Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Black Star, Black Sun by Rich Hawkins

Black Star, Black Sun is my first exposure to author Rich Hawkins. He previously penned The Last Plague, a novel about a not quite zombie apocalypse, that picked up some good reviews. This work is much shorter, making it a novella, although it is still quite a good size.

The story follows a man named Ben Ottway who, still reeling from his wife's mysterious disappearance, returns to his old hometown to stay with his father and put his life back together. Things take a turn for the worse as Ben begins having disturbing dreams that start to cross over into reality. He thinks he may be going mad, until he realizes that the "dreams" are not experienced by him alone.

Hawkins brings the otherwordly, cosmic horror in droves. Once things begin they escalate very quickly, grotesque scenes abound and the town soon becomes a Boschian nightmare. There are some wonderfully done, creepy segments, but some later parts of the book came across as being laid on a bit too thick. The scenes that were subtle were much more effective, and where the author shined. Many of the earlier scenes with Ben traipsing around and having off-putting encounters were handled like a pro.

The protagonist was very convincing as a man whose life was falling apart, barely hanging on with the the help from nicotine and caffeine. He existed in parallel with his father, who numbed the pain of his widower lifestyle with alcohol. At times I felt like the dad wasn't as developed, but I instead came to see him purposefully portrayed as an almost-empty shell of a man, lonely and filling his time with television and booze while wearing a ratty dressy gown, church being his only real social outlet.

This is a good novella, but it's not without it's problems, many of which are common among newer authors. Some of the side characters came across as rather one-dimensional, and at times I was struck by a repetitiveness. Later parts of the book seemed overlong, and lost some of their effectiveness as a result, whereas a trimming may have resulted in these segments packing more of a punch.

Criticisms aside, I enjoyed the novella quite a bit. Many segments of it really resonated with me. It's the second published book from a new author, and at times it is obvious that this is an early work of fiction. That said, I see a lot of talent in Mr. Hawkins, and I have a feeling I will be doubly pleased with his next offering. In the meantime, fans of Lovecraftian horror should check this novella out, as I have a feeling that many of them will really love this one.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review Roundup & News: March

Apologies for not updating sooner, but at the end of January I took on the duties of a school counselor at a nearby school while continuing my full time time counseling job. Doing the work of two school counselors has taken a lot of time, and I fell behind on my reviews. Also I have been reading some books that probably don't belong on the blog, since early on I decided the blog was going to focus on dark and weird fiction, so when I read the occasional fantasy novel I won't be reviewing it here (Joe Abercrombie's Half the World is amazing though, if you like fantasy then READ MORE ABERCROMBIE). Things are still busy, but I plan to make more blog posts.

I have some cool news. I conducted an interview with author Laird Barron which will appear in the Lazy Fascist Review. I also reviewed Gabriel Blackwell's The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men which should also appear in volume three or four of Lazy Fascist Review.

Jordan Krall's Dunhams Manor Press is having an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for their 2015 lineup. This is a really cool micropress and their limited edition chapbooks are essential for weird fiction fans. The campaign is also a great chance to pay upfront for the books coming out in 2015 so you don't have to worry about ordering them all individually. The campaign is HERE and now is the chance to meet some stretch goals before the campaign closes on March 26th at 11:59 PM.

Also, some good news regarding some colleagues: Clint Hale recently started a new review blog, The Dark of Things. Clint knows his weird, so I have high hopes for this venture. C.M. Muller, a reviewer and published author, is starting an annual journal of weird fiction, Nightscript. Mr. Muller has excellent taste and I have no doubt that this will be premiere publication. Also recently, my friend Sam Cowan has also announced that his micropress Dim Shores will announce their first publication soon. Dim Shores will publish novella and short story chapbooks. Sam is very knowledgeable about weird fiction as well, and has a background in book design and publishing so I have no doubt this will also be a top notch micropress. Exciting times ahead!!!!!

Now, on to the reviews.

Vox Terrae by John Claude Smith (Dunhams Manor Press)

John Claude Smith is a new writer for me. I have both of his story collections, but haven't cracked them open yet. One weekend I found myself with some reading time, and decided to devote it to several chapbooks from Jordan Krall's Dunhams Manor Press, the weird fiction imprint of Dynatox Ministries. This was also the day I became a fan of John Claude Smith. I started with Vox Terrae, a disturbing tale about a grieving man seeking a way to his beloved. As a couple they were both engaged in the occult, and sought a way to the other side. Kenneth, the main character, contacts his old friend and occult mentor Ivan, and the two seek out a woman whose translation of a vile tome led to Kenneth's girlfriend's death. Their journey leads them to a house of horrors that brought to mind Laird Barron's Children of Old Leech.

Dandelions by John Claude Smith (Dunhams Manor Press)

Dandelions is a bit more of a slow burn, and the author handles it perfectly.Two couples take a trip and stay at an eerie little motel by the seashore. The place is permeated by a sense of wrongness. Small oddities taking on sinister connotations and added together to create a surreal nightmare. An excellent use of atmosphere and location, and a terrifying little gem of a weird tale.

Twisted Histories by Tom Lynch (Dunhams Manor Press)

Tom Lynch brings a B-movie aesthetic to these two stories based on Lovecraft's Mythos. The first of the two stories, and the creepier of the two, is a telling of how John Dee translated the Necronomicon. A desperate attempt of saving his career and reputation quickly becomes a descent into madness. The second story is an action-filled yarn of Cold War spies in Berlin. Some weird experiments are being carried out on the Eastern side of the Wall, and some American spies find out the hard way that it's often best not to meddle where weird science is concerned. The two stories lack the literary punch some of the other Dunhams Manor books go for, but they are nonetheless very fun reads.

The Queen in Green by Gina Ranalli (Dunhams Manor Press)

Another author that I've yet to read before, Gina Ranalli delivers a creepy tale set in the woods. A young boy leave his family's campsite to explore the woods and collect kindling. He meets a mysterious dwarf who wants to introduce him to a very special tree. The story is quite short, but Ranalli manages to paint a rather creepy picture.

At the time of this writing, copies are still available HERE.

This Fragmented Body by Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

The first of three chapbooks by Christopher Slatsky I read in one day, and enough to get me excited about this author. Amputees, run down apartment buildings, and puppets make for a heady brew. A blackout hits the city, and several amputees of all ages who make the building their home confront their personal tragedies and recurring nightmares. Slatsky builds dread from page one, and is not shy about amping up the weird.

No One Is sleeping In This World by Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

Two artistic friends are making a documentary about architecture, and decide to visit an old warehouse designed by an eccentric, one-of-a-kind architect. Somehow the building managed to be forgotten, tucked away in a run-down industrial district, until one of the friends finds out about it. They visit it to find a sort of Cult of Cities. Slatsky offers a glimpse of American urban decay, and early on layers on the unease that makes for some of the best weird fiction. Wind blown plastic bags appear to be floating faces, strange homeless people seem to rule the streets in a forgotten, dying part of town, and an incongruous warehouse built by an infamous architect is somewhere where it makes no sense for it to be. A wonderful story.

Alectryomancer by Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

This strange tale is a surreal, sci-fi masterpiece. At a depression era work camp, Rey spends the days working in the fields and contemplating a strange recurring hallucination he has of a burning horse. People have been disappearing, but Rey is mostly concerned with cockfighting, as his successful gamecock is set to fight an undefeated, otherworldly gamecock called Alectryomancer. Rey kills time in between work and cockfighting with looking at pictures of a family he hasn't seen in a long time, and reading passages from a bizarre, nonsensical journal that he found. The journal discusses time travel, ancient engines at the                                                               core of the earth and similar concepts. Slatsky has succeeded in                                                             creating an original, bizarre tale that left me full of dread and                                                                 wonder.

                                                      At the time of this writing, copies are still available to order HERE.

The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple (First Second)

I very much enjoy graphic novels but tend to not review them. The Wrenchies deserves a mention here because it is one of the strangest ones I have read, and one of the best. The story begins with two brothers who enter a cave and defeat a demon. One brother, Sherman, takes an amulet as his prize. What follows is a disjointed, surreal narrative that follows several threads as they weave together. Children gangs roam a post-apocalyptic America, fighting against the Demons who have control. An outsider child named Hollis lives in out time as a neighbor of the adult Sherman, and when he finds the amulet he is transported to this strange, futuristic world where he finally finds people he fits in with - the child gang called The Wrenchies. An adult group of Wrenchies that exists in Sherman's comic is through a timewarp to join their young counterparts. There are all sorts of things going on in this novel. Modern day Sherman seems a very troubled man, unhappy and filling his time off from work doing drugs and drinking, only     productive when he writes his comic. It seems he is haunted by some sort of tragedy in the past, and the line is blurred as to what is truth and what is fantasy when it comes to Sherman. The fantastical version seems to have been many things: a child spy, a demon-slaying warrior, a space explorer. A hard to understand book, The Wrenchies will benefit from multiple rereads. The book is wonderfully entertaining and thought provoking, and the art is absolutely gorgeous.