Wednesday, April 21, 2010

See No Evil Say No Evil by Matt Betts

“What the hell were we talking about?

Oh right. Let me sum it up.
Shark – Not dead.
Out of the water – Move away.
Most importantly, and I can’t stress this enough…
Trim your nose hairs.”

Poetry, poetry, poetry. I had a creative writing professor, way back in the long, long ago, who told me that nearly everyone writes poetry, but almost nobody reads it. Who can blame them? It’s a stuffy, outdated art form with way too many rigid rules performed largely by obnoxious, melodramatic fools. This is the point where I tend to tell people, in the parlance of the great modern-retro Syfy series, to frack themselves into oblivion. Preferably with a large fist in their nether eye. Forget most of what you studied in class and don’t you dare even consider that douche bag in the turtleneck sweater who keeps trying to impress your girlfriend with his dark pondering upon the midnight cityscape. There is good poetry out there. Poetry that does not have its head inserted rectally, yet still possessing the intellect and heart to provide continued interest.

Case in point: Matt Betts.

First off, any fool can write poems about the wind through the trees or the sexual implications of a flea, but he writes about cool stuff like Godzilla and werewolves and robots and super villains and Elvis. That’s right: Elvis. Suck on that, Angelou. Also, he writes in a very clear, straightforward and conversational style, without glaring rhyme or metre schemes. In other words, you can actually understand what the heck it is that he is saying to you. And, he’s funny. Seriously, maliciously, little-drops-of-piddle-in-the-underpants funny.

Take a look at the quote at the top, then put it into the context of a warning about beach life in Amity Island. Sure, the sense of humor is at times a bit Python-esque but the absurdity works gorgeously well. I think the reason for that is that he is taking supremely absurd situations (shark vendettas, Godzilla’s girlfriend accusing him of cheating on her, the shopping needs of werewolves, etc.) and shining a very practical and utilitarian light on them. This is a guy who looks at floating cars and imagines them on blocks (tied down to prevent them from floating away) in redneck lawns or sees a superhero’s effect on the lives of everyday cops. Needless to say, his viewpoint is a tad skewed.

The strange part shows up in the amount of heart on view. Matt’s humor comes from a bit of a bitter place and, like all of the best comic minds, there is an element of the pathetic to every belly laugh. He seems to understand that we laugh because we have to, because our only other option is to collapse into a ball of quivering jelly as we await the end of everything we love. This understanding brings the humanity gleaming from the cracks in his wit.

Example: “Poem for a Bar I May Have Frequented in My Youth On the Occasion of it Burning Down” is overflowing with of-hand sci-fi references and silly considerations of alien hotness across the stumbling half-memories of what seems to be a half-wit fool. At the same time, it is a solemn bit of reverie for the joys of a misspent youth, the kind of thing we only bother to think pleasantly about when we see the effects of time.

Be warned, there are a couple all out attacks on the tear ducts. “We Killed the Morale Officer on Sweetest Day” is a look at what very well may be the end of all human civilization. It’s wry, wistful and kinda made me want to look for a razor to carve hope into my arms. Same with “Concerning the Fire in Lab 53…”, about the suicide wishes of a misbegotten, monstrous creation as it lopes off to its fate. Not remotely happy, but damn beautiful.

Matt’s a guy to keep an eye on, especially for those of you who say you don’t like poetry. He may just change your mind. Even if he doesn’t, the accompanying artwork by Rebecca Whitaker is certainly worth a look. Similarly simple, almost comicstripy, but striking and possessed of its own absurdist beauty.

available at

Hiram Grange and the Digital Eucharist, by Robert Davies

"To Hiram, the future always smelled like dried blood and smeared shit and antiseptic cleansers. The future smelled like the blue, biting tang of electrical burns and scorched blood. The future -- so bright, shiny and new -- all too often smelled like death."

Three is a magic number. Trilogies have a feeling of wholeness to them and then there's that "third time's the charm" thing. The third outing is also the one that solidifies a series. Three tells us, the readers, that these characters and this world are not ephemeral wisps to blow away at the slightest whim, that their creators mean business. Three is also where the mythology is solidified, the point by which the expectations for the series are established. The third book is the keystone on which the whole future of the series is based and The Digital Eucharist cements an already impressive foundation for the house of Hiram.

Years ago, Hiram imprisoned a right bastard of a demon at the cost of a life of one person and the leg of another. Now, it seems that same demon is using the rising Occlusionist movement and the mind-control capabilities of their digital eucharist to stage its big comeback. Can our intrepid ball of bitterness, misanthropy and regret kill the demon and save the world? Do people do strange and violent things in the name of Jodie Foster?

Robert Davies has some mighty big shoes to step into with his foray into Grangeland, but he is more than up to the task. His writing is more than just prose, more than words strung into sentences woven into ideas. More akin to poetry, his words ooze into one another, vibrating with beauty and horror in the dank pits of excavated body cavities. Look at the following line: "It was merely a bandage over a festering wound, and the quality of the band-aid could do little to stem the slow, certain rise of pus and stinking odor of sickness that rose from the cold, sterile streets." Digital Eucharist is positively rife with this kind of striking imagery that sings across the tongue. His style quite fondly reminds me of Choir of Ill Children-era Tom Piccirilli, a type of magick spun in ink across the page.

The story itself may lack the gonzo, balls to the wall, what-the-hell-just-happened sort of craziness present in the first 2 books, but it is by no means safe. The conventionality of the tale is used to its advantage, painting a picture of a man for whom this kind of shit is an everyday thing. Sure, this may be a particularly rough day at work, but it is still another day at work. Shroud took a risk giving this project to different authors, providing them only with the core mythology before letting them loose and I think it is paying off here. By this point, each book has differed enough for the heart and mind of it own creator to shine through, yet has maintained the core of Hiram and the world he inhabits. The results are becoming something akin to the oral tradition in the same way as what has been done with Ed Lee's vision of hell or Gerard Houarner and Gak's cuddly creation, Dead Cat.

The cover and interior work by Malcolm McClinton, always a special treat, is the finest I have seen from him up to this point. Of course, this opinion may be based on the presence of much more ooppy-glooppies and rotting, dropping bits of flesh. That's how I like my art. The point is that he is still kicking ass with those and they provide nearly as much of a reason to buy the books as the stories. I'm hoping he'll be at context this year to avail me of some of my hard earned cash in the procuring of prints (that's a hint there, laddy).

Hiram Grange and the Digital Eucharist has officially marked Hiram grange as a hell of a brand for Shroud, one that they have every reason to be proud of. I laughed, I gagged, I touched myself in an inappropriate manner. In other words, I had fun.

As a small side note, this book on its own, with Davies' obvious opinions on our obsession with technology, makes for an interesting counterpoint to Rio Youers' Mama Fish (also published by Shroud).

Shroud Publishing

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Every Sigh, The End, by Jason S. Hornsby

“In a world so stupid, so mesmerized by dancing clown politics and horrified by the tortured innocents who finally succumbed to years of brainwashing by taking down thirteen or so bastards in a Midwest high school, something like a hundred living dead attacking a New Year's party full of unimportant, nameless young people who probably fuck, smoke pot, and who will not vote in the 2000 election can easily go unnoticed. We can, apparently, contribute nothing to this society, except entertainment for the masses as we die slow, excruciating deaths.”

Repeatedly, I have made a point to mention how bored I am with the whole zombie thing. Then a good friend dumps a huge bag of zombie fiction on me, specifically telling me that I have to have to have to read this book specifically. He normally has good taste and I want him to stop bugging me about it, so I relent. Next thing I know, I'm neck deep in it, thanking whatever apathetic deity is out there that the people at Permuted picked this up (especially after the disappointing and ultimately so utterly boring that I couldn't bring myself to finish it experience of David Wong's John Dies at the End). As melancholy as it is hateful. Misanthropic. Nihilistic. Fatalistic. Paranoid. A direct assault on our society and ourselves. Admittedly a tad pretentious. Damn did I get a kick out of getting my brain munched on by this asshole.

Have you ever looked at the people around and seen nothing but vapid emptiness? Do you find yourself floating through life on inertia alone, too fucking bored with everything to bother doing anything? Do you hate your life, your friends, your family, your lover and the whole spinning mess around it with a detached passion bordering on mania? Are you waiting with bated breath for all of it to go up in flames because, frankly, it needs to? Do you keep catching people watching and filming you out of the corner of your eyes? Welcome to the life of Ross Orriger, an aimless drifter through a purposeless existence who spends his time between his cheating girlfriend, his own mistress, a best friend that may well be one of the bigger dicks on the planet and dubbing grotesque movies he can't stand to sell to people that disgust him. Now it's New Year's Eve, 1999 and change is coming in the form of the shambling, rotten masses that are trudging toward him as we speak.

I know plenty of people that would giggle at the idea of intellectual Zombie fiction (people who never bothered to think about the ramifications of Romero's work or that bewildering bit of genius, Shatter Dead), but that is exactly what Jason Hornsby is aiming at here: a Zombie tale that will force the intellectual elite to recognize the phenomenon as a legitimate cultural movement. All of the crap that English majors and professors get off on is here. The narrative is temporally fractured, there is both a story within and without the basic plot and there is an admirable philosophical and intellectual depth to the precedings. Writing students and teachers will also get a kick out of the running gag every time someone sighs, such an unoriginal gesture.

Luckily, for people that care more about the actual story than the author's navel-gazing (I'm split between the two), this is all held together by the visceral honesty and rage that is so integral to this tale. I am quite sure that Jason Hornsby really and for true does hate us all and wants to see the world go up in flames or at the very least he is damn good at convincing us that his protagonist does. This vitriol is balanced out with a marvelous sense of wit and dark humor and, oh yes, blood. This is a novel about zombies after all, and no zombie story can exist without gallons that red, red kroovy, loops of blue intestine and grey, chewed up meat. Somewhere in there, he even managed to get me concerned about the perpetually complaining protagonist (I wouldn't dare call him anything as grand as a hero).

The bad thing here is that the intelligentsia Jason seems so eager to address will likely never sully their hands with something as trite and common as a zombie novel and many zombie fans will be put off by the pretentiousness that he can't quite seem to keep completely under wraps. All I can tell either group is to give it a shot anyways, since you'll be missing a hell of a novel, one that manages to bring together the work of Romero and Max Brooks, 28 Days Later and a bit of The Truman Show, if you pass this by.

“What is the Apocalypse for us may only be a minor inconvenience for a race of living cannibalistic corpses, waiting patiently to move into our houses, cities, and world. And then, once the last of our bones are devoured or thrown into piles and buried, never to be spoken of again, the Earth goes back to business as usual."

buy it at Amazon, as usual.

Spellbent, by Lucy Snyder

“I imagined the people below sitting on their front porches, enjoying the evening breeze, sipping sweet lemonade or perhaps frothy cold beer. And then they’d look up to see a woman with a flame arm flying through the air on a giant spider monster. Would they point and scream? Dial the cops and the TV stations? Decide to switch to O’Douls?"

I don’t know why, but Urban Fantasy has developed a nasty association with romance (of the Harlequin variety). Maybe we can blame the popularity of Laura K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books for that, maybe not, but it’s there. The second that I hear that term, an expectation of a young, hot female protagonist in either a modern or futuristic city, chock full of bad-ass and angst comes trundling through the door. Hell, it doesn’t help to have our half-clothed, Mossberg totin’ hottie wreathed in flame and dragon on the cover, does it? The back copy mention of her “hot, magic-drenched passion with her roguish lover” makes it worse.

This is a book that follows said sexpot on her quest to save her love, who was quite literally lost during a botched spell. She’s exiled from her society, labeled with the big “O” (outlaw) and must get by with nothing more than her own wits, grit and ferret familiar. With that said, we all know what to expect from here, right? Only someone who has never read any of Lucy’s work could say a thing like that.

In my review of her poetry collection, Chimeric Machines, I mentioned her gigantic brass ovaries as well as her willingness to smack the reader in the face with them and those puppies are in full swing here. What she does to her heroine during the first scene would be considered heresy in the lands of hearts, flowers and oversimplified girl-power. Seriously, that shit is just plain wrong. I’d love to tell you what exactly I am talking about, but I’ll let you discover it for yourself. From there, it only gets worse.

In many ways, this reminded me more of Tom Piccirilli’s A Lower Deep than the aforementioned Blake novels or anything put out by Luna, minus the somewhat overwrought tone (as much as I love that book, you have to admit that it is a tad heavy on the self-flagellation). Snyder presents us with a quite real and concrete, very modern view of Columbus, Ohio in which some people have the ability and knowledge to use magic. Heck, you could even see a bit of Harry Potter in there if you really wanted to. It’s fantasy grounded in reality, magic rooted in the dirt and muck of the mundane, a quality I look for in all of my favorite fantasy.

In addition to the grand brass lady parts, it is the attitude that Mrs. Snyder brings to the table that truly made this story song for me. Dancing from light playfulness to pure, mind flaying rage among the motes of a burning world, we are placed squarely in the mind of a character that is heart-felt, driven, more than a bit impetuous, and possessed of a strong sense of moral righteousness. I’m almost thinking of Douglas Adams, if he was really pissed off instead of depressed. There is no good reason for me to have enjoyed so much agony, horror and loss so thoroughly, but she makes it possible.

Look, I’m just going to make it simple: Ignore the cover and the back-copy and buy this damn book. Buy it now. Have a damn good time reading it. Thank me later.

Buy it at the ubiquitous Amazon, Del Rey and even at bookstores in the real world.