Shock Totem #10 (Jan 2016)
- Shock Totem #11—Available Now!
- The State of Shock Totem Publications, or We Are Not ChiZine Publications
- Closing for Submissions
- Shock Totem Returns!
- Apex Publications Acquires Shock Totem Book Line
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 8
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 7
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 6
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 5
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 4
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Author Archives: Christian Marcus
Medical science has come a long way since 2014. SymboGen, a powerful pharmaceutical company, has figured out how to cure the world’s medical problems. After many years of secretive research, they came up with a solution by splicing several types of DNA to a specific species of tapeworm, which is then ingested in pill form, where it thrives in a human’s digestive tract, regulating anything from insulin creation and diabetes, to migraines, to arthritis. It appears, on the surface, like a miracle. As more people are implanted with these tapeworms, medical issues become a thing of the past.
Sally Mitchell was officially declared brain dead after a horrible car accident. SymboGen purchases her machine-assisted body to implant their latest medical marvel. One day she simply revives, only without any memory of who’d she once been, nor anything about what had happened to her. As Sally—or Sal as she prefers to be called since being ‘reborn’—has the task of relearning how to do everything her former self was able to do. In the process, she falls in love with one of the doctors whom she meets at SymboGen, and they embark on a relationship. Little do either of them know that Sal may very well be a secret weapon that SymboGen has been creating, and it’s not until the advent of “sleepwalkers” (those whose bodies and brains are taken over by the tapeworms) that both Sal and her boyfriend begin to suspect that something is amiss.
In Mira Grant style (whose name is a nom de plume for bestselling author Seanan McGuire, of the October Daye urban fantasy series), she presents us with another mega-corporation whose process and future goals include controlling the masses, this time through pharmacology. To say that their efforts go terribly awry is an understatement. Positing a different take on the medical thriller/zombie apocalypse genres, Grant takes us on a deeply disturbing journey through Sal’s new life of intense paranoia (but it’s not paranoia if there are actually people out to get you, is it?) and failed attempts at putting together puzzle pieces that seem not only cut from different puzzles, but created on completely different planets.
There are numerous twists and turns in Parasite, this first installment of the Parisitology trilogy. Grant knows her stuff here, and doesn’t hold back. While Sal’s character can come across as overly whiny and victimized, she understands far more than she lets on—a kind of “Columbo-esque” approach to problem solving—and her seeming naiveté is a good tool for her to glean as much information as she can in order to save all those whose tapeworms have not yet taken over.
Using accurate and detailed medical processes and research as the basis, Parasite is a germaphobe’s worst nightmare come true. Grant easily picks up the mantle that Michael Crichton left behind, and turns it into a compelling story of the dangers of genetic manipulation.
The second installment, Symbiont, is due to be released in November 2014.
Stephen King is definitely the Alfred Hitchcock of the literary world. It’s likely he could take an inner city phone book and turn it into a riveting novel. Mr. Mercedes isn’t a phone book, but it sure as hell ranks up there with some of Hitchcock’s greatest hits. In fact, one might say that Mr. Mercedes is King’s Psycho.
King rocks the suspense/thriller genres here. Taking a step away from the deeply supernatural fare he’s known for, he proves that he is, without doubt, one of the world’s top writers. That he continues to come up with fresh material and interesting stories is further testament to his prowess. But he doesn’t leave the horror out, either. In fact, there’s one scene that will be impossible to get out of my head, probably for the rest of my life.
Mr. Mercedes tells the story of retired cop, Bill Hodges, who has taken to heavy drinking and flirting with suicide night after night since he left the force. Before he left, there was one particular unsolved case that haunted him, and continues to do so months and years later. An unknown subject stole a Mercedes and rammed it into a crowd of hundreds of local unemployed people, killing eight and injuring many others. The perpetrator was never caught, and that is what bothers Hodges the most. When the killer reaches out and taunts Hodges in the hopes of pushing the overweight cop past the mental tipping point, it instead revives Hodges’ passion, and renews his intent to take Mr. Mercedes down, even if it’s the last thing he ever does.
Hodges sets out to bring a killer to justice, and in the process manages to fall in love and care about not only himself, but others as well. Especially his estranged daughter, whose absence from his life is one of his greatest failures. Now though, he seeks redemption, and believes he can only find it by catching the murderer. Along the way, Hodges gathers an odd, ragtag team of crime solvers: a school-aged neighbor kid who happens to be somewhat of a genius, and a bipolar woman who turns out to be an incredible asset, despite her mental challenges. This latter character might remind you of Chloe from 24. In another comparison, this team is very much like characters from The Drawing of the Three, volume two in King’s epic Dark Tower series. In young Jerome we find shades of Odetta, and in bipolar Holly we find pieces of Eddie Dean, the young heroin addict.
The antagonist, on the other hand, is one of the creepier King has ever put on paper. One might compare him to Pennywise the Clown, only without the makeup and killer smile. However, Pennywise’s evil intent is alive and thriving here. There’s even a vague reference in this book, as well as nods to several other King books.
Without giving anything away, it’s worth your while to take your time with this book, in spite of the overwhelming urge you’ll likely experience to zip through to the stunning conclusion as quickly as possible. King handles tension and horror as masterfully as ever and his character development is in tremendous form. We find ourselves rooting for the underdog protagonists, despite the many mistake both sides make that puts everyone’s lives in peril.
Mr. Mercedes is available in hardcover through Scribner and is the first in a trilogy centered on the murders that take place in this first episode. Finders Keepers, the second volume, is slated to be released in early 2015.
There are times when a reader wants a great short story collection that can be digested in small bites, like nibbling on a favorite food, not wanting to finish. Unlike novels, which demand a commitment that sometimes cannot be fulfilled due to poor writing, inconsistent storytelling, or myriad technical errors, none of those holds true for Brandon Meyers’ Chasing the Sandman: Tales of the Macabre. As a self-published book (generally a red flag for those seeking professional writing), Sandman did have some technical errors and awkward imagery, but the incredibly imagined tales are so engrossing and frightening, it’s difficult not to read it right through.
Rarely does short fiction cause me nightmares. However, the opening story, “Graveyard Shift,” not only gave me a horrible case of the heebie-jeebies, but stayed with me for weeks afterward and chased me in my sleep. When police officer Mickey O’Houlihan investigates a suspicious sighting during a much-needed cigarette break, he finds far more than he could ever imagine. Whatever you do, don’t think of spiders the size of wild boars. Meyers really knows how to set the tension and push it higher and higher, and that admirable skill is quite evident here. Rarely do I use trite phrases like “edge of your seat,” but in this case it truly fits. No wasted ideas, no underused moments. For this story alone, it’s worth the price.
“A View of the Top” pits brother and sister against a sadistic sort while they attempt to find their way through a hedge maze. Reminiscent of the maze in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, this is a wicked little story that will make you think twice before entering that corn maze next Halloween.
“Spirit House” telegraphs its ending far in advance, but the writing holds you to the page, and that’s the mark of a great storyteller, especially when it leaves you wanting more. For comic-book fans, you’ll adore “1st Appearance,” an incredibly creative tale, weaving in a unique twist on the power of comic books. “Into the Deep” is a tidy tale in which chance plays a big role in the actions of two men who find themselves in an unexpected place in unexpected conditions, despite their best laid plans.
In all, there are twenty-one darkly humorous and imaginatively frightening tales in this collection, and the greatest shortcoming is that many of the stories are just too darned short. The characterization and storytelling is adept and intriguing, and the creativity is stunningly original.
Perhaps the most admirable trait of this collection is its consistency. Meyers brings a definite tongue-in-cheek sensibility to his writing, though doesn’t overuse it. Chasing the Sandman harkens back to the pulp era, when one could buy a magazine for a nickel or a dime and expect to be scared witless by stories from H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Bloch, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Heinlein and others. And there are definite winks and nods to these authors, as well as Stephen King and more modern dark fiction. Meyers may not be of that caliber (yet), but the foundation is laid for future writing, and I, for one, am definitely looking forward to it.
Chasing the Sandman is available through Amazon in paperback and digital formats.
Myers also maintains a web-comic, A Beer for the Shower, with collaborative writing partner Bryan Pedas, which displays his agile wit and humor to an advantage, and gives fans access to his talent on a regular basis.
Typically I shy away from short fiction collections unless I see the name King or Gaiman or some other major league writer on the cover in large letters. So to say that I approached Wicked Seasons: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers, Volume II, with trepidation is an understatement. However, what a treat it turned out to be, especially for this horror-loving writer and reader.
I was immediately engrossed (and a bit grossed out) by the stories presented in this annual collection. There’s not a lot here that one might label traditional horror, though the stories are definitely spooky, humorous, eerie and twisted. More akin to old episodes of Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Tales from the Darkside. The thread of suspense and bizarre is definitely on display. However, every wicked story is right at home in this collection, and fit nicely into the breeding ground of dark fiction that is New England.
Wicked Seasons is edited by Stacey Longo and contains stories from Rob Smales, Scott Goudsward, Kristy Peterson Schoonover, Catherine Grant, Christopher Golden, and James A. Moore, to name a few. The collection does not stumble in presenting the strange, macabre, or downright grisly. You’ll not find the monsters and aliens of stories that might have appeared in the fifties or sixties in this anthology, but monsters of the more or less human kind.
Catherine Grant’s “Three Fat Guys Soap” is just such a story, in which a strange and horrific method of making soap becomes a stunning act of revenge, and is immensely satisfying for anyone who has ever been bullied by their boss.
“Blood Prophet,” by Scott T. Goudsward, is another example of the horror of humanity in which child abuse and religious dementia play a center stage role, and makes the ending all the more satisfying.
Christopher Golden brings us “The Secret Backs of Things,” which brings to mind Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a puzzle in which events are merely hinted at, leaving the reader to figure the rest out.
“The Basement Legs,” by Robert J. Duperre, tells about a man who comes to the defense of a young, pregnant Filipino woman who lives in his apartment building. Duperre earns kudos here for bringing a whole new meaning to your local UPS service.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover writes “To Chance Tomorrow,” a cautionary story about science’s role in our lives, and the dubious changes it provides for our future, but at what cost?
If it’s hauntings that scare you, Addison Clift’s “Furious Demon” is a deliciously creepy tale of a woman’s dead father coming back to haunt her and who very well may have molested her when she was a child.
Rob Smales’s “A Night at the Show” and Errick A. Nunnally’s “Lycanthrobastards” are dark werewolf tales that provide surprising departures from standard fare, with fantastic results.
The Wicked Seasons table of contents also includes Trisha J. Wooldridge, Lucien E.G. Spelman, Michael J. Evans, Paul McMahon, and Gregory L. Norris—all very entertaining and chilling reads. For someone who doesn’t often read anthologies, Wicked Seasons exceeded all expectations and converted this reader to seeking out other, similar collections. Also, don’t miss the introduction from Jeff Strand. It’s as entertaining as the central stories.
Mona Bright, ex-cop turned drifter, learns, years after her mother’s death, that she has inherited her mother’s house (which she didn’t know existed) and that it’s located in a town called Wink, New Mexico. And as far as she can determine, Wink doesn’t exist. Not on any map, and not as far as the people she asks knows, which only serves to make her ever more curious about her mother, her mother’s past, and why Wink is such a well-kept secret.
Already adrift in her life after the death of her unborn child, Mona is presented with a rare opportunity to learn the truth about her mother, who seemed to become a completely different person without reason nor cause, slowly, it seemed, submitting to a bizarre form of insanity. Mona goes in search of her own past and hoping, in the process, to solve the riddle of her life.
Never has the cautionary adage of “be careful what you wish for” been more appropriate than in Mona’s case. Because Wink, which may or may not exist in our current reality, is full of things that can drive any person lip-smacking, drool-spewing insane. But the town also holds all the answers that Mona wants to—needs to—discover. But what price is she willing pay?
Robert Jackson Bennett is a masterful l writer of unclassifiable fiction. Is American Elsewhere science fiction, fantasy, or horror? Is it a crime novel, a mystery, or satire? Is it an allegory of insular life in small town America, a commentary on the intolerance of outsiders? A send-up of the illusory wholesomeness of small town life? Perhaps American Elsewhere is all of these things, and none of them. Bennett’s prose style wavers between sparse and direct, never shying away from the gore and uglier elements that horror encompasses, while at other times tends toward hyperbole and over-expositing, with the potential of losing his readers through the lengthy trek of its 600-plus pages.
However, the individual elements make an excellent story, if the length isn’t too daunting for the average reader. Horror blends well with science fiction, which blends well with the human drama woven throughout, which again blends well with the horror. And while we’re shown the enemy and learn to despise them, we also invest in their pain because of how they’ve become that way.
At the center of it all, is Mona’s quest for truth.
Like the original Twilight Zone series, the story has an affinity for small towns and the monsters behind the masks. When Mona begins to suspect that there’s a lot more going on, she wants to flee but instead gets sucked into learning everything she can. Because somewhere in all that strangeness and bizarre discoveries is the mother she thought she knew and tried to love.
Mona herself, written as the protagonist, is difficult to invest in at first. She’s standoffish, rebellious, and sarcastic. Her role as a former police officer sometimes felt more like a convenience that was whipped out whenever it suited the plot. Otherwise, she did not act or behave like a police officer, former or not. There are sections where suspension of disbelief is necessary, but the story is able to overcome those issues.
Bennett’s prose tends to meander in places and depicts confusing events, but once we choose to invest in the characters and their stories, there is a tremendous payoff. To say that the ending is more than a little surprising would be an understatement.
With strong echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, American Elsewhere may not be a traditional read, but it is thoroughly entertaining, and will like satisfy fans of dark fiction, horror and science fiction.
It’s rare that a bestselling author at any level in their career would tout one of their own works as “my favorite of all the books [I’ve] ever written.” And to do so when the novel has just been released is either the presumptuousness of the writer’s ego or a statement made from a place of exceptional confidence.
It’s safe to say that Innocence, Dean Koontz’ latest standalone novel, falls into the latter category by far. And Koontz is correct to be so confident. Koontz blends mystery, suspense, and deep insight into the inner workings of the human soul in a masterfully told story.
Addison Goodheart is an outsider who must hide his horrible disfigurement from the world lest he be brutally attacked and killed by those repulsed by his very appearance. Forced from home at the age of eight by a mother who spent a lifetime trying not to commit filicide against her own child, Addison finds refuge beneath the city with a strange but kind-hearted man afflicted by a very similar condition.
Gwyneth is a young woman who cannot stand to be touched in any way. She seems to harbor answers to the strangeness that Koontz sets forth here, but refuses to share them at critical junctures, creating dramatic tension and, sometimes, frustration for both Addison and the reader.
It’s inevitable that their paths cross, as when Addison saves Gwyneth from certain death at the hands of a sinister pursuer, and begins a conflicted romance in which he will not allow himself to be seen by her, and she cannot bear to come into contact with him.
Thrown together amidst a worldwide outbreak of a mysterious plague (which is secondary to the main story), the pair bonds to fight a common foe while picking their way through a romantic minefield. The bond between them runs much deeper than the tragedies that have scarred their respective lives. Something more than chance—and nothing less than destiny—has brought them together in a world whose hour of reckoning is upon them.
Innocence is, at its root, a story about the enduring character of the human spirit. And it also happens to be one of Koontz’s best works to date. It’s unusual to see that a novel is the clear culmination of a lifetime of work, and Innocence fits that bill in every way. Fans of his work will easily identify elements of earlier works (Odd Thomas, Watchers) and recognize parallels with other epic tales like Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast.
What Stephen King does with story development and characterization, Koontz does with language. He does not “dumb down” his story but, instead, invites his readers to work a little harder to grasp the complex supernatural elements introduced, and uses words many authors shy away from. This works in Koontz’s favor, as it provides a certain elegance to his writing that is missing from that of his peers. Told in a straightforward and economical style, Innocence is the measuring stick against which future supernatural stories will be compared.
Anne Rice cut her teeth, if you will, by creating some of the most Gothic, horrifying stories and by revitalizing historic mythology surrounding blood-sucking lore. You’ll find those literary influences continuing to reverberate in her latest offerings, The Wolf Gift, and its follow-up, The Wolves of Midwinter, injecting new vitality into the werewolf myth as only Rice can do.
We meet main character Rueben Golding in the first pages of The Wolf Gift as a journalist doing a passionate piece on one of the more mysterious and gorgeous properties in northern California. Fictional Nideck Point is set atop craggy cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean; a three-story mansion often referred to as “the Castle,” that has intrigued young Rueben his whole life. He feels that the opportunity to interview Marchent Nideck, the current owner of the land and buildings, a boon to his growing career.
What might seem as a very contrived plot point, in that Rueben and Marchent become lovers soon after meeting, is in very capable hands with Rice’s rich and delicious prose, delectably detailing every moment of their relationship as well as every inch of the enormous house. She leaves no detail unmentioned, which creates an outstanding and immersive reading experience. Bordering on literary fiction, Rice returns to the storytelling prowess that made her the bestselling author she is today.
Reuben is the golden boy of his family and of the newspaper he writes for. His mother is a surgeon, his father a poet, and his brother a priest. These seem merely incidental occupations at first, but each family member plays a crucial role throughout the first book. When Marchent is brutally attacked and murdered by her own ne’er-do-well brothers, hoping to inherit Nideck Point, their horrific plot is avenged when an indescribable beast intervenes then and there, very nearly killing Rueben in the process. Rueben barely survives the attack and is been bitten by the beast. As in the vampire myths, where blood is the agent through which bitten humans are converted forever, it’s saliva in the case of the beast. Recovering in the hospital, cared for by his own mother, Rueben becomes a media darling. However, strange things soon begin happening to him.
Rice weaves a wonderfully dense mystery throughout The Wolf Gift, and never lets us forget what she’s best known for: storytelling. Rueben makes numerous discoveries on his journey to embracing what he’s become. Religious overtones abound in both installments, echoes, perhaps, of Rice’s previous works on the mythical Jesus Christ and her reunion with her Catholic faith, which she eventually abandoned. However, also appearing are scenes in which Rice’s alter ego, A. N. Roquelaure, might’ve written, embracing sensuality and sexuality in lurid yet delectable prose.
There is gore aplenty here, as well as a deep exploration of human mythology, and what separates us from the very beasts we seem to fear becoming. There are many points introduced in this story, which one hopes will continue on into the follow-up, The Wolves of Midwinter.
In the second novel, Rice reminds us of the events that took place in the first. However, it’s nearing the Yule season, and Rueben has connected with the distinguished gentlemen who originally made Nideck Point what it is, and set out to educate him on their individual histories, as well as the history of the Morphenkind. Unlike The Wolf Gift though, this story unravels at a sedate and leisurely pace. We become immersed in the day-to-day lives of the Morphenkind, their extravagant philanthropy, and a rather deep inspection of the nature of Christmas, or Yule, as the characters call it, as many of them were alive when the celebration first took place. The story evolves and then evolves some more, but there is very little in the way of action until late in the story.
The wolf family is explored at length, which brings about some rich and interesting character development. At times it felt a bit melodramatic, but Rice’s prose is always worth the time invested.
There is setup for a third novel, which can often be the downfall of many good or great series. Rice’s adept use of language and description is the glue that holds us to the page, and incredible character development is a joy to behold. It takes determination to make it through the second installment, but one can be certain there will be more to follow, if the popularity of is to be counted. And, as there are many unanswered questions still left to our imagination, we’ll be sure to follow Rice along on her storytelling journey.
When I was 12, I experienced a horrid accident in which I lost the ankle bone and part of my foot in my left leg. Being summer in Michigan meant that it was nearly always 100% humidity, and hotter than Satan’s buttcrack. And me with a monstrously heavy, hot and unwieldy plaster cast from my toes to mid-thigh. It was a pain, to be certain. So I kept myself distracted through reading.
I’d already read through my mother’s entire collection of Sidney Sheldon novels, and went in search of something to take my mind off the infernal itching beneath my cast as my leg healed from surgery.
Tucked way to the back of the bookcase in the living room was a novel that intrigued me greatly. I’d previously read Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, which was gross and creepy, and utterly delicious. This book had a very similar cover. I had never heard of the author, some guy named Stephen King, but I snuck the book back to my bedroom and set out to read.
The Shining scared the living crap out of me. I found myself, for the first time in my young life, unable to put the book down. Every waking moment was spent with my nose burrowed in the margin, the stench of mother’s chain smoking redolent in the pages and the ink. I didn’t care. Little Danny Torrance was the most compelling character I’d ever encountered, and his story caused me to sleep with lights on for months afterward.
King made the executive decision to follow up Danny’s story with Doctor Sleep.
We meet up with a slightly older Danny in the aftermath of events at the Overlook Hotel, which, if you’ll remember, died a fiery death when the faulty boiler exploded, taking Danny’s father, Jack, with it. But not the horrifying *things* that dwelled there. Oh, no sir. They followed Danny and Wendy to their new home somewhere in sunny, warm Florida. In this way, we know that “redrum” can’t be far behind.
Jump to a future in which Danny is a burned out alcoholic drug addict, drifting from town to town, trying in each location to begin again. His attempts to outrun his personal and all-too-real demons ineffective.
It’s not long before his imaginary childhood friend, Tony, begins appearing at odd times, and Danny, now just Dan, dreads what it might mean.
It’s risky for any author to create a sequel to a much beloved novel, especially thirty-some years later. If the original is meant to be a standalone, the decision to create a follow-up can be seen as “selling out,” trying too hard to cash in on former glory. I would use as an example Black House King’s follow-up to collaborative novel The Talisman which he co-wrote with ghostmeister Peter Straub. Black House sadly fell short of capturing the originality and flavor of The Talisman. That’s the same risk King takes with Doctor Sleep.
Thankfully, it pays off. Big.
King jumps forward quickly in time from Danny as a child, to Dan as a highly dysfunctional adult. But the reader is allowed to see that trajectory which also allows us to take the ride along with him, and invest emotionally in the character’s seemingly endless plight.
King is a master of character development, and is at the top of his game in Doctor Sleep. Rather than allowing his protagonist to wallow in his self-pity for the entirety of the book, he brings in another character, a young girl named Abra, who has a Shining stronger than Danny ever did. And she is being pursued by a cult named The True Knot.
Allowing Dan to focus on something and someone outside of himself, it brings him to sobriety, because, like Chef Dick Halloran coming to his rescue decades before, only he knows what she’s going through, and has to save Abra.
King also writes children in peril better than anyone. Think of Jake in the Dark Tower series, or Travelin’ Jack in The Talisman. And of course, Dan was that character in The Shining. To be able to follow Dan into adulthood, where at last—at least we hope as we fervently flip through the pages—he’ll gain closure over his horrifying past, allows the reader to likewise experience closure. First, though, we, along with Dan, will have to deal with the dead woman from the Overlook’s Room 217 and several other nasties that are likewise pursuing Dan, intent on finishing long ago business.
Doctor Sleep is another shining star (pun intended) in King’s catalogue, and well worth reading.