Review: ‘Stinger’ by Robert McCammon

Stinger by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (October 2015)

StingerSubIn Stinger, Robert McCammon spins the relatively straightforward tale of a benevolent alien who crash lands in the small Texas town of Inferno. Unfortunately for that alien, and for the citizens of Inferno, there’s a second alien in pursuit of the first; a bounty hunter with far more aggressive tendencies. This simple storyline unfolds across one 24-hour period, and yet it takes McCammon more than 600 pages to tell his story.

Bloated? Padded? Not in the slightest, and shame on you for even entertaining the thought. This is epic, apocalyptic storytelling on a small scale. No, 600 pages is not small, but by narrowing his focus to one event in one location, McCammon leaves himself plenty of room to build a vivid cast of characters who are in way over their heads, while life-changing (and potentially world-changing) consequenes hang in the balance.

McCammon has long been known as a horror writer, a label he’s struggled with throughout his career. There are certainly horrific elements in Stinger (the bounty hunter is very, um, goal-oriented, and is not afraid to leave a fair amount of human carnage in its wake), but the book leans heavily toward sci-fi. Much like his recent novel The Border, McCammon uses
those sci-fi trappings not to induce awe and wonder, but terror and dread, making Stinger the kind of hybrid that will leave fans of both genres with plenty to be happy about.

stingerpaperbackAnother surprise in a book this size? The blistering pace. Again, let me draw a favorable comparison to The Border, which clocked in at nearly 500 pages that absolutely flew by. Even early in his career (Stinger was originally published in 1988), McCammon was a master at seamlessly weaving plot advancement and character building. There are many compelling characters with interesting side-stories in Stinger – the two young leaders of opposing gangs; the PTSD-suffering war veteran; the alcoholic father; the ineffectual sheriff, to name just a few – and when McCammon wanders off the path to examine their situations more closely, I doubt you’ll mind at all.

But it’s not all diversion and introspection. McCammon also knows how to write the big set pieces, and there is carnage a-plenty to be found in Stinger. The bounty hunter’s methods of travel and disguise are destructive to buildings and bodies alike. The town of Inferno, quivering on the edge of financial ruin at the book’s beginning, is literally in ruins by the book’s end.

In Stinger, McCammon strikes a near-perfect balance between B-Movie thrills and more serious themes. Kudos to Subterranean Press for adding this to their long list of resurrected, refurbished McCammon classics.

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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: ‘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: ‘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: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.