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.

Review: ‘Fangoria: Cover to Cover’ edited by Anthony Timpone

This is the cover of the advance reading copy - not sure if it's the final design.

The first issue of Fangoria I ever bought was issue number six. It was dated June of 1980, and it was the one year anniversary issue of the magazine. I bought it because it had C-3PO and R2-D2 on the cover, posing in one of Hoth’s ice caves from The Empire Strikes Back. Back then, I was all about Star Wars and anything related to it.

I don’t remember when I noticed the other picture, the last one in the little filmstrip that ran down the left side of the cover. It was a shocking juxtaposition with the bright gold, blue and white of the Empire photo. It was of a man with an arrow sticking out of his eye, his face nearly obscured by bright red blood. The photo was from the original Friday the 13th; the man was an early victim in a franchise I would soon come to revere and enjoy as much as George Lucas’s space opera.

When I look back at the table of contents of that issue, I see so much of what would eventually come to shape my reading and viewing habits in the years ahead: Stephen King, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, George Romero, Hammer Studios, and so much more. I was fascinated by the articles and the photos, the little peeks into the wonders that were out there, waiting to be discovered. I don’t know how many times I read that issue; I do know that the cover didn’t survive, but I still have the rest of it. I have all my issues of Fangoria – not every issue they have published, but the majority of them, and one day I hope to track down the rest.

Fangoria is important to me, and flipping through the pages of Cemetery Dance’s new, oversized treasury of its covers, Fangoria: Cover to Cover, was a complete joy. Looking through the book took me back to the times when the unholy trinity of Freddy, Jason and Michael dominated the horror world (and the Fango cover slot), with their ol’ pal Leatherface not far behind. I marveled at some of the bold choices they made – like the skinless corpse (from Hellraiser, if I’m not mistaken) on the cover of #53, or the entrails oozing from the television set (Videodrome) on #25. Severed heads, people with hacksaws digging into their throats, melting vampires – all of this, and more, tucked away on magazine stands in grocery stores and drug stores, right up there with Time and Southern Living. There are 330 covers represented in the book, going from the first issue to the one released in February of 2014, and it’s an amazing thing to see them all grouped together.

The one that started it all for me.

The one that started it all for me.

However, Fangoria: Cover to Cover isn’t just pretty pictures. There’s a foreward by Bruce Campbell, talking about how Fangoria‘s early coverage helped the original Evil Dead succeed; an introduction by current Fango editor Chris Alexander, sharing his excitement over living out a life-long dream by helming the magazine; and an introduction by W.R. Mohalley, the man responsible for designing each and every Fango cover since #27. It’s Mohalley’s work we’re really celebrating here, and I’m so happy that Cemetery Dance gave the man some space to talk about his work. It’s brief, but gives a really nice overview of how far things have come for Mohalley and for the craft he practices.

Anthony Timpone, who served as Fangoria‘s editor for a huge chunk of its run, also chimes in with an issue-by-issue look at the magazine, providing brief overviews of what’s in each, and little peeks at some of the decisions that were made in putting those issues together. This is my only disappointment in the book. Don’t get me wrong, this section is great, but it’s more like a tease – I would love to see Timpone write a book about the behind-the-scenes workings of Fangoria. It’s clear from what he writes here that is enthusiasm for the magazine is unwavering, and I can only imagine the kind of stories he has to tell. Maybe one day….

Fangoria: Cover to Cover is an amazing chronicle of a magazine that not only covers the horror genre, but became (and remains) an integral part of it. It wasn’t long after devouring the book that I had to dig out my boxes of back issues and explore them at length. Long-time Fango readers and horror fans who pick this up will find themselves on a nostalgia high. As for new horror fans looking for a peek at the genre’s rich history – well, this is a damn fine place to start.

Review: ‘The Halloween Children’ by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss

TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumThe first weekend of October has arrived. A cold front is sweeping through Alabama tonight, scrubbing away the awful humidity and bringing us, at least for a few days, actual fall temperatures. I’ve got the makings for a huge pot of chili, there’s wood in the fire pit, and various autumn-flavored ales are stocked in the fridge. And, best of all, I’ve got a great October read to tell you about, the perfect way to start what I hope will be a month full of literary greatness.

The Halloween Children is a twisty funhouse ride through the minds of Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, two enormously talented writers who have created an instant Halloween classic in this, their first collaboration. Much like Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest, The Halloween Children is an expert distillation of the Halloween season, capturing that peculiar mix of excitement, dread and outright fear in its pages.

Stillbrook Apartments is a quiet apartment complex with a history shrouded in rumor and secrecy. Some bad things may have happened there at one time – or maybe not. “Truth” is something of an abstract concept in this novel, and the authors work very deliberatly and efficiently at keeping any sort of real answers tantalizingly out of reach.

What we do know is this: Harris, his wife Lynn, and their children Mattie and Amber live in Stillbrook. Harris is the complex’s handyman, met each day with a list of resident complaints both normal (burned-out lights and broken locks) and unusual (whining in the walls and untraceable odors). From the get-go we can see that there’s a humming wire of tension running through the family, an obvious dividing line that pits father and son against mother and daughter. For the most part they keep things civil, even loving at times, but as Halloween approaches outside forces go to work on the wedge that’s already there. First come small things, like uncharacteristic bursts of rage from Lynn, and possible hallucinations experienced by Harris. There seem to be easy explanations for these things at first, but as the story moves forward everyone – characters and readers
alike – begins to question, well, everything.

The final mad descent begins when the family finds a living creature being baked alive in their oven. From there the tone shifts from unsettling to downright horrifying. It’s a change that could have easily derailed the book, but Freeman and Prentiss keep a tight reign on the proceedings all the way through to the tragic end.

From the great, early slow build of the book to the terrifying, satisfying payoff, The Halloween Children is a complete success. Freeman and Prentiss do a great job in blending their unique styles into one pure voice – like Stephen King and Peter Straub with The Talisman and Black House, you’ll try to guess who wrote what, and you’ll most likely get it wrong. Reading this was the perfect kickoff to the Halloween season for me, and I have a feeling it will be part of my permanent October rotation for a long time to come.

Review: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Review: ‘Buster Voodoo’ by Mason James Cole

large_BusterVoodoo_EbookCoverDixon Green comes from a spiritual family, but not in the traditional sense. A resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dixon spent his childhood watching people visit his mother for things like love potions and charms of protection. To Dixon, things like that are part of everyday life, the way Mass or Communion might be for others.

That side of Dixon’s childhood may have been fairly innocuous, but there were some dark swirls thrown into the mix. Take Empty House, for instance, which was pretty much like every haunted house you can find in almost any old neighborhood, except this one was actually haunted. Dixon found that out for himself one day when he went into the house and saw terrible things, visions of a violent past playing out before him. Empty House, they said, was where all the children who’d lately gone missing in Dixon’s part of New Orleans wound up. Empty House, they said, was where Buster Voodoo took them.

Dixon knew some of those missing kids, but only in passing – until the day his sister Marie became one of them.

Buster Voodoo is the monster of Dixon Green’s childhood. Another monster, this one we all know as Hurricane Katrina, comes along in Dixon’s waning years, offering more suffering heaped upon years of fear and anger and regret. Author Mason James Cole brings both of these forces to chilling life in this, his second novel (his first, Pray to Stay Dead, has been re-released by Buster Voodoo publisher Permuted Press). It’s a book that manages to be both vivid and pitch black at the same time; alive with colorful characters and places, and crawling with impending dread.

The book jumps nimbly back-and-forth between Dixon’s past present. Dixon and his sister did manage to temporarily escape Buster Voodoo, but they didn’t exactly live happily ever after. Dixon is wiling away his days as a janitor in a run-down New Orleans amusement park, and Marie is a guest of a facility for the mentally challenged. Even now, in these places, their childhood demon is never far from them.

Hurricane Katrina arrives midway through the book, and for a while it feels like you’ve wandered into a different story, one in which supernatural concerns are swept away by the real-life horror that storm wrought on New Orleans. It’s a horror that Cole, himself a New Orleans resident, knows firsthand, and you can rest assured he’s not using it here for cheap scares or easy atmosphere. It’s tricky business to present real-life horror side-by-side with made-up horror, but Cole pulls it off. Buster Voodoo is a terrifying creation, but what he is and the things he does pale in the face of Katrina’s fury.

There’s a very human heart at the center of Buster Voodoo, and despite all the praise I could heap on Cole’s ability to write tense, nail-biting scenes of horror, it’s that self-same heart that I feel is his best achievement. Cheap shocks thrown at cardboard cutouts don’t stick with you; bad things happening to characters you’ve grown to care about are harder to shake. Buster Voodoo is rich with atmosphere and emotion, and will leave you with plenty to ponder once the last page has been turned.

Review: ‘Down’ by Nate Southard

DownCover

For me, the hardest books to review are the ones that don’t elicit a passionate response, whether it’s “I loved it” or “I hated it.”
It’s even more difficult when the author in question has written other books that I really enjoyed. Such is the case with Nate Southard, a man whose hard-bitten prose I’ve enjoyed in the past, but whose latest short novel Down left me underwhelmed.

Down, released earlier this year by Sinister Grin Press, follows the travails of the rock band The Frequency Brothers. The band is in the midst of its latest tour and is poised on the edge of superstardom – which, if you’ve read any Rolling Stone article on any band on the edge of superstardom, you know means they are dealing with plenty of inner turmoil. There is drug use and infidelity and insecurity a-plenty, and the pressure is mostly felt by their long-suffering but capable manager, Potter. Potter also has issues at home, and he’s looking forward to this small break in their tour schedule to give him time to deal with his family.

It’s all rock-and-roll business as usual, until their plane goes down.

The crash is a harrowing experience that Southard skillfully juxtaposes with glimpses of the band as they take the stage for their last show, a sold-out gig in Austin, Texas. It’s a breathless first chapter that’s brimming with promise; unfortunately, once the plane is violently grounded, the story is grounded, too.

Southard is trying to put new twists on some old tropes in Down, and I’ll give him props for that all day long. There are some good ideas here, but what seems to be lacking is focus. There’s some kind of savage creature roaming the woods in which the band’s plane crash landed, and it’s picking off survivors one by one. That’s a story we’ve all heard a thousand times, but Southard manages to wring plenty of suspense and shock out of the premise. It’s only when some of the other elements come into play – a mysterious pit filled with human remains; weird, unearthly symbols carved into trees; the slow transformation of some of the survivors – that things get a bit muddy for me.

Southard is a strong enough writer to keep me entertained even when the I’m lukewarm on the plot. (Exhibit A: the line “…nausea kept grabbing him in a slick, wet fist….” which is such a perfect description of that feeling.) Down was not a chore to finish, as so many books are, but I don’t think it’s on par with much of what the author has already produced, and will produce in the future. I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit Down, but the next time something with Southard’s name appears I won’t hesitate to pick it up.