Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Interview: Ted E. Grau - New Managing Editor of Science Fiction Horror for Dark Regions Press

Dark Regions Press is one of the prime publishers of horror fiction today. They have been in business since 1985, and over the years have published fiction from many fine authors. Recently the people in charge noticed something: there's not nearly enough good science fiction horror out in the field. Sure, there is some, if you look for it. There's certainly no lack of quality sci-fi terror in cinema, and the video game market has a growing stable of titles that fit the bill perfectly. But as for books and stories? A few come to mind, but not nearly enough. Thankfully, the fine folks in charge at Dark Regions Press have decided to change that. And as great as that news is, the news of who they picked as managing editor makes it all the more exciting.

Ted E. Grau is many things. An author of dark fiction, an essayist, a blogger, a friend and a weird fiction/horror connoisseur. As he now adds editor onto his resume, I could think of no one more well-suited to this position. Mr. Grau was kind enough to consent to an interview, to give readers an idea of what's in store.

AD: Dark Regions Press is one of the most successful small press publishers, putting out quality work for over two decades. What are you bringing to the team?

TEG:  I hope that I’m bringing a keen eye for quality writing, first and foremost.  I approach my position as not only an editor, but also as a writer of genre fiction, and a huge fan, as well.  I will seek out authors and help develop projects that I view as the best available from the ever-expanding pool of talent working in speculative fiction, both new and established. 

I want to discover and secure the best in contemporary Science Fiction Horror Fiction, and cover art, adding to an already proud roster of DRP authors and impressive catalog of books.

AD: What kind of science fiction horror works for you? What are some examples of novels/short story collections and authors that hit what you feel to be the mark when it comes to the science fiction horror genre?

TEG:  Something imaginative and bold, and not derivative at its core.  I’m not a big fan of bandwagon horror, where every new story sounds like the last, to take advantage of some marketing flashpoint or cultural trend.  I’m not looking for sparkling vampire stories or florid romance between supernatural creatures… in space.  I want something ORIGINAL and compelling.  I want something terrifying, and profoundly unsettling.  I want a great story, constructed of great prose, be it baroque or Spartan.  I’m a style hound, but those styles can vary, as long as the story is interesting, and appeals to our readership.

As for what authors of Science Fiction Horror might fit my ideal, my answer will be a bit hazy, as Dark Regions is one of the few - and possibly only - publishers that now has a stand-alone, dedicated department devoted solely to Science Fiction Horror, and only Science Fiction Horror.  Chris Morey wants to break new ground in this area, and I want to help him do just that, building the brand and helping add additional accolades to a strong, fair-dealing publisher devoted to bringing the best of speculative fiction to readers and the wider Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction marketplace.

So, back to the question:  I don’t want to name any particular authors, collections, or novels as my favorites, as I’m bound to leave someone out of my specific praise, so I’ll wuss out and default to the sorts of Science Fiction Horror films and television series that appeal to me, starting with John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is my favorite horror film of all time.  Other examples of great - or at the very least, interesting – Science Fiction Horror on the big and small screen include Alien, Frankenstein, The Mist, Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner, The Fly, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien Nation, The Terminator, The Blob, old Japanese monster movies, 1950’s and 60’s American science fiction creature films, Dr. Who, Lost in Space, the original Land of the Lost and original V, The X-Files, and more recently, Cloverfield and Prometheus, although I had issues with both.  Zombie and post-apocalyptic films count, as well, as long as they have a definite futuristic/science fiction backbone.  Stories that echo some of these themes are all fair game, and will have my immediately interest.

And, as a proud reader, writer, and supporter of Lovecraftian fiction, I’m a sucker for Cosmic Horror, as long as its not Mythos-heavy pastiche.

AD: So as the managing editor of science fiction horror, what kind of work are you looking for?

TEG:  I’m looking for anything that pushes the boundaries and has a unique voice.  Familiar tropes are okay, as it becomes increasingly difficult to create something 100% original as more and more stories are penned each day, but if the setting is prosaic, make what happens and by whom original and unique in some way.

It can be epic and galactic, or it can be small and intimate.  It can experimental, it can be slipstream, it can even be conventional, as far as setting and other tertiary elements.  It just has to sing.  Overall, I’m tough, but not a snob.  I enjoy a good breezy read as much as a deep, thought provoking piece, as long as it’s well written.  Now, describing what good fiction looks, sounds, and tastes like compared to bad is nearly impossible, but you certainly know both the former and the latter when you come across it.  I want to read – and DRP wants to publish - the good stuff, and won’t settle for anything less. 

So, if you have a novel or novella that you think fits the bill, have someone put a bird in my ear.  We aren’t accepting general submissions, and will be operating by invite and referral only, so if I don’t know about an amazing work of Science Fiction Horror that needs to see the light of a dying sun, find a way to bring it to my attention, and I’ll take it from there.

AD: Do you have a "manifesto" or any goals that you've formulated going into this new position?

TEG:  My main goal is to continue the tradition of excellence and success that Dark Regions Press has established and maintained for just shy of three decades.  That’s incredibly impressive.  As other indie presses have risen and fallen (sometimes in quite surprising and/or painful fashion), DRP has remained, and I take that decorated longevity very seriously in my mission to keep the brand vibrant and strong. 

Following that, the ambitious editor in me would like to elevate – if possible – the quality of book that DRP puts out, from the inside out.  Even the best can always improve, and I think with the recent staff additions to the company (including R.J. Cavender of Cutting Block Press fame joining as Managing Editor of Horror), Dark Regions is looking to grow and advance, becoming a bedrock for the very best in Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction – and all the delicious amalgamations of the same – in the field today.  My manifesto is to make that happen, and I’ll be dogged in this pursuit.

AD: Thanks again for doing the interview, I really look forward to seeing what you do with Dark Regions Press!

TEG:  Thank you, Justin, for the great questions and the interest in Dark Regions Press, and my new position in the company.  Excellent review and news sites devoted to speculative fiction like Arkham Digest are essential to helping spread the good, dark word about our authors and projects, and I hope some of our books make their way into the Digest in the coming days.  New vistas beckon, and we’ve got so much to show you…

Ted E. Grau has a blog, The Cosmicomicon, in which he writes essays and book reviews. His essay work can also be found on The Teeming Brain as well as The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog. His fiction has appeared in numerous places, such as the Lovecraftian anthologies Dead But Dreaming 2, Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities, and The Aklonomicon as well as the always amazing (and free to read) Lovecraft eZine.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp

Bad Glass is the winner of Del Rey's Suvudu writing contest, and Richard E. Gropp's first novel. The novel is horror, with some science fiction elements. The book's premise was interesting to me as well as some of the author blurbs, especially the Caitlin Kiernan one on the book's cover. The book's blurb is as follows:

Something has happened in Spokane. The military has evacuated the city and locked it down. Even so, disturbing rumors and images seep out, finding their way onto the Internet, spreading curiosity, skepticism, and panic. For what they show is—or should be—impossible: strange creatures that cannot exist, sudden disappearances that violate the laws of physics, human bodies fused with inanimate objects, trapped yet still half alive. . . .

Dean Walker, an aspiring photographer, sneaks into the quarantined city in search of fame. What he finds will change him in unimaginable ways. Hooking up with a group of outcasts led by a beautiful young woman named Taylor, Dean embarks on a journey into the heart of a mystery whose philosophical implications are as terrifying as its physical manifestations. Even as he falls in love with Taylor—a woman as damaged and seductive as the city itself—his already tenuous hold on reality starts to come loose. Or perhaps it is Spokane’s grip on the world that is coming undone.

Now, caught up in a web of interlacing secrets and betrayals, Dean, Taylor, and their friends must make their way through this ever-shifting maze of a city, a city that is actively hunting them down, herding them toward a shocking destiny.

I was rather intrigued by the whole premise, and one of the author's blurbs compared the book to the show LOST. I admit to having had a love/hate relationship with that show, as the first few seasons had my full attention, but the show later wilted for me and ended on a totally unsatisfactory note. 

When it comes to Bad Glass, I have conflicting feelings. On one hand I really dig the premise, and the several mysteries that come up throughout the book kept me turning the pages. On the other hand, the books flaws keep me from lavishing the praise. Most of the characters are dull and uninspired. The narrator, Dean, is whiny, often to the point of annoying. The horrors themselves can be pretty solid, but at times the author is too descriptive. There is no subtlety in his approach to each horrifying encounter, and the over descriptiveness can be a bit of a dread killer for me. There was also one moment in the book, a graphic homosexual sex scene featuring the protagonist (who is chasing after a girl the entire book) that seemed absurdly out of place. It was jarring, completely random and felt like it was added in simply to give a jolt to readers. I would like to clear up that it's not the content of the scene that bothered me, but the fact that it didn't fit, and was there just to be there.

The biggest flaw with the novel, and in my opinion the trait it most shares with the show LOST, is that the end is quite a let down. I can really dig a story, especially horror, that's left open ended, but when it's a novel length work as opposed to a short story or novella, I, like many readers, like to have a bit more payoff. By looking at other reviews it seems this shortcoming of the novel is one that many readers make note of, but by the end of the novel the majority of mysteries are left unanswered. Ending the book in such a manner will be the cause of much frustration by readers. 

While I enjoyed reading about the frayed reality of the fictional Spokane, I hate to say that I read on not out of any investment in the characters, but simply because I wanted to see how these many mysteries unraveled. In that regard, I was disappointed. Maybe Gropp will revisit his Spokane, or one of the other places mentioned at the end of the novel. I may even check it out, but hopefully he will learn from the shortcomings of his first book, because as evident in this one he sure didn't learn a thing from LOST.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: An Emporium of Automata by D.P. Watt

You sit in the darkened theater waiting for the show to begin, at a table close to the stage. The glass of absinthe sweats in your hand, and you can't recall if it is your third or your fourth. Come to think of it, you can't recall how you came to be here. Quiet murmurs and muted laughter blend together into an incoherent background noise. As you glance around you have trouble making out any of your neighbor's features in the dim, murky light yet you are sure that a man in a top hat two tables to your left is staring at you intently. You take another sip of the  sweet drink, and the taste of anise burns in your throat. Although it didn't seem possible, the lighting grows even dimmer, as the background noise fades to a thick silence. The man two tables down clears his throat, and the stage curtains open.

When I reviewed Shadows Edge, I noted how much I enjoyed D.P. Watt's story, and said that I wanted to read more of his work. As luck would have it, Eibonvale Press recently printed an expanded reprint of his hard to find first collection, An Emporium of Automata. Watt's background in theater is apparent in his stories, and his unique, eloquent voice lends an ethereal beauty to his fiction.

The collection is broken into three sections: Phantasmagorical Instruments, Genealogical Devices, and Ex Nihilo. divided among these three sections are a total of 21 stories (22 counting the afterword), with most stories averaging about ten pages apiece.

Mr. Watt's fiction puts one in mind of decaying Europe cities. Bizarre, archaic secrets hide behind the facade of fringe theater, puppetry, and mechanical toys. The language is reminiscent of older theater, poetic, and at times using words that have an eccentric, archaic feel to them. This itself is present in the titles of the stories (which are wonderful): Erbach's Emporium of Automata, Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia, Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche, Archaic Artificial Suns, and Pulvaris Lunaris or The Coagulation of Wood just to name a few. Almost every single story in this book is deep enough for the reader to benefit from re-reads.

The first section, Phantasmagorical Instruments, features eight weird tales, each one a pleasure to read. Although it's hard to choose favorites from this section, as all eight stories are great, there are some I enjoyed even more than others. In Erbach's Emporium of Automata a man recounts his childhood memories of a mysterious arcade of mechanical toys that opened in his seaside town. Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche features a crazed narrator obsessed with the works of Emile Bilonche. They Dwell in Ystumtuen looks at a small excerpt from a history book about a woman's hanging, and then takes readers to see the history behind it which involves fairies and sacrifice. It's a sad, beautiful story. The Butcher's Daughter features a couple who moves into the house of a recently deceased 110 year old woman. After a startling discovery in the woodshed, the couple starts to uncover the woman's disturbing secrets. Room 89 follows a grumpy, misanthropic man on holiday in a mysterious hotel. The story blends humor and scares for a particularly effective weird tale. Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia sees an inspector (in Russia or some Eastern European country) drawn into investigating a film reel sent to him by a mysterious "entertainer", and makes for one of the best stories in the book.

The second section, Genealogical Devices, features five short, interconnected stories. I know I wasn't able to put the entire puzzle together, but it did not keep me from enjoying this section.

The final section, Ex Nihilo is more reminiscent of the first section, and features eight more weird tales, further exploring weird little pockets of Russia/Eastern Europe and Britain. Again, it's hard to pick favorites as the entire section is great. Archaic Artificial Suns follows a narrator (I'm pretty sure it's Mikhail Bulgakov) encountering mysterious, impish actors and witnesses them commit a horrible crime. Pulvaris Lunaris, or The Coagulation of Wood is another story that vies for my overall favorite with Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia. This story follows a man recently released from jail who detours into a "puppet theater/brothel" and witnesses true magic. The Subjugation of Eros is another sad story, in which a father tells the tale of his son, who becomes isolated and obsessed with his own imaginary world. The Comrade is about a man who, after the bizarre death of his father, is approached by two mysterious men who offer to show him the "truth" about the world.

This collection offers much to weird fiction connoisseurs, and up until now was only available as an expensive, hard to find hardcover. Watt's collection appeals to the curious child in all of us; the macabre mysteries within shot through with a melancholy, captivating beauty.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: The Witnesses Are Gone by Joel Lane

Last month I posted a review of Ramsey Campbell's novel The Grin of the Dark. I liked it, but felt that it would have been more effective if it was trimmed to be shorter. Otherwise, the book was an example of a "man researches lost art (in this case films) and ends up going down a rabbit hole of darkness" story . Readers of horror will have seen variations on this theme done before, and Campbell used silent film clowns and a world that is perceived to be increasingly hostile to create a book that serves as a great example of this type of story. So far, Theodore Roszak's Flicker seemed to be the only novel that could be called an exemplar of this type of story. It wasn't until a few days ago, when I picked up The Witnesses Are Gone, a novella by Joel Lane, that I can say I found a work that can stand up there with Flicker.

Joel Lane knows what he's about. Narrator Martin Swann finds a grainy, disturbing VHS in the shed of his new home. This surreal, black and white film was made by the mysterious French director Jean Rien, who becomes a bit of an obsession of Martin's.

The rabbit hole Martin finds himself heading down is dark indeed, and a feeling of despair permeates the novel from start to finish. Lane succeeds at hinting at the terrible without being overt and spoon feeding his readers. This novella manages to be both intelligent, with nods to certain films and literature along with commentary on the United States war with Iraq, and terrifying. The length was perfect, and Lane did not let the story get away from him, but instead managed to keep a tight narrative.

Readers of dark literature would do very well to snag this one, and join Martin Swaan in a trip down his sepia-tinted rabbit hole. I couldn't recommend this one enough.

NOTE: The hardcover is out of print, but PS Publishing as some of the signed, Jacketed hardcovers not only available but on sale (at the time of this writing). Copies are going for £7.99 ($12.19) instead of the usual £24.99 ($34.12) on their site HERE.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Black Altars by Mark Samuels

In my review of The White Hands and Other Tales, I had nothing to say but gushing praise. Afterwards I made sure I had all of Mr. Samuels's work on my shelf. Black Altars was published in 2003, the same year as The White Hands, yet is definitely the collection of his earlier work.

Black Altars is a very small collection, weighing in at only 85 pages. There are six stories within, only two of which have been reprinted and one that has been published previously (albeit in 1989!). The book is extraordinarily difficult to find, because it only had the single, small print run. The bad news is that Mark Samuels is not really happy with the stories, so has no plans of ever reprinting the volume.

I think that may be a little extreme, because the stories within are not bad. The stories pale in comparison to the stories in The White Hands. Let me be clear, they are NOT bad stories. They read as more of a showcase of potential rather than polished stories.

After a wonderful introduction by fellow writer of the weird Quentin S. Crisp, the stories begin with Lichen. This one was one of my favorites of the collection, and is a science-fiction horror reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Nephilim is the second story, and one of two which has been reprinted. This story featured in Stephen Jones's collection Visitants, and is about a man haunted by dreams so dark that his hair goes white. As he seeks answers it becomes apparent that he's fading from one world into another.

Another favorite, Patient 704, is the second story Samuels found to be worthy of reprinting. A revised/altered version appears in Glyphotech, the author's third collection. The story itself deals with an inspector and his investigation into a psychiatric "rest home". The man finds himself assimilated into the horror of the place, which involves a group obsession with a TV signal broadcasting disturbing and repetitive images of a mystery patient. The story was excellent, and I look forward to reading the revised version and seeing the differences.

Mysteries of the Abyss was first published in Dagon magazine in 1989 and follows a man driven mad by "connecting the dots" in various occult tomes and science books. Whatever dark truth he glimpsed was enough to turn him into a wandering, homeless drunk.

The Ailuromorph seemed like a mixture between Lovecraft and Ligotti. An insomniac in a dull corporate environment (Ligottian) takes late night strolls when he comes across a strange building that the neighborhood cats seem to gravitate towards (Lovecraft's cats).

The book finishes with another personal favorite, Dedicated to the Weird. Following an introduction written by a fictitious author, the story is told in the form of e-mails from a disgraced, failed writer who is holed up in a creepy, small town which is very much like Lovecraft's Innsmouth. This story may have been the best one in the collection, and I really hope Samuels decides to allow this one to see print again someday.

I understand that Samuels as a writer has the right to not allow his works to be reprinted, and as great as his other works are I can almost understand why he would choose not to have this collection reprinted. On the other (white) hand, the stories are NOT bad. They are just not at the level of his other works. Regardless, I would like to see the book reprinted someday, so Samuels fans can have a chance to see how far he has come as a writer.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Film Review: Evil Dead

It's safe to say that no other horror movie "remake" has polarized fans in the way Evil Dead has. The original Evil Dead films exist as a perfect example of cult horror cinema. The films expertly melded horror and comedy, with the horror aspect growing as the series went on. While many fans eagerly awaited this film's release, there also existed a set of purists that adamantly opposed this film from the start. They couldn't support an Evil Dead film without Ash, or  to be more specific, Bruce Campbell.

Thankfully, this new film doesn't attempt to replace Bruce Campbell as the chainsaw-handed, shotgun toting king of one-liners. Instead of trying to update the original film, director Fede Alvarez wisely decided to make an homage, with a film that can stand alone on it's own.

Seeing this film on it's own, without comparing it to the original is the best way to enjoy it, however, for any Evil Dead fan it is impossible to avoid comparison. Regardless of the film lacking an Ash, the ultimate question remains: is Evil Dead a good film? The answer is yes, Evil Dead is a good horror film that makes for quite a fun experience, however it is far from a great horror film like it's namesake.

I found the slight difference in premise to work well. The five friends in this film are not seeking a fun-filled, weekend getaway. They decide to spend time at the cabin to help one of the girls kick her drug habit. This makes for a setup that has tension from the start. It also allows the friends to rationalize the craziness earlier on, before things spiral completely out of the realm of reality.

Once the magic words are said, the madness begins and doesn't let up for a second. Besides the premise, the plot is much the same as the original: an evil book leads to demonic entities possessing the living, with bodily dismemberment required to stop them.

Gorehounds should take especial note: this film has great effects, and is one of the goriest and most graphic films I've seen in awhile. The possessed are absolutely disgusting looking, yet are more reminiscent of Regan from The Exorcist than the demons from the original film. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, although some of the phrases they spout are rather silly.

So what keeps this film from being great? Why is it in the end inferior to the original? This film lacks the charm of the original. While I agree it was wise to not attempt to replace Ash, it became clear early on that the characters were lacking. Besides Jane Levy and Lou Taylor Pucci (Mia and Eric, the bearded guy) the acting is far from impressive. Not to say that the acting in the first film was any better, but Bruce Campbell had the energy to make for a likable, effective character to root for.

The film's plot had some holes in it that were hard to overlook as well. My main point of contention being the way the demons were spoken. In the original, the friends are playing a recording, which reads the "magic words". In this film, Eric reads the words aloud for apparently no reason at all. It wouldn't be bothersome if they somehow worked in a way for it to make sense. Now I realize that people in horror films do stupid things, and I also know that my fascination for the macabre would also lead to me reading the book. But the problem remains, after seeing what Eric sees, there is absolutely no reason for him to read those words aloud. If the filmmakers could have worked in something, even some earlier hints as to his character, anything to give reason to speaking those words. To me it seemed like they simply wanted to get to the action as fast as possible, but at least in the original it made more sense.

The book was also a point of frustration. As wonderful as it looked, everything was broken down in the book. Whenever something happens, Eric looks in the book and there is a picture and caption. Everything. And a page saying how once the "demon" feasted on five (yes, five, just like the amount of people in their group) souls then it would gain physical form and crawl out of the ground. I found all of this exposition to be unnecessary, and slightly insulting to the audiences intelligence. Since I don't want to spoil anything, I'll leave off with my plot point criticisms by pointing out that the big twist later on in the movie didn't totally work for me either.

By the end of the film, I had quite enjoyed myself, despite the flaws in storytelling. The bloody fun with nailguns, chainsaws, electric carving knives and box cutters was almost enough to make up for the plot holes. Almost.

Fans of the original should still give the film a chance, as there's a good bit of fun to be had. Looking at it as it's own film as opposed to part of the Evil Dead canon might make it easier to swallow for the Ash purists. There are definitely enough little nods to the original film without always being too overt. The gore from the original is turned up to 11, and the action does not stop once it starts. Viewers must be warned, there is none of the original's charm and humor to be found in this blood-soaked homage. It was fun, but I'd be more excited to see a new entry to the series with Campbell in the lead and Raimi at the helm. Hopefully they won't make us wait too long for Army of Darkness 2.

Has anyone seen this film? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Comment below.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Giveaway Winner: Shadows Edge

And the winner is Jenna Bird! Congratulations Jenna, and thanks to all who entered. Stay tuned for more future giveaways.