently, Sarah Pinborough, Gemma Files, and many, many others.

Then I took a quick spin through the archives here at October Country. Oops. Looks like I’ve been doing my part in perpetuating that whole “horror-is-a-guy-thing” idea. In just over a year I’d conducted 10 exclusive interviews for this site, and not one of them was with a woman. I’ve reviewed two books here written by women, and only one of them was horror. So, yeah – time to quit with the “oh, isn’t that nice” line of thinking and do my part.

So this month I’ve got some interviews lined up to help equalize the representation here, and I’ll strive to do better in the years and interviews and reviews to come. Part of my mission with October Country is to broaden my own horizons as well as the horizons of those who take the time to read what I offer here. I’ve been reading the women of horror for years – now it’s my pleasure to introduce a few of them to you.

First up is Nanci Kalanta, owner/operator of the Horror World website.  Horror World offers up genre reviews, original fiction, and interviews (conducted, I’m proud to say, by yours truly), not to mention one of the most active message boards in horror today. Nanci regularly uses her website as a platform to promote new and up-and-coming talent, and occasionally publishes said talent herself. I thought her perspective on the horror genre as it continues to mutate would be a unique and valuable one to begin these interviews with, and she graciously accepted my invitation.

So, without further adieu, here’s Nanci!

OC: You’ve been in charge of Horror World for about eight years now. From that unique perspective, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the genre?

NK: There have been a lot of changes.  Many specialty publishers have gone out of business and the avenues for releasing new work from new authors has narrowed significantly since the boom of the mid 2000’s.  The larger publishing companies are facing challenges from ebook readers and are cutting back significantly on signing on new authors, especially horror authors.

While the ebook revolution has opened more doors for authors, it has also opened the floodgates to bad works as well.   As with any new technology, there will always be a “boom and bust” cycle and right now we’re looking at the “boom.”  I fully believe the “bust” is going to happen soon and then the industry will settle into an uneasy alliance between electronic and physical books.

In terms of websites devoted exclusively to horror literature, when I took over Horror World in 2003, there were a lot of sites out there offering content.  Now, it’s dwindled down to just a few.

Coming from that same perspective, have things changed significantly for women working in the genre? If so, why do you think that is?

I really can’t speak for anyone else.  For me, there haven’t been any significant changes.  In the beginning, I’m sure there were plenty of people out there who thought that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.  Going from ‘fan’ to taking over a well-respected website, I’m sure, raised a few eyebrows.  However, once I established myself and proved I could do the work, there were no issues.

 Who are some of the female authors that are doing – or are destined to do – big things in the genre?

The ones that immediately come to mind are Lucy Snyder, Elizabeth Massie, Lisa Morton, Chesya Burke, Sarah Pinborough, Rhodi Hawk and Sarah Langan. I’ve seen some great work from these authors and expect that we’ll see more in the future.

I hate actually hate to name folks because I invariably leave someone out.

Have we reached a proper level of gender equality in horror, or could things be better?

In my mind things can always be better.  In my humble opinion, I think an author should be judged on the quality of their work, not on their gender.   I met a female author at Thrillerfest a few years back and when she started writing, she had to do so using her initials so as not to give away her gender.  Publishers turned her away because “how can a woman write a thriller.”  Her  novel which went on to be a best seller!  These are the stereotypes that need to be put away forever.

What is it about horror that attracts you personally to the genre’s books and films?

I can’t really say what draws me to horror.  I’ve always loved to read and started gravitating towards the darker works after reading Bradbury.  I think Ghost Story by Peter Straub was the first “official” horror novel I read. Carrie by Stephen King solidified it for me – I was hooked and sought out more.

With movies, I like quiet horror.  I don’t like the in-your-face gorefest or torture porn that seems so prevalent today.  Give me a movie that when I walk away, I’m totally creeped out, not grossed out.  Frailty is probably a great example of quiet horror.  Damn, that movie messed me up the first time I saw it and there is virtually no on-screen violence.

What are some of your proudest achievements with Horror World?

Wow, there are a lot.  Being a Stoker finalist our first year and winning a Shocklines Shocker Award.  I’m proud of the trust some authors have in me to help market their books by running contests and getting the word out.   Publishing Eulogies:  A Horror World Yearbook, Laughing Boy’s Shadow by Steven Savile and Sparks and Shadows by Lucy Snyder.  More recently, Blood Born by Matthew Warner which is on the preliminary Stoker ballot.

We were also approached to work with Cemetery Dance and FEARNet to provide book reviews and a few years back I was given the opportunity to save Pod of Horror when Horror Reader decided to close shop.  It’s gone on to be one of the more popular horror podcasts out there; Mark Justice does an amazing job (just don’t tell him I said that – it will go right to his head) and I’m thrilled that he’s remained in the fold.

I think the fact that my message boards are still active and having fresh content on the site while others are shutting down says a lot.  My contributors are some of the best in the business and it is really their hard work that helps keep the site running.  There is no way I could do this on my own.

What are some things Horror World’s visitors can look forward to in the future?

More of the same, I hope <grin>.

2011: The Year in Reading

I read a lot of mediocre-to-bad books in 2011, so I’m especially thankful for these ten books, which helped to erase the memory of all those hours slogging through listless chapters with half-baked characters. At least one of these is likely to make it’s way to my Top Ten All-Time Favorites after another read or two, but all of these are, in my opinion, more than worth your time. Dive in, and please take a moment to share your Top Ten of 2011, or your thoughts on any of these  you might have read, in the comments section.  

10.Hyenas by Joe R. Lansdale
Hyenas contains the title novella and an additional short story, “The Boy Who Became Invisible,” both of which are part of Lansdale’s “Hap and Leonard” series. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are as unlikely a duo as you’re likely to find – if you’ve read any of the books, you know why; if you haven’t, you need to pick one up and find out for yourself. Lansdale has created two enduring and endearing characters in these Texas-born, smart-ass ass-kickers, and he simply loves to put them through the ringer. Like the other entries in the series, there are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny (Lansdale has an amazing knack for writing dialogue, and that talent gets no better showcase then these books), interrupted here and there by sections of suspense and brutality. Lansdale is out to entertain, but he doesn’t sugarcoat; the darker sides of every day life get their due and then some. There are characters you feel real pity for, and characters you’d like to reach through the page and wring their neck, if that was possible. But they all feel real.

Hyenas offers no major twists, no major developments for the characters. It’s simply a story in which Hap and Leonard do what they do best: get into trouble, and then find a way to get out of it. However, as I’ve become more and more invested in this series and these characters, I can’t shake the feeling that one of these days Lansdale is going to break my heart and do something terrible and irrevocable to one of these guys. It’s that kind of world that they live in, after all, a world in which bad things sometimes happen to good people, and you just have to deal with it. I hope I don’t have to deal with it. I want these characters to live on for a good, long time.

9. Devil Red by Joe R. Lansdale
This is probably my least favorite of the full-length “Hap and Leonard” novels so far, so the fact that it still ranks in my Top 10 for the year shows you how much I love this series. It’s not bad, obviously, it just didn’t quite sing for me the way many of the other books about these two have. That being said, it’s still a cracking good yarn involving a serial killer, the Dixie Mafia, and a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap, and it stands up well against anything else I read this year.

8. Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry
My full review of Dead of Night is available elsewhere on this site, and a quick read of that will tell you why this landed on the list. I’m not the biggest fan of zombie fiction, but this breakneck-paced book showed me there’s still life in the unliving. A smart mix of science, commentary and gruesome ghoul action, Dead of Night was one of those books that shoved everything else aside and demanded to be finished immediately.

7. Shivers VI edited by Richard Chizmar
Anthologies are tough to pull off; when you have that many authors in the mix, it’s rare that every story is going to satisfy the reader. More often than not, there are one or two shining stars among a bunch of so-so stories and outright stinkers. Not in this case. In this, the sixth edition of the excellent Shivers series, editor Richard Chizmar found just the right formula for me – a mix of established authors and exciting newcomers creating a table  of contents containing a hard-to-find classic along with several instant classics. All of the Shivers books are worthwhile reads, but as the old saying goes, if you can only read one….

6. The Passage by Justin Cronin
Vampires are probably my least favorite genre mainstay. It’s not that all of the potential has been wrung out of the character, it’s just that there hasn’t been a lot of interesting work involving vampires in the last several years. It took someone outside of the genre to change that perception, and Justin Cronin changed it in a big way. This massive book shows us the beginning of a new plague and the end of the world, and then shoves us forward in time for the fallout. A lot happens in this book, something which can’t always be said for the first books in planned trilogies; we get the setup, yes, but we also get fully fleshed-out characters and plenty of action. Well-paced for its length, the book doesn’t drag; instead, it drags you along. The second book, due out in the fall of 2012, is one of my most anticipated reads for the coming year.

5. Pray to Stay Dead by Mason James Cole
Not only is this the debut novel by the author, it also stands as the debut of Print Is Dead, an imprint of Creeping Hemlock Press devoted exclusively to zombie fiction. It serves both roles as a great kickoff and a hard act to follow. I praised it in my initial review, and my enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the months since I read it. Cole understands that for a story to be more than gore for gore’s sake, there have to be characters you can invest in, and he gives us that in spades. And then he does terrible things to them, all for our entertainment. It’s a propulsive page turner and a sign of great things to come from both the writer and the publisher.

4. The Wave by Susan Casey
The only nonfiction book to make the list this year, this study of monster waves is equal parts scientific examination and adventure story. Casey, who also wrote the excellent Great White Shark book The Devil’s Teeth, smartly bounces back and forth between the scientists studying big waves and the surfers riding them. There are no definitives given because the ocean remains as mysterious a frontier as deep space, but the information we’ve just begun to grasp is fascinating. Equally fascinating is the lives of those who, at a moments notice, will drop everything and hop a plane to remote locales in the hopes of risking grisly, pounding death for the fleeting thrill of catching a monster wave.

3. Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke
Welcome back, Kealan. After a too-long sabbatical Burke roars back with his best full-length novel by far, a grisly tale of serial killing and its aftermath. Picking up where the horror movies always leave off, Burke follows the lone survivor of a despical attack by a family of backwoods killers as she seeks to put her life back together again and bring some kind of justice to her fallen friends. Kin also follows the killer who let her get away as he deals with the anger of his family and the long-range consequences a survivor brings down on their way of life. Compelling, genuinely frightening and sometimes moving, if it hadn’t been followed by a couple of masters working at the absolute top of their form, it would have easily been my top book of the year.

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
King’s big novels often have the same problem for me: the ending. It and Under the Dome typify this, as in my opinion both were excellent novels that tripped themselves up just short of the finish line. I have no such complaint about 11/22/63, however, because King not only sticks the landing, he absolutely crushes it. This book is a love story wrapped up in a time travel tale, and it’s clear where King’s heart really lay as far as telling this one goes. The part of the story following a modern man’s attempts to stop the assassination of JFK are compelling, well-researched and well-written, but the parts about him falling in love with small-town life and a small-town girl in the early ’60s are the parts that really leap off the page. King crafts great characters and tells a great story, and wraps it all up with some of the most perfect and poignant final pages of his career.

1. The Five by Robert McCammon
Like Kealan Patrick Burke, Robert McCammon once took a break from publishing (one much longer than the break Burke took), and like Burke he came back better than ever. The Five catches him in full stride. It’s the story of a rock-n-roll band forever on the edge of breaking through, dealing with the rigors of endless touring and semi-stardom. Just as things begin to swing their way, they catch the eye of a crazed veteran, a man armed with a gun and a vendetta. The ensuing events push them to stardom and to the edge, and it’s only a question of where they’ll go first – over the top, or over the edge. McCammon has created a cast of characters that will long stand among his best, and has written a book that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his masterpiece A Boy’s Life. It was a pleasure to read, and one which I look forward to revisiting many times in the years to come.

So, there you have it. If you’re interested in seeing a list of every book I read this year you can find it here, along with lists from the last couple of years and a rundown of what I’m reading now.

There are several books on the horizon, some new and some that have just been in my To-Be-Read pile for a while, that I’m looking forward to reading in 2012, including:

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
Dr. Sleep by Stephen King
Abarat Book Three: Absolute Midnight by Clive Barker
All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky by Joe R. Lansdale
The Doll by Daphne du Maurier
Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

What books did you enjoy in 2011? What are you looking forward to in 2012?

Review: ‘The Art of Hammer’ by Marcus Hearn

Movie posters ain’t what they used to be.

At one time movie posters were art in and of themselves, a major selling point for the films they advertised. For many movies the poster was the only advertisement they got, so it had to be good. And, in many instances, the poster turned out to be better than the movie, promising things that the filmmakers couldn’t possibly match on the strength of their miniscule budgets (or, perhaps, their miniscule talents).

Those days are long gone. Movie posters are often an afterthought, a throwaway piece of paper that falls way below the trailer and the website and the viral videos and the interactive online games that studios employ now to get the word out. From a practical standpoint, I get it; marketing dollars are at a premium, and the studios have to go where they’re going to get maximum impact for the money spent, and a poster just isn’t it. For most, a poster is the thing they pass on the way into the theater – they’re already sold on the movie, so there’s no point in putting too much effort into the poster. Just Photoshop the stars’ heads onto a generic background, make sure everything’s spelled right, and move along.

Books like The Art of Hammer demonstrate why this is such a shame. The posters in this book are a huge part of the Hammer mystique, the particular flavor and identity the studio was able to cultivate over the years.  Horror movies dominate, of course, but Hammer also made comedies and crime thrillers and war pictures and science fiction movies, and the posters for all of these genres are umistakable in their Hammer-ness.

Hearn gives these posters plenty of room to shine on their own, showcasing them in big, beautiful reproductions while chiming in here and there with interesting tidbits on the artists, the back stories of the chosen art and the variations for different markets. The oversized format and glossy paper help sell that this is a true art book, and it’s doubtful (tempting as it may be) that anyone will be ripping these pages out to tape them to the wall. It may, however, send you scrambling to the Internet to try and track some of these down, so buyer beware.

Between this, The Hammer Story (written with Alan Barnes), Hammer Glamour and the upcoming The Hammer Vault, Hearn (who is the official Hammer historian, an awesome job if there ever was one) continues to share and preserve the wonderful history of this amazing studio. We owe him a debt of gratitude, as well as all the talented artists who gave us such striking and iconic images to enjoy.

One Nation

When the Towers fell ten years ago, the dividing lines that separated us fell with them. For a while, it wasn’t about Republican or Democrat, Yankee or Southerner, black or white. No matter what we were, we were all Americans. As the years passed, those lines slowly crept back into place. My hope is that one day, when my two girls are grown and making their own way in this world, those lines will have been erased again – not because of a tragedy, but because we have decided on our own to stand together as “one nation under God.”