Saturday, November 15, 2014

Prisoner 489 (Dark Regions), by Joe Lansdale

Joe Lansdale. If I have to tell you about him, I’m not sure I want to talk to you any more. The premier purveyor of sun-baked Texas grit and straight up goddamn oddity has been tapped by Dark Regions Press to be paired with artist Santiago Caruso for the second of their Black Labrynth novellas. If you don’t recall, I kinda liked the last one, so let’s see how this puppy stacks up.

 The two islands are no vacation spot. One holds a prison for some of the stranger elements of the planet. Those nations want to disappear, that can’t be allowed trials and hope for eventual return to society. The other holds the only option for release in discrete 3x9x6 foot plots. Bernard minds those graves, digging them and placing the non-descript numeric tombstones, as the days blur into each other. Tonight should be just another meat filled hole in the ground, but this one rides in wrapped in steel and chains after riding old sparky four times and there have been rumors of something unnatural at work.

It should be enough to say that this is a traditional gothic tale steeped in Judaic legendry and told through Lansdale’s no nonsense style, but you probably want more than that. On a simple front, it hit me as a lighting quick tumble and tussle with one bad ass mofo of a messed up monster. It’s tight, lean, mean and fucking crazy but with enough heart to get me actually caring about this gravedigging fool. Good times were had.

On a deeper level, I admire the hell out of how much Lansdale does with so few words without ever stopping the narrative or getting preachy. It makes for a wonderful exploration of isolation and dehumanization and what that does to our basic humanity. What it turns us into when we are turned inward too deeply. There's also a bit about actions we are willing to take by rote, without thinking of what our part in the larger scheme may mean. I want very much to go further into detail, but I don’t want to ruin any of it for you.

It does bear warning that the first few pages are a tad dry. They seem mired in description and meditation without action. Personally, I think this was necessary in establishing the depth of removal from other people, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. It also allowed a little bit of time to settle down into the old rocker on the porch as Champion Joe trickled out another one of his yarns. All the same, I know it will aggravate impatient readers who want to jump into the action. Don't worry, kiddies, it's worth it when you get there. 

Cover art:

Initially, I was a bit disappointed in the cover art for this one. After the intricate and bizarrely detailed cover of the last BL book, I expected something less mundane. However, it fits very well with the story itself. Deceptively normal if not for one small detail that would be nearly impossible to catch unless you knew what to look for. But then, once the weird hits you, you can’t look away from that detail. It’s just a shame that those who ordered the hardback version of the book won’t see this in color since that is where this little touch shines.

*edit: I have been informed that the hardback will indeed feature the cover art in color because AWWWWW HELL YEAH.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Everybody Hates A Hero (Stygian), by Gregory L. Hall

You probably know Greg Hall. He’s the Friday night piggy-petter and grand poobah of the no-pants zone who gives out 80’s headshots with the, ahem, personalized inscription stating that you are indeed his favorite writer. He gets some of the biggest names in horror on his podcast, the Funky Werepig, but never forgets to leave room for those writers struggling to get noticed. Also, he’s torn up the floor at  the big boy dance off every time I’ve seen him do it. But did you know he’s a writer, too? Yep, and Johnny Midnight ain’t his first time at the table, kiddies.

We have here a tale of a certain celebrity paranormal investigator, Johnny Midnight. A lude, crude and reckless individual whose antics draw ratings and groupies galore. But the song and dance routine lays a thin sheet over a world where the vamps and ghouls and things that go yippee-ki-yay in the night are all too real. It’s a world he has found a bit of comfort in, if not quite happiness. Until his ex-wife shows up on his doorstep with a demon on her heels that wants to crunch-n-munch on the daughter she never told him they had. This time, it’s personal…

Put aside, for the moment, that we are inundated with stories of paranormal investigators and a world full of paranormal creatures that are hidden from public view by a shady shadow cartel that is trying to run the world. Put aside, for the moment, that the “fighting evil is all good until they come after my family” routine has been done a million times. Or that the regular guy standing up and spitting at the huge organization that is trying to control him thing is even more played out. Put it aside because I really meant that cheesy “personal” comment.

That’s what makes this story, in my mind. First, Hall’s giddy dork-and-dick joke personality, which positivly glows every Friday night, is saturated in every word on the page. This is an old story told in a way only Greg Hall could tell it and that voice makes a huge difference for me. Further, it isn’t all “Not my Dickie!” and cracks about furries peppered with demons and chupacabras and blood. You’ll find plenty of that here, but he doesn’t stop there. This is, at its heart, a very personal tail of coming to terms with past sins and the harm we cause to other people with our own selfishness and how that regret never truly leaves us. There were some points, wrapped in grief and regret, that hit me square in my ouchy spots.

Special points are awarded for a particular pair of scenes, which flit back and forth between each other. Juxtaposing giddy sensual pleasure with abject agony and horror. It serves to underline the fundamental differences between the lives of the two characters, the fallout of that difference and subtly gives the reader everything they need to grasp the eventual twist of the knife that comes at the end.

In all truthiness, if you get turned off by rote plots you’ve seen far too many times before, you probably won’t make it past the blurb on the back. But then you’d miss a quick, breezy read full of more one-liners than you can shake your bacon at with a solid sense of personal honesty and heart at its center. That, my friends, is what completely sold me. Not that the gratuitous sex, blood and big-ass mobster zombie hurt.

Cover art:
I’m not a big fan of digitized photo covers. To me, they feel lazy and remind me too much of Instagram pinups instead of true cover art. That’s what we get here and it completely lacks the personality of the material between the pages.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ghost Heart (Dark Regions) by Weston Ochse and Yvonne Navarro

From the depths of night, the thing creeps along the ocean of imagination, pulling itself with talons jagged from too much murder. Hunger fuels the hunt as it searches for the light. Its hiss drowned out by the rock and roll music that thunders from man-sized speakers. A Human throng sways to the primal rhythms. Here and there are the lights it craves. With a cry, it launches from the back of its human host and falls upon the crowd, enveloping a being of light.

The dancing continues as it feeds.

And the murder goes unnoticed.

Weston Ochse has been on a lot of tongues lately, with the Seal Team 666 movie in the works, but I haven’t had much opportunity to read anything by him. There have been a few short stories I’ve stumbled across in anthologies and podcasts, but that is about all. I’ve never read anything by Yvonne Navarro. After reading Ghostheart, I want to kick myself in the face for those personal faults.

Let’s get to the book: Matt Cady is about as typical Midwestern young’n as you can get, up to and including the impending divorce of his parents. Except maybe for the fact that his imaginary friend, a grizzled biker named Jacket, is actually a guardian spirit and he can see and talk to other spirits, both guardian and otherwise. When he runs away from home in a desperate bid he runs afoul of a giant bull, befriends a witch and a troll and comes face to face with both spiritual and human evil. Needless to say, Jacket was not particularly fond of the idea.

Comparison to Something Wicked This Way Comes immediately comes to mind, as Yvonne and Weston bring in that same comforting yet engaging style of prose that his the eyes and ears like the rumbling voice of Grampa in his rocking chair on a slow twilight eve. They had me full-on from the first paragraph and I dug every second of it. It’s hard to come across people who can mimic the feel of the oral tradition, but these two do it admirably.

While not complex, it is also not condescending. The story deals with loss, violence, drugs and a slew of other ugly issues of life with no wincing or whinging. The drama is a bit over the top at times, but in the way that all minor tragedies seem cataclysmic for the age of our main character. The big issues hit hard. I appreciate that. I also appreciate the lack of pure good/evil in some of the characters. Sure, Ali Baba is a douche and the Bull is a pretty crappy human being, but there are several that initially seem horrible who may not be quite be so and the dynamic duo here never stop the tale to tell the reader what to believe. And there is the way they drop the odd bits of weird with no immediate explanation, just letting the reading figure it out in their own time. Loved that.

And there are Motorcycles. Vroom Vroom, baby.

On the down side, I didn’t really like that our boy, Matt, shows very little agency in the course of the story. After he initially runs away, most of the story is about things happening to him. The conflicts are almost all resolved by others for him, both to protect him and by the all powerful Deus Ex. I would have liked it more if he had more of a place than an observer in so much of this. Also, the story and characters feel a bit dated, like this is more of an eighties tale than a modern one. No time period is given, so that may actually be the case, but modern kids may have a hard time relating.

Ghostheart wears its YA proudly on its sleeve. A fairly straight-forward and relatively simple tale that has a ton of heart and a powerful voice.  Also ghosts and motorcycles and cowboys and Indians and trolls and giant bulls and witches and ghosts riding motorcycles, which are all pretty nifty on their own. I had a fun time with it.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The House on Concordia Drive (Alliteration Ink), by K.W. Taylor

I wasn’t particularly sure about reviewing this one. After all, it’s a short, cheap oneshot to draw in an audience for the followup novel (The Red Eye) and I already reviewed that one. But, due to the huge difference in tone, structure and effect between the two, I decided that it warranted me chiming in on.

Sam Brody is a bit of an ass. He also likes to harangue people via his nightly radio show, The Red Eye, while debunking claims of supernatural phenomenon. Now, he has been sent out to look into the story of a famous haunted house, the source of at least one major movie. It is the type of story that could make his career, if he can get it to break.

Ostensibly, the above is the plot of The House on Concordia Drive, but that isn’t really what it is about. At least, that isn’t what I was taking away from it. It is, instead, a story about an asshole who is being forced to deal with the repercussions of his own selfish and self-centered behavior. From the asshole’s point of view. The mystery is there, the investigation is there, but those felt more like ciphers to me. This element is also where the book really shines.

K.W. Taylor works with a terrific sense of brevity and subtlety here. She doesn’t bother to break from Brody’s interior at any point, so we are never told directly how to feel about him. He seems to think he’s pretty awesome and that comes through. However, she lets his actions speak for themselves, while using the background of the haunting to reflect his own personality and shortcomings. Admittedly, the imagery at the end, with the birds and the references to The Odyssey and the phone screen, is a tad heavier handed than I would have preferred but she still shows a remarkable level of trust in the audience.

It’s a relatively complex piece, for its length, and goes against the expected direction for this type of story. There is some damn impressive talent on display here.

Cover art: I really like the somewhat German-expressionist skewed angularity and stark lack of color. Despite the simplicity of the image, it is evocative enough to grab attention from across a room.