Review: ‘Blue World’ by Robert McCammon

Blue World by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (August 2015)

Blue_World_by_Robert_McCammonOver the last few years Subterranean Press has gotten heavily into the Robert McCammon business – and cousin, business is a-boomin’. In addition to releasing new works like The Border, they’ve been steadily reissuing the author’s back catalog, bringing us gorgeous new editions of books like The Wolf’s Hour and Stinger. Blue World is their latest McCammon reissue, a new edition of his only short story collection to which they’ve added three previously uncollected stories.

The bulk of the stories in Blue World are horror, and revisiting them makes it easy to see why McCammon drew so many comparisons to Stephen King early in his career. Blue World feels like a spiritual companion to King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, with both featuring short tales that exploit their respective author’s influences while reshaping those influences in each writer’s own unique fashion. Throughout the course of his book, McCammon tackles and twists such classic horror tropes as the outsider learning that the surface perfection of his new community hides something dark and sinister (“He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door”); the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead on Halloween night (“Strange Candy”); and the madness that might be waiting for survivors of an apocalypse (“I Scream Man!”).

McCammon has always been adept at more than horror, and this collection is a fine showcase for some stories that fall just outside of the genre. An example is “Night Calls the Green Falcon,” my personal favorite of the collection, which follows a lonely, forgotten actor from an old serial who comes out of “retirement” to catch a serial killer. McCammon constructs the story just like one of those old chapter plays, complete with cliffhangers, perfectly capturing the spirit of the serials the Green Falcon was famous for. There’s a sense of melancholy in the story, that thing we all feel as we realize that time is passing us by, but it’s counterbalanced by the idea that, sometimes, we can reach out and grab some of that old glory and excitement if we just have the guts to try.

Really, the only story I had issue with in this entire collection is the novella it’s named after. “Blue World” ventures outside the horror realm to tell a very grounded, personal story of redemption. In it, a priest gives in to temptation and falls in love with a porn star; that same porn star is beginning to question her direction in life, and hopes that the man she’s taken up with – a man she doesn’t know is a priest – will be the one to help change her luck. Meanwhile, an obsessed fan is stalking them both with deadly intent. This is McCammon really trying to stretch his wings, and while it works in places it’s not, for me, completely successful. There’s a disconnect there; it feels like McCammon liked the idea enough to pursue it, but didn’t have the strong personal connection to it that makes so much of his work so powerful.

Subterranean Press is releasing Blue World at the perfect time, as it’s truly a trick-or-treat bag full of classic short scares that will get you in the mood for the impending Halloween season. If you’ve let this one get by you in the 25 years (!) since its original release, here’s your chance at redemption.

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: ‘The Redeemers’ by Ace Atkins

The Redeemers by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (July 21, 2015)

RedeemersCoverNow that we’re five books in, the world of Ace Atkins’ “Quinn Colson” series is well-stocked with characters, events, and history. Colson is still the man around whom the stories revolve, the moral center of his family and, whether he believes it or not, all of Tibbehah County; but Atkins has been careful to build up a strong supporting cast along with him. That work pays off handsomely in The Redeemers, in which Colson takes a bit of a back seat while several characters old and new get a chance to shine.

The book opens with Mickey Walls and Kyle Hazlewood, a couple of buddies shooting the breeze at the Huddle House. Mickey guides the discussion to the subject of Larry Cobb, local lumber baron and Mickey’s ex-father-in-law. Larry hasn’t been too nice to Mickey in the wake of his divorce from Tonya, Larry’s daughter, and Mickey has heard that Larry might have screwed Kyle out of some money a while back. They talk about the safe Larry keeps in his house, the one stuffed with money that Larry is afraid to put in a bank. They talk about how ol’ Larry has screwed over a lot of people in Tibbehah County, and wouldn’t it be some fine justice if somebody was to hit the old man where it hurt?

If the guys had stuck to simply venting their frustrations to each other, things would have been better for both of them. Instead, they put together a plan to carry out their little revenge fantasy. That’s bad decision number one. Bad decision number two falls squarely on Mickey, who enlists the help of a couple of “professionals” from Alabama to help carry out the job.

Peewee Sparks is a sloppy, foul-mouthed sloth who loves two things above all else: telling tales about his sexual conquests, and Alabama Crimson Tide football. Chase Clanton is Peewee’s nephew, a dim-witted young man with aspirations to be a hardened criminal, and a love of Alabama Crimson Tide football that rivals that of his uncle. These two spend the book drinking cheap beer, riding around in a van with a mural of Alabama football coaches Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the Lord Jesus painted on the side, and generally bungling every part of Mickey’s scheme they get their hands on.

These two characters are the worst possible representations of Southern men that I can imagine, but don’t dismiss them as over-the-top caricatures. As a life-long Alabama resident, I can tell you that the characterization is, unfortunately, dead on. Not for ALL Southern men, mind you; but they do represent a very small, very disturbing, minority. I’ve met these men, pumped gas alongside these men, stood in line at Wal-Mart with these men, and watched football games with these men. They exist. God help us, they exist.

Anyway, these two buffoons roll into town to help Mickey and Kyle, and things go downhill fast. A house is wrecked, a deputy is shot, and Peewee’s safe-cracking skills prove to be about as legitimate as his sex stories. And, unbeknownst to this foursome of master criminals, there’s information in Larry Cobb’s safe that some very bad men are willing to do very bad things to keep covered up.

Where’s Quinn Colson in all of this? Well, he’s out of a job – Rusty Wise has been elected sheriff, and his first day on the job is the day of the robbery at Larry Cobb’s house. While Quinn considers his future (featuring such options as farming with his long-estranged, recently returned father; reuniting with his still-married ex-wife; or going to Afghanistan for some security work), deputy Lillie Virgil is trying to bring her new boss up to speed while working the Cobb case. Meanwhile, Quinn’s sister has fallen off the wagon and shacked up with some crackheads in Memphis.

Atkins juggles all the plot threads and characters with a deft hand, and the story breezes along on the strength of his comfortable, conversational prose. Atkins also writes books in Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series, and the way he maintains the stylistic differences between the two – the “Spenser” books with their clipped, economical prose, versus the back porch storytelling style of the “Quinn Colson” books – is staggering.

The Redeemers is a big book for the series as a whole. This seemingly small-time heist ultimately results in a major shake-up for some longtime characters and for Tibbehah County as a whole. Atkins clearly isn’t interested in simply maintaining the status quo, and that’s a good sign for the long-term health of this series. The Redeemers – and the “Quinn Colson” series as a whole – gets my highest recommendation.

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.