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: ‘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.

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: ‘Dark Discoveries’ #26 – ‘The Weird West’

DD26CoverDark Discoveries #26
Winter 2014

Dark Discoveries magazine has put out some great themed issues during its 10-year run, with topics including “Comics and Pulp” (#16), “Extreme Horror” (#19) and “Horror and Rock” (#22). The latest issue continues this trend with one of my personal favorite genre mashups, the “Weird Western.”

A quick glance at the cover, which boasts names like Gary Braunbeck, Norman Partridge and Quentin Tarantino, told me there was going to plenty for me to like inside. Braunbeck’s story, “Ungrateful Places,” turned out to be the highlight for me. It’s the story of a boy named Edward, a social outcast who leaves his
village and becomes a war hero. When he returns, savaged by injuries that cost him his face, he almost immediately settles back into his role as the village nobody. It isn’t long before he begins seeing ghosts of gravely wounded soldiers, and soon he has a choice to make – let others feel the pain he’s felt, or sacrifice himself once again to spare those around him. Braunbeck proves again he is one of the best at wringing pure, real emotion from words on a page, and this story reminds me all over again that we just don’t get enough new work from him.

Partridge is another one of my favorite writers, and he brings his uniquely gritty vision to Dark Discoveries with “Fever Springs,” a rousing werewolf tale that involves a greedy, amoral banker, a band of bank robbers, and a bloodthirsty shapeshifter.

Tarantino’s involvement comes in the form of an interview about his recent film Django Unchained, and while it’s not exactly timely it’s an interesting chat with the always engaging filmmaker.

The issue is rounded out by stories from Hank Schwaeble and David Liss, several nonfiction pieces, and a lengthy article by Stephen King expert Rocky Wood examining King’s use of Old West imagery that not only hits the obvious notes (The Dark Tower, The Regulators) but touches on some little-known nuggets like George D X McArdle, a humorous western novel King began and abandoned in the 1980s.

It’s a solid issue overall, and worth noting that it marks the end of Dark Discoveries founder James Beach’s role as editor-in-chief. Beach has poured a lot of love and sweat (and, no doubt, a lot of money) into the magazine over the years, shaping it into a respected title of consistent quality. He’s managed to feature some of the genre’s heaviest hitters over the years, but always made room for new voices. When I was first dipping my toes into the genre journalism waters years ago he gave me the opportunity to interview a couple of writers, Jon Merz (#4) and Joe Hill (#11), and even published a contest-winning short story of mine, “Pun’kin,” back in issue number 17. So perhaps I’m a little bit biased when I say “Job well done, James.” But I said it anyway. And while Beach is leaving the day-to-day duties behind he’s promised to remain involved, and is leaving the magazine in good hands with JournalStone Publishing and new editor-in-chief Aaron J. French.

So, here’s to another fine issue of Dark Discoveries, and to whatever they bring us next.

Book Review: ‘The Last Night of October’ by Greg Chapman

LastNightOctoberHorror stories set on Halloween night are a dime a dozen these days, particularly among American horror authors. It makes sense; many of today’s active authors grew up in the time when Halloween was still a rite of passage. It was a night when you set out on your own, just you and your pals, seeking out candy and mischief. Sure, you were only out for a little while, and you were in the relatively safe confines of your own neighborhood, but for many it was the first taste of real freedom.

But that freedom often came tinged with the first taste of real fear as well. It was the first time out in the night, alone, without the comforting (if slightly annoying) backup provided by Mom and Dad. Everyone was clad in costumes that might look like cheap rubber and plastic in the light of day, but were much more effective in the shadows of night. That mix of exhiliration and uneasiness is wonderful to look back on, and countless authors try to capture it year after year with decidedly mixed results.

Greg Chapman is from Australia – a country for which Halloween has had very little significance in the past – but with The Last Night of October he’s quite successful in his efforts to invoke that mix of fear and wonder associated with the holiday.

Gerald Forsyth is a man who feels genuine terror each time Halloween approaches, and for good reason: what started out as a typical night of trick-or-treating for him many years ago took a sudden, tragic turn, and the old man has been dodging the consequences ever since. As the book opens he’s going through his typical Halloween night routine, which is to lock the house down tight and sweat out the hours ’till dawn.

One of the reasons this novella works so well is the way Chapman slowly doles out the backstory. We’re in the dark for much of the first half of the story as to why Forsyth is so scared. The same can be said for Kelli Pritchard, the young home health care attendant who shows up just as night is falling to check on the sickly old man. Kelli is subbing for Forsyth’s regular nurse, and her stubborn commitment to her job is a broken cog in the man’s carefully orchestrated routine. It’s Kelli that answers a knock on Forsyth’s door, inadvertantly letting in the one thing Forsyth is desperate to keep out and setting off a chain of events that has been a long time coming.

Chapman weaves his story with cold, economical precision. There’s very little fat here, especially once Forsyth, Kelli and their strange visitor are locked in together. Even as he takes us back in time to relive Forsyth’s worst Halloween he keeps the story moving forward. The result is a quick read that will linger much longer than a bag of cheap Halloween candy. Don’t wait until next Halloween to give this one a shot – The Last Night of October will deliver chills all year ’round.

Book Review: ‘Doctor Sleep’ by Stephen King

doctor-sleep-01In the afterword to his new novel, Doctor Sleep, Stephen King notes that he approached writing the book with some trepidation. Trepidation is exactly what I felt when I first heard it was coming out – and if you know me, you know that’s an unusual reaction to news of a new King book.

But this isn’t “just another book,” and it isn’t even “just another sequel.” It’s a follow-up to one of his most successful and enduring works. The Shining was part of that initial, volcanic output that announced King’s arrival, and it holds a very dear place in the heart of his massive fanbase. King knew this, and he was worried about letting people down. I was worried about a letdown, too.

Fortunately, King is too smart and too talented to succumb to the traps that kill so many sequels. This is not The Shining 2: Shinier, where a group of ghosthunters camp out at the ruins of The Overlook Hotel to be picked off one-by-one by the vengeful spirit of Jack Torrance. Doctor Sleep shares a character with The Shining, and its events are influenced in many ways by its predecessor, but it’s not trying to be The Shining. And that, Constant Readers, is why it works.

Where The Shining is a classic ghost story, Doctor Sleep is a high-concept thrill ride. In The Shining we see King using the traditional elements of haunted house stories – isolation, unseen presences, noises in the night, spectral figures, etc. – to great effect. In Doctor Sleep, we have confrontations between two groups, we have missions that must be carried out in tight timelines, and we have an eclectic group of villains, about whom nothing – from their colorful names to their unique powers – is traditional.

As usual, it’s King’s strong character work that elevates the material for me. In Dan Torrance, King transitions effortlessly from the little boy we’ve all been wondering about for the last 36 years to the adult known as “Doctor Sleep.” Dan is older now, and he’s damaged, but there’s no doubt that it’s the same character. I have a hard time referring to him as a character, to be honest; to me he’s a person, and that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can possibly pay to King as a writer. He makes these people come alive, and that’s why his work endures.

Just as we’ve wondered what happened to Danny, I’m betting we’ll all be wondering about Abra Stone in the years to come. King writes her with the perfect mix of rebelliousness, confidence and vulnerability. Too much of any of those would have rendered her flat and lifeless, but here she lives and breathes.

Rose the Hat, leader of the True Knot clan of psychic vampires, is a shallow creature, and that’s exactly what makes her so complex. Here’s someone who’s survived on a mix of gut instinct and wisdom gathered over centuries, but who hasn’t quite mastered her ego. Her power, and the powers of those in the Knot, have paved a clear path for them over the years, and once the road gets bumpy she learns what she’s truly made of. Watching her unravel from cold calculation to white-hot rage is as immensely entertaining as it is genuinely frightening.

The best moments of Doctor Sleep, though, are the quiet ones. There’s a place early in the novel when Dan is demonstrating just how he’s picked up his odd nickname. He’s sitting at the bedside of a man named Charlie Hayes, a man who’s just entered the book and is close to exiting. It’s a touching and beautiful moment as King compresses an entire lifetime into a few sentences, and we find ourselves mourning a man whose good and decent journey is coming to an end.

King’s made his living scaring the hell out of us, but it’s writing like this that will make his legacy. It’s writing like this that keeps me coming back. And it’s writing like this that makes writing a sequel to The Shining seem like a damn good idea.

Book Review: ‘The Dark Man’ by Stephen King and Glenn Chadbourne

king08limitedIt’s a bold experiment: take an obscure, surreal poem, allow a talented but outside-of-the-mainstream artist to illustrate in black and white, and released it as an oddly-sized and unusually-shaped hardcover book. In other words, it’s a project that most publishers wouldn’t touch.

But Cemetery Dance isn’t most publishers. And, let’s be honest, when the name you’re going to plaster all over the cover is Stephen King, well, go ahead and change “bold experiment” to “unqualified success.”

And that’s what The Dark Man is, by the way: an unqualified success. The limited and lettered editions sold out within two hours of the book’s announcement. The trade edition hardcover will be hitting mailboxes and bookstores in the next week or so. And creatively, the book is firing on all cylinders.

The poem-that-became-a-book, “The Dark Man,” is nothing less than the birth of Randall Flagg, arguably King’s greatest villainous creation. King wrote it in college as a way of documenting a recurring image he had of a hitchhiker in jeans and a denim jacket. King imagined the man had been places, had seen – and done – terrible things, and his musings on the subject spilled out in a short poem scribbled on the back of a placemat.

The poem itself is told from The Dark Man’s point-of-view, and it’s an effectively chilling piece of work. The world he describes is not unlike most King settings, a place where mundane sights like all-night filling stations and wheat fields exist beneath an ominous “savage sickle moon,” and where sits “a gutted columned house leeched with vines.” It’s strong imagery, and it’s easy to see how aspects of the character bled over into King’s later work.

But where The Dark Man really comes to life is in the marriage of King’s text to Glenn Chadbourne’s stark, brutal imagery. Thumbing through the book you can almost feel a cold October wind coming off the pages, and you can almost smell the desperation and fear permeating the desolate, broken landscape. Chadbourne’s distinctive style has graced a number of King/Cemetery Dance projects, but never has it felt like a more perfect fit than it does here. The drawings are dense, packed with details that seem to shift and flow of their own accord so that each time you study the pages you see something else.

It may not be for everybody, but a book like this is sure to please adventurous readers looking for new insight into one of King’s most well-known creations. The Dark Man is a moody leap of faith by the creators and the publisher that pays off handsomely in the end.

While the lettered and limited editions of The Dark Man are sold out, trade hardcovers are still available from the publisher.

Short Story Review: “A Child’s Problem” by Reggie Oliver

“A Child’s Problem” Reggie Oliver
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsReggie Oliver’s tale of a precocious young boy’s summer adventure reads like a Hammer movie with the gore reined in. What it lacks in blood and guts (“lacks,” perhaps, being the incorrect word, as the story doesn’t need the grue) it makes up in a rich atmosphere and measured, assured storytelling.

“A Child’s Problem” is one of the longest stories in A Book of Horrors, and to boil down its plot to a sentence or two would do it disservice. So I’ll give you the setup: young George is sent to live with his uncle, Augustus, on a sprawling countryside estate. The boy is more than a little bratty, and unafraid to flaunt his status in front of strangers and servants alike, but he’s also intelligent and insatiably curious. Augustus recognizes this and sends the boy off solving riddles about the estate to keep him busy, never suspecting what the boy might be able to uncover.

Oliver is a playwright, and you can feel those stylistic instincts at work in the story’s deliberate pace. It’s not all atmosphere – there are moments of pure horror punctuating the quieter beats – but it is that sense of place that Oliver is most successful at conjuring. “A Child’s Problem” takes time to warm up, but it’s time well invested.

More reviews from A Book of Horrors

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