Shock Totem Radio
- Ugly As Sin—Now Available!
- Closed for Winter Break
- Star Road
- A Conversation with Voice Actor Georgie Leonard
- Cellar Door: Words Of Beauty, Tales Of Terror Review
- King Revives Our Favorite Demons
- A Conversation with Author Todd Keisling
- Ugly As Sin Cover Reveal
- Blood, Sweat and Drool: A Conversation with Director Jeremiah Kipp
- Chatting with Author Seanan McGuire
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Here is an awesome sci-fi premise: Humans find at the edge of the solar system the entrance to a vast network of dimensional portals leading to other worlds all across the universe. No one knows who built it, or how it works—only that is does work.
With that tantalizing grand sci-fi mystery as a premise we begin Star Road, by Matthew Costello and the late Rick Hautala, a high-speed space action thriller that tips a hat, head, and most of the shoulders to Joss Whedon.
(Another name worth mentioning is Mad Max. But while the influence of Road Warrior and Firefly are superficially evident, I felt that the execution of Star Road owed more to A.E. van Vogt, for better or worse.)
This is first and foremost an action road-trip with plenty shoot-em-up “car” chases. Read if you want creepy alien mech constructs swarming over your spaceship while you’re in a firefight with a battle-cruiser, read if you want blast-em-up car chases on rickety jet ramps built over primordial oceans where sea monsters just might take a bite out of your ship if you get too close.
There’s a distinct horror flair that occasionally overshadowed the rational “why?” required by science fiction. Anyone remember that scene in Galaxy Quest when they have to pass through the timed mashers and fire to get to the Omega 13? That’s in here. But if car chases in space are your thing, look no further. (And for all you romance readers holding your breath, sorry, there’s next to zero romance. Go back to your dinosaur-on-human erotica.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, Star Road doesn’t have the massive cast of a true space opera, but there are plenty of characters coming in and out of the scenes. You have your requisite crew mish-mash: a war-weary gunner, a cool-handed captain, the scientist, a religious Seeker, a salty space-miner, a spunky adrenaline-junkie, and the government guy-with-secrets. Add to that a seemingly omniscient/omnipresent Super-Duper Space Federation, and a gaggle of space pirates called the Reavers—I mean, the Runners—and you can see why this was a fun if somewhat recycled read.
While we are down in the thick of things with the main group of characters, we’re told to care deeply about the larger struggle between Empire and Rebellion, as well as the internecine strife within the Rebel group. But the larger struggle never felt wholly tangible or meaningful.
Costello and Hautala write from multiple vantage points to connect us to the secret motives and thoughts of each character as they rush towards the final showdown on a distant planet. However, this relentless head-hopping ends up wearying me, and I end up not feeling close enough to any character to really understand or care for their motives. Speaking of motives, sometimes there just weren’t any. I caught myself facepalming with a “What are they thinking?” or “Why would they do that?” a few times.
(By the way: Hard sci-fi readers beware. They actually drive on the star road. In space. No, I don’t know why there is gravity. I think Asimov just twitched in his grave.)
But Star Road is about action and high-speed chases and creepy alien corpses being resurrected so heroes with blasters can fry them into bacon bits (rather than, say, about emotional resonance and astonishing truth about the human condition). I just wish that that awesome sci-fi premise we started off with resolved into a mind-blowing sci-fi answer.
Cellar Door is an anthology of poetry, flash fiction, short stories, and visual art that all revolves around one common theme; the cellar door. Not just any cellar door, but the cellar door that we all knew as kids growing up. The one that always made you feel a little uncomfortable but that held such terrifying intrigue. The one where you made sure to watch over your shoulder as you turned your back to it. It’s the archetype of the cellar door that is seemingly so engrained in our minds and imaginations that has come to inspire each and every piece in this collection.
Edited by Shawna L. Bernard and published by James Ward Kirk Publishing, this anthology is one of huge volume and contains dozens and dozens of pieces to get lost in, and at first glance upon the subject matter it may seem as though the theme may become a little redundant, but rest assured, this is certainly not the case.
Poems and short fiction that are included vary so much in voice, style, aesthetic, and even the use of the theme of the cellar door are so well implemented, that time and time again you are pleasantly surprised at the creativity and pure originality of each piece and each author. Influences ranging from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King are all present and it is really neat to compare and contrast each piece.
Flipping to any random entry will surely draw you in and soon enough, you yourself will be conjuring up your own ideas and stories about cellar doors. Each story will harken you back to a time where that aging frame and rustic door handle sent chills down spine. The diversity that can be found in Cellar Door is great and it is so easy to just get lost in a quick story or two when you may not have enough time to fully lose yourself in a novel.
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.
Billy and his friends are on vacation on a little island in the Florida Keys when they are attacked by a huge swarm of flies that bite. They run through the jungle and find a small hut where they take refuge. In the middle of the night, Billy’s girlfriend Casey realizes she can’t hold it until morning, and goes outside to go to the bathroom.
This time, hundreds of spiders attack Casey, tearing her apart with her teeth. Later, only Billy manages to escape.
Rachel has escaped her abusive husband Anders, and now lives in a small town in the Everglades with her son Eric. As they try to build a new life together, Rachel has no idea that the town she chose is about to be overrun by a plague that has never been seen before. Rachel and Eric becomes friends with Billy who, although nice, acts strangely at times. Tormented by terrible headaches he can’t explain, he gradually withdraws, until Rachel realizes it’s been quite some time since they had seen him. In the meantime, the townspeople are being bitten by an infestation of flies, sickening some and killing others.
Then the spiders come. Hatching from the larvae left by the flies, the spiders encase animals, people—even houses in their webs. Rachel and her new boyfriend Terry decide it’s time to get out of town, but run into trouble when her ex-husband Anders shows up. Soon after, all hell breaks loose, and time is running out to get out of town before the government shows up and annihilates the town along with the insects.
I love “bug horror,” and this is one of the best I’ve read. Fun, creepy, and gross, Violet Eyes, written by Bram Stoker award-winning author John Everson, made me squirm many times while reading. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
When I read the title of the new novella by Mercedes M. Yardley, I itched to begin reading and find out what the two names meant and how the characters would find each other. “A tale of atomic love,” the cover promised, and that drew me in ever further.
Having read Yardley’s short story collection, Beautiful Sorrows, I thought Apocalyptic Montessa would be rich and sweet, like dense chocolate cake with a bitter, poisonous frosting. The opening was touching, a mother walking in a graveyard, naming her special child after a headstone that struck her—“Montessa.” Then the unborn baby grew up, and became a stripper named Ruby.
You’d think that’s where the sweetness stops, and to an extent, you’d be right. The beginning of this novella is heart-wrenching to read, although the pacing is so fast and engrossing that I had to force myself to put down my Kindle to do things like eat or sleep. Yardley’s use of language and imagery is unparalleled, and Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu brings that in spades, as well as a rhythm to the prose that kept me enraptured.
The characters of Montessa and Lulu are lovely, broken demons that both drew me in and repelled me at times. It takes true skill to make characters that do such terrible things sympathetic, and I tip my hat to that deft hand. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more tension, the sweetness returns, and as a reader, I felt a bit guilty at the joy I felt for the two star-crossed lovers. Every second of that conflict is delicious.
Pick up a copy of Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu for yourself. It is available through Ragnarok Publications.
The premise of Geoffrey Gerard’s debut novel, Cain’s Blood, is enough to make any horror aficionado pluck it from the shelf and give it a good once over. Clones of the world’s most infamous serial killers have escaped from a government-funded facility, leaving a trail of violent crimes in their wake. Shawn Castillo, a former black ops soldier, has been tasked with the capture of the escaped clones and ultimately teams up a young boy created from the genes of Jeffery Dahmer. What’s not to love?
Sadly, the brilliance of the premise is tarnished by the delivery. This is largely due to the novel’s rapid pace. Reading Cain’s Blood is akin to traversing a carnival in a rocket car. There are plenty of cool things to see, but most of the time you’re moving far too fast to get a good look. Much of the plot has the characters moving from state to state in pursuit, but little of the scenery is ever mentioned. Likewise, many of the houses and hotel rooms are cycled through with little attention to detail. What’s worse is that this breakneck speed kills much of the suspense the novel could have had. In the horror genre, pacing is King. No amount of crime scenes or gallons of blood can change that. At its heart, Cain’s Blood is more of a thriller one might take to the beach than a horror novel.
In terms of characterization, those who populate the novel often fall into worn tropes, particularly the protagonists. The damaged soldier seeking redemption and the misunderstood youth can feel paper thin in places, and the reader isn’t given solid reasons to cheer them on until later in the book. Additionally, the young clone is clearly used as a poster child for the nature vs. nurture debate, turning him into more of a medium for the author’s thoughts on the subject than a fully-realized character. The escaped killers themselves also leave something to be desired in terms of development as much of their characterization is heavily dependent on the personas of the originals to the point of it being a crutch, overshadowing any personal experience the clones might have, at least in the case of those partaking in the killing spree.
One of the stronger aspects of the novel is the information on cloning sprinkled throughout. Girard has done his homework, and it certainly shows. From a brief overview of cloning to open the novel to lectures on various government experiments and cover-ups, plenty of ground is covered. While this can sometimes turn into a heavy-handed info dump as a character proceeds to tell the reader about a dozen related events at a go, these insights tend to be some of the more enjoyable sections the book has to offer.
While the use of facts regarding real events makes progress toward cementing the premise in reality and making it more believable, almost every plot choice in the novel works to do the exact opposite. Between the addition of other government science experiments and Hollywood style shootouts, much of the novel ends up coming off as outlandish rather than convincing. Throw in a number of gaps in logic regarding the behavior of the escaped clones and a highly convenient ending and everything becomes a little too unstable. The suggestion that a clone of John Wayne Gacy would be genetically predisposed to wearing a clown suit and makeup is tenuous at best, as is the concept that a handful of homicidal loners would pile in a car for a murderous road trip.
It may be worth pointing out that the Internet is full of praise for the novel, and that while reading these reviews I felt as though I had experienced something entirely different from the average reviewer. If you’re looking to read something that is quick and requires little mental effort to digest, Cain’s Blood may be for you. However, if you are looking for something with prose that goes the extra mile and suspense served up with a good, old-fashioned sense of dread, it may be best to look elsewhere.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Lee Thompson’s work. He writes fast, he writes hard, and he comes up with beautifully tragic stories that are both engaging and soul-crushing.
Gossamer: A Tale of Love and Tragedy is no different. From the very beginning, we’re tossed into an uncomfortably unflinching look at love and loss. Dorothy is a little girl forced to watch her father denounce her mother as a witch. As the sentence is passed, Dorothy hardens her heart and promises revenge.
The main story has to do when Dorothy has lived several lifetimes. She resides in the small town of Gossamer, guardian of an area filled with people that she grows to care for. Then her loneliness puts the residents of Gossamer in danger, and everything changes.
Lee has a clean, easy prose that still manages to be beautiful. He’s especially gifted at writing women, which is rare to see from a male writer. His portrayal of Dorothy and her aunt are both strong and chilling. Later in the book, we are introduced to two more strong mother/daughter characters, and the ineffectual boyfriend. It’s interesting to see the spine and determination in these women, and how far Lee is willing to push them until they either push back or break completely.
This book is full of witches and vampires. It’s full of magical carousals. It’s also full of betrayal, love reciprocated and not, and cowardice. Lee takes the unlovely parts of real life and sets it in a setting so deliciously bizarre that you think you’re simply reading a story, when in fact you’re listening to a man sitting across from you and telling you all about pain.
Gossamer goes down easy and leaves a bitter aftertaste. It’s dark and lovely. I’d recommend it.
Losing Touch, Christian A Larsen’s debut novel, wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Regardless, I was quickly caught up in the storyline and clear writing, and taken to an ending I didn’t see coming but thoroughly enjoyed.
Morgan Dunsmore is a normal, everyday guy dealing with normal, everyday things—such as being unemployed and trying to make the bills, keeping a happy home-life with his wife (also unemployed due to an injury) and raising two kids. He does what a lot of us would do. He tries to put a positive spin on things, and stop thinking about the things he can’t change. But then things begin to change in ways he could never have foreseen, and can’t control at all. At first.
Losing Touch is a story that’s part mundane reality and part learning to face the scary unknown. In the real world, just trying to take care of all the things that need taking care of can be exhausting and frightening; add to that the fact that Morgan is beginning to disappear physically as well as figuratively, and what you get is a convoluted path through a man’s moral dilemma. If you can go anywhere you want to go, and nothing can keep you out…how far will you go before you lose yourself?
Tim Powers’s most recent novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, is a rich parallel history full of dark magical realism set in Victorian England.
Hide Me Among the Graves totally redeems vampires from sparkly teenage banality and brings us back to something really horrific that owes more than a tip of the hat to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s terrifyingly seductive corruptions. (See LeFanu’s amazing novella Carmilla)
In fact, I get the impression that he wrote Hide Me Among the Graves as a vampire novel much in the same way that Crocodile Dundee told those would-be muggers “That’s not a knife…THIS is a knife.”
If there was a dictionary entry for “Magical Realism” it would have a picture of Tim Powers (and he’d be haloed with hand drawn stars and consummate V’s to indicate majesty and stuff).
If you’re not familiar with Tim Power’s modus operandi, he loves to take historical characters and events (in this case, English Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets) and re-imagine their lives, motives, and actions as if magic was, er, real.
For example, in Hide Me Among the Graves, John Polidori, author of the 1819 short story “The Vampyre,” is in fact a vampire with a claim on the talented Rossetti family (artists and poets of the Pre-Raphaelite movement). Throw in a pitch perfect revision of the scoundrel adventurer Edward John Trelawny as a cantankerous old monster-hunter, and the rebellious ancient Queen Boadicea, and you’ve got a sprawling, well-researched novel that subverts real history in delightful ways.
Fair warning: skip it if you get bored by anything that’s not an easy read full of splatter and shock and explosions.
But if you want something you can really sink your teeth into, Hide Me Among the Graves is an intelligent, frightening, historical, literary, and deliciously dark novel. It’s all the best of Victorian Gothic horror with all the best of modern literary dark fantasy.