Review: ‘Jacaranda’ by Cherie Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: THE DEEP by Nick Cutter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Prisoner 489′ by Joe R. Lansdale

Cover designJoe R. Lansdale spins another tall tale in Prisoner 489, a straight-up horror story about an island graveyard and an executed prisoner who ain’t quite dead. It’s part of the Black Labyrinth series of novellas from Dark Regions Press, and is up for preorder now in a variety of states ranging from ebook to deluxe, leather-bound, foil-stamped, signed-and-numbered editions.

If you’re not familiar with Lansdale’s work at this point, I both pity you and envy you. The pity is there because, damn, you’ve missed some good stuff. The envy is there because, damn, you’ve got some good stuff to look forward to, ranging from horror to the crime-and-misadventure stories of the Hap and Leonard series to his coming-of-age masterpiece Edge of Dark Water. But you can (and should) investigate those another time – right now, let’s talk about Prisoner 489.

Let’s say there was an island, upon which was built a maximum security prison designed to hold the worst of the worst. These are the people for whom parole is not an option; they have been thrown into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable, and will only emerge from the prison feet first, as they say. They’re so bad that, even dead, they’re not allowed anywhere near anything resembling civilazation. So next to this island there’s a smaller island, home to a graveyard where the bodies are unceremoniously buried, their plots marked only by a number. As our story unfolds, Prisoner 489 comes to the island for his eternal rest.

The body of 489 is received by a small crew of two current prisoners and one former prisoner. Bernard has already worked off his time but chose to stay on because he really has nowhere else to go. His co-workers, Toggle and Wilson, are finishing up their sentences on the island, which up until today wasn’t too bad for a work release program.

By the time the man they know as Kettle shuttles 489’s corpse to their island, the guys are on edge. It’s their tradition to watch the prison across the water on execution nights; when the lights dim, they know the job is done. But this night is different. The lights dimmed, and dimmed again, and then two times more. When Kettle arrives he comes bearing a metal coffin wrapped in chains, and he’s eager to share stories about the man inside it, how it took all that juice to kill him, and how they finally had to finish the job by wrapping a plastic bag around the criminal’s head.

Once the coffin is in the ground, their bellies are full of liquor, and Kettle has boarded his boat back to the prison, the guys settle in for the night. There’s a storm bearing down on them, but something else out in the darkness doesn’t sit right with Bernard. He’ll find out what that is soon enough.

What comes next, I’ll leave Mr. Lansdale to tell. He does a magnificent job, as the second half of the book is an exercise in tension, humor, and outright horror. Lansdale’s storytelling is a joy to behold; his voice is so natural, so fluid that it’s like you’re hearing the story straight from his mouth rather than reading it on the page. Prisoner 489 is Lansdale at his finest, which is pretty much what you can expect any time he puts out something new. Highly recommended.

Review: ‘Jackpot’ by Shane McKenzie, Adam Cesare, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty

JackpotTake a look at that cover. When it comes to tone, Jackpot is definitely a book you can judge by its cover. There’s not a lot of subtlety in that illustration, and there’s none in the book’s pages. This is sledgehammer fiction, coming at you swift and hard and with murderous intent. If you’re weak of heart – or weak of stomach – this ain’t the ride for you.

Jackpot (out now from Sinister Grin Press) is the story of Booker, a burgeoning serial killer with big plans and, when he hits the lottery, a big bankroll to make those plans reality. Two hundred million dollars, to be exact. His method of picking the winning numbers is but the first of many egregious acts Booker commits in the course of this short novel, and the thought of a guy like him with unlimited funds is a chilling one, indeed.

Like me, you’ve probably seen enough news stories about the downfall of lottery winners to know what kind of vultures a big windfall attracts, and even a twisted individual like Booker isn’t immune. In short order he’s intercepted by Frank, a lottery-chasing lawyer who’s willing to do anything for his percentage of the payday, and the Rollins family, a backwoods clan whose mother figure, Winona, stakes her own twisted claim on Booker’s prize. But Booker is determined, and with his brand-new tricked out murder van in operation, and the blueprints for a dream house (complete with functional dungeon) already in hand, he’s not going to be easy to take down.

Look, Jackpot is not going to win any awards for its thoughtful prose or resonant characterization. The four authors (Shane McKenzie, Adam Cesare, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty) are not coming to whisper dreadful things in your ear; they are coming to shout obscenities in your face until you cry uncle. They come armed with blow torches, scalpels, super glue, hungry dogs and chains, and absolutely nothing is taboo.

This may not be your kind of horror. It’s not typically mine – I usually prefer something creepier, quieter, with short bursts of shock thrown in for seasoning. This is the literary cousin of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one long note of horror building to an overwhelming crescendo. And while this style might not be my first choice in horror (I prefer Halloween to Chain Saw), I can recognize when it’s done well. If  you’re into the wet stuff, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

Re-Reading King: ”Salem’s Lot’

''Salem's Lot' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1975) (First Edition)

”Salem’s Lot’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1975)
(First Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Doubleday | October 1975

My most recent read of ‘Salem’s Lot took place in a variety of settings: under the harsh, cold fluorescents of my office during lunch; under the softer glow of the lamp in my living room; in the bright sunlight on my back porch; and, on a couple of occasions, underneath the lone bulb on that same porch, with night creeping in all around.

It’s a testament to the power of Stephen King’s writing that, in each of those places, he managed to thoroughly creep me out.

I don’t remember how many of King’s books I’d already read when I got to ‘Salem’s Lot the first time – I know I read Pet Sematary first, and after that it was a big blur as I gobbled up everything of his I could find. Looking back at it in its proper place in the bibliography, ‘Salem’s Lot signifies for me the first real glimpse of the Stephen King who would go on to dominate the horror field. It has several of the characteristics that would define the early years of the “Stephen King brand” in my mind; most notably, the pointed, accurate portrayal of a small town and its people, and the use of classic horror tropes in modern settings.

For pure scares-per-page, ‘Salem’s Lot ranks high in that initial bundle of books, the ones that led to King being known as “America’s Boogeyman.” I wasn’t exaggerating up top when I said I got creeped out a couple of times; that rarely happens to me when reading anymore (a side effect, I suppose, of a steady diet of the scary stuff over the years), and I was pleasantly surprised at the power King’s vampires held over me. Danny and Ralphie Glick walking through the woods; Royal Snow and Hank Peters descending into the belly of the Marsten House with a huge, ominously shifting crate; Ben Mears and Jimmy Cody, sitting in a mortuary with Marjorie Glick’s body, and the way her body first begins to tremble and then to twitch underneath its sheet…those are a few scenes that stand out in a book that lives under a dark cloud of dread and tension from the very first page.

Character-wise, it’s always been Ben Mears that I remembered the most. That’s not surprising; he is, after all, the main character and our entry point into the world. But this time around it was Father Donald Callahan who came alive for me. Maybe it was having the full weight of The Dark Tower series, and Callahan’s role in it, behind me this time around; maybe it was the way King introduced a character that sounds like a cliche (Catholic priest with fading faith and a drinking problem) and elevated him into something more. Here is a man who knows he’s begun to coast through life and yearns for something more:

He had been pining for a Challenge….He wanted to lead a division in the army of – who? God, right, goodness, they were names for the same thing – into battle against EVIL….He wanted to see EVIL with its cerements of deception cast aside, with every feature of its visage clear.

'Salem's Lot (Doubleday Hardcover, 1991) (Reading Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1991)
(Reading Edition)

Callahan would get what he yearned for, here in this book and much later, when King picks up the thread of his story in the last three Dark Tower books. In ‘Salem’s Lot Callahan is a man who fails, utterly and completely, in his chosen mission, but knowing that he eventually gets a chance to make things right casts his failure in a whole new light.

I don’t know where I’d rank ‘Salem’s Lot in the overall King bibliography – high, but I’m not sure how high – but among his pure horror novels it reigns near the top. I’ve always had fond memories of reading it, and I’m happy to say revisiting it bore those memories out.

Up next is the book that many consider King’s masterpiece: The Shining.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: Carrie