Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April Reviews: The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare; Street Raised by Pearce Hansen; The Elvis Room by Stephen Graham Jones; The Walls of the Castle by Tom Piccirilli; The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory

Well April has been a busy month, due to attending the HP Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon in Portland, finishing up my Masters degree, and wrapping up work on The Children of Old Leech, the anthology I co-edited with Ross E. Lockhart. My reading has definitely slowed down, but I've managed to finish several shorter works. I don't want to neglect the blog, so I'm breaking from my traditional way of posting by fitting many short reviews in one blog post.

I rather enjoyed this novella from Broken River Books. It was my first time reading Cesare, and won't be the last. The novella follows a youngish deadbeat who works at a grocery store and makes ultra low budget, extreme horror films with his best friend. A sexy new employee starts working at the grocery store, and shows quite an interest in the narrator's films as well as his knife collection, and it isn't long before she's on board to be his next star. What starts out as a geek's wet dream soon becomes a nightmare. Cesare does an excellent job at creating a tense plot in a short amount of time, and rocket forward without letting the story lose any momentum. The narrator evokes equal parts sympathy and disgust. On one hand he seems trapped on the downward-sloping ride his life has become, yet on the other he himself is just as complicit and undeserving of sympathy. Time to seek out more books by Adam Cesare.

One of the five launch titles for Broken River Books was a stripped, revised edition of Peace Hansen's Street Raised. I had heard a lot about this book, and had recently read a King in Yellow tale by Hansen in A Season in Carcosa. The novel is short, dirty, and brutal. Recently released con Speedy rallies his old comrades, junkie brother Willie and tough sidekick Fat Bob, in order to pull one last job before settling down. At times the book felt too stripped down, and too short for all that was going on: vicious Mexican drug dealers, a creepy junkie serial killer that felt underused, and an angry and vengeance seeking gang of skinheads. While everything happens so fast that it often felt difficult to connect with the characters, it doesn't come across as a flaw. Instead, this approach mirrors the story itself. It's fast, it's ugly, and it's filled with characters who don't really give a shit. A fun, bloody book, this is yet another success for Broken River Books.

A favorite author of mine, Stephen Graham Jones has proven himself time and time again that he is an author that can bring it, no matter the genre. The Elvis Room is a chapbook from This is Horror, and a foray into supernatural horror. This novella follows a middle-aged professor, once disgraced and pushed into fringe circles due to an experiment to disprove the supernatural that backfired. The man needs something else to prove himself, and makes a discovery about ghosts and hotels which seems like it could be his ticket. Jones often shows a kind of genius with his ideas, and this novella is no exception. Clever, eerie, and beautiful, snag this limited novella before it's gone. (Edit: Looks like the chapbook is Sold Out, but the novella is available on Kindle)

This one is the first in the Black Labyrinth line from Dark Regions Press, and if it's any indication of what's to come then sign me up for the subscriber's package. This trippy short novel (novella?) follows a man known as Kasteel, a grieving father who becomes a fixture at The Castle, a huge labyrinthian hospital complex. After losing his son he finds himself becoming a sort of angel in the machine, helping patients in need and striking up friendships with strays from the psych ward. Every angel must have a devil, and eventually Kasteel finds himself up against Abaddon, his opposite. The labyrinth in this story is multifaceted. In the literal sense, The Castle itself is a labyrinth. A man can live in it for weeks and barely be noticed. The labyrinth also manifests itself figuratively in Kasteel's fractured mind. His grief for his son has become a labyrinth that he has found himself lost in. He doesn't even recall his real name, adopting Kasteel (Castle) as he becomes the building's angel. The story is a beautiful tale of a man trying to do good and find himself, a violent ex-con who has been broken and is attempting to put the pieces together. The only flaw is that the climax comes quickly and seems abrupt, where it seems it should be a bit longer. Otherwise it's a solid, psychological noir that shouldn't be missed.

This is the oldest book on the list, originally seeing print in 1986, and recently (in 2013) reprinted by Valancourt Books. I picked this one up after seeing some weird fiction readers and authors highly recommend it. I found the story to be mesmerizing, although it was completely unlike my expectations. A young married couple and their toddler son inherit an uncle's cottage in the Welsh countryside, as well as his unusual pet bird, a cormorant which the husband names Archie. The couple hardly knew the uncle, so the arrangement is highly unusual. As seems obvious, the arrangement doesn't work out well at all, and it's painful watching the family struggle with the often vicious, disgusting bird. Gregory has written an unforgettable weird novel, one which manages to twist expectations and have a field day toying with the emotions of readers. Sympathies will not remain static, as shocking scenes manage to completely subvert the readers feelings. This bizarre little novel should be on every weird fiction reader's list.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

Only too often do debut collections or novels read as such, and while more than a few display promise they still bear the hallmarks of being the author's first foray into the publishing realm. Rarely, a debut work transcends the trappings, and reads as if penned by a master well into his prime. These are the sorts of debuts that readers should take note of, as they herald the arrival of talents that are titanic in scale, talents that will leave their mark for many generations to come. This year marks the appearance of one such debut: Scott Nicolay's Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed.

Scott Nicolay came to my attention with his story "Eyes Exchange Bank" from The Grimscribe's Puppets, although he had a couple stories printed before that (one in the ill-fated magazine Phantasmagorium and one in the equally ill-fated Aklonomicon). In my review for The Grimscribe's Puppets I said the following about Scott's story: "Nicolay excels at creating the decrepit setting, which is an oppressive part of the narrative. The characters are realistic, and when the protagonist goes to visit his old friend in the run-down Pennsylvania town in order to find succor from his bad breakup, he finds a town that seems to be a black hole that sucks the life out of it's inhabitants."

"Eyes Exchange Bank" was one of the standout stories in the Ligotti tribute anthology. It managed to capture the theme and spirit of Ligotti's work while using a voice that was fresh and new.

In Ana Kai Tangata readers are served eight stories, every one of which is excellent. Nicolay is obviously very comfortable with the long form, with many of the stories measuring novella length. He takes advantage of the length, taking the time to build upon his characters in layers, resulting in protagonists who bleed off the page. Some are more likable than others, but all are real. The majority of stories focus on men who are struggling with personal issues, with loss and guilt taking the forefront. These broken men are often focusing their energies on certain obsessions. For some it's the loved one they lost, for others it's work related opportunities, and often it's a mixture of the two. These men often struggle with dark desires, and find themselves treading paths in which the light at the end of the tunnel is nonexistent. Almost every story is infused with a noirish inflection, a certain jaded and neurotic look at the world.

The fiction also benefits from authenticity. Caves feature in a few of the stories, and Nicolay's experience as a caver himself serves to anchor the fiction in a believable sense. Nicolay, born and raised in Jersey where some of the stories are set, has an eye for luminous, haunting locales, and many of the settings so perfectly described in the stories are weird, unsettling places that actually exist.

Of the eight stories present, four have been previously published, and four are original. "alligators" serves as an excellent opener, and shows that sometimes confronting one's fears does not have the therapeutic impact it's supposed to. Caves figure a large part in "Ana Kai Tangata" and "Phragmites" although the stories couldn't be more different from one another. "The Bad Outer Space" stands out for it's choice of narrator: a young child. It's not easy to write in the voice of a child, but Nicolay manages and makes the story all the more chilling because of the cold, matter-of-fact voice of the boy. The young Jaycee of "The Soft Frogs" is a perfect example of a Nicolay protagonist: jaded and getting himself in trouble all for the pleasures of the fairer sex. "Geschäfte" may be my favorite story in the book. The guilt ridden protagonist with the dark voyeuristic side paired with the one of the creepiest apartment settings make for a perfect weird tale. The collection ends with the extra long "Tuckahoe." Elements from Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" are present, and what starts out as a police procedural quickly descends into some freaky, backwoods territory.

It's very rare that a short fiction collection contains no weak stories, and it's practically unheard of that a debut collection manages to be all around excellent. Nicolay's debut is proof that it can happen. Eight of the best weird fiction stories that I have ever had the pleasure of reading, all paired perfectly with shudder-inducing art from David Verba, make this a landmark collection. Publisher Fedogan & Bremer have struck gold with Nicolay, and further refined the presentation with the amazing artwork from David Verba, and introduction from Laird Barron, and an afterword from John Pelan. As a bonus, the slipcased deluxe version (coming later this year)  also features a new chapbook novella that doesn't come with the trade edition. Although it is only April, I have a feeling that this is not only going to be hailed as the debut of the year, but possibly even the best fiction collection of the year.