Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review Roundup: July

With the summer release of The Children of Old Leech, as well as some traveling and plenty of weddings, I have been neglecting to post reviews of books I have been reading. Therefore I am doing one long post of reviews.


Wow. Brian Allen Carr's latest from Lazy Fascist Press is my introduction to his work, and what an introduction it is. The novella takes place in aptly named Scrape, Texas, and follows a dysfunctional group of misfits as beings from Chicano folklore (La Llorana, a horde of hairy, black hands, El Abuelo, and the Devil himself) come to their town. It's impressive how much Carr manages to accomplish in such a short piece of work. His stripped down prose style is perfect in conveying the squalor of Scrape and it's inhabitants, which are a mixture of white trash and bored youth. The best analogy I can think of for this book is the film Gummo. The characters in the book are just passing time in a dead-end town, usually self-destructively, just drifting along without a single ambition. Their initial reaction to the supernatural is even muted. After an initial shock it then becomes a diversion, just another thing to pass the time with. Some will read this book and feel disgust towards the characters, and others will instead recognize these characters as people they have known themselves. The book is a volatile mix of humor and horror, cementing itself as one of the best books of 2014.

There was quite a bit excitement when this book was announced by publisher Subterranean Press, as fans of Ligotti didn't think they'd be seeing anymore new fiction. This book is not very long, and consists of only two short pieces of fiction. Both stories portray a murky reality, one where dreams and realities intersect, and are sometimes hard to tell apart. This signature surrealism is one of Ligotti's trademarks, and it is good to see that he can still use it to excellent effect. "Metaphysica Morum" is classic Ligotti. A depressed protagonist who has only one desire (suicide by painless euthanasia) is attempting to trudge through life with the help of a shady therapist/doctor/meditation instructor. His vivid dreams constantly intrude upon his waking world, and the doctor/patient relationship becomes strained. The second story, "The Small People," is the better of the two, and is one of my favorite stories Ligotti has ever written. The narrator has a phobia of small, living, toy-like people who live alongside humans in their own communities. His parents berate him for being a "shameful little bigot" while his fears eat him up inside. Mirroring real life, fear ferments into hate. The ending leaves the story ambiguous, as the narrator is unreliable it could very well all be the fantasies of a madman, or it could all be very true. Either way, the story is horrific, and brilliant. 

 Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg.

The past few years I had been well aware of Glen Hirshberg's excellent short fiction thanks to editors such as Ellen Datlow. While at this year's Readercon I was able to attend several great readings, the last of which was Glen Hirshberg reading from his novel-in-progress, The Good Girls, which is a sequel to Motherless Child. Needless to say, the reading blew myself and many others away. My roommate and I couldn't stop talking about it. I NEEDED to read Motherless Child, but unfortunately the dealer's room was sold out of copies. Thankfully, after my plane landed I stopped for dinner, after which I ran into the next door Barnes and Noble to snag a copy. I am glad I did. Glen Hirshberg's vampire novel is one of the best there is. Is it horrific? It sure is, but even more than that it is a story of friendship, and family. The novel is about two young, single mothers, best friends their whole lives. It's about what happens when they meet the Whistler, are changed by him, and go on the run to protect their babies. Glen's vampires are different than others, some typical vampire legends are thrown out of the window (sunlight hurts, but doesn't destroy) in order to focus on other aspects (the hypnotizing, "glamour" effect vampires have on mortals). The story is beautiful, haunting, touching, funny, heartbreaking, and terrifying.

Far From Streets by Mike Griffin.

One of the meatier novellas from Dunhams Manor Press (imprint of Dynatox Ministries) is Mike Griffin's Far From Streets. The back cover compares the books to Von Trier's Antichrist and Blackwood's The Willows, both of which are apt. The novella focuses on a married couple who inherit a large piece of land rather deep in the wilderness. The wife would rather sell it and move into an even nicer suburban home, but the husband sees the inheritance as an escape, a chance to build a cabin and cut himself off from the 9-5 world. They attempt a compromise, the husband builds a cabin, and reality itself seems to unravel. Griffin excels at writing personal relationships. The joys, the strains, the beauty and the ugliness are all shown in great detail. The book is about obsession and relationships as much as it's about the difference between suburbia and the wilderness, and manages to be far more than just a surreal creep-out fest because of this. Griffin becomes more and more impressive, and this is my favorite work of his to date.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory.

I recently received an ARC of this from Tachyon Publications, who has been putting out many great books. Gregory first came to my attention years ago with Pandemonium, an imaginative book about possession (by beings more akin to Jungian archetypes than demons of Christian mythology). Pandemonium was followed by a few other highly praised novels such as The Devil's Alphabet and more recently Raising Stony Mayhall. We Are Completely Fine is a short novel, and one in which I can see echoes of Pandemonium. The story follows a support group of "sole survivors" put together by a therapist. Harrison was a boyhood "Van Helsing" who later inspired a young adult fiction series, Stan was the lone survivor of a backwoods family of cannibals, Barbara has messages carved onto her bones, Greta comes from a matriarchal cult, and Martin's augmented reality-game sunglasses allow him to start seeing the "hidden world" underlying reality. The novel is fast paced, and quite entertaining, as the dysfunctional group tries to come to terms with their individual problems while their paths are quickly drawing together. It's entertaining, but I don't think it's his best work. It's short, and rather lighthearted, and I can't help but feel that it could have been a bit longer and fleshed out. Readers who enjoyed his other novels will find it rather enjoyable, and I look forward to seeing what's next from Gregory.

Pines by Blake Crouch.

I have a thing for "weird town" stories. The ones where the entire town seems to be in a conspiracy of some sort. The idea of being the lone outsider in the situation really creeps me out. There is seemingly nowhere to turn, paranoia and anxiety skyrocket, and the one-against-many feeling is dialed up to ten. Fox recently released a trailer for a new show called Wayward Pines, which caught my attention. A little bit Twin Peaks, a little bit X-Files, with some talented actors and actresses attached. What's not to like? I saw that it was based on the book Pines by Blake Crouch, so I picked it up, and tore through it in two days. I have to say, this book is the perfect summer read. The writing itself is nothing special. It's straightforward and far from dense. Where the book lacks in wording it more than makes up for in plot, which is the main focus, and the twist, which actually works very well, and which I won't spoil here. Pines begins with Secret Service agent waking up outside of the town of Wayward Pines, in a grassy clearing by a river. His amnesia and confusion soon clear some, and he remembers that he was coming to town to search for two fellow agents who went missing while investigating something in town. It soon becomes apparent that there is something very, very weird going on with Wayward Pines. The place seems too good to be true, except that no one will cooperate with his queries and he can't seem to reach the outside world. There's also a giant, electrified fence which encircles the town and the immediate surrounding wilderness. The book was hard to put down, and paid off in the end. It also has two sequels, which I plan to check out at some point.

14 by Peter Clines.

While I tend to stray away from reviewing books that I really didn't like, I'm going to do this one anyway. Last year I read Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp, and had seen these two books compared quite a bit. Seeing some good things about this one, I thought I would give it a read, but it ended up being a vast disappointment. This is one of those novels which has some good ideas in the plot, but is utterly killed by it's execution. The story is about a mysterious apartment building, and the residents. Nate moves in, and soon realizes there is a lot of weirdness going on. He then teams up with a large group of other residents in order to investigate. It soon becomes a repetitive, feel-good novel that goes like this: Nate and friends have a group meeting to discuss their finds, they investigate a certain aspect of the building, they have a group meeting to discuss their findings, they meet for beers on the roof and plan their next investigation, they investigate a certain aspect, they have a group meeting to discuss their findings, they meet for beers on the roof and plan. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. A better writer would have at least mixed some tension into the group, but it's like reading a friendless child's fantasy: everyone gets along super well, and become a Scooby-Doo, best friend supergroup. It started to become quite nauseating, and I almost put the book down but decided to give it a chance. Also, word of advice to writers out there: if you're going to use Lovecraft's monsters, or monsters that are clearly based on Lovecraft's monsters, you should maybe do it properly. Yes, the idea of Cthulhu is terrifying, but when you cheapen it by making it so his thoughts that can be heard by characters literally consist of "HUNGRY. EAT." then you truly do not understand what makes Lovecraft's monsters scary. A hugely disappointing book.

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett.

The latest novel from Bennett recently won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel, and couldn't be more deserving. This large novel is a mixture of weird horror and science fiction, another "weird town" novel that I just had to pick up. The story follows ex-cop Mona Bright, who inherits (in the books I read inheriting is NEVER a good thing) a house in the town of Wink, New Mexico when her father passes away. Seeing the house used to belong to her mother, who she lost to suicide when she was really young, Mona decides to jump on the opportunity to learn more about the woman she called mother. What follows is an outstanding piece of work. The threads all come together neatly, and Bennett paces the book well. Another example of a novel that manages to hit on so many different emotions as it runs its course. At times it is frightening, other times it's funny, and others it is as awe-inspiring as the best science fiction out there. A look at family, and the love/hate relationship between siblings, children and parents. Definitely a must-read.

The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory.

This reprinting of a short, older novel I picked up after seeing author Paul Tremblay mention it with praise. This was one of those books that subverted my expectations, and was one of the more haunting reads I have read all year. The story follows a young couple with a toddler who inherit (it's a curse, I tell ya) a cottage from a recently deceased uncle. The inheritance comes with a stipulation; the couple have to care for their uncle's pet cormorant, and if they neglect it they lose the cottage. What follows is a chilling novel unlike any I've read before. Naming the bird "Archie" begins a strange story of love/hate between a man and his pet. The protagonist starts believing the bird is otherworldly and evil, and also starts thinking a ghost is following him. He bonds with the bird, but their relationship vacillates between love and hate by the page. There are times earlier on that the bird seems to be the antagonist, but as the book goes on I am really not sure what to think, and even feel sorry for the animal many times. The novel plays with the reader in this way. It is unclear who we should be rooting for; the mean disgusting animal or the husband whose feelings for the bird are so back and forth. The book ends on a jaw-dropping note that I didn't see coming, and still haunts my thoughts. Weird fiction readers should check this one out without hesitation.

The Walls of the Castle by Tom Piccirilli.

This novella is the first in the Black Labyrinth imprint from Dark Regions Press, and was my first encounter with Piccirilli's fiction. This surreal story takes place in The Castle, a labyrinthian hospital. A man grieves his son and stays in the hospital for months after his death, until he slowly loses his identity. He doesn't remember his own name, so adopts the name Kasteel, and becomes a "protector" figure. By stealing food from the cafeteria, and mingling with other people who "live" in the Castle, Kasteel becomes a ghost in the machine, haunting the hallways and stairwells, trying to right wrongs. Kasteel is a tough ex-con, and falls back on his fighting skills to battle bullying guards, and abusive fathers. The novella is short, and the ending comes very quickly, but the story serves as an excellent meditation on grief and identity. It is also illustrated by the wonderful Santiago Caruso.

Annihilation and Authority by Jeff Vandermeer.

Vandermeer is a name that should ring all kinds of bells for readers of the fantastic. Jeff and his wife Ann have edited and written all kinds of outstanding works, and Jeff's latest trilogy is receiving all kinds of praise from fans, and rightly so. Annihilation and Authority (soon to be followed by Acceptance) make up "The Southern Reach Trilogy" and focus on a mysterious area known as "Area X" as well as The Southern Reach, the secret government group in charge of researching Area X. Annihilation is an account of the eleventh expedition, as told by the group's biologist. Authority shifts to follow agent John Rodriguez (aka Control) as he takes over as acting director of The Southern Reach. With the first two books alone, Vandermeer has done something special, taking weird fiction to new levels. What may impress me the most, is how different each of the first two books are, and how they manage to work together so well. Narrative style is something Vandermeer likes to play with, and reading these first two books brings to mind his early work Veniss Underground. That early novel consists of three sections, each using a different style of narrative, one for each character it follows. The book opens in the first-person, and switches to the harder to pull off second-person, before finishing in the third-person. These books seem to emulate that approach, each one taking the narrative style that is most suited. Annihilation is a first-person account of the eleventh expedition, as told in the Biologist's journal, which each expedition member is supposed to keep. This was an apt choice, as we get to perceive Area X as the Biologist does, seeing her most intimate thoughts, although it is possible she is not being completely truthful in her account either. Authority abandons this approach, opting for a third-person narrative. This could reflect the change in scenery as well as character, as this novel takes place outside of Area X, and instead in the headquarters of The Southern Reach. Control is a man struggling to keep it together. This job is a last chance, one that he only has because his mother (herself a cold, calculating spy in the agency) pulled strings. It soon becomes apparent that the weirdness isn't just restricted to Area X itself, but permeates the headquarters and it's employees. Some questions are answered in the second book, but obviously much is left for the third book. Both books are chock full of mystery, awe, horror, and weird beauty. They are different enough to avoid repetition, and both stand quite strong on individual merits. It is clear that Vandermeer is doing something very special here, and this reader eagerly awaits Acceptance.

The Black Sun Set by Lee Thomas.

This chapbook novella is small, but packs quite a punch. Published by Canadian outfit Burning Effigy Press, this fine yarn follows a tough guy on a job to guard his boss's wife, with whom he is infatuated. What follows is a two-fisted, weird noir tale that is a must read. Thomas packs quite a bit into this slim chapbook, creating a sympathetic character (I couldn't help but think of Mike from AMC's Breaking Bad as I read) who finds himself in a messy situation. I don't want to give too much away, since it's a short novella, but there's action, a total femme fatale, a tough guy and a cult that's hell-bent on retrieving something the boss has.

1 comment:

  1. Ground round up, thanks Mr. Steele. So with all of those weddings, how many spouses do you have now? Most of us keep it to one at a time, you know.