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I’m a huge fan of anthologies and collections. They’re great for those short attention span periods when you want to read but can’t commit to anything lengthy. They’re awesome for lunch breaks and in the bathroom. (Don’t give me that grimace, you know you read in there!) The problem with them is they are most times an uneven offering of material. Several great stories sprinkled in amongst a majority of meh or even terrible tales. Once in a while you get one that knocks the cover off the ball…but that’s rarer than a four-leafed clover.
Cutting Block Press has been putting out the Horror Library series for a few years now, but this is the first I’ve gotten the chance to dig into. Thirty stories rear their ugly heads here, the majority by authors I have not read before, but a few by those I have. Let’s get into the particulars, shall we?
We open with Pat MacEwen’s “Blown,” a gritty almost noir-ish tale of death and forensics. We go then into Ian Withrow’s wonderfully bizarre story of a lonely boy and his calling, entitled “Jerrod Steihl Goes Home.” John F.D. Taff’s “The Immolation Scene” is a grisly expose on arson and treachery. “A Body At Rest,” by Lorne Dixon, one of my favorites, is a darkly sad tale of loss and grief, drenched in terror and the surreal. This is followed by J.S. Reinhardt’s “By the Time I Get To Five,” in which we meet a man trapped in his own hell.
Next up is a fantastically eerie sliver by one of my favorite authors, Bentley Little, entitled “Notes for An Article on Bainbridge Farm.” Just chilling. Sanford Allen’s “Noise” is about a concert that is not intended for everyone’s ears. Shane McKenzie’s “Open Mind Night at the Ritz” is a weird story about flesh bending and performance. I was blessed to witness him read this at KillerCon a few years ago. Shane can always be counted upon to bring the “What the fuck?” With “Almost Home,” Kevin Lucia hands us a bleak and symbolic story of loss. Michael A. Arnzen’s “Pillars Of Light” explores faith and the powerful grip it can have.
“Footprints Fading In the Desert,” by Eric J. Guingard, is a story with an almost urban legend vibe. “The Vulture’s Art,” by Benjamin Kane Ethridge, is heavy in its symbolism and grisly with its message. “Activate,” by Boyd E. Harris, left me slightly confused but seemed to carry a sinister tone. Adam Howe’s “Snow Globe” is an old fashioned tale of the repercussions of dark deeds. “Intruders,” by Taylor Grant, delivers a somber premise as to what imaginary voices are really about. And Steve McQuiggan gives us an off-kilter, slightly bizarro haunted house story with “The Boathouse.”
While not the most even anthology out there, Horror Library Vol. 5 has its fair share of solid fiction. It is a good companion for waiting rooms, bathroom breaks, and the lunch table, and is available through Cutting Block Press.
There really isn’t a lot you can say about the work of D. Harlan Wilson. I know that I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel stupid every time I read something he writes. The man wields words like tools and weapons, goes at you with surgical precision and gets at those wounds with the heavy tools. So heady and wild are his plots (if you can all them such) that by the time I’ve finished, I usually think I may need to start again to figure out what I’ve missed.
He was one of the first of a class and style called Bizarro that I long ago encountered. I have read a lot of the stuff since and I still insist, Wilson is one of the best. While his work does contain some of the oddly goofy, almost cartoonish escapades that his contemporaries often purvey, his is tightly leashed with psycho-intellectual philosophies and down right unwieldy lectures that somehow work and fight like puzzle pieces.
His newest novella is called Primordial: An Abstraction. I shall do my best to interpret for you: A professor is busted for toxic teaching and sent back to redo his Ph.D. Sent to a dorm room that he shares with countless others, he begins a wildly paranoid and claustrophobic nightmare of educational bureaucratic bullshit as well as an epidemic of pornography. He immerses himself in anger, violence, and obsessive weight-training. For every step he seemingly makes towards his beloved degree, he slides back on the blood of those he’s terrorized.
I dug this book. Did I get it? I’d say, maybe a little. But I am a lover of words. Any words. All words. I just like looking at them and saying them and seeing them in strings. Wilson weaves wonderful strings. If you have the resolve to dabble in the real deal of Bizarro, if you’re growing bored of Palahniuk and his edgy-for-edginess’-sake offerings, then maybe it’s time to unhook the training wheels and give Wilson a go.
Available through Anti-Oedipus press.
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.
How exactly does one write a review about the last book in a trilogy as a stand-alone article, without spoiling anything of the two preceding books? Well, perhaps it can go something like this: if you haven’t yet read Blake Crouch’s novel Pines and its sequel Wayward, then you have no business reading The Last Town. Go read them, then get back to this review.
…Back already? You mean you read Pines and Wayward already? …Are you lying to me? Well, just remember this: when it comes to venturing into this SPOILER-ish territory, you’re only going to spoil yourself. But, just because I hate spoilers, myself, I’ll try to keep things “safe” in this review of The Last Town, the concluding volume to Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy.
To recap, in Pines, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke found himself in the titular Idaho town in his search for two missing agents, only to get quickly immersed in a mystery of Lynchian (and Lynch-inspired) proportions. In Wayward, Ethan had resigned himself to the town’s falsely blissful ways—yet a building undercurrent of tension lures him out of the faux-reverie and into action.
The Last Town picks up mere hours after the proverbial shit has hit the fan in Wayward’s cliffhanger ending, and doesn’t let up for a second. To call it fast-paced doesn’t begin to cover it; except for a few key flashback scenes (more on that in a moment), the rest of the book is taut with tension. Action, suspense, grisly gore, and a few truly unpredictable sequences run rampant here, as is Mr. Crouch’s signature style. All the major characters are back and (mostly) in fine form. I’ll admit, I felt that a few characters’ fates were a bit abrupt, but the book’s ultimate outcome was appropriately satisfying.
The main issue that I had with this book also has to do with its pacing and those flashbacks. Pines used flashbacks—of a sort—to hallucinatory effects in the very structure of the narrative. However, the very punchline to that book was what drove the plots to both Wayward and The Last Town; so when you read the flashbacks in these books, that’s all they are: just flashbacks. Unfortunately, this also muffles the deep mystery that the first book had, so the two later books are more about the action and suspense than they are about discovery and revelation. I miss that sense of mystery; but on the other hand, Mr. Crouch smartly avoided adding twists and turns for novelty’s sake, which could have easily hurt the overall plot (as certain TV series have done, and subsequently suffered from—Twin Peaks and LOST, I’m looking at you!). He deftly tells the rest of the Great Big Story in a straight-edged sweep, and you know what? It worked well.
Finally, I have to admit I’m excited about the upcoming FOX series based on these books, starring Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Terrance Howard, and a host of other actors, with the pilot directed by M. Night Shyamalan. In the afterward to Pines, Blake Crouch admits that the book started out as his meditation on what was really going on in Twin Peaks—and an attempt at concluding that show’s convoluted and unfinished story lines. I think that with the Wayward Pines trilogy, Mr. Crouch has more than bested Twin Peaks’ continuity, by approaching his own mysterious town with a grand plan in mind from the outset. The story lines all very neatly tie together in The Last Town. Let’s just hope that, assuming the Wayward Pines TV series is a hit and is renewed long enough, the events of The Last Town will also be brought into the mix, and like this book, make for a blood-soaked, action-packed conclusion to a tense and surreal saga.
“My name is Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk. From as young as I can remember, I loved the city. Mine is a story of love reciprocated. It is the story of loss and hope, and of the strangeness that lies just beneath the surface tension of daily life, a strangeness infinite fathoms in depth.”
Thus begins The City. Jonah Kirk is a musical child prodigy growing up in the sixties, and here he tells about “the dark times” of his life. Estranged from his father, he is nonetheless surrounded by love in the form of his mother and grandparents. Over the course of the narrative he also builds strong relationships with Malcolm Pomerantz and his sister Amalia, Mr. George Yoshioka who lives in an apartment on the floor above Jonah and his mother, and of course Miss Pearl who claims to be the personification of the city itself. He also is threatened by dangerous people after having apparently prophetic dreams. As Jonah’s story progresses, he works to figure out what these people are up to, and what he can do to stop them while protecting those he cares about.
As a long-time fan of Dean Koontz, I looked forward to reading this latest release. His prose is beautiful and evocative, and some of the characters come right off the page. I was particularly taken with Mr. Yoshioka, a man with his own painful past and secrets to keep, yet who is unfailingly kind and patient. There are parts of the book where I was totally caught up, which is something I expect from a Koontz novel. However, unlike most books from this talented author, I had a really difficult time getting into the story. The beginning is almost painfully slow, and there are sections throughout that lagged. I would also add that the supernatural element that I have come to expect was almost nonexistent here.
The end is a true end, tying up the various threads of the story, and it did evoke an emotional response from me. But this is the only Koontz book I’ve ever read where I had to make myself keep reading, and that’s a disappointment. There are some readers who I’m certain will absolutely love The City, but it didn’t quite meet my high expectations.
Nick and his cronies have been out of town on their yearly summer hunting excursion. They return to civilization to find things changed. The streets are devoid of any signs of life. Windows boarded up or covered in plastic. A stop at a gas station and the subsequent encounter with a sickly old man only escalates their dread and growing unease.
They arrive to their town to find it much like the others they’ve traveled through: desolate, empty and aching. They find their own homes boarded up and foreboding. Upon reconnecting with their families they learn what is behind the drastic changes in the atmosphere and demeanor of the town, the people—them. The small culprits will not be easy to avoid but if they can just hold out until winter…
Kelli Owen speaks with a very stern voice in this nervy tale of man messing with nature with dire consequences. You can tell from the writing that there is a great angry passion here, flowing from the writer to what is written. Which is not to say it is handled in a heavy-handed manner, quite the opposite, it plays out so realistically and understated that you almost don’t realize you’re getting a slim sermon while being frightened by what’s buzzing in the sink.
Having read his collection of flash fiction, They Might Be Demons, I was curious as to what this novel would be like. Max Booth III writes in a very bombastic and somewhat over-the-top style. Sort of like if Masterpiece Theatre was cast with pro wrestlers and performing play versions of Lansdale novels. That kind of madness. So when I was asked if I’d like to review Toxicity, I said sure.
Toxicity is the story of several hapless fuckers. All of them in various miserable situations, all of them shitty but almost likeable.
Maddox Kane is just out of prison and anxious to reconnect with his daughter. His daughter and her boyfriend are busy playing Badlands and trying to stay ahead of the fuzz and hide the bodies. One of her friends, Johnny, has just had his family pull up stakes for greener pastures, after winning the lottery with a ridiculous numeral sequence. Johnny’s crazy mom has revved up her odd obsession with dolls while Dad hides in his basement bunker masturbating to Warcraft, as his obese brother eats Cheetos and watches endless television. Johnny fills the familial void with strange drugs that allow him to see between existences. He meets Jesus—in the form of a fly.
Maddox just keeps tripping from one bad situation to another, each messier and more fucked up than the previous. His dumb-ass brother gets them held hostage by a beastly whore and he keeps missing the calls from his parole officer. And the Goths teach Johnny that throwing grapes at hellhounds can save your tripping ass.
All of that is in here…and much more. It sounds ridiculous when splintered apart, but it works quite well. The storylines meld and part but never compromise the flow of the story. An exercise in fluid pacing and an altar to high octane fun. This is modern noir-cum-bizarro. This is cool.
Available through Post Mortem Press.
JournalStone’s DoubleDown series was inspired by the old Ace double novels, which paired veteran authors with up-and-comers. Past DoubleDown series have paired Gord Rollo and Rena Mason, Lisa Morton and Eric J. Guignard, Joe McKinney and Sanford Allen, and Harry Shannon and Brett J. Talley.
In Little’s Secrets, Karen is able to stop time, though she can’t control when it happens or for how long. While time is frozen, she enters her neighbors’ homes and discovers their dirty secrets (and they’re all dirty). During one of her excursions, she meets another person able to slip through time, Bobby Jersey. At first she’s intrigued by the boy, but in time it’s clear he’s psychotic.
The premise is intriguing and Little does a great job ratcheting up the suspense as the Bobby Jersey character gets creepier and creepier. The ending feels a bit anti-climatic and predictable, but it’s still a fun ride.
In Outcast by Mark Allan Gunnells, Karen is a college freshman with no social life, no boyfriend, and the power of telekinesis. (Think a well-adjusted Carrie.) She befriends an older witch who helps Karen harness her powers, but the woman is keeping a bunch of deadly secrets. Bobby Jersey is here, too, but unlike in Secrets he’s a sweetheart. Still, he’s just as strange as his counterpart; maybe even stranger.
Whereas Secrets feels more like a dark thriller, Outcast plays out more like a paranormal romance. That’s not a knock on the story. It’s definitely a page-turner.
Secrets/Outcast is due out August 22nd.
This is how the world ends: an asteroid, 2011GV1 (nicknamed Maia) is headed straight for the earth. It’s almost four miles wide. And yes—its impact will, quite literally, bring about the end of the world. Welcome to the pre-apocalyptic backdrop of Ben H. Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy.
In the imminent countdown to Maia’s arrival, the world has been falling apart, hard and fast. People are degrading into any and every number of frenzied reactions, with every possible extreme being taken, from survival-seeking riots and hopeless hippie movements to dismal stock market crashes and mass suicides. In the flames of our collapsing civilization, organizations, governments, everything is fragmenting into chaos. And yet, in New Hampshire, Henry “Hank” Palace of the Concord Police Department can’t seem to let go of his detective’s instincts to solve crimes.
In The Last Policeman, in the wake of an apparent suicide at a local fast food joint, Palace begins to suspect it was, in fact, a murder. But why, with the end of the world fast approaching, should Palace want to investigate a possible murder? Or, as seen in the second novel, Countdown City, why should he wish to find an old acquaintance’s missing husband? Why should he even care about solving any kind of crime at this point? This latter question is the crux of these three novels, and that is because, quite simply, there’s one thing that Palace knows he can still do—one thing he can still control, even as an unstoppable force of total destruction comes streaking through the night sky: he can set some wrongs right before the potential end of the world.
Whether or not the asteroid really does end up making impact doesn’t really matter.* What does matter is the long and treacherous journey that Henry Palace makes in the months, weeks, and days in which the respective novels take place. Running through all of these books is a larger plot—and far more personal—than the cases at hand: the other half of Palace’s life, his younger sister Nico, a never-say-never source of spunk and wit who has her own pre-Maia agenda. Nico is clinging to the rumor that there are those who are working on a way to divert Maia from making impact, and she’s determined to join their cause.
Thus the stage is set for World of Trouble, the final book in the Last Policeman trilogy. With only six days remaining before 2011GV1’s landing, and Palace only barely recovered from the violent and grim events of Countdown City, the stakes are higher than ever as he sets out on his newest—and most likely, final—case: to locate his sister, who’s gone off with the would-be saviors of humankind in an effort to stop the asteroid.
As with the previous novels, Palace’s first-person narrative in World of Trouble makes for a slow-burn pace, making the tight timeframe all the more suspenseful. Palace’s faithful sidekick, a dog he’d found in the first novel and later named Houdini, is often his only companion, making for a few very worrisome scenes. Other characters from previous books appear (but for fear of spoiling anything, I won’t say who), and of course there are a number of new characters as well, and as with the previous books, many of them are as memorable as Palace himself.
There’s really not much else I can say about World of Trouble without giving away too much about it, or its predecessors; it’s the ultimate epic pre-apocalyptic mystery, courtesy of Mr. Winters. If you’ve been eagerly waiting for this book, know this: you will be perfectly rewarded with this heart-wrenching conclusion. And if you have yet to read The Last Policeman, well, despite its premise, it’s not too late to start.
* And if you actually expect me to spoil that ultimate outcome, dream on. Don’t be lazy. Read the Last Policeman trilogy and find out for yourself, and more importantly, enjoy the ride.
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.