Review: ‘The Acolyte’ by Nick Cutter

The Acolyte by Nick Cutter
ChiZine Publications (May 2015)

TheAcolyte-NickCutterAs “Nick Cutter,” author Craig Davidson has already built a reputation as a go-for-broke kind of horror writer; the kind that shies away from nothing, be it disturbing imagery or disturbing ideas. His latest novel, The Acolyte, is the first of Cutter’s books to tip the scales appreciably in favor of idea over imagery. Don’t get me wrong – there’s more than a dollop of blood and guts in The Acolyte, but there are also moments of almost unbelievable restraint; times in which Cutter realizes that what he’s writing about is shocking enough without rolling it in viscera to boot. It’s these moments that help make this his most powerful book yet.

The world of The Acolyte is one ruled by religion, a perversion of the Christian faith that is more about bureaucracy and judgement than love and forgiveness. Cities are ruled by government-appointed Prophets; “heathens” such as Jews are consigned to fenced-off ghettos; scientific advancement has been halted, and measurements come straight out of the Bible (furlongs instead of miles, for example); and the rules are enforced by squads of highly-trained officers known as Acolytes. Cutter has done a tremendous piece of world-building in this book, organically laying out its structure and rules, creating a society that’s both uncomfortably recognizable and completely alien at the same time.

Jonah Murtag is an Acolyte, a devout follower who is good at his job, yet has somehow retained enough of an open mind that he’s not immune to doubt. The tiny cracks in his faith begin to widen as a series of suicide bombings rock his city. When he witnesses one of these bombings in person, he realizes that the usual culprits may not be behind this particular surge of violence. His investigation into the bombings, coupled with his relationship with a fellow Acolyte, soon proves to be the biggest test of faith Murtag will ever encounter.

The Acolyte is a spiritual cousin to another dystopian novel, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like Bradbury’s fireman Guy Montag, Murtag (the name itself a nice nod to Bradbury’s work) is an appointed official tasked with keeping the peace through means that he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with. Both men have been raised and trained to think a certain way, but neither of them is able to fully suppress the idea that this certain way may not be the “right” way. And, like Montag, once Murtag begins to break away from the pack and act on his newfound ideals, he finds that his position within the system offers little in the way of protection.

I don’t know a thing about Cutter’s personal faith or his views on organized religion, but he does not paint a pretty picture of either of those concepts here. In the world of The Acolyte, religion is one big tent revival, a flashy show that keeps the rubes in line, keeps the church coffers lined with cash, and dispenses little in the way of actual salvation. Mix that with Cutter’s gut-punch style of writing, and you’re left with a book that is going to be a difficult read for some. It’s also an excellent read for those that can handle it. As with his previous books, Cutter heartily embraces horror fiction while pushing it beyond its limitations. The Acolyte is highly recommended.

Review: ‘Nothing Lasting’ by Glen Krisch

Nothing Lasting by Glen Krisch
Cemetery Dance (November 20, 2014)

nothinglastingComing-of-age stories have long been fertile ground for horror writers – if “The Body” by Stephen King and Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon don’t immediately spring to mind when you hear the term “coming-of-age,” then you have some reading to do. But those are just two examples out of a mountain of stories and novels that feature young characters learning hard truths about life, family and self amidst difficult, often horrific, circumstances.

When you add Glen Krisch’s Nothing Lasting to that mountain, be sure and add it somewhere near the top. Featuring richly drawn characters, complex family dynamics and the requisite unsolved small-town mystery, Nothing Lasting doesn’t reinvent the coming-of-age story, but it does delivers a fresh take on the material.

Our young hero is a boy named Noah Berkley, he of the life recently turned upside-down. His parents have split up, his beloved grandfather has died, and he’s being taken back to his father’s hometown to live. To make matters worse, Noah’s mother isn’t putting up much of a battle to keep him, and it looks like his father has a second family already on standby:
Erin Dooling, his high school sweetheart, and her brooding son, Derek.

Derek immediately grabs the upper hand in their forced relationship, dragging Noah into some criminal mischief and then gleefully holding it over his head. As Noah tries to find some corner of this new life to fit in, he becomes aware of a long-ago tragedy that continues to cast a shadow over the town. Further complicating matters are a series of revelations about his own family that force him to confront the idea that his childhood has never truly been the ideal situation he believed it to be.

There is a lone bright spot for Noah, and her name is Jenny Sparrow. Jenny has never had the chance to believe her life was ideal, and these two wounded children gravitate toward one another, finally finding someone else to share in their once-private confusion, anger and resentment.

Krisch does a great job of building these characters and their relationships while slowly – but not too slowly – pushing the story forward with a series of expertly-timed reveals and revelations. Add a few red herrings and at least one monster of a twist, and you’ve got a
thoroughly satisfying page-turner of a mystery that doubles as an enjoyable character study. The book’s big reveal might be straight out of any number of serial killer stories – and might, in fact, be seen from a mile away by those playing particularly close attention – but it
doesn’t diminish the impact of the story as a whole.

In the end, you’ll be rooting for a happy ending for Noah and Jenny, because by the end you’ll have come to care for them. Whether that’s what you – and they – get is up for you to find out on your own.

Re-Reading King: ‘The Shining’

The Shining by Stephen King

Doubleday | January 28, 1977

'The Shining' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1977) (First Edition)

‘The Shining’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1977)
(First Edition)

I bought my first copy of The Shining at a sidewalk sale my favorite (then and now) used bookstore was having. It was the paperback edition with the metallic silver cover that has the faceless head of a child front and center. The top right corner of the cover had been clipped off, and the bookstore’s name – Trade ‘n Books – was stamped on the side opposite the spine. I was in the early stages of discovering King, those heady days when I had lots of books of his to catch up on, and this was one of a batch of paperbacks I bought that day – I think it also included Different Seasons and maybe Firestarter – for something like fifty cents apiece.

Did I read it before seeing the movie? I honestly don’t remember. Those days are a blur of discovery now, some 30 years later, and the order of things has been irrevocably shuffled about. But I know I blazed through it at the same rate I blazed through King’s other works, and that while it left certain indelible images behind (the hornets in Danny’s room, the thing that Jack became smashing its face in with the roque mallet), I didn’t feel the full force of its impact until the readings that came much later.

Reading it again over the past couple of weeks, I’m struck at just how much tension King was able to work in from page one. Jack is a man very much on edge, and he’s already teetering when we meet him. At first, he seemed to me like the kind of guy that I should feel bad for, except that I couldn’t get over how many of his unlucky breaks have come because of his own terrible decision making. But King’s gentle touch with characters rescues Jack, forcing you to see that, although this is the kind of guy who could very easily be the author of his own undoing, he’s really fighting hard against those destructive impulses.

'The Shining' (Signet Paperback, 1978) (Reading Copy)

‘The Shining’
(Signet Paperback, 1978)
(Reading Copy)

I firmly believe that if Jack Torrance had gone to work as the winter caretaker for any other isolated hotel, he would have been fine. He would have completed (as much as anyone can) his recovery from alcoholism; he would have repaired and rebuilt his relationship with his wife and son; he would have finished his play; he would have emerged from the Colorado wilderness refreshed, re-energized, creatively motivated and newly confidant. He was so close.

But he went to work at The Overlook. And The Overlook, as the host to something twisted and insidious, went to work on Jack, digging its fingers into the healing cracks of his psyche, widening the schisms he was working so hard to repair. The Overlook won because it picked on a man that was weak, even though he was trying to be strong; The Overlook won because, in Jack’s son, it found a psychic amplifier that boosted its considerable powers to the point where hope was forever lost to Jack.

That, to me, is the saddest part of re-reading The Shining. Every time I go back I find myself identifying with Jack, rooting for Jack, more and more. But now, unlike that first reading all those years ago, I understand that Jack Torrance never stood a chance.

There’s a reason this one stands tall on so many “My Favorite King” lists. The strength of the characterization, combined with the genuine scares King evokes, has not faded with time. Thought-provoking, sad, tense and scary, The Shining would be a crowning achievement for many writers; as it stands, it’s but one of many such accomplishments for King.

Re-Reading King: The Index

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

DS2Dark Screams Volume Two edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Hydra (March 3, 2015)

Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar continue their mission of educating new horror readers, and enthralling old genre-reading vets like myself, with this second installment of their Dark Screams anthology series. As with the first volume, the editors have picked these tales without a definitive theme in mind, giving them free reign to choose stories based solely on their ability to evoke fear. In this they have succeeded, putting together a compilation that is, on the whole, a more satisfying reading experience than it’s very good predecessor.

Volume Two opens with a classic reprint by Robert R. McCammon, “The Deep End,” a good old-fashioned monster tale the likes of which the author built his early career on. People are dying in the local public pool, and one grieving father takes it upon himself to figure out why. What follows is a textbook example of how to build a short horror story: the father investigates the mystery, discovers something that no one will believe, and finds himself as the sole person in a position to put a stop to the madness. The resulting encounter is tense and gripping, a strongly executed finale written by a master who was just finding his groove.

“Interval” has the unenviable task of following up the McCammon piece, but Norman Prentiss is more than up to the job. A plane has gone missing, and a young airline employee works through the night, walking a tricky line between offering too much or too little hope to the exhausted family members waiting at the airport for news. There’s a man there who at first seems to be helping, offering comfort to those who are grieving, but something about him seems…off. Prentiss makes his reveal at just the right moment, transforming the story from a straightforward account of the unique hell that is waiting for bad news into a surreal, effective nightmare.

“If These Walls Could Talk” by Shawntelle Madison was frustrating in one way, because it featured a horror heroine making a classic horror heroine mistake – not suspecting the one person she should suspect of causing the trouble around her. That issue aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” that contains some genuinely creepy moments.

“The Night Hider” by Graham Masterton is a dark brother to another classic tale: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. In fact, just as I was making that connection in my mind, Masterton pulls Lewis and his beloved novel directly into the story. There’s a wardrobe, yes, but instead of leading the way to a magical kingdom, it serves as the hiding place for a man; a dark, burned man with revenge on his mind. Masterton’s brutal shocker is my favorite story out of this collection.

Richard Christian Matheson closes out Dark Screams Volume Two with “Whatever,” which chronicles the rise and fall of an American rock ‘n roll sensation. Matheson tells their story (which, while not exactly horror, is – like the story of many musicians – a tragedy) in disjointed fashion, spelling out events in snippets of conversation, memos, a reporter’s notes, song lyrics and interviews. It’s a difficult technique to pull off but Matheson makes it work, mixing up voices and writing styles to great effect. Technique without story is just empty showmanship, but Matheson’s story has a strong backbone: the familiar-yet-engaging story of a rock band trying to make more than some memorable party anthems, and the many ways in which success and scrutiny can rip the tightest bonds apart. It’s not scary, but somehow it works, and it makes for a fine closer for this collection.

Freeman and Chizmar continue to showcase the versatility of horror with their Dark Screams series. I believe the duo have three more volumes in the works, but I’m already hoping the project continues after those are done.

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.