Review: ‘Gator Bait’ by Adam Howe

Gator Bait by Adam Howe
Comet Press (August 2015)

GatorBaitIf I tell you that Adam Howe’s Gator Bait features an out-of-the-way Louisiana bar that has a trapdoor over a swamp in which a giant, ravenous alligator lives, do I really need to tell you anything else? Because, yes, Gator Bait has that very thing, and yes, the gator eats well (and often) throughout the course of this gloriously fun pulp novella.

Well, even though I don’t get paid by the word around here, I suppose I’ll tell you a little more. Gator Bait is anchored by a guy named Hammond, a classic ne’er-do-well who is on the run from a sequence of events that cost him a few fingers. This is a bit of a problem for Hammond, seeing as he’s a juke joint piano player by trade, but he proves to be quite resourceful (not to mention a talented enough musician to overcome the loss of a few digits). He hitches a ride and ends up at The Grinnin’ Gator, a dump of a bar owned by a man named Croker.

Croker is the very definition of “repulsive,” but he’s managed to snag a very attractive woman named Grace as his wife. Grace is drawn to Hammond, now the Gator’s new piano player, and the two quickly enter into a clandestine relationship. Grace tells Hammond about the safe full of money Croker has in his office, and the two begin to cook up a scheme designed to get them both out from under the abusive man’s thumb.

Naturally, things do not go as planned, leading to blood-soaked finale punctuated with double-crossings, gator feedings, and death by moonshine.

Howe takes several familiar elements and spins them into a thoroughly entertaining read. He’s particularly good at bringing the seamy Grinnin’ Gator to life, making it – and the steamy Louisiana swampland that surrounds it – a character in its own right. If you’re anything like me, you’ll power through this one in one sitting and then hit the Internet to track down more of Howe’s work. Gator Bait is tasty stuff, and highly recommended.

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 She’s a withdrawn, timid mouse of a woman, drifting like a shadow through her workday and retreating each night into the safety of her apartment.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: ‘Teaching the Dog to Read’ by Jonathan Carroll

Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll
Subterranean Press (August 2015)

Teaching_the_Dog_to_Read_by_Jonathan_CarrollJonathan Carroll’s Teaching the Dog to Read is a surreal reading experience, an off-kilter exercise that examines what happens when your body is at rest and your consciousness is free to roam.

It begins in the waking world, when average office drone Anthony Arreal recieve an unexpected gift: an expensive watch he’s been coveting for years. The following week there’s a Porsche waiting for him in his workplace parking lot, and inside the Porsche sits the woman of his dreams. It’s almost to good to be true. But Anthony Arreal is about to learn that the truths he’s been holding on to his entire life are as malleable as a handful of wet clay.

To tell you more would spoil the strange trip Carroll has planned for readers. As is often the case, he’s not interested in clinging to our established rules of reality; he’s bending them to his will, adding dashes of concepts like fate, reincarnation and lucid dreaming to create his own rules. It can be as dizzying for the reader as it is for poor Anthony Arreal: but the readers, at least, can rest easy, knowing they’re in the hands of a master craftsman with a solid endgame in mind.

Carroll plays with these big ideas in a compact (90 pages) space, leaving little room for fluff or diversion. The result is a fast read that lingers long after the final page is turned; a story that will come to mind in those disorienting waking moments we all have when coming out of a dream, wondering if we’re awake or if we’re still in the grip of our mind-movie. Carroll has found a way to tap into those moments and channel them into his work. Fortunately for us, his stories don’t fade when we finish them. Highly recommended.

Review: ‘Thieves Fall Out’ by Gore Vidal

Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime (April 2015)

The Hard Case Crime edition of Gore Vidal's 'Thieves Fall Out.'

The Hard Case Crime edition of Gore Vidal’s ‘Thieves Fall Out.’

In 1953, Fawcett Gold Medal published Thieves Fall Out, a crime novel set against a backdrop of political unrest in Egypt. Written by an unheralded author known as Cameron Kay, this minor piece of pulp fiction came and went without much fanfare. It has remained in obscurity since then, unavailable in any new printing and unknown to all but a handful of readers and scholars who knew the truth: “Cameron Kay” was actually respected American writer Gore Vidal.

Vidal wrote the novel when he was 28, and reportedly never thought much of it. When the book came to the attention of Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai, he immediately approached Vidal about republishing it, but Vidal wasn’t interested. After the author passed away in 2012, Ardai approached his agent and estate and was granted permission to reprint the book. The new edition was released in April of this year.

If you remove Vidal’s name and legacy from Thieves Fall Out, what you’re left with is fairly standard pulp fare. It’s the story of Pete Wells, an American drifter of sorts who finds himself broke and just this side of desperate in an Egypt that is teetering on the edge of revolution. He becomes entangled with a woman named Hélène and a man known as Hastings; the pair have a job they need done and they feel Wells is just the man to do it. The duo remains disturbingly coy about what exactly the job is, but Wells is in little position to make demands, so he goes along with their scheme. Eventually it’s revealed that the pair are working to smuggle a valuable necklace out of the country, and Wells is their chosen vessel.

Fawcett Gold Medal's edition of 'Thieves Fall Out' by "Cameron Kay."

Fawcett Gold Medal’s edition of ‘Thieves Fall Out’ by “Cameron Kay.”

Of course, in fine thriller tradition, things are not quite what they seem. There’s a police inspector, incredibly (and distractingly) named Mohammed Ali, who may or may not be “on the take;” there’s a love interest, a woman with a Nazi background and a suspicious relationship with the Egyptian king; and there’s a shadowy puppet master named Le Mouche who may be friend or may be foe.

Thieves advances at a methodical pace – not to the point that it plods, mind you, but patience is definitely a virtue. The writing is uneven at times; the young Vidal proves adept at depicting both the beauty and the grit of the Egyptian setting, but stumbles over the occasional clumsy phrase. There are no big action set pieces to speak of, but things accelerate entertainingly towards the end. It’s the kind of curiosity that Hard Case Crime excels at producing: a peek into the formative years of a gifted and influential writer, and an enjoyable if not essential addition to the crime genre.

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: ‘The Redeemers’ by Ace Atkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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