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The concluding volume in a haunting graphic novel trilogy, Sugar Skull concludes the hallucinatory, heartbreaking, hilarious, and mysterious odyssey begun in X’ed Out and continued in The Hive.
Like all of Charles Burns’s works, including the acclaimed graphic novel Black Hole, the Xe’d Out trilogy features the same starkly-penned, startlingly-detailed drawings, but with one major difference: it’s all rendered in full color, adding a whole other dimension of dark beauty.
I could get more into some of the specifics of Sugar Skull, but the thing is, the X’ed Out trilogy doesn’t unfold in a traditional linear narrative. With each volume, Mr. Burns presents bits and pieces of a mosaic of five different storylines, and it’s up to the reader to figure out how they all add up.
Over the course of those different storylines, we get to know Doug, a lonely nebbish who’s just trying to get a good break in life. In one of the storylines, Doug is in his teens, living with his overbearing father and occasionally performing spoken-word songs from behind a mask at punk rock shows; at one point, he befriends and starts to date a moody and mysterious girl named Sarah. In another timeline, there are scenes of Doug and Sarah living together, while still learning more about each other—often through Sarah’s photographs of darkly erotic self-portraits. Then there’s Doug’s life after Sarah, where he wastes his days in his father’s house, recovering from a (mostly) unexplained accident. Later still, we see Doug, now seeing someone else, trying to come to terms with all his problems. Finally, there’s Doug, several years later, having recovered from an addiction and trying to move on with his life with his ultimate lover, Sally.
Woven throughout Doug’s story, there are glimpses of the strange saga of “Nit Nit,” a character that’s at once a surreal caricature of Doug and a bizarro parody of the famous comic character Tintin, created by Belgian artist Hergé. The darkly humorous adventures of Nit Nit take place in a strange dystopian world full of odd creatures, including a foul-mouthed, porcine-featured midget of a man wearing a diaper, who in showing Nit Nit around, becomes almost like a friend. Nit Nit where he is put to work by (and alongside) lizard-like creatures in office suits, slaving away at “the Hive,” where…well, let’s just say that’s where it starts to get really weird. Is this all a dream, drug-induced or otherwise, of Doug’s? Maybe. Is it a surreal summary of different passages of Doug’s life? Maybe. Is it an alternate reality from Doug’s altogether? Maybe. Does it really matter what this storyline means? Probably not.
Ultimately, I spent a lot of time reading these books with my brow furrowed, because honestly, the fractured narrative was more than a little puzzling. I even re-read the previous volumes before each new one came out, just to make sure everything was as fresh as possible, but that didn’t always help. I suppose, if one was to cut out all the pieces of the comic and arrange them into a somewhat linear storyline, one might be able to discern the big, weird picture—but what would be the fun of that? Although the X’ed Out trilogy thumbs its nose at the reader with one hand, its other is pointing the reader to travel even deeper down the rabbit-hole of its strange story. Like all of his previous books, this is a tale that only Charles Burns could tell.
Most anthologies carry a theme, sometimes heavily. A concrete yoke of hackneyed premise across sagging shoulders. I always like the “whatever” sort of collections, which is exactly what Equilibrium Overturned is. Sort of. Most of these tales deal with a bleak sense of survival, the settings change and the details and characters, but every one involves a tenacious attempt to hold the fuck on in a world uncontrolled.
John Everson’s “Amnion” gives us a well-meaning physician and his experiment in regaining youth. Factor in some bad decisions and a haughty wench and we have the makings of a nightmare. JG Faherty shows us a unique sort of zombie apocalypse in “Martial Law.” Rose Blackthorn’s “Through the Ghostlands” is one of my favorites, a stark and sad tale of siblings making their way through a haunted landscape.
“Perfect Soldiers,” by S.G. Larner, shows us a different kind of terror war going on and Martin Slag’s “Wombie” is a surrealist bizarro tale about a veterinarian and the world scale conspiracy of oddity that he uncovers. “No Man’s Land,” by Roger Jackson, gives us a war-nightmare where the dead aren’t lucky enough to remain that way.
Sean Eads’ historical horror show, “The Alamo Incident: From The Chronicles of Timaeus Shields,” must be read to comprehend. Tim Waggoner delivers a gory slice of brutal bizarro in “This Is Not a Horror Story.”
The collection closes with a tale of sadness and loss simply titled “Sunrise.” In this tale by Tony Knighton, we follow a desperate father as he tries to save his ailing son in an unforgiving world. All in all, the stories in Equilibrium Overturned are solid and the thread of desperation and survival is present in almost all of them.
Available through Grey Matter Press.
Transgressive fiction is just a spiffy gold badge for seriously fucked up and off-kilter stories to wear so they seem a bit more high class than they are. I love weird fiction. I like stuff that is dark and bleak and just plain strange. A taste that began when I first read the works of Robert Aickman and continued through to the heady waters of bizarro that we have around us today.
I must admit that I am not much of a fan of the work of Chuck Palahniuk. I find a great deal of his work a bit pretentious and overly obnoxious for no other reason than to be just that, but I hung in and accepted the challenge to review Burnt Tongues. All stories were hand picked by Palahniuk and all of them rabidly wild and unsettling—and like any good scar, they’ll itch and remind you of their existence long after you’ve tried to forget them.
“Charlie,” by Chris Lewis Carter, in which a lonely man brings an abused cat to a veterinarian who proceeds to tell a tragic story from his childhood, one that seems to have an all too tight noose around the present.
“Melody,” by Michael De Vito Jr., shows us a sweet love affair missing a side and a few other things. “F is for Fake,” by Tyler Jones, is the story of an imposter and the lengths he will go to prove a point. Phil Jourdan’s “Mind and Solider” is a deeply troubling tale of a crippled veteran and his encounter with a neighbor boy.
“Ingredients,” by Richard Lemmer, reads like an urban legend, woven around a twisted retail game and the grisly outcome. Matt Egan paints a tear-stained picture of a girl justifying her own tragedy with that of another in “A Vodka Kind of Girl.” One of my favorites from the collection is Brandon Tietz’s “Dietary,” is a gut-punching window into cubicle politics and reindeer games with sharper teeth and parasites.
My favorite of the bunch is “Bike,” by Bryan Howie. This one has stayed with me, so simple and brilliant, I can’t even give a synopsis for fear of draining any of its power. “Heavier Petting,” by Brien Piechos, is a gruesome tableau of relationship woes and secrets, with a little bit of dog-fucking thrown in.
The closer, “Zombie Whorehouse,” by Daniel W. Broallt, saunters up to you while you’re already weary from the others and smacks you upside the head and grabs your face to make you read it. A sick and brutal tale of a man undercover sent to expose a zombie whorehouse from within, and much more.
The collection is solid and while not all of the stories left me gobsmacked, quite a number of them did. But it left me feeling dirty and ashamed, like I’d just watched Gummo again. If you like your fiction left of center and brutal, unafraid to hurt you and unwilling to hide behind the flowery garments of literary trends, this is your shit. Embrace it.
Available through Medallion Press.
Ad Nauseam, a collection of unsettling and often extreme stories from C.W. Lasart, is a wonderful way to spend a weekend. It’s full of sex and gore and weird scenarios, all the things a good weekend should have in its list of ingredients.
The opener, “Simple Pleasures,” is a brow-furrower about a less than smart man and the strange…um, sexy holes that invade his property. “Widow” has arachnophobes running for the door, while “Angel Lust” tackles the sorry void in snuff/corpse erection/porn fiction.
“Retirement Woes” is a lot deeper than it initially reads, and a bit nastier as well. “Lunch Date with Loa Loa” is a great tale about ghosts and eye worms. “Bone Phone” is an example of one’s past coming to call—literally.
“Sister Alice’s Suitor” is a gory diorama of loneliness and jealousies and the oftentimes bad choices they bully us into making. “The Hand That Feeds” is a sweet story of a grandfather entertaining his grandchildren with stories from the past, except that these tales involve a morbidly obese sociopath and implied cannibalism.
The whole batch was great, but I only cited some here. This in no way implies the others are of a lesser caliber—they are not. All the stories are well written and sure to shock and, if you’re a little bit of a sicko, titillate. If you have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure, spend a little time with Ms. Lasart and let her show you a good time.
Ad Nauseam was released by Dark Moon Books in 2012.
When I tell somebody why they have to read Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, I like to mention that it’s a novel that comes in the form of a retail furniture catalog, complete with illustrations of specific products that are featured in each chapter. But when I urge somebody to read this, I try to emphasize that, much like other aesthetically unique novels such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the novel itself is quite good.
Horrorstör tells the story of an Ikea-like home goods store called Orsk. An introverted young woman named Amy is one of a number of employees unhappily slaving away. An unsympathetic and tunnel-visioned manager named Basil is raising the pressure even higher because the store is about to be audited—and in direct conflict with that, something strange is happening in the store: furniture is being inexplicably damaged and soiled in the night. To try to stop the menace at work, Basil recruits Amy and another employee, the ever-cheerful veteran Ruth Anne, to spend the night in the store and keep an eye out for the vandals. That night, they do discover unwelcome company—in the form of two other employees, Matt and Trinity, who are convinced the store is haunted, and want to film the pilot of a reality TV series about their adventure—and that’s when things really begin to get strange.
What made the book work, like any good, classic tale, was a combination of organic characterization and solid storytelling. Amy is a likeable and sympathetic character, but with plenty of flaws and quirks that made me want to pull her aside and talk to her. Basil, meanwhile, is everything you’d expect from a manager whose sole concern is business, and who only cares about how his employees are feeling if it would affect his store. Along with the overly-nice Ruth Anne, Basil is the source of many an eye-roll; yet as the long, dark night unfolds, both of them show a number of unexpected turns of hearts and minds. And while Matt and Trinity could have been (and at first, very much are) stereotypes straight out of the Nerd Herd in the TV show Chuck, the events of Horrorstör affect them every bit as much as everyone else.
But what happens during this long night in Orsk, you may ask? Naturally, I can’t tell you, but I’ll say this much: everything about the store comes into play, from the various furnishings to the very layout of the store. The novel is as much a dark satire of retail stores everywhere as it is an adventure in its own right. And yes, it’s a creepy read; make no mistake about it—this book is most definitely a horror novel, with some truly unsettling moments, and a few images that won’t easily be forgotten.
I myself have worked nine years in retail, and I can honestly say that anybody whom has unhappily served in retail will get even more of a kick out of this fun, wild read. I don’t know how well it would read as an e-book, but as I flipped through this catalog, I found myself laughing out loud, then very quickly falling silent, eyes widening, as the eerie events unfold in the home goods store from hell.
I first encountered Craig Wallwork via one of the best anthologies I have ever had the privilege to review, The New Black. So imagine my joy at winning a copy of Gory Hole via a Goodreads giveaway…you know, those things you enter and nearly never win. One of those.
I received in the mail what I expected to be a run-of-the-mill book and from the moment I opened the mailer, I knew this was not the case. For starters, the book is the size of a grade-school workbook or European comic; a gorgeous glossy cover art rendered by George Cotronis. Inside are three stories each accompanied with a color illustration by Luke Spooner. And the stories, well…
It opens with a completely over-the-top gore-drenched epic called “Revenge of the Zombie Pussy Eaters,” which is…well, about lesbian zombies and their blood-driven quest for muff. It’s gross, repulsive, and ridiculously fun. Next, we have “Human Tenderloin,” a thoughtful meditation on the joys of cannibal cuisine. And for the caboose in the short and shocking train we have “Sicko,” a love letter to those scary old inns owned by crazy folks but filled with twists, misdirection, and mutant deer.
Overall, a frenzied exercise in the fun side of splatterpunk. Gallons of gore, truckloads of sex, and enough lowbrow humor to gag a maggot. An offensively good time!
Available from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.
The Troop, by Nick Cutter, created quite a buzz upon its release late last spring. I paid it little mind and it wasn’t until the annual Boden family beach vacation that I picked up the hardcover and read the blurbs and breakdown, I decided to wait a bit as I have a fairly unwieldy TBR pile. A month ago we got the trade paperback in at the grocery store where I work. This impressed me and I looked at it with every pass I made by the tiny shitty book section. Eventually, I grabbed a copy.
There is a blurb on the back that essentially calls it a mix of Lord of the Flies and 28 Days Later. I love both of those works so I was all whoo-hoo! and anxiously dug in over the weekend. It is a nice, quick, pulpy read. Reminded me a lot of earlier King and some of those ooey-gooey 80s works from the pulp paperback rack at Hills. I loved it.
The story begins with Scoutmaster Tim taking his troop of five boys on their yearly campout on a remote island off the coast of Canada. During the first night, a stranger stumbles into their midst. A man disturbingly gaunt and pale yet voraciously hungry. He sets things on a rapid and downward spiral that will leave you dizzy. Without a chance to catch your breath, the pacing hastens, the sick man gets sicker, and Tim tries to help but endangers himself and the boys in the process.
The viral threat the man has ushered into camp soon becomes a catalyst for some real struggle as the boys find themselves sans supervision and left on their own to survive—the elements, the monstrously unsettling contagion, and themselves. We see their true colors shine through, and they aren’t all bright and pretty.
I’d really love to give more details, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that I enjoyed The Troop a great deal. I found it invigoratingly fun and entertaining. Is it perfect? Not at all. The structure with the interview excerpts and science-y stuff messed with the flow for me (the science itself is a bit wonky), and the military conspiracy angle is as hokey as can be, but it’s just a book, so I rolled with it. Where it really shines is in its gross-out moments where the contagion shows itself and when we see the boys begin to show themselves. It is brutal in places and tragically sad in others.
The Troop is available from Simon & Schuster Books , which means damn near everywhere.
Nameless: The Darkness Comes. the new novel by former Shock Totem editor Mercedes M. Yardley, tells the story of Luna Masterson, a young woman cursed with the ability to see demons. It’s bad enough to know that demons exist at all, but in Luna’s world, they’re everywhere; walking down a city street, going to the store, even just looking out the window, she’s bound to run into demons anywhere she goes. And it gets worse: much like Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense, the demons know that Luna can see them; they want to cause her trouble and pain–and they’ll never leave her alone. In this novel, the first book of The Bone Angel Trilogy, Luna is seeking some kind of balance, or even happiness, in her haunted life; meanwhile, her unbelieving brother is fighting for custody over his baby daughter from his venomous ex, and Luna has just met a charming, mysterious man who doesn’t doubt or even question her unique ability. With the demons restlessly clawing into Luna’s world, the big question is: will she ever be able to live a normal life?
I find myself often shying away from badass-chicks-versus-the-supernatural books, because more often than not, their synopses seem to spell out a cookie-cutter pattern reminiscent of a certain Vampire Slayer. So it was that when I sat down with Nameless: The Darkness Comes, I was narrow-eyed with suspicion that it would be no exception to that phenomenon. However, Mrs. Yardley had a few surprises up her sleeve, and what could’ve been a terribly cliché read was instead involving, suspenseful, and with a hefty dose of quirky thrown in for good measure.
With a good sense of description (vivid, yet not beating the reader over the head with exposition and/or detail), Mrs. Yardley keeps the narrative taut and fast-paced. Luna is (as one would expect) tough-as-nails, and always ready to flip the birdie at any foe, be they supernatural or more familiarly human. More refreshing, however, is the fact that she’s vulnerable; and I’m not just talking about sympathetic feelings here and there; I mean she is capable of getting scared, sad, tired, and even…injured. In fact, she gets her ass handed to her on a couple of occasions in this book, emotionally as well as physically; it took me by sheer surprise to see Mrs. Yardley not pull any punches, and it made a few scenes truly memorable, and even haunting. (One particularly grisly sequence even made my heart jump up into my throat, but I won’t spoil it here.)
I do have to admit that there was one element at work in this novel which was a frequent issue for me, and that was the dialogue. Now, I don’t mind characters that talk in hip dialect; even if it’s not mind-blowing prose, I can just write it off as a characteristic at work. However, when I’m reading about terrifying supernatural forces, I don’t want to hear demonic entities speaking like snarky hipsters; and while it worked to an extent in a few some scenes of bickering between Luna and other characters, it was often a bit of a distraction for me, as it really took some of the seriousness out of some otherwise tense scenes.
As someone who isn’t really a fan of this subgenre/niche, I have to say that overall, Nameless: The Darkness Comes was a pretty fun, and sometimes surprising, read. And if a series featuring a tough woman battling supernatural evil is your kind of bag, then you’re in for a real treat.
Available through Ragnarok Publications.
I had the pleasure of hearing Mary SanGiovanni read from Chaos at the Scares That Care! convention a few months ago. After the reading (and much discussion about haunted mental asylums, creepy places, and eyebrow bugs), I got a copy.
The tone, style, and vibe of the book took me back to 80’s pulp horror, though the setting is contemporary.
Chaos tells the story of Bridgewood Estates, built upon the grounds that were once home to Bridgewood Asylum before it was torn down. The asylum once being the setting for a grotesque and horrific explosion of violence. Now, only the old office ward remains. Unluckily for the tenants, something evil still stains the grounds, and has for decades.
Upon moving in, Myrinda and her boyfriend are greeted warmly by the neighbors. The old lady across the hall nervously extols the virtues of the place, but then the things that haunt the building loosen her nerve and she tries to warn Myrinda about what she’s moved into.
And soon the other residents begin to have their own sinister encounters: the writer who begins seeing the woman shambling in the yard, without feet or hands; the ex-cop who begins a blood-drenched courtship with the mysterious woman in 2-C, a courtship of sticky notes and gifts of flesh; the man who is ordered to murder his wife by the man on the TV. All of these characters and events weave a tale of paranoia and terror.
Bridgewood is the site of a hole between dimensions and the neighbors that are coming through are far from friendly. They’re insane and malicious. It will take all the courage the young couple can muster to try to resolve things before it’s too late for them and the other dwellers of Bridgewood Estates.
Having read a few of SanGiovanni’s earlier works and enjoyed them, I found Chaos to be a bit different. Whether or not it was intentional this seemed to have a nostalgic sense about it. As I stated at the opening, it reminded me of the “evil in a small town” kind of novels I devoured as a teen (and sometimes as an adult): Salem’s Lot, The Wicked, The Ceremonies…that sort of thing.
The writing is strong and vivid, with well-drawn characters and events. It was a great B-movie of a novel, fun and frightening. Probably excellent with popcorn.
Chaos is available directly through www.marysangiovanni.com.