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…

 

Review: ‘Black Chalk’ by Christopher J. Yates

BlackChalkWhen you make friends at a young age, the bonds that are formed seem unbreakable. Often, they are – I’m fortunate to have a handful of friendships that go back more than 20 years, so those seem pretty solid. But for every one of those there are many others that were forged, burned white hot for a while, and have since faded away. Some failed because of distance, while others failed because of circumstance. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned time and time again that bonds that appeared to be invincible were actually far from it.

Black Chalk, the suspenseful debut novel of Christopher J. Yates, tells the story of six students who form a tight-knit group during their early days in college. It’s the kind of group we all at times either belonged to or wished we belonged to. It’s a group that has struck the perfect balance of personalities, forming an instant kinship that is impenetrable and accepting at the same time.

And then, with the introduction of a seemingly innocuous game, Yates makes us watch as the group systematically rips itself apart.

The game itself is barely discussed in the book; there are vague mentions of dice and cards and a complicated scoring system. But it’s not really the game that matters – it’s the consequences, a set of individualized punishments designed by the players to provide escalating levels of discomfort and embarrassment to their opponents. The more the friends get to know about each other, the more personal and vicious the consequences become, and it isn’t long before things go sideways.

Some of the group members come across as little more than stock players – the class clown, the girl who expresses her disdain for the mainstream through unconventional dress and reams of poetry – but the two young men at the heart of the game, Jolyon and Chad, are fully fleshed out. Chad is a young American who takes the opportunity to study abroad, hoping for some kind of jolt that will change his life and direction. As for Jolyon – well, there’s a guy like Jolyon on every college campus in the world. He’s the guy that knows everybody, and that everybody wants to know. While he’s the life of any party he attends (and he’s invited to them all), he’s always got a core group that revolves around him. Jolyon arrives at school at the same time as Chad and quickly sucks the young American into his orbit. Their relationship may be the strongest among the six core group members; consequently, it’s the unraveling of that relationship that causes the most damage.

Yates takes his time telling his story, letting us get to know the group, taking us through the early stages of the game, and injecting some mystery early on with the introduction of a strange trio who call themselves “Game Soc.” “Game Soc” present themselves as financial backers and unobtrusive observers, but as the game wears on its clear that they have a more vested, if closely guarded, interest in the proceedings. There’s a lot of misdirection early on, especially when it comes to the identity of the narrator of this story. Yates juggles the transition from past to present well, arranging his puzzle pieces in ways that constantly hook and re-hook the reader.

My only major complaint about the book has nothing to do with Yates, but instead has to be laid at the feet of the publisher. There’s a major spoiler spelled out in bright white letters on the cover, and while I understand its existence as a marketing tool, it strikes me as a bit of an insult to author and reader alike. The copy on the back cover does a great job of laying out the premise without giving anything away – it’s a shame they couldn’t have come up with something equally enticing but less revealing for the front.

I’d say Yates has made a nice debut with the Black Chalk, and has definitely announced himself as an author to watch closely in the future.

Cemetery Dance announces SIX new Stephen King special editions

CarrieNewSubtitle this As My Wallet Gently Weeps.

This past weekend – Saturday, April 5, to be exact – marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie. Without turning this whole post into an essay on that alone, let me just say that it was a huge anniversary for me personally. King’s work is what got me into reading, and then into writing. It’s why nearly all of my “real” jobs have involved writing in some way; it’s why I write short stories and why I’m writing a novel; it’s why October Country exists today. So, yeah, the guy’s work is important to me.

I can’t think of another writer that got a better running start on a career than King. Carrie, then ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift and The Stand? A solid debut, two bonafide classics, the scariest vampire novel I’ve ever read, and a group of note-perfect horror shorts? Yeah, I’d say that’s a decent beginning. While there are other classics and favorites littered throughout King’s bibliography, it’s hard to top that opening salvo.

Cemetery Dance recognizes this as something to be celebrated. This specialty press has long been associated with King, producing beautiful special editions of a number of his works, including From A Buick 8, IT, Full Dark No Stars and many others. Now they’re turning their attention to his earliest works, beginning with the five books listed above and then skipping ahead a bit to include Pet Sematary.

First up, naturally, is Carrie, which is already available for preorder. You can read all the details at Cemetery Dance’s site, but I’ll helpfully point out the new introduction by King and the afterword by the author’s wife Tabitha King (who famously rescued the book’s first pages from a trashcan). If you’re gonna order one, you might want to hurry – these things tend to sell out quick.

I’d love to get ‘em all, but the one I absolutely plan 100% on ordering is Pet Sematary. That’s the one that started the journey for me, and I was bummed when I missed out on PS Publishing’s 30th Anniversary edition of it last year. I don’t plan to miss out again.

Review: ‘Gorezone’ #30

GZ30When Fangoria editor Chris Alexander announced last year his intention to resurrect Fango’s sister magazine, Gorezone, he made it clear that he would be taking its original mission of covering obscure horror and exploitation seriously. Not that Gorezone didn’t fulfill that promise in its initial 27-issue run; it did, but with concessions. Newsstands, grocery store magazine racks and other such places were where it lived and died, so occasionally there had to be nods to the mainstream, like covers featuring Freddy or Leatherface or Jason – the well-known, accepted, dare-I-say “safe” faces of horror.

This time around, Gorezone is available via subscription or online orders only. If you want it, you have to seek it out, and those who seek it out know what they’re getting into. It’s a situation that has allowed Alexander and his crew to live without fear, and they’ve taken full advantage in the first three revamped issues. With the latest release, issue number 30 (they picked up the numbering where the original run left off), Gorezone has really hit its stride.

With the exception of FX master Tom Savini’s column focusing on two famous gags from the original Dawn of the Dead, and an interview with Cannibal Holocaust actor Robert Kerman, most of the creators and films featured will be unfamiliar to all but the truly hardcore horror fans. That’s a great thing from where I sit. We have plenty of outlets to read about the latest multiplex-bound sequels and remakes, and now we have Gorezone back to help flesh out the more obscure corners of the genre.

Among this issue’s juicier features are a retrospective on the 1988 shocker Slaughterhouse Rock, a look at the ’80s slasher homage The Pick-Axe Murders Part III: The Final Chapter, and two features on underground film master Fred Vogel. There’s also a short story written by Barbie Wilde, who played a Cenobite in Hellbound: Hellraiser II; her story ties into that mythology as created by Clive Barker in the novella The Hellbound Heart. And, it should be said that the pages of the magazine fairly drip with tons of blood-drenched, entrails-ridden photos.

So, if you’re a fan who likes to seek out stuff that your Redbox-loving friends have never heard of, or if you’ve seen everything Redbox has to offer and want something new and dangerous, let Gorezone take you by the hand. They have such sights to show you.