Review: ‘Obsidian Heart Book Two: The Society of Blood’ by Mark Morris

Obsidian Heart Book Two: The Society of Blood by Mark Morris
Titan Books (October 2015)

societyofbloodMark Morris continues his time-travelling, genre-smashing Obsidian Heart trilogy with The Society of Blood. Like any good trilogy middle child, Society is unencumbered by the need to set up plot points or tie up storylines; instead, it can simply take what’s been put into place and run wild until it’s thoroughly exhausted. And run wild it does, taking readers on a trip from Victorian times back to the modern world, with a plethora of ghastly murders, surreal villains and plot twists along the way. Continue reading

2015: The Year in Reading

ParadiseSkyIn my 2014 reading recap, I discussed how a number of familiar names dominated that year’s Top Ten, and I predicted that several of those names would resurface in 2015 – names like Joe Lansdale, Ace Atkins and Stephen King. Well, not only did that prediction come true, but I’m making a similar prediction for 2016. Lansdale has both a Hap and Leonard novel and a Hap and Leonard short story collection on deck; King has the finale of his Bill Hodges trilogy ready to go; and Atkins will once again favor us with new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Don’t be shocked if some (or all) of those titles make the Top Ten for 2016. Continue reading

Review: ‘Fender Lizards’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Fender Lizards by Joe R. Lansdale
Subterranean Press (November 2015)

Fender_Lizards_by_Joe_R._LansdaleYou might not expect a guy who writes unflinching horror to also write rawly accurate coming-of-age stories.

You might not expect a guy who writes convincingly about a duo of hard-hitting, blue collar do-gooders to also write convincingly about a small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life.

If that’s the case, you might not be familiar with Joe R. Lansdale.

Lansdale writes about all of the above, and more. But this isn’t a career retrospective of one of my favorite writers, it’s a review. The book we’re looking at is the one I mentioned about the small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life. It’s called Fender Lizards, it was recently released by Subterranean Press, and it’s damn good.

Dorothy “Dot” Sherman is a seventeen-year-old Fender Lizard, which is to say she’s a roller-skating waitress at a local diner called the Dairy Bob. Her father took off years ago – a classic case of “gone to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back” – and she’s living in a small trailer with a fairly large group of people. Her family has added a new member, an uncle she never knew she had named Elbert. Elbert has parked his van in their front yard and is living out of it, trying to connect with his brother’s family.

In fact, it seems like everyone in Fender Lizards trying to make some kind of connection – some with other people, and some with life itself. Elbert’s sudden appearance is just one of a handful of sparks jolting Lansdale’s richly-drawn cast out characters out of their stupors. There’s also a new suitor for Dot; an escape from an abusive husband for Dot’s sister, Raylynn; and a travelling roller derby for Dot and her fellow Lizards from the Dairy Bob. Lansdale lays out these various threads and developments just as natural as you please, and it’s a delight watching these people all realize that there really is something out there for each of them to strive for.

I could go on for days about Lansdale’s natural storytelling ability, in particular his exceptional ear for dialogue. But perhaps his most amazing achievement in this particular book is his ability to write a teenage girl that is not only recognizable as a vintage Lansdale character, but is also recognizable as, well, a teenage girl. Dot is not a caricature; she is a fully realized person, a young woman with a bit of a short fuse and a sassy mouth; a girl who can get her feelings hurt, who can be a bit jaded sometimes, but who hasn’t completely lost the ability to dream of something different, something better. There’s hope in her, and it’s something she shares with everyone around her.

Fender Lizards is a relatively short novel, and Lansdale doesn’t attempt to put a neat bow around everything, which is refreshing. We come into Dot’s life at a certain point and we leave at a certain point, and at that point some things have changed and some things are still up in the air. I’d like to know more, and perhaps Lansdale will revisit Dot and her friends and family one day; but if not, I’m happy with the time I got to spend with them. I think you will be, too.

Review: ‘Voices of the Damned’ by Barbie Wilde

Voices of the Damned by Barbie Wilde
Short, Scary Tales Publications (October 2015)

VotD-FRONT-CVRBarbie Wilde cemented her genre credentials way back in 1988 when she appeared as the Female Cenobite in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Her career since then has bounced between music, television hosting, and writing. Voices of the Damned is her first short story collection, and, much like her resume, it’s an eclectic and varied journey with deep roots in the imagination of Clive Barker.

The centerpiece of the collection is “The Cilicium Trilogy,” three stories that breathe further life into the Cenobite Wilde portrayed on film. Part one, “Sister Cilice,” tells of a nun with some rather unwholesome fantasies about a priest who serves her convent. She seeks refuge in the bowels of the convent’s library, hoping to bury her true feelings beneath a mountain of research. She discovers documentation of something called The Order of the Gash, and soon opens a portal that brings her face-to-face with some familiar demons who specialize in combining pleasure and pain. And when they can’t break her, they decide to recruit her instead…

This leads to the second story of the trilogy, “The Cilicium Pandoric.” The nun is now a first level Cenobite, but she’s yet to conquer the bored and restless nature established in the first story. She travels back to the human realm to visit a man known as the Toymaker – he
specializes in puzzle boxes – and asks for a device that will help her create a new female order in Hell. This brings us to the trilogy’s concluding chapter, “The Cilicium Rebellion,” in which Sister Cilice leads an all-star team of of sorts in her quest for control.

Wilde is clearly heavily influenced by, and having a ball playing in, the world Clive Barker created in his novella “The Hellbound Heart.” Her stories share the ideas that Barker examines in so much of his fiction: the co-mingling of pleasure and pain to create sensations to sate even the deepest, most depraved appetites; the desire to break free of normal boundaries to become something more, something better; the reality that a bargain isn’t always a bargain, and that you may not get what you want, but you’re sure to get what’s coming to you.

As companion pieces to Barker’s unique vision of Hell, the stories in “The Cilicium Trilogy” work well enough. But, to be honest, I think the most fun to be had in this collection is when Wilde roams outside Barker’s ranks and follows her own distinct muse. My favorite example is “Zulu Zombies,” in which a guy doing a terrible job of looking after a family heirloom sets off a horrific series of events. Also good is “Writer’s Block,” in which an author whose muse has fled him tries to recharge at a local horror convention. A sordid tryst with a witch and the Devil himself promises great results for the writer…but we all know how deals with the Devil usually turn out.

Voices of the Damned is the work of a fearless artist who is still trying to lock down her own voice. Readers checking out this first step on the path will find that it’s a bit uneven at times, with some rocky stretches along the way, but definitely worth the time in the end.

Review: ‘Stinger’ by Robert McCammon

Stinger by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (October 2015)

StingerSubIn Stinger, Robert McCammon spins the relatively straightforward tale of a benevolent alien who crash lands in the small Texas town of Inferno. Unfortunately for that alien, and for the citizens of Inferno, there’s a second alien in pursuit of the first; a bounty hunter with far more aggressive tendencies. This simple storyline unfolds across one 24-hour period, and yet it takes McCammon more than 600 pages to tell his story.

Bloated? Padded? Not in the slightest, and shame on you for even entertaining the thought. This is epic, apocalyptic storytelling on a small scale. No, 600 pages is not small, but by narrowing his focus to one event in one location, McCammon leaves himself plenty of room to build a vivid cast of characters who are in way over their heads, while life-changing (and potentially world-changing) consequenes hang in the balance.

McCammon has long been known as a horror writer, a label he’s struggled with throughout his career. There are certainly horrific elements in Stinger (the bounty hunter is very, um, goal-oriented, and is not afraid to leave a fair amount of human carnage in its wake), but the book leans heavily toward sci-fi. Much like his recent novel The Border, McCammon uses
those sci-fi trappings not to induce awe and wonder, but terror and dread, making Stinger the kind of hybrid that will leave fans of both genres with plenty to be happy about.

stingerpaperbackAnother surprise in a book this size? The blistering pace. Again, let me draw a favorable comparison to The Border, which clocked in at nearly 500 pages that absolutely flew by. Even early in his career (Stinger was originally published in 1988), McCammon was a master at seamlessly weaving plot advancement and character building. There are many compelling characters with interesting side-stories in Stinger – the two young leaders of opposing gangs; the PTSD-suffering war veteran; the alcoholic father; the ineffectual sheriff, to name just a few – and when McCammon wanders off the path to examine their situations more closely, I doubt you’ll mind at all.

But it’s not all diversion and introspection. McCammon also knows how to write the big set pieces, and there is carnage a-plenty to be found in Stinger. The bounty hunter’s methods of travel and disguise are destructive to buildings and bodies alike. The town of Inferno, quivering on the edge of financial ruin at the book’s beginning, is literally in ruins by the book’s end.

In Stinger, McCammon strikes a near-perfect balance between B-Movie thrills and more serious themes. Kudos to Subterranean Press for adding this to their long list of resurrected, refurbished McCammon classics.

Review: ‘Gator Bait’ by Adam Howe

Gator Bait by Adam Howe
Comet Press (August 2015)

GatorBaitIf I tell you that Adam Howe’s Gator Bait features an out-of-the-way Louisiana bar that has a trapdoor over a swamp in which a giant, ravenous alligator lives, do I really need to tell you anything else? Because, yes, Gator Bait has that very thing, and yes, the gator eats well (and often) throughout the course of this gloriously fun pulp novella.

Well, even though I don’t get paid by the word around here, I suppose I’ll tell you a little more. Gator Bait is anchored by a guy named Hammond, a classic ne’er-do-well who is on the run from a sequence of events that cost him a few fingers. This is a bit of a problem for Hammond, seeing as he’s a juke joint piano player by trade, but he proves to be quite resourceful (not to mention a talented enough musician to overcome the loss of a few digits). He hitches a ride and ends up at The Grinnin’ Gator, a dump of a bar owned by a man named Croker.

Croker is the very definition of “repulsive,” but he’s managed to snag a very attractive woman named Grace as his wife. Grace is drawn to Hammond, now the Gator’s new piano player, and the two quickly enter into a clandestine relationship. Grace tells Hammond about the safe full of money Croker has in his office, and the two begin to cook up a scheme designed to get them both out from under the abusive man’s thumb.

Naturally, things do not go as planned, leading to blood-soaked finale punctuated with double-crossings, gator feedings, and death by moonshine.

Howe takes several familiar elements and spins them into a thoroughly entertaining read. He’s particularly good at bringing the seamy Grinnin’ Gator to life, making it – and the steamy Louisiana swampland that surrounds it – a character in its own right. If you’re anything like me, you’ll power through this one in one sitting and then hit the Internet to track down more of Howe’s work. Gator Bait is tasty stuff, and highly recommended.

Review: ‘The Pretty Ones’ by Ania Ahlborn

The Pretty Ones by Ania Ahlborn
Pocket Star Books (July 2015)

ThePrettyOnesNell Sullivan is the kind of person you want to feel sorry for – but she doesn’t make it easy. She’s a withdrawn, timid mouse of a woman, drifting like a shadow through her workday and retreating each night into the safety of her apartment. She’s regularly dismissed, even picked on, by the women she works with, and her meager attempts to improve her lot in life go about as well as similar attempts did for Stephen King’s Carrie White.

Like Carrie, Nell is a woman with secrets. While she doesn’t have any kind of psychic or telekinetic ability, she is struggling to deal with the various curve balls thrown at her by her own mind. Her thoughts take sudden, vicious turns when she’s confronted by put-downs and disappointments at work; at home, she’s haunted by the memories of an abusive mother and the presence of her mute brother, a silent ball of anger who tries to steer her life and decisions in his chosen directions.

Nell is a tightly wound rubber band, and it doesn’t help matters that it’s 1977 in New York City, and a man they’re calling “Son of Sam” has the whole city on edge. When women in her office begin to die, it’s easy to assume that the infamous killer has targeted them…but each death brings a few more uneasy glances Nell’s way…

Ania Ahlborn has put together a dark, tense novella in The Pretty Ones, her latest release from Pocket Star Books. You’ll begin to suspect the truth behind the killings early on, but Ahlborn plants the seeds for a number of possible outcomes as she goes, making it a fun guessing game right up to the end. I like the compactness of the story, although I wouldn’t have minded a higher page count if it meant we’d get more gritty, 1970s New York City atmosphere. That aside, the character work is solid and the storytelling is engaging, making this a quick but rewarding read.