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: ‘Rumrunners’ by Eric Beetner

Rumrunners by Eric Beetner
280 Steps (May 2015)

RRCoverCriminal empires share many commonalities with more legitimate businesses; including the fact that they are often built on the backs of blue collar workers, the faceless worker bees and foot soldiers that bear the brunt of the labor and receive little or no glory. In Rumrunners, the empire is the Stanley family, and the worker bees are the McGraws. The Stanleys and McGraws have worked together since the early bootlegging days, but as time has moved on things have changed. For one, it’s no longer a few cases of booze the Stanleys want moved; it’s high-dollar inventory at higher stakes. For another, the current McGraw generation – i.e. Tucker McGraw – wants nothing to do with the old family business. And he’s determined to keep his son, Milo, away from it as well.

When Tucker’s father, Webb, goes missing after a job gone wrong, Tucker finds himself being drawn into the situation against his will. The Stanleys want to know what happened to Webb, and of course they have a strong interest in the cargo he was handling. Calvin McGraw, Webb’s father and Tucker’s grandfather, wants to know, too; but more than that, he sees this situation as a way to get himself back in the action, and to maybe get his reluctant grandson in on it, too.

Family (and the tension that goes along with family) is a major theme in Rumrunners. The new generation of the Stanley family is having to deal with dangers and consequences that reach far beyond anything they faced in the old bootlegging days. The McGraws are facing new challenges as well; for Tucker, it’s the challenge of remaining true to his family, but in his own, non-criminal way; for Calvin, it’s the challenge of ensuring his family’s legacy and purpose didn’t disappear with Webb.

Now, it may seem at this point that the novel we’re talking about is some kind of quiet, introspective meditation on family. Make no mistake, it’s a crime novel first and foremost, and all this family tension is taking place in the midst of some brutal fights and plenty of car chases. Beetner works hard to create well-rounded characters, and then places them in
increasingly dicey situations. He also tries to fit in a little comic relief now and then, mostly in one crew’s bumbling attempts to reclaim a car Calvin took from them. Comedy in the midst of crime is hard to pull off, and Beetner’s efforts don’t always work, but they don’t detract from the meat of the story, either.

Rumrunners is a quick, fun read with some characters I wouldn’t mind revisiting in the future. There are times when I felt like the writing could use a little more grit and authenticity, but overall I think it was a good introduction to Beetner’s work, and I look forward to reading more of his stuff in the future.

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.

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.