Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Every House is Haunted by Ian Rogers

Every House is Haunted collects stories from the first six years of Ian Rogers's foray into the publishing industry. Twenty-Two stories are collected within as well as a wonderful introduction by author Paul Tremblay.

Ian Rogers pens fun weird fiction, with a nice, clean prose. Although horror is present, you can tell that Rogers is having fun with his stories. Some of the stories seem interconnected, especially the stories that deal with a mysterious "group" that investigates and deals with paranormal situations, especially haunted houses. Stories like this all seem like small parts in an even bigger setting that I would like to see even more of.

Some favorite stories:

Aces, the opening story, features a narrator who is forced to take care of his strange sisters after his parents disappear. The strange things that happen around his sister continue to grow even stranger, and oftentimes sinister.

Cabin D, which I can't help but feel is directly connected to The House on Ashley Avenue, and possibly even The Nanny and Aces, is a story about a diner waitress serving a dying man an abundance of meals throughout the day. The man works for a mysterious group, and plans to approach a haunted Cabin for a standoff after his "last meal".

Winter Hammock takes the form of a diary, an often used medium in weird fiction that can be quite effective. In this case, I loved the story. A Radioshack employee narrates his experiences during the world's end, as he tries to make due and find comforts in his warehouse stronghold.

In The Nanny, a woman is summoned to a haunted house to attempt to assist the ghostly children in moving on.

The Dark and The Young features a linguist expert who is hired by a shady research group with help deciphering a mysterious, ancient text. She discovers the purpose of the book, and the experiments take a dark turn.

In Leaves Brown an old man decides to have a man-to-man talk with his grandson about their inherent psychic abilities. The old man has his fears and weaknesses, but is determined that he talk to his grandson about how to handle the abilities.

The House on Ashley Avenue brings back the paranormal group. A man and a psychic woman travel to a special haunted house the group is responsible for, in order to close it down again. The house has much in common with the Cabin in Cabin D, being a hungry, malevolent entity as opposed to a simple house full of ghosts. This story also has a rather funny moment featuring a "psychic medium".

Scientific explorers explore death in The Rifts Between Us, a dark science fiction story. By riding the neural transmissions of dying men and women, the exploration teams can enter a rift into a weird, twilight no man's land. One of my favorites, the twilit No Man's Land with it's strange rules made for a nice, eerie, sci-fi setting.

Deleted Scenes is a surreal, bizarre take on underground Hollywood. I loved the sheer weirdness of this story, which is a creepy take on an absurdly funny concept.

The Tattletail is about a young boy attending a sort of paranormal/magic academy, who decides he wants a pet demon for a talent show. It's a fun story, and Rogers's humor is very much on display.

Charlotte's Frequency starts off with a suburban husband getting a new, widescreen TV delivered. What follows is one of the more unique stories about spiders I have had the pleasure of reading. Definitely a favorite.

A private eye is the main character in the noirish Relaxed Best. Working on his latest case brings him into a jazz club that seems to defy reality. The surreal club with it's sinister clientele, is my favorite setting in the collection.

Hunger is two and a half pages of the observations from Patient Zero in some sort of apocalyptic, horrific outbreak. This short story definitely packs a punch due to the coldness of the narrator.

Inheritor is another favorite. An insomniac inherits the old family home from his estranged father, and goes back at his father's last wish. The story has a nice buildup, and a disturbing climax.

The Candle is subtle horror at it's finest. The dread is built up perfectly in a normal domestic situation.

Altogether, Every House is Haunted is a fun collection of stories. There are moments where the horror becomes quite frightening, although Rogers balances the horror with humor and wit. Definitely an author to keep an eye on, Ian Rogers has a second collection of stories, SuperNOIRtural Tales, that highlight the adventures of paranormal investigator Felix Renn. This collection showcases the skills with which Ian Rogers can handle stories about paranormal investigation, so I can not wait to dig into the Felix Renn stories.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Worse Than Myself by Adam Golaski

Adam Golaski first came to my attention in the first volume of Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year with his vampire tale, The Man From The Peak. The reason Ellen chose it was obvious: it was a brilliant story.

Several years later and I found myself ordering Golaski's first collection, Worst Than Myself. What followed was an impressive debut of unsettling stories. Golaski's fiction sometimes brings to mind writers like Aickman, with ambiguous, surreal moments.

The collection is split into two halves, by setting. The first, New England & New York, features tales whose horrors are sometimes more abstract, while the second half, Montana, seems to feature more visceral horror.

The opening store, The Animator's House, is about a young girl on a family trip to visit their estranged cousin, now a priest. The story starts off normal enough, but eventually becomes a downward spiral into the strange when the family stops off at a diner/museum. There is also an eerie story within a story, and it seems like more is going on under the surface. The story has an exceptionally creepy ending, and is one of my favorites.

In The Cellar features a man's eerie childhood tale about his next door neighbor's mysterious house and what happens to him one day in their cellar. The story ends in a rather shocking manner, that suggest darker truths to the man's childhood experiences.

The Animal Aspect of Her Movement is one of the strangest stories in the book, where much of the happenings seem to be a metaphor. A man sees, or thinks he sees, a high school sweetheart and gets in an accident. He returns home and the marriage is strained.

Another exercise in ambiguity, The Demon follows a girl, her boyfriend, and her friend when they go to a strange Halloween party. The story is unsettling, and warrants a re-read, as there are questions as to whether anything supernatural even happens or not.

Back Home seems a little bit more like classic weird fiction. A woman returns to her childhood home to clear out the possessions of a former cousin who she has not seen since her youth, yet ended up renting her room. She begins to see connections when reading her cousin's newspaper articles, which leads to a bizarre, dreamlike ending.

One of my favorites from the first half is the last story, A String of Lights. A man is drawn to the mystery of a young girl doing a video blog when he is e-mailed a link to her videos. As strange things happen around his apartment he begins to have sightings of the girl. What exactly is going on is a mystery, but there is a palpable sense of dread that builds throughout the story, putting the reader in mind of Ramsey Campbell.

Montana opens up with What Water Reveals, a story about a recovering alcoholic who attracts the intention of something that lives underground. This story is the first of the more visceral, physical terrors that define the second half of the book. Golaski skillfully portrays his addict protagonist, whose monsters become all too real.

In They Look Like Little Girls, four people riding a late night bus are plagued by nightmares before they are dropped off at an isolated and empty bus station due to "bus troubles". While fending off the cold and getting to know one another the four find the station besieged by a horde of creatures. The isolated atmosphere really lends itself to the terrors.

In what may be the collection's highlight, Golaski delivers one of the stronger vampire stories I've ever had the pleasure of reading. The Man From The Peak follows a narrator as he drives to his friend's mountain home for a party. Golaski plays with the age old idea of the vampire using a supernatural ability to charm it's prey. The story becomes an all too real blur like parties tend to when one is constantly imbibing alcohol. Although the narrator realizes something isn't right, he continues to drink and go with the flow of his surroundings, getting lost in the moment instead on focusing on the wrongness that no one else seems to notice. The story is a melancholic slow-burn, with a perfect ending.

The Dead Gather on the Bridge to Seattle follows a man traveling to see his hospitalized sister in Seattle as the world starts to unravel around him. This is a zombie story, as one man might experience it without realizing what exactly is going on. The story is highly effective, as the man is absolutely focused on getting to his sister and seems to take what is going on in stride.

The collection ends with Weird Furka, what may be the most traditional weird tale in the bunch. During a late night radio show, the host finds some old records which he starts to become obsessed with. The transformation is undergoes doesn't come as a surprise, but the story is a delight to read.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Interview: Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud stopped by the Arkham Digest for an interview. His first collection, North American Lake Monsters, was reviewed in May, and will be published in July.

AD: Much weird fiction seems to involve bookish type characters, sometimes misanthropic, but often anxious and different. Much of this is owed to the classic weird fiction writers, and is also a reflection of the authors. Your fiction instead features rougher, working-class characters. How has your background been an influence in your writing?

It owes a lot to my background. I led a pretty quiet suburban life as a kid, and by the time I was in my twenties and thinking seriously about writing, my well of experience was pretty shallow. I sold a couple short stories, but felt dissatisfied with them. They didn't seem to be about anything, or any real people. I didn't want to become the kind of writer who just supplies the filler stories in a magazine, the kind you read and maybe enjoy, but forget about ten minutes later. So I made a decision to stop writing. I'd rather not do it, than do it weakly. I moved to New Orleans -- one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the country -- without a job or a home lined up, and just made do for a while. I was a line cook, a bartender, I worked out on the oil rigs for a while, fell in and out of love a few times. You know: lived. I didn't think much about writing anymore. Didn't read anything with a whiff of fantasy or the supernatural to it. None of that was a conscious choice, by this point. I had just moved into a different kind of life, and I didn't need those things anymore. 

Then one day, on the recommendation of a friend at the bar where I worked, I read a James Blaylock novel -- Homunculus -- and had such a damn good time with it that I decided to experiment with genre again. I went back to Lucius Shepard, whose work I'd loved before, and was powerfully reminded of the way fantasy can intersect with literature, and the way you could write about protagonists who reflected real people while still having fun with the tropes of the genre. I got the itch to write again. This time I felt like I knew something about the world. I wrote "You Go Where It Takes You," and things just started to click after that.

It's important to me not to write about bookish, intelligent, misunderstood characters. I think they're boring, mostly because it's too easy for them to become a kind of short-hand for the writer's own limited experience. I also think there's a danger of smugness, or self-satisfaction. You can tell when a protagonist is chosen to act as a stand-in for the author, or -- worse -- to be a vessel for communicating the author's political beliefs. I find it much more interesting to write characters who are not immediately sympathetic, and to work my way toward their humanity. It helps me come to terms with the ugliness in myself. 

AD: Who would you consider your literary influences, both within the genre and without?

This is a fun question because I get to talk about writers I love, which is my favorite thing to do. Within the genre, I think my two biggest influences are Lucius Shepard and Maureen F. McHugh. Shepard's work has acted as a kind of lighthouse for me for years. He writes gorgeous prose, and he writes about the kind of people I identify with, and know from my own life. They're not heroes; they're just beaten people trying to survive. Whenever I feel myself drifting, or forgetting my purpose, I can pick up one of his books and be recalled to my course. McHugh is very similar. She achieves an extraordinary balance between the consolations of genre and writing about profound human concerns. It's the latter that always takes precedence in her work, and that's why it's so strong. McHugh and Shepard and writing literature, genre or not. 

Outside of genre, there are many. Hemingway was the writer who made me stop writing until I could write with strength. I read a very short story by him called "A Day's Wait", just after making my first professional sale, that just stunned me. Raymond Carver. Steinbeck was a big one. Mark Helprin: his profound love of beauty in language continues to inspire. Sharon Olds, who writes heartbreaking, blood-soaked poetry. Tim O'Brien. John LeCarré, for writing about the human heart in conflict with itself and disguising it as spy fiction. I'm influenced by the pulps, including writers like Robert E. Howard and even Sax Rohmer; for all their many faults, there is something viscerally compelling in the unapologetic privileging of outrageous plot over character. 

There are so many. Influence and inspiration continues to pour in. I've only recently "discovered" James Salter, and it felt world-altering. Daniel Woodrell is relatively new to me, too, and I find myself studying his technique quite a bit. I think anybody who reads vigorously and widely will always be opening themselves up to new influences. And that's how it should be.

AD: What scares you? Are there any works of fiction or film that have really stuck with you over time?

Mental illness scares me. Depression scares me. I've been around it most of my life, and have dealt with depression myself. The way you can watch someone's very psychology change, until it seems as though you're looking at an entirely new person -- someone wearing the mask of the person you love -- is absolutely terrifying to me. The mutability of identity. The way love can disappear. Everything else is just Halloween. 

AD: Weird fiction and horror seem to be in a modern golden age. Are there any writers today who you think exemplify the genre?

The best thing about weird fiction and horror is that they're far too wide-ranging to be exemplified by any particular writer or group of writers. When you can point to Cormac McCarthy and to Karen Russell and say that they're both writing in that mode, then you have something too mutable to be quantified in any satisfactory way. That's a sign of health. I think questions like this are best answered by talking about which ones any particular writer respond to most viscerally. 

In my case, both writers mentioned above figure prominently. Blood Meridian is one of the best novels of the last half century, I think, and Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is one of my favorite short story collections. Both use horror and and the weird to great effect. Laird Barron writes the best pure-product horror fiction today. For all the poetry and baroque imagery in his fiction, there's rarely a sense of affectation; you get the sense that it's a spiritual calling, that what we're reading is a translation of experience. His short story, "Occultation," is a perfect distillation of what makes him great. 

There are so many that you're spoiled for choice. Brian Evenson, Leni Zumas, Matt Bell, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kelly Link, Quentin S. Crisp, Rhys Hughes, Jeff VanderMeer, Livia Llewellyn, and -- existing in his own gorgeous pocket universe, and arguably the best of us all -- Michael Cisco. That's just off the top of my head. 

AD: What's in the future for Nathan Ballingrud? Any upcoming work you care to talk about?

I find myself drifting away from horror as an explicit form, and using it more as simply one ingredient among many others, in newer work. I'm also writing some projects that are designed to be more fun. This isn't a conscious choice; it's just a characteristic of my current mindset. I think it's dangerous for a writer to be wedded to a particular form. Stagnation and self-cariacature becomes too easy. 

I have a couple of novellas I'm working on. One -- "The Cannibal Priests of New England" -- began its life as an online exercise, but I stopped posting it once it began to take life; I have more ambitious plans for it. The other is set on a mausoleum ship crossing through space. That one will probably be finished in the next handful of months. I'm working on a novel, as yet untitled, about an abandoned colony on Mars, set in the 1930s. This one is a joy to write, and I think it'll have enough weirdness and darkness to satisfy readers of this website. 

Beyond that, it's hard to say. My comfort level with genre fluctuates a lot. There are times I love it, and there are times I can't stand it. I think it can be an effective tool, but it's important to remember that that's all it is. A writer must serve the story, not the genre. There are too may writers content to do the latter. I hope to be able to avoid that trap. That's why I don't self-identify as a horror writer, or any other kind of writer. I like to keep all my options open. So after this current bit of work of completed, what's next? I have no idea. And that's how I like it. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Shadows & Tall Trees Volume 5 edited by Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly has put together one hell of a weird fiction journal, and one I've been missing out on the last few years. Issue 5 of Shadows & Tall Trees was only recently published, and was good enough that I ordered every other volume.

Issue 5 has eight short stories and one non-fiction piece. Every story is at least good, with several being great.

The collection opens with New Wave by Gary Fry, a story about a father and son. After an accident in the ocean involving the wife, the husband and son move further inland to rural farmland. Gary Fry does a great job at showing a father falling apart at the seams when he can't help but be reminded of the ocean every time he looks at the swaying wheat field behind his house. The father's anxiety also gets worse when the son starts to see things, and the father fears his child may be suffering from the same mental deficiencies his mother was.

Claire Massey writes the shortest story in the book, weighing in at only five pages. Despite the short length, Casting Ammonites packs quite a punch. The narrator encounters a girl on the strange beach he lives on. Massey is an author I am not that familiar with, but after reading this story I will definitely be hunting more of her work down.

One of my favorites, if not my favorite, story in this collection comes from Richard Gavin. A Cavern of Redbrick is about a young boy who is spending the summer with his grandparents. His summer starts off like normal, with a bike ride to the local gravel pit, although this bike ride ends with a bizarre encounter that is the beginning of horrors for the boy. As usual, Gavin is excellent, and I found the ambiguity and the horror in this story to be tightly wound. I find that children as main characters work very well in the horror setting. The world children live in differs much from the world adults live in, therefore their fears can be very much different yet very much the same, yet they are open to so much more. A truly effective weird tale.

D.P. Watt is an author I recently became familiar with, and very much enjoy. Laudate Dominum (for many voices) is a good example of the author's talents. Watt takes a stuff-shirt protagonist, and puts him in an awkward social situation which takes a turn for the worse. This story is a great example of one of those stories that can make the reader laugh one minute, but freak them out by the climax.

Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck is an excellent example of dark fantasy. A mother withdraws from her family in an unnamed foreign city as the moon leaves it's orbit and starts to slowly work it's way towards the Earth. The story is told from the point of view of the daughter, who thinks the whole thing might somehow be her fault. Tidbeck expertly delivers this melancholic tale.

Ray Cluley's story, Whispers in the Mist, follows a man heartbroken over his latest breakup. The man travels to where he believes is near her hometown to explore a local legend about a mysterious mist that brings with it the voices of the dead.

A Woman's Place is a great piece of nonfiction by V.H. Leslie, taking a look at topography and entrapment in Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.

Daniel Mills is a young writer who continues to impress. The Other Child is an excellent story about a young man who becomes fixated on a strange childhood memory, and heads back to his childhood home where he finds the bizarre truth.

The collection closes with another standout story: Widdershins, by author Lynda E. Rucker. This story follows an estranged man having a holiday getaway at his friends' cottage. He starts to become fixated on a strange local legend about a gate in the woods, and accidentally unleashes something. It's a great story, classic weird horror at it's finest.

There is a lot to love in Michael Kelly's journal. It can be ordered on Amazon or directly through Undertow Publications.