Review: ‘The Pretty Ones’ by Ania Ahlborn

The Pretty Ones by Ania Ahlborn
Pocket Star Books (July 2015)

ThePrettyOnesNell Sullivan is the kind of person you want to feel sorry for – but she doesn’t make it easy. She’s a withdrawn, timid mouse of a woman, drifting like a shadow through her workday and retreating each night into the safety of her apartment. She’s regularly dismissed, even picked on, by the women she works with, and her meager attempts to improve her lot in life go about as well as similar attempts did for Stephen King’s Carrie White.

Like Carrie, Nell is a woman with secrets. While she doesn’t have any kind of psychic or telekinetic ability, she is struggling to deal with the various curve balls thrown at her by her own mind. Her thoughts take sudden, vicious turns when she’s confronted by put-downs and disappointments at work; at home, she’s haunted by the memories of an abusive mother and the presence of her mute brother, a silent ball of anger who tries to steer her life and decisions in his chosen directions.

Nell is a tightly wound rubber band, and it doesn’t help matters that it’s 1977 in New York City, and a man they’re calling “Son of Sam” has the whole city on edge. When women in her office begin to die, it’s easy to assume that the infamous killer has targeted them…but each death brings a few more uneasy glances Nell’s way…

Ania Ahlborn has put together a dark, tense novella in The Pretty Ones, her latest release from Pocket Star Books. You’ll begin to suspect the truth behind the killings early on, but Ahlborn plants the seeds for a number of possible outcomes as she goes, making it a fun guessing game right up to the end. I like the compactness of the story, although I wouldn’t have minded a higher page count if it meant we’d get more gritty, 1970s New York City atmosphere. That aside, the character work is solid and the storytelling is engaging, making this a quick but rewarding read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘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: ‘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.