Review: ‘Jacaranda’ by Cherie Priest

Jacaranda_by_Cherie_Priest2Jacaranda by Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press (January 31, 2015)

Jacaranda is the latest installment in Cherie Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series, an alternate-history steampunk saga that encompasses several additional novels and stories. If you’re unfamiliar with that series, as I was going into this novella, worry not – the connection is tenuous at best. Jacaranda stands firmly on its own as an excellent “weird western” horror tale.

The Jacaranda is an isolated hotel on the tiny island of Galveston, Texas. Like many hotels, it has a somewhat checkered past. In its place there once stood a tree, a blue jacaranda, that was a destination for many heartbroken people. When the hotel went up the tree came down, but people in pain still flocked to the place. Did they come on their own, or were they called their by a greater force? That’s one of the many questions Priest sets before the reader.

The latest person called to the hotel is Juan Miguel Quintero Rios, a padre who is brought in by a nun named Eileen Callahan. Callahan tells the padre about a series of mysterious deaths that have occurred at the hotel, and about her fears that something ancient and powerful are behind them. Rios senses it as well, but with a hurricane bearing down on the hotel and its handful of residents, there’s not much time to get at the root of the problem.

The Jacaranda’s residents are mostly standard horror cannon fodder, a group of disparate people haunted by secrets from their past, but Priest builds the story around three compelling leads – the nun, the priest and a late-arriving Texas Ranger named Horatio Korman. These three are thrust into the path of something that at first seems like a standard-issue haunting; however, as Priest propels the story forward, they soon learn that they are in the crosshairs of something far more powerful than a few run-of-the-mill spirits. Instead, they’ve stumbled upon something ancient, an entity that has grown restless and ambitious. It’s ready to break out of the hotel to spread its influence far and wide, and these three strangers are the last barrier in its way.

There’s not an overwhelming sense of urgency to the story, even as the storm draws near. What you get instead is a steady, insistent pulse-beat of dread. Priest does a good job of keeping the tension tight and the outcome in doubt, right up to the very end.

Again, don’t let the words “steampunk” or “series” keep you from giving this one a chance. Knowledge of the genre or Priest’s “Clockwork Century” is not required; all you need is the love of a good story, because that is exactly what Priest delivers.

Review: ‘Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium’ by Clive Barker

Tortured_Souls_by_Clive_Barker_LargeTortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium by Clive Barker
Subterranean Press (February 2015)

Back in 2001, McFarland Toys teamed up with Clive Barker to hatch “Tortured Souls,” a line of six action figures – monsters, naturally – designed by Barker. Barker’s incredible talents as a visual artist, paired with McFarland’s then-unmatched ability to execute figures of incredible detail, were a perfect combination, but that didn’t stop them from upping the ante by having Barker write a “novelette” that would, um, flesh out the characters while weaving them together in one epic story.

With such an unusual publication history (each figure was packaged with a chapter of the story) it’s likely that a lot of Barker’s fans have not had the opportunity to read the story. Enter Subterranean Press, which has struck up a successful working relationship with the author as of late, and their new edition of Tortured Souls.

The story itself is classic Barker. It involves an ancient, corrupt city known as Primordium; a demonic creature of mysterious origin, the “transformer of human flesh” known as Agonistes; Lucidique, the daughter of a corrupt politician; and Kreiger, the assassin she recruits to help destroy Primordium’s crooked dynasty. These elements (and many more) come together in a short, tightly-woven tale of greed, supernatural forces and violence.

The brevity of the work (not quite 90 pages) is a strength of Tortured Souls. There’s still plenty of room for Barker’s prose to breathe, but things move forward in a relentless and satisfying fashion. Would I like to have more? Absolutely, yes; that being said, the story does not feel rushed or incomplete in any way. While I closed the book knowing that this particular tale of Primordium had been fully told, it seems like there are plenty more stories in that doomed city’s streets, and I hope Barker returns to this world some day.

Agonistes, in particular, is a creature I’d like to read more about. Yes, there are unmistakable similarities to Barker’s more famous Cenobites; Agonistes, like Pinhead and his crew, offers pain of the most intimate kind, and it’s typically pain that the victim has sought out themselves. Is there some relationship between the Cenobites and Agonistes? Maybe that’s just fanboy speculation, but I’d bet I’m not the only wondering.

Tortured Souls is vivid work, and makes a great warm-up for the upcoming Scarlet Gospels. If you missed out on it the story when you could only find it at the toy store, do yourself a favor and snag it now.

Review: ‘October Dreams II’ edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish

OD2_CoverOctober Dreams II edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish
Cemetery Dance (February 2015)

This long-anticipated follow-up to Cemetery Dance’s original “Celebration of Halloween” (from way back in 2000!) proves to be a worthy companion volume, filled with fiction that captures the essence of the haunting season alongside essays and remembrances that recall the favorite Halloween memories of a talented roster of horror authors.

The editors did a great job in selecting fiction that sticks to the book’s narrow theme without feeling repetitive. While the majority of the stories feature supernatural elements, there are also instances where fear springs from human sources. The best of the bunch are the ones that combine the two, such as Ian McDowell’s “Dear Dead Jenny,” in which a 12-year-old boy’s rash decision has tragic consequences. It’s a melancholy story with a surprisingly warm ending, and a real standout in a collection full of strong stories.

Glen Hirshberg’s “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” is more of a traditional ghost story, chock full of great atmosphere and genuine dread. Robert Bloch’s “Pumpkin” features a man returning to his childhood home, where he’s forced to face the vengeful spirit of an old man he once wronged. Joe R. Lansdale tackles ritual sacrifice – what would Halloween be without it? – in typical Joe R. Lansdale fashion, staging the ceremony in a garage rather than an ornate temple or castle. And Ray Bradbury is represented by “The October Game,” in which a man locked in an unhappy marriage plays a deadly game with a cellar full of revelers on Halloween night.

There’s great variety in the essays as well. Some touch on the kinds of dares and adventures many of us undertook during our own childhood Halloweens, like Michael McBride and his buddies searching for underground tunnels in Colorado, or Matthew Costello’s drunken teenage attempt at performing a Satanic ritual. Some recall the way fear becomes almost too real for children during the holiday, like the time Death knocked on Kealan Patrick Burke’s grandparents’ door, or the Halloween when Nate Southard became suddenly, inexplicably terrified of his plastic Spider-Man mask.

What all the essays and stories share in common is their success in conjuring the unique atmosphere of Halloween. I read this book in January, with autumn and Halloween a distant memory buried under a pile of Christmas lights. Yet through these pages I was taken back, not just to this past Halloween, but to all the Halloweens of my youth. I could smell the inside of those cheap plastic masks, and I could feel the weight of a pillowcase full of candy in my hand, and I could hear the skittering of dead leaves tumbling down the sidewalk. I felt fear and happiness and sadness all jumbled together, and it was wonderful.

A suggestion: when you get this book (not if, mind you…when), don’t plow through it all at once like I did. I read it that way because I needed to for this review (and, if I’m honest, I found it really hard to stop). What I look forward to in the future is taking it down when the days begin to grow shorter and there’s a chill in the air; when we’re leaving summer behind and autumn is creeping in. Then I’ll take the book down and read a story, maybe two. I hope you’ll do the same, and that you’ll savor it throughout that long, dark season we all love.

Review: ‘The Lost Level’ by Brian Keene

The Lost Level by Brian Keene
Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00020]Apex Publications (January 19, 2015)

Brian Keene, writer of many interconnected novels, creator of vast mythologies, seems to have found the series he was born to write.

The Lost Level, the first in what I hope will be many tales of inter-dimensional castaway Aaron Pace (and, apparently, I’m going to get my wish), is a love letter to pulp adventurists like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Pace is a dabbler in magic and the occult, and his studies lead him to a method to open doors to other dimensions. As his confidence increases, his exploration of these other dimensions becomes more frequent, until one day he steps through a door that vanishes behind him. Stranded in a strange land with no way to get home, Pace has no choice but to journey onward, trying to learn about this new place, and to discover his own place in it.

When we first meet Pace he’s already been in the “Lost Level” – a place he’d heard whispers of before finding it firsthand – for some time. He’s writing his adventures down, and the tale he tells here is of his first frightening days roaming the land. There’s a lot to tell: his first encounters with bands of dangerous humanoid lizards; his partnering up with the beautiful Kasheena and the fierce, intelligent Bloop; and crossing paths with deadly vegetation, slugs, robots, dinosaurs and more.

If it sounds like Pace’s new home is a crazy-quilt mashup of comic book creatures and pulp novel landscapes, well, that’s because it is. This “Lost Level,” as Pace comes to understand it, is a place where things from all the other dimensions wash up like so much garbage on a beach. For its inhabitants, its a hostile and inescapable trap. For Keene, however, The Lost Level is a rich playground in which childlike fantasies can be brought to life with the skill and precision of a talented artist.

Keene is one of the hardest working writers in the business, and he often comes across in blog posts and in social media as a guy carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. That’s why it’s so great to behold the sense of pure wonder and playfulness and just plain fun that flows through this book. It’s like peeking in a kid’s bedroom while he sits on the floor weaving elaborate stories that involve every toy in his toybox. You know he’s having a damn good time, and you’re right there enjoying it with him.

As a bonus, The Lost Level ties heavily into Keene’s over-arching mythos, The Labyrinth; as such, long-time readers of his work are going to be delighted at the amount of stuff from his other stories that bleeds over into this book. It’s done in such a way that casual readers won’t be lost, so if you haven’t read the Clickers series or Dead Sea or any of his other stuff, worry not. If you’ve read those books, and more, well – there’s plenty for you to look forward to.

The Lost Level perfectly straddles that fine line that separates an “anything goes” mentality from sheer overindulgence. It’s a book chock full of pulp references and great set pieces, but it never strays too far from the characters at its heart. This is far and away my favorite thing that Keene has written thus far, and I can’t wait to see where he takes the story from here.

Review: THE DEEP by Nick Cutter

DeepCoverThe Deep by Nick Cutter
Gallery Books (January 13, 2015)

I stopped taking notes about halfway through The Deep, because taking notes was interrupting the flow of the story, and I really didn’t want to put the book down.

That’s the first cliché I’ll use in this review: “I could not put this book down.” No promises that it will be the last.

I expected to like The Deep. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book by “Nick Cutter” (actually Canadian novelist Craig Davidson)The Troop, when I read it earlier this year (I’d link to the review I wrote for FEARnet, but FEARnet, alas, is no more) so I figured I’d enjoy this one too. What I didn’t expect was to be bowled over, knocked out, roughed up and just plain blown away by The Deep. (How many clichés was that?)

But here – let me catch my breath, give you some details on the book, and return with a less hyperbolic appreciation of it, shall I? The Deep follows veterinarian Luke Nelson to the deepest point of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, where he’s been summoned by his brother Clayton. Clayton is a brilliant scientist who has been eight miles down for some time, working with a strange undersea substance called “ambrosia” that may offer a cure for “The ‘Gets,” a mysterious plague that is slowly eroding the minds of people all over the planet. One of the scientists working with Clayton has already returned to the surface in some distress, and there’s real concern that things have gone terribly wrong  down below.

Luke boards a sub piloted by Alice “Al” Sykes, a Navy commander with several trips to the undersea research lab, the Trieste, already under her belt. It’s a potentially boring trip, but Cutter – who has slowly been turning the tension up by degrees – takes the opportunity to set readers and characters alike on edge. By the time the duo reach the Trieste, there’s a palpable sense that things have already gone wrong and yet are about to get much, much worse. (Spoiler alert: they do.)

Real dread and fear are difficult things to conjure in written form, but that’s exactly what Cutter accomplishes in The Deep. The sense of isolation is oppressive, and the longer Luke is under water the more it becomes apparent that nothing in his life – not this expedition, and nothing in his tragic past – has been mere fate. “Everything happens for a reason” is yet another cliché, but it’s a concept that Cutter wields in new and surprising ways here.

While the atmosphere Cutter builds in these pages is admirable, this is not a “quiet” horror novel. Those who enjoyed the buckets of blood he slopped around the pages of The Troop will find plenty more where that came from, utilized here with even more precision and impact. The unflinching gore is one place where the shadows of Stephen King and Clive Barker – Cutter/Davidson has credited both as major influences in the past – fall heavily over this book. King is especially present here; the Trieste, in all its silent, purposeful malevolence, could just as easily have been called The Overlook.

There’s an abundance of spider imagery in the book, another nod to King, perhaps, one of a couple that can be traced back to King’s massive novel It – there’s also a stand pipe in Luke and Clayton’s past that will remind many of a similar location in King’s town of Derry. You could argue that maybe there’s a touch too much spider imagery, as every description of fear seems to involve tiny legs tracing up someone’s spine, or something light scuttling across a character’s scalp, or some such – even the Trieste is described in one particularly vivid section as spider-like. It was enough that it eventually began to pull me out of the story when it occurred, but I have to admit it was damn effective every time, so I really can’t count it as an issue.

The Deep was the last book I finished in 2014, and it promptly shoved its way into my top ten reads of the year. It’s an exciting start for the horror genre in 2015, and a great next step for Cutter. This is going to be a tough one to top in the new year.

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

Review: ‘Dark Screams Volume One’ edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

e_chizmar01Random House chose wisely in selecting Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar to edit their new horror anthology series, Dark Screams. Chizmar, as many of you who regularly stop by October Country already know, is the founder of Cemetery Dance, one of the horror genre’s premier publishers, and Freeman is an integral part of that self-same company. Their work with Cemetery Dance has put Chizmar and Freeman squarely in the path of the genre’s biggest names and brightest up-and-coming talents. Who better to put together a lineup of stories that will educate readers new to horror on its vast potential, while still appealing to those who’ve waded deep into the genre’s depths?

To be honest, this first volume of stories is likely going to appeal more to those who don’t already have a bookshelf full of the scary stuff. Experienced horror readers may find that these stories tread some overly familiar paths in terms of the twists and surprises they have in store. On the other hand, Dark Screams Volume One could serve as a fantastic gateway drug to introduce those who aren’t overly familiar with dark fiction to that which they have been missing.

Who better to kick off a new horror anthology than Stephen King? “Weeds” is a story many people will be familiar with thanks to the movie Creepshow, which used this story as the basis for the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” You know the one – it features King as a cartoonish buffoon who falls afoul of a meteor that lands on his farmland. But few will have read this version – it’s never been included in one of King’s short story collections. The movie version sticks fairly close to the original prose, although poor Jordy is not quite as inept as King portrayed him in the movie. It’s definitely reminiscent of King’s Night Shift-era work, and would have been right at home in that collection.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelley Armstrong reunites two old friends, Kara and Ingrid, who share a troubled past. Ingrid’s devotion to Kara has proved uncomfortably strong in the past, and Kara has found herself in a number of difficult situations as a result. When Ingrid shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Kara decides it’s time to take a stand. The story twists in on itself from there, and you’ll probably make at least one wrong assumption about where things are headed before all is said and done.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” features as unreliable narrator as you’re likely to find: Edward James Tolliver, currently residing in an asylum after murdering his wife. Tolliver is keeping a journal at the encouragement of his therapist, and Pronzini structures Tolliver’s entries so that we get a real sense of the hopelessness and paranoia closing in on the man. Tolliver believes that something invaded and possessed his wife, and that was what he was trying to kill – and whatever that entity was, he believes something similar has followed him into the institution. Is he crazy, or is he right? Pronzini does a great job of keeping both his characters and his readers off-balance throughout the story.

“Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark is the most brutal offering here, a visceral tale that provides plenty in the way of action but little in the way of answers. A man wakes up in a subterranean tunnel, and he’s chained by the neck to another man. His chain-mate wakes up in a nasty mood, and begins brutally murdering people who have been chained to the walls of the tunnel. From that simple, unsettling premise Clark spins a violent and unpleasant tale that’s probably going to divide readers right down the middle because of its ambiguity.

Ramsey Campbell wraps the volume of tales up with “The Watched,” a quiet tale that’s surreal and unsettling. A young boy, Jimmy, is recruited by a former policeman to keep an eye on the neighbors. Jimmy is afraid to spy, and he’s afraid not to, and even when the cop is involved in an accident the young boy can find no relief. Although the policeman couldn’t still be at their meeting spot, something is there…and as Jimmy watches, that something seems to be moving closer.

This is a solid collection of quick reads, a nice selection of appetizers that represent the horror genre and many of its incarnations well.