Review: ‘Teaching the Dog to Read’ by Jonathan Carroll

Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll
Subterranean Press (August 2015)

Teaching_the_Dog_to_Read_by_Jonathan_CarrollJonathan Carroll’s Teaching the Dog to Read is a surreal reading experience, an off-kilter exercise that examines what happens when your body is at rest and your consciousness is free to roam.

It begins in the waking world, when average office drone Anthony Arreal recieve an unexpected gift: an expensive watch he’s been coveting for years. The following week there’s a Porsche waiting for him in his workplace parking lot, and inside the Porsche sits the woman of his dreams. It’s almost to good to be true. But Anthony Arreal is about to learn that the truths he’s been holding on to his entire life are as malleable as a handful of wet clay.

To tell you more would spoil the strange trip Carroll has planned for readers. As is often the case, he’s not interested in clinging to our established rules of reality; he’s bending them to his will, adding dashes of concepts like fate, reincarnation and lucid dreaming to create his own rules. It can be as dizzying for the reader as it is for poor Anthony Arreal: but the readers, at least, can rest easy, knowing they’re in the hands of a master craftsman with a solid endgame in mind.

Carroll plays with these big ideas in a compact (90 pages) space, leaving little room for fluff or diversion. The result is a fast read that lingers long after the final page is turned; a story that will come to mind in those disorienting waking moments we all have when coming out of a dream, wondering if we’re awake or if we’re still in the grip of our mind-movie. Carroll has found a way to tap into those moments and channel them into his work. Fortunately for us, his stories don’t fade when we finish them. Highly recommended.

Review: ‘Thieves Fall Out’ by Gore Vidal

Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime (April 2015)

The Hard Case Crime edition of Gore Vidal's 'Thieves Fall Out.'

The Hard Case Crime edition of Gore Vidal’s ‘Thieves Fall Out.’

In 1953, Fawcett Gold Medal published Thieves Fall Out, a crime novel set against a backdrop of political unrest in Egypt. Written by an unheralded author known as Cameron Kay, this minor piece of pulp fiction came and went without much fanfare. It has remained in obscurity since then, unavailable in any new printing and unknown to all but a handful of readers and scholars who knew the truth: “Cameron Kay” was actually respected American writer Gore Vidal.

Vidal wrote the novel when he was 28, and reportedly never thought much of it. When the book came to the attention of Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai, he immediately approached Vidal about republishing it, but Vidal wasn’t interested. After the author passed away in 2012, Ardai approached his agent and estate and was granted permission to reprint the book. The new edition was released in April of this year.

If you remove Vidal’s name and legacy from Thieves Fall Out, what you’re left with is fairly standard pulp fare. It’s the story of Pete Wells, an American drifter of sorts who finds himself broke and just this side of desperate in an Egypt that is teetering on the edge of revolution. He becomes entangled with a woman named Hélène and a man known as Hastings; the pair have a job they need done and they feel Wells is just the man to do it. The duo remains disturbingly coy about what exactly the job is, but Wells is in little position to make demands, so he goes along with their scheme. Eventually it’s revealed that the pair are working to smuggle a valuable necklace out of the country, and Wells is their chosen vessel.

Fawcett Gold Medal's edition of 'Thieves Fall Out' by "Cameron Kay."

Fawcett Gold Medal’s edition of ‘Thieves Fall Out’ by “Cameron Kay.”

Of course, in fine thriller tradition, things are not quite what they seem. There’s a police inspector, incredibly (and distractingly) named Mohammed Ali, who may or may not be “on the take;” there’s a love interest, a woman with a Nazi background and a suspicious relationship with the Egyptian king; and there’s a shadowy puppet master named Le Mouche who may be friend or may be foe.

Thieves advances at a methodical pace – not to the point that it plods, mind you, but patience is definitely a virtue. The writing is uneven at times; the young Vidal proves adept at depicting both the beauty and the grit of the Egyptian setting, but stumbles over the occasional clumsy phrase. There are no big action set pieces to speak of, but things accelerate entertainingly towards the end. It’s the kind of curiosity that Hard Case Crime excels at producing: a peek into the formative years of a gifted and influential writer, and an enjoyable if not essential addition to the crime genre.

Review: ‘Midian Unmade’ edited by Joseph Nassise and Del Howison

Midian Unmade edited by Joseph Nassise and Del Howison
Tor (July 28, 2015)

MidianUnmadeTwo of Clive Barker’s most famous mythologies – the worlds of Hellraiser and Nightbreed – have proven to be rich playgrounds for other creators. In addition to film, both have been interpreted in comics and, now, anthologies. The world of the Cenobites was explored by several top genre authors in 2009’s Hellbound Heartsnow, with this week’s release of Midian Unmade, the Nightbreed get the same treatment.

The Nightbreed first appeared in 1988 in Barker’s short novel Cabal. Like the movie Hellraiser, which Barker adapted from his novella “The Hellbound Heart,” the author was tapped to write and direct the film version of the book. Nightbreed managed to be both a faithful adaptation and something of a hot mess all at the same time, thanks in no small part to studio over-involvement. A long-clamored-for director’s cut of the movie was recently released, and now the Nightbreed are getting more attention with this new anthology.

All of these stories take place after the events of the book and film. SPOILER TIME: In short, the Nightbreed, a race of creatures with varying abilities, appearances and ferocity, had found a safe haven to live away from humans, a place they called Midian. A man named Boone finds his way to Midian, is “turned” into one of them, and unwillingly brings about the destruction of their sanctuary. As the surviving Nightbreed scatter, Boone, now Cabal, promises to find them a new safe place, where he will gather them together once again.

Now, that’s a natural place for follow-ups like these stories to take place, following different members of the Tribe as they try to make their way in a world that hates and hunts them; however, it’s also somewhat limiting. Many of the authors represented here were drawn to the themes of loneliness and longing to belong that Barker’s original work concentrates on, and while that makes for some powerful fiction, it also results in a sense of sameness that permeates the collection, especially throughout the first half of the book.

A handful of later stories stray from these themes, and a couple of those stand out as my favorites. C. Robert Cargill’s “I Am the Night You Never Speak Of” is a brutal tale of a Nightbreed who feeds on the sin of others, ultimately satisfying himself with the corruption of a human and the destruction of a fellow Nightbreed. “Wretched,” by Edward Brauer, is the disturbing, atmospheric story of an unhappy family, their lonesome friend, and the scary old man they rescue at sea.

There are several other memorable stories in Midian Unmade, many of which feature direct callbacks to the source material. If you’re familiar with names like Boone, and Baphomet, and Lylesburg, and Peloquin, and Decker, you’ll find plenty of material here to make you happy. Those coming into this collection without first-hand knowledge of the Nightbreed’s story need not worry; while it’s infinitely more rich and rewarding material if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, things are explained adequately enough (multiple times) to ensure that confusion won’t get in the way of your enjoyment.

While I would have loved to see more stories about the Nightbreed before they came to Midian, or while they were in Midian, rather than an overload of stories after Midian’s fall, I still believe Midian Unmade serves the source material and its creator well. Fans of Clive Barker, or of good dark fiction in general, will want to be sure to add this to their shelves.

Review: ‘Bull Mountain’ by Brian Panowich

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (July 7, 2015)

BullMountainBrian Panowich makes a blistering debut with Bull Mountain, a multi-generational family saga and a withering expose of outlaw life.

The story begins in 1946 as three members of the Burroughs clan, including 9-year-old Gareth, hunt deep in the woods of Bull Mountain, discussing the future of the family and their land. Rye Burroughs thinks selling the timber rights on part of the family’s land is a good idea; his brother, Gareth’s father Cooper, strongly disagrees. The way in which Cooper expresses his opposition sets a brutal tone, both for the remainder of the novel and for the direction of young Gareth’s life.

After this gripping first chapter Panowich jumps ahead to 2015. Another Burroughs, Clayton, is sheriff of McFalls County, Georgia. While Clayton’s official jurisdiction includes Bull Mountain, everyone knows Clayton’s brother Halford is the real law up there. Halford embodies the family’s love of outlaw living, but his decision to change cash crops from marijuana to meth is bringing a new element of danger to life on the mountain. Clayton, meanwhile, is determined to live a different kind of life than the rest of his family. He and Halford have maintained an uneasy distance for most of their adult lives, but the arrival of one Special Agent Simon Holly is about to set them on a tragic collision course.

Once all of the major players are established, Panowich bounces back and forth in time, showing the roots of old grudges and the consequences of past decisions. While the book isn’t loaded with traditional cliffhangers, he does have a knack for heating things up in one timeline and then moving you back (or forward) to the other. There’s a point towards the end where I thought this technique was going to backfire on the author, as Panowich focuses some major time on a seemingly minor character. It struck me as a pleasant enough diversion that nonetheless had me impatient to get back to the main story. “This should be a book of its own,” I thought, and then Panowich revealed this “minor” character’s real role in things, and I realized the guy knows what he’s doing, so maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

In an interview that accompanied the advance copy of the book, Panowich talked about his desire to write more books about Bull Mountain – not direct sequels, necessarily, but stories featuring other characters in his fictional Georgia setting. I love when authors build whole worlds and populate them with believable characters – Panowich mentions Elmore Leonard’s approach, and of course I think immediately of Stephen King and the way he would revisit places like Castle Rock and Derry.

Bull Mountain is a pitch black novel, but it’s tinged with real hope, and that’s something that separates it from the pack of meth-and-outlaw-fueled Southern fiction that’s all the rage these days. Brian Panowich has charted his first few steps in what I believe is going to be a rich and rewarding career, and I’ll happily follow him down whatever path he takes next.

Review: ‘Mercy House’ by Adam Cesare

Mercy House by Adam Cesare
Hydra (June 9, 2015)

Remember that scene in The Return of the Living Dead, when Linnea Quigley’s character is describing her idea of the worst way to die?

“Well, for me, the worst would be for a bunch of old men to get around me and start biting me and eating me alive.”

MHIt’s a nightmarish image for a variety of reasons. I don’t know if  Adam Cesare had this quote rattling around in the catacombs when he conceived Mercy House (out now in various digital formats from Hydra), but the imagery he conjures up in the book makes Quigley’s throwaway line pale in comparison.

Mercy House is a huge Gothic mansion that now serves as a nursing home for elderly residents. As the book opens, Don and Nikki Laurel arrive with Don’s mother, Harriet, in tow. Harriet is in the early stages of dementia, a condition that is particularly straining on her already complicated relationship with her daughter-in-law. The three are whisked around campus by a cloyingly chipper tour guide, a woman in expensive clothes who has had plenty of practice spinning even the most depressing elements of retirement home living into polished gold. The tour culminates in a dinner attended by several members of the staff and some of the higher- functioning residents – and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Something has been brewing at Mercy House all day, something only the residents have been able to detect. Residents have been feeling stronger, fresher, and sharper than they have in years. One woman emerges from a months-long coma with surprising strength and a noticeable change in demeanor. But the changes go beyond helping these old, broken-down people feel better – they continue to evolve; their base instincts become amplified, and it doesn’t take long before any semblance of civility or self-control is abandoned.

The dinner erupts into a shocking bloodbath, and chaos simultaneously breaks out all over Mercy House. The residents soon form loose factions and begin hunting down the young, unaffected staff members for a variety of purposes: a group of military veterans seek to control the facility’s food and drug supply using brutal tactics; others roam the hallways
seeking to violently settle old feuds with staff members and fellow residents; another group, led by a woman known around Mercy House for her insatiable sexual appetite, heads down to the facility’s lower levels to indulge in more carnal pleasures.

I know I’m being almost coy in my descriptions here; rest assured that is not the approach the author takes. Cesare has always brought a cinematic feel to his writing, and Mercy House is no exception. Spilled blood, broken bones and geriatric sex are all unspooled with gleeful abandon by the author, who has yet to meet a taboo he’s afraid to describe in vivid terms.

But it should be noted that Mercy House marks another step forward for Cesare, who continues to hone the elements of his work that go beyond blood and guts. His pacing and characterization gets better with each new release, and there’s a growing maturity to his work that’s a joy to see. Cesare has written a lot of good horror in his short career; I think, eventually, he’s going to write something great. In the meantime, Mercy House is the kind of no-holds-barred thrill ride that horror junkies like us love to find. Download and digest it at your earliest convenience.

Review: ‘The Border’ by Robert McCammon

The Border by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (May 2015)

BorderCoverWhen Robert McCammon made his return to writing and publishing back in 2002, I wondered if he’d ever write horror again. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he didn’t; after all, it was the way short-sighted publishers pigeon-holed him as a “horror writer” that played a major part in his decade-long absence. Once he returned and his series of historical thrillers (the Matthew Corbett series) began to take hold, I figured McCammon had chosen a new, permanent direction; and again, who could blame him? With each book, he was proving that restricting him to one genre was a huge mistake. Beyond that, he was finding joy in his work, the greatest reward any artist can ask for.

Then came the news, nearly ten years after his triumphant return, that he was revisiting a classic character from his past: Michael Gallatin, the spy/werewolf from The Wolf’s Hour. A couple of years later we got I Travel by Nighta new vampire novella. And now comes The Border, and it feels like McCammon has come home, writing the kind of sprawling, epic horror that he churned out so effortlessly at the beginning of his career.

The Border opens two years after alien forces appeared on Earth. Rather than working together to conquer the planet, these two races – the Gorgons and the Cyphers, as they came to be called – were at war with one another. Our planet was reduced to a piece of real estate they were fighting over, although no one knew why it was important to them. Neither race appeared to have much interest in preserving the planet’s resources, or its population, and by the time McCammon brings us in, there’s very little of either left. Our weapons are all but useless against them, and civilization has been reduced to small, scattered pockets of survivors. It’s a hopeless situation.

And yet, this is a novel full of hope, much of which is embodied in a young boy named Ethan. Ethan has no memory of who he really is, and very little understanding of what he is becoming. But it’s soon apparent to Ethan – and to the people of Panther Ridge, the housing complex-turned-fortress where Ethan is taken in – that he’s becoming something other than human. Something that might be able to end this war once and for all.

The_Border_by_Robert_McCammon_Signed_Limited_Edition_CoverNow, I understand that I’ve already characterized this as horror, but have so far described a plot heavy on the science fiction side. Make no mistake – it’s both. I personally tip it to the horror side for a couple of reasons: A) because apocalyptic scenarios are frightening to me; and B) because of the Gray Men. The Gray Men are mutants, they are cannibals, and they are utterly terrifying. They are beings of constant hunger, and the manner in which the pollution of the alien war transforms these poor, wretched people is nothing short of horrific. There are several incredibly tense scenes involving the Gray Men in The Border, each of them a testament to the power of McCammon’s imagination and craft.

If you’ve read any review by me here or elsewhere on the Internet, you know that it’s my opinion that the most important element of a book or story is the characters. If I’m not reading about people I can care about and invest in, it’s going to be difficult for me to say nice things. That’s not a problem here. The cast is well done from top to bottom, from tough-guy-with-a-heart Dave McKane to strong, confident Panther Ridge leader Olivia Quintero to silver-tongued shyster Jefferson Jericho. But the real triumph is Ethan. By the time we meet Ethan, he’s not the boy he once was; in fact, the boy he once was is barely there at all. That we not only come to care so much for the being that Ethan is becoming, but also the fragments of the human left in its wake, is another great accomplishment by the author.

I’m not going to touch on the ending – spoilers aren’t my thing – but I’m very curious as to how it’s going to play to other readers. It’s the kind of solution that, if not handled carefully, could be seen as a gimmick or a cheat. But in McCammon’s skilled hands it played just right to me, and was really all I could hope for in a resolution to this particular story. It ties things up neatly, and yet leaves the door wide open for other possibilities at the same time.

The Border is a big book with the kind of epic, time- and place-spanning feel of other big books like The Stand. It’s also amazingly focused, using its 400+ pages to follow a specific path that its many detours and side trips can’t muddy. It’s the kind of book you get lost in, and emerge from wondering where the time has gone, and when you’re done you wonder how you read it that fast. It’s a book that has cemented my intention to follow Robert McCammon down whatever path, into whatever genre, he chooses to go.

Review: ‘Kickback’ by Ace Atkins

Kickback by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May 19, 2015)

KickbackAce Atkins continues to hit all the right notes as curator of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series in Kickback, the 45th overall Spenser novel and the fourth written by Atkins. In this latest adventure we get to watch as Spenser connects dots that run from a private juvenile detention facility in Boston Harbor, through a couple of buddy-buddy judges in Blackburn, Massachusetts, all the way down to the sunny beaches of Tampa, Florida. Along the way we’re treated to Atkins’ flawless approximation of Parker’s style as he maintains the sharp plotting and witty banter that helped make Spenser so popular in the first place.

Kickback opens with a woman walking through Spenser’s door with a sandwich and a problem – two things guaranteed to get a response from the private investigator. Sheila Yates is looking for help for her son, Dillon, who’s serving time at a local juvenile detention facility because he set up a fake Twitter account as a prank on his vice principal. Like many of Blackburn’s youth, Dillon has run afoul of the town’s famous “zero tolerance” judge, Joe Scali. Scali believes in no free passes and no breaks, sentencing  kids to months-long stretches for the slightest indiscretions. As Spenser begins to nose around the case, he finds that Scali’s intentions may be less about reducing juvenile crime and more about increasing his personal wealth.

I won’t go any further into the plot, because the main appeal of the series is joining Spenser and his cast of supporting characters (Kickback includes appearances by Hawk and, of course, Spenser’s lovely constant companion, Susan) as they go through their paces. Atkins does a great job of exploring the ways P.I. work can go from routine to deadly with little notice. He also knows the perfect time to drop in the little details that enrich the characters and the world they inhabit – the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and, more importantly, what those things say about them as people.

Is it formulaic? Yes. Atkins is not out to upend the world Parker created. Spenser is basically the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, and that’s the way we like it. It’s comfort food, and when done right, there’s nothing better than comfort food. If you prefer to see Atkins unfettered by rules he didn’t create, check out the next book in his series about Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson (The Redeemers, out on July 21). But until then, join him as he takes a walk in the well-worn shoes of one of our best mystery writers. With every new Spenser novel, he proves that the trust placed in him by Robert Parker’s family to continue his legacy was well-founded.