Review: ‘The Halloween Children’ by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss

TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumThe first weekend of October has arrived. A cold front is sweeping through Alabama tonight, scrubbing away the awful humidity and bringing us, at least for a few days, actual fall temperatures. I’ve got the makings for a huge pot of chili, there’s wood in the fire pit, and various autumn-flavored ales are stocked in the fridge. And, best of all, I’ve got a great October read to tell you about, the perfect way to start what I hope will be a month full of literary greatness.

The Halloween Children is a twisty funhouse ride through the minds of Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, two enormously talented writers who have created an instant Halloween classic in this, their first collaboration. Much like Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest, The Halloween Children is an expert distillation of the Halloween season, capturing that peculiar mix of excitement, dread and outright fear in its pages.

Stillbrook Apartments is a quiet apartment complex with a history shrouded in rumor and secrecy. Some bad things may have happened there at one time – or maybe not. “Truth” is something of an abstract concept in this novel, and the authors work very deliberatly and efficiently at keeping any sort of real answers tantalizingly out of reach.

What we do know is this: Harris, his wife Lynn, and their children Mattie and Amber live in Stillbrook. Harris is the complex’s handyman, met each day with a list of resident complaints both normal (burned-out lights and broken locks) and unusual (whining in the walls and untraceable odors). From the get-go we can see that there’s a humming wire of tension running through the family, an obvious dividing line that pits father and son against mother and daughter. For the most part they keep things civil, even loving at times, but as Halloween approaches outside forces go to work on the wedge that’s already there. First come small things, like uncharacteristic bursts of rage from Lynn, and possible hallucinations experienced by Harris. There seem to be easy explanations for these things at first, but as the story moves forward everyone – characters and readers
alike – begins to question, well, everything.

The final mad descent begins when the family finds a living creature being baked alive in their oven. From there the tone shifts from unsettling to downright horrifying. It’s a change that could have easily derailed the book, but Freeman and Prentiss keep a tight reign on the proceedings all the way through to the tragic end.

From the great, early slow build of the book to the terrifying, satisfying payoff, The Halloween Children is a complete success. Freeman and Prentiss do a great job in blending their unique styles into one pure voice – like Stephen King and Peter Straub with The Talisman and Black House, you’ll try to guess who wrote what, and you’ll most likely get it wrong. Reading this was the perfect kickoff to the Halloween season for me, and I have a feeling it will be part of my permanent October rotation for a long time to come.

Review: ‘Jamais Vu’ Issue Two (Spring 2014)

Jamais-Vu-Issue-2In only its second issue, Jamais Vu: The Journal of Strange Among the Familiar has established itself as a quality publication with an editorial team that knows how to balance meaty nonfiction features with top-notch fiction selections.

I’m a fiction lover first and foremost, so that’s usually what I go to first when I start reading a magazine or journal. Jamais Vu hooked me early with its strong lineup:

  • “The Long Lonely Empty Road” by Billie Sue Mosiman, which takes a tried-and-true plot (a serial killer hunting the backroads for stranded travellers) and twists it into an engaging guessing game for the reader.
  • “Valedictorian” by Steven Wolf, a sad post-apocalyptic tale in which a couple of young survivors strive for the illusion of normalcy in a shattered world.
  • “Oldies” by Jack Ketchum, an uncharacteristically “quiet” horror tale from the normally visceral author, which tracks one woman’s terror as reality begins to slip away from her.
  • “Functionality” by Lucy Snyder, an unsettling look at how even the most benign technology – in this case, something used for healing – can be horribly misused.
  • “Karmic Interventions” by William D. Carl, a dark comedy about what happens when two people with less-than-lucky track records take one last chance on love.

In addition to these short stories, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Brad Carter’s Sasquatch novel The Big Man of Barlow. Sasquatch also figures into a the interview with the director of the Sasquatch/found footage film Willow Creek, Bobcat Goldthwaite. The nonfiction selection is rounded out by an interview with prolific author Jonathan Maberry, a column by Harlan Ellison, and plenty more.

Editor Paul Anderson has put together an eclectic mix of content that’s a solid blend of the familiar and the new. Jamais Vu is off to a good start; here’s hoping we all support it so that it reaches its full potential as a valuable contributor to the genre.

Cemetery Dance announces SIX new Stephen King special editions

CarrieNewSubtitle this As My Wallet Gently Weeps.

This past weekend – Saturday, April 5, to be exact – marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie. Without turning this whole post into an essay on that alone, let me just say that it was a huge anniversary for me personally. King’s work is what got me into reading, and then into writing. It’s why nearly all of my “real” jobs have involved writing in some way; it’s why I write short stories and why I’m writing a novel; it’s why October Country exists today. So, yeah, the guy’s work is important to me.

I can’t think of another writer that got a better running start on a career than King. Carrie, then ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift and The Stand? A solid debut, two bonafide classics, the scariest vampire novel I’ve ever read, and a group of note-perfect horror shorts? Yeah, I’d say that’s a decent beginning. While there are other classics and favorites littered throughout King’s bibliography, it’s hard to top that opening salvo.

Cemetery Dance recognizes this as something to be celebrated. This specialty press has long been associated with King, producing beautiful special editions of a number of his works, including From A Buick 8, IT, Full Dark No Stars and many others. Now they’re turning their attention to his earliest works, beginning with the five books listed above and then skipping ahead a bit to include Pet Sematary.

First up, naturally, is Carrie, which is already available for preorder. You can read all the details at Cemetery Dance’s site, but I’ll helpfully point out the new introduction by King and the afterword by the author’s wife Tabitha King (who famously rescued the book’s first pages from a trashcan). If you’re gonna order one, you might want to hurry – these things tend to sell out quick.

I’d love to get ’em all, but the one I absolutely plan 100% on ordering is Pet Sematary. That’s the one that started the journey for me, and I was bummed when I missed out on PS Publishing’s 30th Anniversary edition of it last year. I don’t plan to miss out again.

Review: ‘Gorezone’ #30

GZ30When Fangoria editor Chris Alexander announced last year his intention to resurrect Fango’s sister magazine, Gorezone, he made it clear that he would be taking its original mission of covering obscure horror and exploitation seriously. Not that Gorezone didn’t fulfill that promise in its initial 27-issue run; it did, but with concessions. Newsstands, grocery store magazine racks and other such places were where it lived and died, so occasionally there had to be nods to the mainstream, like covers featuring Freddy or Leatherface or Jason – the well-known, accepted, dare-I-say “safe” faces of horror.

This time around, Gorezone is available via subscription or online orders only. If you want it, you have to seek it out, and those who seek it out know what they’re getting into. It’s a situation that has allowed Alexander and his crew to live without fear, and they’ve taken full advantage in the first three revamped issues. With the latest release, issue number 30 (they picked up the numbering where the original run left off), Gorezone has really hit its stride.

With the exception of FX master Tom Savini’s column focusing on two famous gags from the original Dawn of the Dead, and an interview with Cannibal Holocaust actor Robert Kerman, most of the creators and films featured will be unfamiliar to all but the truly hardcore horror fans. That’s a great thing from where I sit. We have plenty of outlets to read about the latest multiplex-bound sequels and remakes, and now we have Gorezone back to help flesh out the more obscure corners of the genre.

Among this issue’s juicier features are a retrospective on the 1988 shocker Slaughterhouse Rock, a look at the ’80s slasher homage The Pick-Axe Murders Part III: The Final Chapter, and two features on underground film master Fred Vogel. There’s also a short story written by Barbie Wilde, who played a Cenobite in Hellbound: Hellraiser II; her story ties into that mythology as created by Clive Barker in the novella The Hellbound Heart. And, it should be said that the pages of the magazine fairly drip with tons of blood-drenched, entrails-ridden photos.

So, if you’re a fan who likes to seek out stuff that your Redbox-loving friends have never heard of, or if you’ve seen everything Redbox has to offer and want something new and dangerous, let Gorezone take you by the hand. They have such sights to show you.

Vincent’s new Dark Tower book is a worthy ‘Companion’

DTtradeCoverBev Vincent had a double-tough job in front of him when tackling the writing of The Dark Tower Companion. He had to find compelling new material that would be of value to readers who’ve been reading and studying the series for years, and who’ve had already had access to a comprehensive guidebook in Robin Furth’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance. He also had to find ways to separate this new project from his own book The Road to the Dark Tower.

Fortunately, a lot has happened in the world of the Dark Tower since Stephen King published what was then thought to be the final volume in the series in 2004. Marvel Comics produced several series adapting and expanding material found in King’s Dark Tower books. Hollywood powerhouses Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman hatched an ambitious plan to adapt the material in a series of movies and television programs. And King himself revisited the series with an eighth novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, a story set between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) books in the series.

This flurry of creative activity provides plenty of fodder for Vincent’s new book, due out on April 2nd from New American Library (and in special editions later this year from Cemetery Dance). Vincent conducted a number of new interviews with the creators behind these new Dark Tower side projects, from artists and writers involved in the comics;  to Howard and Goldsman giving separate interviews on their movie-making plans; to King himself, who discusses these new projects, sheds additional light on several key Dark Tower characters, and touches on his own relationship and approach to the series.

In addition to these interviews, Vincent provides a synopsis of each Dark Tower book, discussing events and characters while saving the major spoilers for a clearly-marked section at the end of each chapter. There’s also a wealth of information on the important “people, places and things” in the series, handily divided into “Mid-World” and “Our World.” Maps, timelines, Mid-World history…you’ll be hard-pressed to find any corner of the Dark Tower mythology that Vincent hasn’t shined a light on.

Books like this are made to be perused, dipped into here and there when a question or confusion about something Dark Tower-related arises. However, Vincent’s open, thoughtful approach to the writing makes it a book that you could easily read cover-to-cover. The material flows in a way that most guidebooks don’t. Vincent’s knowledge of the material is encyclopedic, but his writing style reads nothing like an encyclopedia. It’s incredibly readable, packed with detail and information and insight, and completely approachable. Vincent set out to write something that would appeal to Dark Tower junkies and newbies alike, and in that he has succeeded handily.

Oh, and one more thing – after reading a few pages of material, I was fired up and ready to dive headfirst back into the Dark Tower series again. So, if you pick this book up, make sure your reading schedule is clear – not only are you going to want to absorb every word of Vincent’s book, you’ll likely be stacking up those eight Dark Tower novels right behind it.

Review: ‘The Art of Dead Space’

artofdeadspace1“Art of…” books are unique in that, even if you aren’t a huge fan of the book’s subject matter, you can find yourself spending a lot of time perusing its pages. Such was the case with me and The Art of Dead SpaceI’ve never played the games (the third of which was just released earlier this month), so my only exposure to the series comes from reading and reviewing the graphic novels and, now, this book.

The Art of Dead Space is an exploration of what must be a cavernous archive of material dating back to the earliest days of the first game’s production back in 2006. This book, as jam packed as it is, likely represents only a fraction of the work done by teams of artists under the Visceral Studios banner. Effort was made to make it as comprehensive as possible, as we see early concepts and designs ranging from the human heroes of the series to its otherworldly creatures, and as many of the ships, weapons, tools, vehicles and even logos as could be crammed in along with them.

It’s not just pretty pictures, either, as written commentary accompanies many of the pieces to explain the evolution of the design work and the choices that were being made. Clearly, the game’s designers had more on their minds than making cool visuals – they were striving to create an entire aesthetic that worked together and made sense as a cohesive whole. You have to admire that dedication to detail, especially when much of what is created is going to fly across the screen in a flurry of action.

About halfway through the book we hit my favorite part – the creature designs. From what I’ve gathered in my reading, the Necromorphs of Dead Space were heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s classic take on The Thing, and that is confirmed in both words and pictures here. Still, it’s great to see the pains the artists took to create their own distinct, twisted look, and what they came up with is simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.

I also enjoyed seeing how recurring design elements were utilized, from the “rib” imagery to the influence of DNA on the religious relics that are central to the Dead Space story. Again, its the careful use of such details that help tie such massive visual creations together, and the team behind these games should be commended for their careful, deliberate choices.

Production-wise, Titan Books has done its usual stellar job on this volume, from the embossed, glossy black covers to the Rorschach-like endpapers to the stunning amount of work between them.

Take it from a guy totally unfamiliar with Dead Space – liking the videogame is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

Essential October Reads: Norman Prentiss

It’s become an annual tradition here in October Country to share my Essential October Reads, those works that best capture the essence of the Halloween season for me. This year I’ve asked some of my favorite authors to share their own Essential October Reads with us.

Today we’ve got a little something different from Norman Prentiss, an author who sometimes uses “his” holiday to take a break from the scary stuff and let others do all the work.

I tend to forget a lot of people’s birthdays. Honestly, some years it’s tough for me to remember my own birthday.

Being a horror writer, I can’t exactly forget Halloween. My whole year is supposed to revolve around it. But somehow, I almost always forget to prepare for it properly…

I blame my glasses. Never having any success with contact lenses, I’m left with these contraptions on my face that would utterly destroy the best effect of the cool masks I’d want to wear. Imagine Dracula wearing wire frames, or the mummy in bifocals. When I was a kid, I could get a ready-made plastic Casper or Phantom face, and it would be easy and fun to dress up. Now, I’d have to plan way in advance, maybe do some craft project on my own to make a costume I’d be proud of. I always have a good idea, but never the right follow-through.

So it turns out that my friends and co-workers—many of them not even horror fans or readers—will shame me each year with their elaborate, inventive costumes.

And maybe that’s okay. Part of the enjoyment for me, aside from turning down the lights and hiding when the young’uns ring the doorbell, is watching everybody else celebrate “my” holiday. It’s a day when I can let other folks do all the work, and basically have a spectator vacation. It’s a time when cable channels will show the movies that I already own and have watched earlier in the year, making TV as cool as it should be all along. And it’s one day where I know nobody will look at me and say, “You write horror? I hate that stuff!” It would look especially silly if the guy who said that was wearing a werewolf outfit…

Norman Prentiss is the author of numerous short stories, poems and essays. His latest releases include The Fleshless Man from Delirium Books and Four Legs in the Morning, a collection of three linked stories now available as an eBook from Cemetery Dance.

More Essential October Reads

Review: ‘The Cabin in the Woods: The Official Visual Companion’

I used to be envious of that generation of fans that called themselves “Monster Kids,” the ones that grew up with ready access to Vincent Price movies, Aurora Monster Kits and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Then I realized I had nothing to be jealous about. Growing up in the late ’70s/’80s put me right in the middle of a fertile period for horror fans. Horror movies were a staple of the burgeoning home video market, and while admittedly a lot of it was dreck, there were plenty of quality releases during that time (Halloween, Re-Animator, Evil Dead) that endure as classics today. Bookstores had entire sections devoted exclusively to horror, and we even had our own version of Famous Monsters in Fangoriaits pages filled with articles and photos showcasing the the genius of guys like Dick Smith, Rob Bottin and Tom Savini.

Fango (as we like to call it) gave me and countless others our first taste of behind-the-scenes access to the making of our favorite movies. With the Internet still a futuristic fantasy for most of us, movie news was hard to come by – I usually didn’t know about a new Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street sequel until a trailer played in the theaters (or until Freddy or Jason popped up on the cover of Fango)

My interest in the movie-making magic that goes into my favorite films has never waned, and I’ve truly enjoyed the recent influx of high quality books devoted to both individual movies (like this year’s Prometheus: The Art of the Film) and entire studios (2011’s The Hammer Vault). Titan Books is the publisher behind both of those books, and they’ve scored again with The Cabin in the Woods: The Official Visual Companion. The Companion was released earlier this year during the movie’s theatrical run, but with today being release day for the its DVD and Blu-ray incarnations, I thought this would be a great time to look at the book.

This book was put together with the full cooperation of creators Joss Whedon (co-writer) and Drew Goddard (co-writer and director). Goddard contributes the book’s foreward, Whedon the afterword, and the two take part in a sprawling, comprehensive interview that covers Cabin from concept to execution. Following the interview is the film’s entire screenplay, liberally illustrated with storyboard and pre-production art, behind-the-scenes photos and more.

All of that is great, but my favorite section of the book comes at the end. It’s called “Creature Feature” and it provides photos and conceptual art of many of the iconic creatures portrayed in Cabin, everything from its redneck slasher family to its werewolf, blobs and ballerinas. Many of these are barely glimpsed in the film, so it’s great to get a closer, more detailed look at them here. The section also has a short interview with David LeRoy Anderson and Heather Langenkamp Anderson, the husband-wife owners and operators of AFX Studios, that I wish had been given more space. (And yes, that is the Heather Langenkamp who played “Nancy” in the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street flicks.)

Overall, this is a great companion piece for the film, something cool to keep handy while watching it at home. Cabin was something of a divisive film for genre fans, but those who enjoyed its fresh approach to some of horror’s most worn-out cliches will find plenty to appreciate here.

King, O’Nan combine to make a scary ‘Face’

Stephen King isn’t publishing a new novel this fall, but Constant Readers have had plenty of material to occupy them as of late. One of his most recent releases is this second collaboration with Stewart O’ Nan (co-writer of Faithful), the digital-only short story “A Face in the Crowd.”

“Face” introduces us to Dean Evers, a typical King character if there ever was one. He’s a displaced Red Sox fan, living in Florida and grudgingly pulling for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His wife died months ago after a second stroke, and since then Evers has been floating through a lonely existence, waiting around for something to happen.

“Something” comes in the form of his childhood dentist, a man long dead who appears one night on Evers’ television during a Devil Rays game. There the man sits, looking exactly as he did when Evers knew him decades earlier. That’s bad, but not as bad as the next person Evers sees in the stands, a young boy Evers went to school with. A young boy who would be an old man now, had he lived. A young boy who points at Evers from his seat behind home plate as though he can see him through the television screen and mouths ominous words at him.

That’s bad. And it’s only the beginning.

King and O’Nan have combined seamlessly to produce a Twilight Zone-ish tale of regret. Evers seems likeable enough at first, but as more and more phantoms begin popping up at Tropicana Field a lifetime of selfishness comes to the surface, forever changing our perception of the man as well as his perception of himself. Most will spot the ending from a mile away, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the path the authors take to get us there.

While not as creepy as King’s recent “The Little Green God of Agony” or as visceral as “In the Tall Grass,” his twopart collaboration with son Joe Hill, “A Face in the Crowd” is an enjoyable diversion, a little something else to tide us over until the next short story or novel appears.