Review: ‘Prisoner 489′ by Joe R. Lansdale

Cover designJoe R. Lansdale spins another tall tale in Prisoner 489, a straight-up horror story about an island graveyard and an executed prisoner who ain’t quite dead. It’s part of the Black Labyrinth series of novellas from Dark Regions Press, and is up for preorder now in a variety of states ranging from ebook to deluxe, leather-bound, foil-stamped, signed-and-numbered editions.

If you’re not familiar with Lansdale’s work at this point, I both pity you and envy you. The pity is there because, damn, you’ve missed some good stuff. The envy is there because, damn, you’ve got some good stuff to look forward to, ranging from horror to the crime-and-misadventure stories of the Hap and Leonard series to his coming-of-age masterpiece Edge of Dark Water. But you can (and should) investigate those another time – right now, let’s talk about Prisoner 489.

Let’s say there was an island, upon which was built a maximum security prison designed to hold the worst of the worst. These are the people for whom parole is not an option; they have been thrown into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable, and will only emerge from the prison feet first, as they say. They’re so bad that, even dead, they’re not allowed anywhere near anything resembling civilazation. So next to this island there’s a smaller island, home to a graveyard where the bodies are unceremoniously buried, their plots marked only by a number. As our story unfolds, Prisoner 489 comes to the island for his eternal rest.

The body of 489 is received by a small crew of two current prisoners and one former prisoner. Bernard has already worked off his time but chose to stay on because he really has nowhere else to go. His co-workers, Toggle and Wilson, are finishing up their sentences on the island, which up until today wasn’t too bad for a work release program.

By the time the man they know as Kettle shuttles 489′s corpse to their island, the guys are on edge. It’s their tradition to watch the prison across the water on execution nights; when the lights dim, they know the job is done. But this night is different. The lights dimmed, and dimmed again, and then two times more. When Kettle arrives he comes bearing a metal coffin wrapped in chains, and he’s eager to share stories about the man inside it, how it took all that juice to kill him, and how they finally had to finish the job by wrapping a plastic bag around the criminal’s head.

Once the coffin is in the ground, their bellies are full of liquor, and Kettle has boarded his boat back to the prison, the guys settle in for the night. There’s a storm bearing down on them, but something else out in the darkness doesn’t sit right with Bernard. He’ll find out what that is soon enough.

What comes next, I’ll leave Mr. Lansdale to tell. He does a magnificent job, as the second half of the book is an exercise in tension, humor, and outright horror. Lansdale’s storytelling is a joy to behold; his voice is so natural, so fluid that it’s like you’re hearing the story straight from his mouth rather than reading it on the page. Prisoner 489 is Lansdale at his finest, which is pretty much what you can expect any time he puts out something new. Highly recommended.

Review: ‘Dangerous Denial’ by Amy Ray

DangerousDenialTroubled pasts abound in Dangerous Denialthe debut novel by author Amy Ray. Few of the characters we meet in the course of Ray’s time-hopping story have happy childhoods: BK’s family shuns her for being overweight, among other things; Lenny is a caustic bully; Trevor tries to survive his abusive father (a grown-up Lenny) without the help of his mother, who ODs under suspicious circumstances. Each of these people seems to find a way to survive and move on; but, as Ray’s tense opening shows, none of them fully escape what they were running from, and they soon find their futures intertwined when they collide in a very public way.

Ray takes a Pulp Fiction-inspired approach to the layout of her story, starting in present day, looping backwards, and then slamming home again for the conclusion. She also incorporates a third-act twist that will be familiar to constant readers of mystery/thriller fiction, but works nicely for this particular book.

There’s a lot of potential here, and it’s clear that Ray is ambitious in her approach to plotting and story structure. My issue with the book is the writing itself; it’s so tentative that it comes across in some places as bland. It’s very readable – the book breezed by – but also very workmanlike, with little of the style or flair that helps authors and their books separate from the pack. My hope is that Ray will take some of the fearlessness she exhibited in imagining her story and apply it to the craft of getting that story on paper.

A lot of people are probably going to enjoy this book. There’s a familiarity to it that will help it go down easy. But I suspect Ray may be capable of more, and I hope she’ll build on that with whatever project follows this ambitious, if not wholly successful, debut.

Review: ‘Jackpot’ by Shane McKenzie, Adam Cesare, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty

JackpotTake a look at that cover. When it comes to tone, Jackpot is definitely a book you can judge by its cover. There’s not a lot of subtlety in that illustration, and there’s none in the book’s pages. This is sledgehammer fiction, coming at you swift and hard and with murderous intent. If you’re weak of heart – or weak of stomach – this ain’t the ride for you.

Jackpot (out now from Sinister Grin Press) is the story of Booker, a burgeoning serial killer with big plans and, when he hits the lottery, a big bankroll to make those plans reality. Two hundred million dollars, to be exact. His method of picking the winning numbers is but the first of many egregious acts Booker commits in the course of this short novel, and the thought of a guy like him with unlimited funds is a chilling one, indeed.

Like me, you’ve probably seen enough news stories about the downfall of lottery winners to know what kind of vultures a big windfall attracts, and even a twisted individual like Booker isn’t immune. In short order he’s intercepted by Frank, a lottery-chasing lawyer who’s willing to do anything for his percentage of the payday, and the Rollins family, a backwoods clan whose mother figure, Winona, stakes her own twisted claim on Booker’s prize. But Booker is determined, and with his brand-new tricked out murder van in operation, and the blueprints for a dream house (complete with functional dungeon) already in hand, he’s not going to be easy to take down.

Look, Jackpot is not going to win any awards for its thoughtful prose or resonant characterization. The four authors (Shane McKenzie, Adam Cesare, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty) are not coming to whisper dreadful things in your ear; they are coming to shout obscenities in your face until you cry uncle. They come armed with blow torches, scalpels, super glue, hungry dogs and chains, and absolutely nothing is taboo.

This may not be your kind of horror. It’s not typically mine – I usually prefer something creepier, quieter, with short bursts of shock thrown in for seasoning. This is the literary cousin of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one long note of horror building to an overwhelming crescendo. And while this style might not be my first choice in horror (I prefer Halloween to Chain Saw), I can recognize when it’s done well. If  you’re into the wet stuff, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

Re-Reading King: ”Salem’s Lot’

''Salem's Lot' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1975) (First Edition)

”Salem’s Lot’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1975)
(First Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Doubleday | October 1975

My most recent read of ‘Salem’s Lot took place in a variety of settings: under the harsh, cold fluorescents of my office during lunch; under the softer glow of the lamp in my living room; in the bright sunlight on my back porch; and, on a couple of occasions, underneath the lone bulb on that same porch, with night creeping in all around.

It’s a testament to the power of Stephen King’s writing that, in each of those places, he managed to thoroughly creep me out.

I don’t remember how many of King’s books I’d already read when I got to ‘Salem’s Lot the first time – I know I read Pet Sematary first, and after that it was a big blur as I gobbled up everything of his I could find. Looking back at it in its proper place in the bibliography, ‘Salem’s Lot signifies for me the first real glimpse of the Stephen King who would go on to dominate the horror field. It has several of the characteristics that would define the early years of the “Stephen King brand” in my mind; most notably, the pointed, accurate portrayal of a small town and its people, and the use of classic horror tropes in modern settings.

For pure scares-per-page, ‘Salem’s Lot ranks high in that initial bundle of books, the ones that led to King being known as “America’s Boogeyman.” I wasn’t exaggerating up top when I said I got creeped out a couple of times; that rarely happens to me when reading anymore (a side effect, I suppose, of a steady diet of the scary stuff over the years), and I was pleasantly surprised at the power King’s vampires held over me. Danny and Ralphie Glick walking through the woods; Royal Snow and Hank Peters descending into the belly of the Marsten House with a huge, ominously shifting crate; Ben Mears and Jimmy Cody, sitting in a mortuary with Marjorie Glick’s body, and the way her body first begins to tremble and then to twitch underneath its sheet…those are a few scenes that stand out in a book that lives under a dark cloud of dread and tension from the very first page.

Character-wise, it’s always been Ben Mears that I remembered the most. That’s not surprising; he is, after all, the main character and our entry point into the world. But this time around it was Father Donald Callahan who came alive for me. Maybe it was having the full weight of The Dark Tower series, and Callahan’s role in it, behind me this time around; maybe it was the way King introduced a character that sounds like a cliche (Catholic priest with fading faith and a drinking problem) and elevated him into something more. Here is a man who knows he’s begun to coast through life and yearns for something more:

He had been pining for a Challenge….He wanted to lead a division in the army of – who? God, right, goodness, they were names for the same thing – into battle against EVIL….He wanted to see EVIL with its cerements of deception cast aside, with every feature of its visage clear.

'Salem's Lot (Doubleday Hardcover, 1991) (Reading Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1991)
(Reading Edition)

Callahan would get what he yearned for, here in this book and much later, when King picks up the thread of his story in the last three Dark Tower books. In ‘Salem’s Lot Callahan is a man who fails, utterly and completely, in his chosen mission, but knowing that he eventually gets a chance to make things right casts his failure in a whole new light.

I don’t know where I’d rank ‘Salem’s Lot in the overall King bibliography – high, but I’m not sure how high – but among his pure horror novels it reigns near the top. I’ve always had fond memories of reading it, and I’m happy to say revisiting it bore those memories out.

Up next is the book that many consider King’s masterpiece: The Shining.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: Carrie

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: ‘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.